Most people of the coastal areas of the Niger Delta Region hardly prepare a meal without periwinkles, the delicious species of small edible sea snails. Periwinkles are harvested from the seabed and are such a veritable source of income. Expectedly, these molluscs of various species enjoy immense acceptance among the Nembe people of Nembe Local Government Area and the ancient town of Twon Brass and Okpoama in Brass Local Government Area of Bayelsa State.
While the trade in periwinkles is a thriving business among some ethnic nationalities, the Nembe people can gather as many as they can but they must not be turned into a means of livelihood. According to a source, whoever is caught selling or making a living from the sale of periwinkles among the Nembe people would be dealt with in accordance with the tradition of the land.Interestingly, unlike other people of the region who also cherish periwinkles, Nembe people who occupy the Atlantic fringe of the East Senatorial District of Bayelsa State are forbidden from selling their prized periwinkles on the pain of death. Though periwinkles are nutritious sea food that are found in abundance in Nembe territories especially in the mangrove swamp, it is a taboo for the people to trade in periwinkles as the consequence is fatal.
While Western civilization and the coming of the missionaries into the country adversely affected most African tradition, the people of Nembe still hold this aspect of their rich cultural heritage dear to their heart. “It is forbidden for a Nembe indigene to sell periwinkles. You can gather as much as possible from the sea, but you must not sell them. You can only give them to your neighbours or visitors free of charge,” said Tari, an indigene of Nembe.
According to a respected Nembe chief, Nengi James-Eriworio, the origin of the taboo on trade in periwinkles in Nembe dates back to time immemorial. It is believed that their ancestors made a vow not to trade in the commodity in whatever form because of its abundance in the area.
The sea food is not only a source of protein for the people of Nembe, it’s shells are also used for building construction. According to another source, “we use the shell as granite when doing construction. Periwinkles shell are very strong and reliable in construction.”
Chief James-Eriworio corroborated: “The periwinkle is what God has given to us as a free sea food for consumption and usage before we were born. Here in Nembe, you will see that most of the structures of the ancient Nembe City were built with periwinkles.
“Before we were born, our forefathers had made a vow that the periwinkle will not be used as a trading commodity. Since then it has been a taboo for any person of Nembe descent to trade in periwinkles, especially to sell them. “When we find ourselves in the urban centres outside Nembe territories and we are in need of periwinkles, we exchange them instead of buying them because in our tradition, we are not supposed to buy them,” Chief James-Eriworio said.
Though the sanction on trading in the commodity is only placed on Nembe descendants, the people do not welcome intruders who may try to take advantage of the situation. “We give out the periwinkles as a gift to our visitors. If we see any non-indigene picking periwinkles for commercial purpose, we will not be happy and we do not allow it,” he said.
On the consequences of trading in periwinkles, Chief James-Eriworio narrated that no Nembe indigene has engaged in it and live to tell the story. “I have seen the reaction and consequence on a Nembe woman who traded in periwinkles in Kaduna and Lagos. This is no folk tale; I am a living witness. The woman was trading in the commodity and some Nembe people approached her and rebuked her.
“Soon she fell terribly ill and all efforts to cure her were abortive. And immediately she stepped her feet on Nembe soil, she was transformed into periwinkle – that is, her whole body was mysteriously covered with periwinkles and she was screaming. “She was kept in isolation before she eventually died horribly. This is not what I heard. I witnessed it live. No Nembe man toys with it, no matter your religion,” he declared.
Fondly referred to as isem in the Niger Delta, periwinkle is also revered in Nembe land where a festival is marked annually to underscore the importance of periwinkle to the people. The festival called Isem-Olali, which translates to Periwinkle Festival is one of the oldest and most renowned festivals among the Nembe people.
Explaining the significance of the festival, Chief James-Eriworio said, “The Isem-Olali is one of the renowned ancient festivals of Nembe people. The festival is an opportunity to invoke the isem (periwinkle) to be more abundantly seen in our mangrove and since we don’t trade in it, the gods of the periwinkle will be pleased to multiply abundantly.
“One special feature of the periwinkle festival is that all the delicacies that are made that day are prepared with periwinkles and perhaps crayfish. It is a day we enjoy the periwinkles so much. These are the things that keep the Nembe people going.”