The Enigmatic Kola Nut

The Enigmatic Kola Nut
Eben van Tonder
15 July 2023


When I was in Ile Ife, the Kola Nut featured prominently in the ceremonies. Our guide was scolded by a chief when he did not come to the shrine with gin and kola nuts as he should have known, is part of the ceremony. I asked my colleague and driver, Sunday Mopo to buy me some. He insists that it is the Kola nut that got him through high school, allowing him to study long hours. Last night I decided to do some reading on it and found the most complete work in existence by Ikenna Ukpabi Unya. I quote from his work exclusively and his complete work is found in the reference section for download.

In my search for details on the connection of nuts with meat, consideration of the kola nut was inevitable. It turns out that there is no tradition linking the Kola nut with meat or oil production since it contains no high oil content. Nor are the Kola nuts commonly used for cooking in the traditional sense. The kola nut is primarily known for its caffeine content and its use as a flavouring ingredient in beverages such as cola drinks.

Despite this, it is an important fruit to consider due to its high protein content and I see a great opportunity to incorporate it into our West African recipes. What follows is then not my own work and I take great pride in featuring the work of Ikenna Ukpabi Unya.

“The Kola nut is the fruit of the kola tree and is regarded as of great importance in West Africa where it serves different purposes among the different ethnic groups.” “It is a shared experience, a powerful cultural symbol. It is given to show respect and as a sacred offering. It is a crucial part of community meetings. It is incorporated into many rites of passage and into ceremonies to cement treaties and contracts. Commenting on the centrality and importance of kola nut among West Africans, Sprague reports that one Portuguese explorer who visited the West African region in 1587, observed that many people he encountered in his travels used the nut to relieve thirst and improve the taste of water by chewing it. Other similar journals by explorers noted these same medicinal properties and also documented African practices such as using the nut to strengthen the stomach and combat liver disease. In Nigeria, kola nut is not only grown in large quantities but is also articulated as a fruit of primary importance in the life of the people because of its many roles. Thus, Nigeria is the highest producer of kola nut in the West African region.”

The Igbo

“Among the Igbo people of Southeastern Nigeria, kola nut is something bigger than that popular seed crop tree grown in the Central and Western part of Africa. The traditional oral history of the Igbo claims that the kola nut tree was the first tree on earth and therefore, its fruit, the first on earth. This belief might have been the reason why Basden declared that kola nut is neither the biggest nor the sweetest fruit in Igboland, but that the nuts have tremendous cultural significance. This explains why kola nut is ritualized among the Igbo people of Nigeria and is specifically men’s affair. It is a highly prized cultural symbol that is revered and celebrated in every significant gathering among the Igbo. According to Nwachukwu kola nut is seen as food, and as such, attended with a deserving feast. As a food, kola nut is eaten with relish. Emotional and cultural attachment to kola nut in Igboland makes it religiously infectious. Adherents of the culture of kola nut, which without exaggeration involves every Igbo of religious belief, gender and caste find in the kola nut lobes a cultural vehicle that conveys the people’s worldview. Thus, the kola nut is to the Igbo people what the prayer book stands for in the Christian world. It is this all-encompassing role of the kola nut that made Obineche assert that the kola nut has ritual powers for peace, long life, prosperity, and unity; also used for sacrifices and functions, as a facilitator of communication between men and the gods. As a result of these functions, Achebe described kola nut among the Igbo as a sacred fruit that has a distinguished role to play in Igbo life and culture.”

Kola Nut in Cosmology and Philosophy

“To be sure, in Igbo cosmology and philosophy, the kola nut is seen and described as a king. This is because it always comes first in every social gathering. It is used to welcome guests during meetings or public gatherings, used for marriage ceremonies, title-taking, oath-taking, sacrifices and others. Kola nut is often presented to guests and is viewed as an unavoidable gesture expected from a host. No matter the extent of cordiality shown by a host and no matter the type of delicious meal served to a visitor, he will feel unwelcome if he is not presented with kola nut.”

“According to the tradition of the origin of kola nut among the Igbo, there was a special relationship between humans and the spirit beings. Obineche apparently quoting Onwu-Otuyelu asserts that at the beginning of time, the living world (man) was related to the spirit-world — that man and spirits were interacting to the level of exchanging ceremonies and festivities like sports competitions. In one of these competitions – (wrestling), one spirit-being called Aji Ike Ugburuoba stood unconquerable by any human wrestler. In those days, sports heroes easily attracted the love and affection of the opposite sex. As such, women within the human world began to fall in love with this spirit hero, Aji Ike. Prominent among these women was Ugo Onobo who was so obsessed and madly in love that she eloped with Aji Ike Ugburuoba to his spirit abode located at the depth of the Cross River at Okwuruike. This sudden disappearance of Ugo Onobo posed a nightmare not only to her two elder brothers – Agala and Ogbu Onobo, but to the entire community who did not give up in search of her. To the two brothers, the search became more imperative when they were openly ridiculed in the village square for being weaklings because of their inability to locate their one and only missing sister, Ugo.”

