Afikpo Masks


otugukpokpo or woodpecker is an animal mask worn in okwu masquerades and funeral rites; also worn by musicians okunkpa. Mask carver: Okocha Ota jr.


mbeke mask representing the white race, oyibo or mbeke meaning white man in Igbo language. According to history the mask is named after a British medical officer, Dr. Baikie, who worked among the eastern Igbo during the mid-1800s. The mask represents a wide range of European characters, i.e. colonial officers, missionaries, merchants. Mask carver: Okocha Ota jr.


Igiri meaning lunacy worn only during iko-okochi  (a dry season festival) as part of a dance choreography to represent the erratic movements of a madman. Mask carver: Okocha Ota jr.

Afikpo, Nigeria (see map) was a centre of ancient Igbo tradition. These ceremonial masks were used in the 1970’s for elaborate masquerades associated with men’s  secret societies and the initiation of boys into them as well as annual festival cycles; all of which was an important part of Afikpo life. All the masks are the creation of Afikpo master carver Okocha Ota Jr.

Some masks represent animals—a goat or a woodpecker. Others are human-like male or female spirits,  a white person or a madman.  The style is narrow, oval or elongated, delicate: bands of raffia tied to the back of the mask hold it in front of the face.img_1219nigerian-masks-001nigerian-masks-2-001fullsizerender-13Biography of a mask carver: Okocha Ota Jr.

Born on 11th November 1949 in Afikpo, Nigeria, Ota Okocha Ota Jr. took a serious interest in art and crafts. He studied the Afikpo cults and masquerade traditions and travelled through the eastern part of Nigeria to Calabar, Awka, Nsukka, Ahoada, Ibibio, Edda, Nkporo, and Arochukwu photographing festivals which earned  him the nickname, “onyia-oha” meaning the greatest.  In January 1966, Okocha Ota Jr. organized a course for apprentices and started to produce various objects drawn from different parts of Eastern region. After the Civil War in 1971, he successfully organized group exhibition in Enugu, Ibadan, Lagos, and Zaria.

How I became an artist

by Okocha Ota jr.

As history may have it, Afikpo is a land rich in arts and culture and it leaves no doubt why I should emerge from this glorious highland. I was born on a bright summer day, 11th November 1949, in a little quarter, known as ‘Godachall Villa’ – a breed of prosperous cultural family at Mgbom village situated at the heartland of Afikpo town, south-east of the Igboland in the East Central State of Nigeria.

I have less to offer on my educational status. I attended and obtained the Ministry of Eduction first school leaving certificate in 1961 in Afikpo. A little further between 1962 and 1965 I trained in a government handicraft vocational school – a detachment of the government owned secondary/ technical school at Afikpo, where I came out with flying colours.

At the age of seven, my father, a renowned physician and a craftsman in Afikpo, called my attention on one evening as one of the beloved sons. Being interested in me, he requested my explanation on why I should characterize in exhibiting before him toys of wooden carvings, clay moulding, and painted pictures of Afikpo masquerades produced by me. I had little of excuse to offer and remember telling him that ” those who live in glass windows should not throw stones.” This reminded him that I was completely of his blood. He wished if I should retort attaining scholastic hero rather than artistry which had been dominated by the family in Afikpo town. I objected and replied, “Daddy, you can’t force nature.” He broke the conversation, shrewd, nodded and remarked before a section of the family: “Keep it up my son, for you are garlanded with laurels of artistic genius which do not grow on trees.” He then recalled the memories of our ancestors and grandfathers viz: Egu, Uzo Iǵbe Oka, Okoroukwu Ukwenyi, Aja Iberekwukwu, Uche Otta and Ekuma Okocha etc., etc. With this remark and impression, I was emotionally geared to embrace crafts, arts, and culture as my hobby. -1974


For further readings about Afikpo traditional art and customs:

-Afikpo Masquerades: Audience and Performers Author(s): Simon Ottenberg Source: African Arts, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Summer, 1973), pp. 32-35+94-95 Published by: UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center Stable URL:

“We Are Becoming Art Minded”: Afikpo Arts 1988 Author(s): Simon Ottenberg Source: African Arts, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Aug., 1989), pp. 58-67+88 Published by: UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center Stable URL:

-S. Ottenberg, The Masked Rituals of Afikpo: The Context of an African Art, UW Press, Seattle, 1975.

