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Trip to Nigeria brings double honor for Stevens

Before the installation, Phil Stevens sits with HRM Oba Yakubu Babalola, the traditional ruler of Esie (left) and the traditional ruler of a neighboring town, one of many invited for the event.


Published April 18, 2013

“This is a double honor. I don’t think it’s sunk in yet.”
Phillips Stevens Jr., Associate Professor of Anthropology

Being installed as a Nigerian chief in an elaborate ceremony in December in the Yoruba town of Esie was a high point of his career, says UB anthropologist Phillips Stevens Jr.

But that was just the beginning: Stevens learned after the installation ceremony that a research center will be built in the town and named for him.

“This is a double honor,” Stevens recently told the UB Reporter. “I don’t think it’s sunk in yet. Very few people from outside the area are given such an honor.”

Both honors recognize Stevens’ work in the 1960s preserving the stone images of Esie, Africa’s largest and most mysterious collection of stone carvings. His work, part of his duties during a stint with the Peace Corps, put Esie on the map and sparked an economic boon for the town that continues to this day.

Stevens, associate professor of anthropology, was one of 17 people installed as chiefs on Dec. 1 by the traditional ruler of the town, HRM Oba Yakubu Babalola, as part of his 25th anniversary celebration. Stevens received the chieftaincy title “The Erewumi of Esie Kingdom;” Erewumi roughly translates to “the images and I get along well,” Stevens explained.

Phil Stevens' chieftaincy title, “Erewumi,” is inscribed in gold beads on his cap. The sprigs of akòko (Newbouldia laevis, or African Border Tree) peeking out from under the cap are traditionally placed on the heads of chiefs.

His trip to Nigeria began just after Thanksgiving with an 11 ½-hour flight from Atlanta to Lagos, Nigeria. He stayed in Lagos for two days, then traveled by road to Esie, a town in southwest Nigeria—a six-hour trip.

Once in Esie, he was given two suits of traditional Yoruba clothing to wear during the ceremony, which was held on a football field and attended by 1,000 invited guests and, by Stevens’ estimation, another 500 onlookers.

Stevens and the other chiefs-to-be were brought individually before the king by groups of supporters and drummers. Stevens knelt before the king and a cap, inscribed with his title “Erewumi” in gold beads, was placed upon his head. Under the cap were stuck sprigs of akòko (Newbouldia laevis, or African Border Tree), traditionally placed on the heads of chiefs. He also wore a necklace and double bracelet of pink beads, simulating the valuable coral beads that were ancient trade items worn by chiefs in earlier times, as well as kings today.

Stevens said that when he stood up, well-wishers, drummers and officials from the National Commission for Museums and Monuments—who had come from Nigeria’s capital, Abuja—surrounded him, held his arms and led him, dancing, “back into the world after this transformation.” The ceremony is, in fact, a rite of passage, marking a change in status, Stevens said. “One leaves his former status, is transformed, and ceremonially enters society in his new status.”

The well-wishers also “sprayed” small-domination paper money on his forehead and over his body, in a traditional recognition of great achievement.

Drummers and musicians played, praise-singers chanted, the new chiefs danced and everyone was served a big meal.

Stevens said he learned that the research center would be built and named for him at a meeting later in the day with representatives of the national commission.

The Phillips Stevens Jr. Center for Esie Studies will be the center of further research on the soapstone figures, and Stevens said other topics also may addressed, such as economic development and social issues.

Stevens had worked part-time for the national commission—then called the Department of Antiquities—while teaching in the Peace Corps in 1963-64. He was offered a full-time job in 1965 and was sent to Elsie to document, catalogue and help repair the 1,000 soapstone statues—many were broken or damaged to some extent—and build a new museum to house them. He lived and worked in Elsie until 1966, when he entered the graduate program in anthropology at Northwestern University.

In 1974, he returned to the town to further document and photograph the statues. His 1978 book, “The Stone Images of Esie, Nigeria” (Ibadan University Press/Federal Department of Antiquities; NY: Holmes & Meier/Africana), is the only complete catalogue of the collection and the definitive text on the figures.

Stevens said the whirlwind trip to Elsie “is still kind of a blur.” He said he met a few people he remembered, including a man who had worked with him who is now the chief Imam of the town. While most of his friends and co-workers from the 1960s have died, he was welcomed by several of their adult children.

And the town has grown tremendously. “It used to be a mile walk or a difficult drive on a rutted dirt road to get to the museum,” he said. “Now, the town has spread to the museum.

“But Esie town is not on a main highway, hence it is quite a peaceful place,” he said. “It is north of the humid, tropical forest zone, nearly to the edge of the savannah, and on somewhat elevated ground so there is frequently a breeze, and many successful people are building their retirement homes there.”

But what struck Stevens most strongly is the “peaceful, indeed, indifferent coexistence of Christians and Muslims.”

“The two largest buildings in the town, of equal height, are the central mosque and the Cathedral Church of St. Michael, the home church of the bishop of the Anglican diocese,” he said. “Nigeria has a sad reputation for Muslim-Christian conflict and Esie is a refreshing model of mutual tolerance and respect.” 

Stevens noted that hereditary or honorary chieftaincy is a great honor and can benefit incumbents politically and economically. “But it comes with a set of expectations,” he said, adding that the newly installed chiefs were bestowed their titles in recognition of their service to the town and its people, and they will be expected to continue their service.

So Stevens has been rounding up copies of his book, which has been out of print for many years, to send to the new research center. He also plans to help with fundraising.