Salt is one of the oldest food seasoning and preservatives. It is also one of the most important minerals produced in Nigeria. Salt deposits exist in Abia, Akwa Ibom, Anambra, Benue, Cross River, Ebonyi, Imo, Katsina, and Sokoto states. Today, we will be discussing salt production in Ebonyi.
Ebonyi State goes by the slogan, Salt of the Nation because it has the largest salt deposit in the country. These salt deposits are found in the salt lakes located at Uburu, Okposi, and Oshiri. In the pre-colonial era, salt production was a major economic pillar of producing communities. Here are five interesting historical details on salt production in Ebonyi State.
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Traditional Salt Production
Centuries before the introduction of industrialized method of salt production in Nigeria, the traditional method of salt production was already practiced in Ebonyi State. Production was done intensely during the dry season using techniques devised by the women of old and handed down to present generation. This traditional method of salt production is rigorous; it involves heating the brine in large pots for 6 to 10 hours. This process enables the water to turn into salt. But the salt is brownish in colour at this time so it is put in a container and allowed to cool and dry. After this, the salt is spread on mats for about 2 to 4 hours. Once it dries thoroughly, it is considered fit for human consumption. Output was usually poor; the women only had little salt to show for the hours of hard work.
An Activity Heralded by Ritual
In pre-colonial era, salt production was heralded by ritual sacrifices to salt deities referred to as Ezi Ngele, Mmahi Uburu and Mmahi Okposi. After the rituals, the lakes which were usually flooded by the Asu River during the rains were cleared of weed. The salinity of the lakes was reduced by the flood water; this had to be drained off by young men who were appointed by elders in council to perform the task. The business of salt production starts after this exercise.
Salt Production, a Woman’s Occupation
In Ebonyi State, salt production is considered a woman’s occupation. However, joining the league of salt makers was not automatic for women. After marriage, women interested in learning the art of salt production undergo a rite of initiation. After initiation, the secrets of the craft are revealed to them. Women who were menstruating were forbidden from stepping into the lake.
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The Okposi Salt Lake
The salt lakes were indispensable during the Nigerian-Biafran war. During the Biafran/Nigerian Civil War, the salt lakes in Ebonyi State catered to the salt needs of Biafrans. The resulting trade boom brought the lakes to the attention of the Biafran government and scientists. After series of tests, Biafran scientists revealed that the brine from Okposi Salt Lake had the highest salinity among all lakes in Eastern Nigeria. They built an industry close to the lake and taught the local women new production techniques, including the use of “alum” to effect sedimentation of dirt before decantation and final filtration.
Salt produced in Ebonyi was reputed to be medicinal. The salt is allegedly sought after and used by traditional healers in the cure of different ailments. Salt from the lake is supposedly used to promote fertility in women. It is also used in the treatment of goiter and stomach ache. There are also claims that this salt was used to cure kwashiorkor during the civil war.
Onwuka Njoku, Economic History of Nigeria (Enugu, Magnet Business Enterprises, 2001).
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