-“Humorous Masks and Serious Politics among Afikpo Ibo,” S. Ottenberg, African Art and Leadership, ed. by D. Fraser and H. M. Cole, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1972, p. 99.





Borders Literature for All Nations and Olatoun Williams Review Cairo’s Street Stories

Borders Literature for All Nations 2016 is a Facebook site with the mission: In 2016, a forum for engaging with important issues and events in Africa’s history as recorded or reflected in good books.

Cairo’s Street Stories (AUC Press, Cairo, Egypt) was chosen for review by well-known and esteemed reviewer of African literature, Olatoun Williams. She writes:

We walk about the City of a Thousand Stories, ‘listening’ to Lababidi ‘speak’ with refreshing clarity on a wide range of topics spanning that history. What I have learned from her is fascinating about the evolution of women’s rights and the liberation of women embodied in the full figure of singer – el Sitt – Umm Kulthum….

…Though Lesley Lababidi does not take us on a linear journey, the tour is well-planned. She does not make it difficult to take in the plethora of evidence of foreign occupation manifested not only politically, but in art, language, education, urban planning and in the fact and manner of economic exploitation. Looking at the timeline of foreign invasions through her eyes, it is easy to see why Egypt’s raging identity crises are as inevitable as the annual flooding of the Nile.


Courtesy of Olatoun Williams

 My response to Olatoun for choosing to review Cairo’s Street Stories:

Your intellectual critic of CSS is beyond my admiration, beyond my gratitude, almost beyond words…. for your analytical approach as using CSS as a backdrop to study other literary books, that of the past- Mahfouz- and the moving, contemporary poetry of Zahery overwhelmingly left me shaking with delight, perspiring with the desire to walk the Cairo streets, and with pride : I am very, very honored that you choose CSS to examine the intricate texture and history of Cairo.

Read the full review here and here.

Lababidi 2008

Finding Tolerance in Northern Nigeria

You don’t get points for accepting someone who wants to be just like you. You get points for accepting someone who doesn’t want to be like you — that’s where the difficulty lies. -Malcolm Gladwell

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Piti Tribe of Kaduna State, Christian affiliation

A short weekend trip* to Kaduna State in Northern Nigeria revealed a piece of the puzzle overlooked in news about Nigeria. That piece is not easily uncovered because of stereotyping and the complexity of a society but here it is, on bold display—tolerance of the other—in Lere Town 30 kilometers east of Jos City.Lere-1.8



The trumpeters blow in unison to announce the entrance of the Emir. The kakaki trumpets are used only for announcing the presence of an Emir

Lere Emirates was established in 1870, by the fifth Sarkin Lere Muhammad Dankaka. To understand the origin of the founders of Lere one would have to go back deep into history to the Takrur region of present day Mauritania and Senegambia, where a kingdom once thrived under the Fulbe or Fulani. –


Emir, Brig. General Garba A. Mohammed rtd.

On May 1, 2016, eleven members of the Nigerian Field Society are introduced to Lere Emirate through the hospitality and wise words of the tolerant Emir, Brig. General Garba A. Mohammed rtd.   The Emir honoured us with his presence and spoke of acceptance of ‘the other.’ He explained that in Lere Emirates there are several tribes that are not Fulani or Hausa but of other ethnic backgrounds. For today’s occasion members of the Piti Tribe  demonstrate drumming, dancing, and horsemanship specific to the Piti tribe.

Piti tribe population is approximately 8000 and according to Joshua Project, 80% follow a type of Christianity.  Piti is a minor Kanji language of Nigeria.

The mainly Muslim crowds look on and thoroughly enjoy the exhibition. Cheers and shouts rise, loudly, as the warriors with spears race along the crowded road.

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*Organized by Nigerian Field Society. Lead by Edouard Blondeau, Veronica Noxell, and Terri Brennan. The three-day trip took us to Kaduna, our hub radiating out of the 5th Chukker Polo Club. From there we travelled to Zaria to meet the Emir of Zazzau, Alhaji Shehu Idris; the Maggagin Garin of Zazzau, Mal. Ahmed Nuhu Bamalli; and to Lere Emirates to meet Emir, Brig. General Garba A. Mohammed rtd.

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Members of Nigerian Field Society with Mal.Ahmed Nuhu Bamalli, Magagin Garin Zazzau

**Pictures and photographs in this blog are solely my photography unless otherwise noted. Photographs, articles, and poetry are the intellectual property of Lesley Lababidi and protected under international copyright law.

All rights reserved by Lesley Lababidi. To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required.


Conference: Inheriting The City

IMG_1042Inheriting the City: Advancing Understandings of Urban Heritage

March 31 – April 4, 2016, Taipei, Taiwan

Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage, University of Birmingham, is pleased to announce our next international conference. We invite academics, policy makers and practitioners to consider the ways that heritage is being protected, managed and mobilised in rapidly changing and pressurised urban contexts. This multidisciplinary conference will explore the type of heritage, both tangible and intangible, that cities and towns will pass to future generations, and the processes through which the heritage of cities is being re-made, re-presented and re-used.


Above photo: Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, Taipei, Taiwan– The venue for the conference.

This conference brought 200 professionals together from 40 countries to present papers on a variety of urban heritage issues from adaptive reuse of urban heritage to approaches to conservation of Chinese language, the 5-day conference was as diverse as it was inspiring. See program here.

The conference presented an opportunity to get out from behind the computer and meet, face to face, the people who work at preserving culture, saving heritage, and sometimes remembering heritage lost.

IMG_1069Fervor Troupe

Shaimaa Ashour, Egyptian architect, and I collaborated on the project, #City Walks: Another Perspective for Narrating the History of the City. Cairo, Egypt.  The research covered the chronological growth of city walks from 1970-2016, tracing initiatives (individual and organizational) across ten criteria. The analysis of city walks as a cultural heritage activity in Cairo emphasized individual and community initiatives that defines many facets of Egyptian heritage. A paper follows this presentation.


Shaimaa, myself, and Professor Mike Robinson, University of Birmingham in front of Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall

Alone in Taipei for a Day

“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world” – Freya Stark

I have a day on my own in Taipei with no personal guide and no language skills; a dislike for public transportation (walking is quite acceptable) and a joy of discovery. I have a list: Buddhist temple. Paper Culture Museum. Traditional Tea House. Elephant Hill. Forget fumbling for directions on a smartphone. The receptionist at the hotel writes directions in Chinese on an old-fashion piece of paper.


Longshan Temple: I visited the night before with a study group so prepared with a little knowledge, I sat for an hour and observed, peacefully, the comings and goings and follow the lingering incense smoke connecting spirit to spirit.IMG_1101

IMG_1076SuHo Memorial Paper Culture Museum: Founded the Chang Chuen Cotton Paper Plant in 1940 by Chen SuHo and his wife, they were killed 50 years later in a plane crash. Their children opened this paper museum in their memory. Walking through the museum, one examines various paper’s made from a variety of bark and fibers. At the top floor crossing onto the roof of another building is a bamboo traditional house that carves out a quiet place in the midst of the city.


Back on street level, I could not resist the aroma of strong coffee wafting from an open doorway. Chat Coffee. Watching movement on the street and then spotted revolving parking plates: a car drives onto the plate and it turns 45 or 90 or 180 degrees to position the car for a parking space.

Not to be missed are a variety of man-hole covers that decorate the city sidewalks…

Wistaria Tea House located in a Japanese-style 1920 wooden house serves Taiwanese tea in traditional Chinese and Japanese tatami rooms. The service gracious and unassuming, lingering over fine tea and pineapple cakes is a grand way to spend a few thoughtful hours. Afterwards, an art exhibition raising money for a children’s violin group: The Light of Taiwan

Elephant Hill ( aka Nangang District Hiking Trail) rises quickly 400 meters above Taipei. Determination is all that is needed to climb the uneven stone steps to the top of the hill for great views of Taipei skyline and Taipei 101.


Back to the best little hotel in Taipei: Royal Biz Hotel, to greet the friendly staff, sleep on satin sheets in a sparkling clean room, enjoy an extraordinary breakfast located in the heart of the city.

IMG_1138Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall during cherry blossoms season

More Reflections:

Obelisque Magazine 2016


Articles featured in Obelisque Magazine 2016

Indigo and the Turban

read article here

(Text and photography by Lesley Lababidi)

Indigo18 .Nov. 30, 2015, finalpdf-001

Kaber Sobhy, The Street of the Food. 

Read article here.

(Text by Lesley Lababidi; Photography by George Fakhry)

Sobhy 05 final Dec 6, 2015-001

Raouf Zaidan, Egyptian Opera

 Read article here.

(Text by Lesley Lababidi; Photographs by George Fakhry)

raouf article 12 .Dec 6, 2015pdf-001

Mahmoud Mandour, Artist and Potter

Read article here

(Text by Lesley Lababidi; Photography by George Fakhry)

Mohamed Mandour 6 .pdf final November 8th-001

From Lebanon With Love

read article here

(Text and photography by Lesley Lababidi)

From lebanon Dec 2,2015 final pdf-001

Street Art – Ibrahim Pasha

(Text and photography by Lesley Lababidi)

street art final .Nov 29,2015pdf-001

Book Review by Lesley Lababidi: Discovering Downtown Cairo

Book Review 144..pdf Final Nov 5,2015-001



*Copyright 2016 by Lesley Lababidi. All rights reserved under international copyright laws. To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required.

**Articles are seen in Obelisque Magazine 2016, all rights reserved. Photographs and text cannot be reproduced without the written permission of Obelisque Magazine and Lesley Lababidi and George Fakhry.

***To purchase the magazine, in Cairo, the best place is at Tanis at the First Mall, Giza. They usually always have a copy. The new, annual 2016 just came out so they should have the 2015 and 2016. Also in Zamalek there is a Tanis on 32 Mohamed Anis and Diwan Bookstore on 26th of July, Zamalek (sometimes sold out but they try to keep it in stock). Outside of Egypt, contact: or Telephone: +201094449762.

‘Abbasiyya: a walk through a forgotten royal district

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Rococo decoration on Sakakini Palace built in 1897. See:

‘Abbasiyya, the place of Abbas, is a middle class district northeast of Cairo. ‘Abbas Hilmi I (r.1848-1854), nephew of Mohamed Ali Pasha, took over the administration after the Ibrahim Pasha’s death in 1847. He began to devote his attention to building palaces (7), a hospital, military schools and military barracks in a new suburb he called after himself, ‘Abbasiyya. He gave land to members of the royal family for them to build palaces. ‘Abbas extended the road system from Cairo to ‘Abbasiyya to encourage the royal family and ministers to live in the new district. Accounts from travelers at the time stated, “ ‘Abbasiyya claim that ‘Abbas’s palace “set an example for palace beauty and that the royal princes, like ‘Abbas himself, preferred to build in European fashions.” ( Pollard, Nurturing the Nation. p42).

From the city of Fustat in 640 that evolved in 750 to the Abbasid city of Al-Askar; to Ibn Tulun’s al-Qatai in 870 and finally the in 969 the Fatimid city of al-Qahirah—Cairo, each newly-found area stimulated the economy to promote public allegiance to the regime through expansion and by  destruction or neglect of the old system. It seems ‘Abbas Pasha might have decided to follow other rulers of Egypt by looking northward to create a new royal city himself. Unfortunately for ‘Abbas Pasha, he was murdered before his royal ambitions could be attained. Sa’id Pasha, his successor, let the burgeoning quarters fall into neglect.

Eclectic architecture of nineteenth and twentieth century in ‘Abbasiyya:

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‘Abbasiyya went under another period of growth under the Khedive Tawfik (r.1879-1892), who built his palace in the quarters. In 1892, the tramway lines operated to the neighborhood and ‘Abbasiyya became a popular residential district for palaces and villas for Egyptian elite, the British, and Egyptian middle class.

In 1885 Baedeker’s guidebook, Egypt, Handbook for Travellers,writes:

We follow the road to the left, leading direct to Abbasiyeh. On the right we pass a modern public fountain, and on the left an old burial-mosque and the ‘European Hospital.’ ‘Abbaisiyeh is a group of houses and cottage, founded by ‘Abbas Pasha in 1849, i order to afford suitable accommodation for the Beduin shekhs whose friendship he was desirous of cultivating, and who objected to enter the city itself. A large palace which formerly stood here has been replace by barracks in the most modern style, besides which there are numerous older barracks and a military school with a gymnastic-ground. The English troops are at present encamped here. Near the last barrack on the left is a palace of the ex-Khedive’s mother, and a little farther on, also to the left, rises the meteorological and astronomical Observatory. At the end of the houses of ‘Abbasiyeh begin the new garden which have been reclaimed from the desert. The road crosses two railways, passes the village of Kubbeh (Qubba), intersects beautiful orchard and vineyards, and leads under handsome acacias and past numerous sakiyehs to the Palace of Khedive Tewfik.  The vineyards, which were planted by Ibrahim Pasha, the grandfather of the Khedive, and contain various kinds of vines from Fontainebleau, are celebrated. This property formerly belonged to the late Mustaf Fazil-Pasha, the uncle of the Khedive.  The present palace , however, has been entirely erected by Tewfik himself. In the desert, is situated the Race Course, where races formerly took place annually in January.


(Hover cursor for information about Villa Yousef Pasha Soloman built in 1914. For more information and to see the interior  read: Egyptian Palace and Villas, 1808-1960 by Shirley Johnston, p130-133.)

‘Abbasiyya was a diverse district of various religious groups and nationalities. Churches, mosques, synagogues and hospitals, schools, cemeteries were developed for specific groups who lived in relative harmony. People from the Levant and Europe settled in ‘Abbasiyya built schools, factories, businesses, and considered Egypt as home. As for the Jewish community ( Read: Lucette Lagnado’s Man in a White Sharkskin Suit and Egypt Today, “Oral History of Egypt’s Jewish Minority.” May 2005.) , they had religious freedom, held government positions and many were part of the elite society.  After the UN approved the Partition Plan in 1947 to create Israel and after the Egyptian 1952 coup d’etat, everything changed.

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‘Abbasiyya was founded as a royal district in the middle of the desert by ‘Abbas Helmi I. A satellite settlement that started without roads, water, or  sewage works was certainly one reason for its slow beginnings. After ‘Abbas Pasha’s death,  the transferral of military power to the Qasr el Nil barracks by Sa’id Pasha changed the area of urbanization followed by  Ismail Pasha’s master plan of Ismailiyya in 1869, ‘Abbasiyya district remained stagnant until Khedive Tawfik took power with the British occupation. At the turn of the nineteenth century, palaces and European villas, upper-class apartment houses grew steadily with schools, hospitals, and religious institutions complimenting all groups. Unfortunately little survives of these archaeological gems and what remains will probably not survive much longer.

Some ‘Abbasiyya sights:

Further Reading: Nihal Tamraz. Nineteenth-Century Cairn Houses and Palaces, “Abbasiya as a Case Study of Nineteenth-Century Upper-Class Domestic Architecture.” AUC Press. 1998. p56-76.

*Thanks to Ahmed el Bindari for organizing the ‘Abbasiyya Walk’.

Heritage vs Urbanization: A Balancing Act


**All rights reserved by Lesley Lababidi. To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required.