“This challenge became so unbearable that Ogbu Onobo and his brother Agala vowed to stop at nothing till they had found their only sister, Ugo. The search led them to a diviner (dibia) to inquire about her whereabouts. Their hope was elated when the diviner told them this: ‘By the time chicks start returning to their roost and the sun is gradually sinking close to setting (about 4 pm), go to the brink of the Cross River Okwuruike during ebb-tide there, stand and call loudly the name of your sister, Ugo Onobo, seven times and she will answer. Then follow the echo of her voice; it will lead you to the bottom of the Cross River. There, you will find her living with Ajike Ugburuoba, the Great Spirit wrestler.”

“The two brothers complied strictly with the directives of the diviner and behold they found their sister with Aji Ike Ugburuoba. On entering the house, they found their sister pregnant. In excitement, for the visit of his brothers-in-law, Aji Ike went into his room and came out with native chalk (Nzu), coconut with water as a drink and kola nut. The chalk, he gave them to smear on their left wrist as a welcome gesture; the coconut with its water, he gave as drink and food; and the kola nut, he gave them as dowry for their sister, Ugo. In anger, the two brothers rejected these offers but demanded to take their sister home even with the pregnancy. The helpless Aji Ike consented to their request but pleaded with them to accept his gesture of hospitality. He told them to go home with their sister, though pregnant, but along with the presentations. When you get home, he said, “Use the chalk to welcome your guests as I did to you, to tell them how glad I was when you visited me; plant the coconut and when it grows and bears fruits, take one, break it into four parts and leave it broken on the road. By this act, you have given me my own share of it and then you can eat the rest of it and subsequent harvests with your families and guests”.”

“Concerning the kola nut, he instructed them to plant also, but when it bears fruit and it is harvested, they should break the pod, pick one of its seeds with four divisions signifying the cotyledons (lobes or eyes), these they shall hold in their left hand, cast with a statement of thanks and in so doing, Aji Ike said, “you have given me my share. Then break and share the rest with your guests”. He continued, “As I have presented you the kola nut as dowry on the head of your sister, Ugo, so must you present kola nut with regard to every marriage in every human home as the celebration between the world of the living and that of the spirits”. Although Aji Ike took back the baby from Ugo through miscarriage on the Ndele Bridge, the two brothers performed the rituals as Ajike directed. As for the red colour of the kola nut, the legend attributed that to Agala Onobo’s blood that stained red some of the seeds in the process of breaking the first product of kola nut in the land of the living. While some of the white colour seeds are called Oji Ugo as a reference to Ugo Onobo who was the first woman ever to have kola nut as her bride price.”

Presentation of the Kola Nut among the Igbo

“The African tradition has undergone significant upheavals in terms of religion, social structure, language and values; but the kola nut presentation, breaking and eating is one of the cultural heritage of the Igbo that had withstood all manners of encroachment and intrusion by the European forces of development, urbanization and religion. In Igbo culture, the kola nut is a crucial part of many ceremonies, gatherings, and welcoming of visitors to one’s home. As a mark of respect, the kola nut is broken with a knife and then followed immediately by prayers. Once the kola nut is broken; its pieces are distributed to everyone starting with the eldest, by the youngest among them. When kola nut is present, the host hands it to the oldest man among his guests. The oldest man then shows it to everyone present and then passes it around and when each of them records his approval by touching the nut, greetings and prayers are said to God Almighty, the gods as well as the ancestors. Prayers are usually for life, happiness, good health, children, prosperity and a good harvest. It is a fact that the blessing of the nut is exclusively done by the old who are known for their mastery of oratory in their effort either to express an act of gratitude or give praise to the Almighty – Supreme God, the gods, deities, goddesses as well as ancestors in a special language.”

“According to Ezeugo, the presentation of kola nut is evidence of social harmony, love and happiness for one another. Thus, he compares the presentation and breaking of the kola nut to the Catholic sacramental communion and calls the kola nut the ‘bread’ of Igbo sacramental communion which must be carefully and specially presented, blessed, shared and partaken by all the parties and families in every ceremony. Commenting on the processes involved in the presentation and sharing of the kola nut in Igboland, Basden asserts that the Igbo welcome is not complete without the sharing of the kola nut. According to him: ‘Immediately after the prolonged greetings in the traditional manner, the kola nut is brought forth on a dish or saucer or, what is more correct, on a wooden platter (really a small box fitted with a vocer) prepared and kept for the sole purpose of presenting kola nut. In the dish are one or more nuts. The owner first receives it from the slave attendant or one of his wives. He takes a nut and puts it to his lips, thus signifying that it is about to be offered in good faith. This symbolic action proves him to be free from malice. The dish is, thereupon, passed to the visitor.'”

“Moreover, the beautiful symbolism of kola nut presentation in Igboland comes out clearly in the presence of many visitors or groups. The fullness of the social aspect comes clear as the kola begins its journey from one person to another according to the closeness of kinship relationship from the home of the host and spreads out to different directions within the audience and returns back to the host. This is called Ire Oji – selling of kola. When it comes back to the host, there is a saying that Oji Eze n’ Eze n’ aka (the King’s has returned to the King). This symbolic presentation is a kind of headcount in a way of identifying all the people in the audience before any type of discussion could be heard. This manner of kola nut presentation in Igboland is very technical in the sense that any mistake made while carrying the kola nut around the gathering attracts a penalty or spells a feeling that the offender is irresponsible, uncultured or may not be reliable. In some cases, the offender is asked to pay some token for violating the rule of kola nut presentation.”

The Legend of Okonkwo

“Achebe’s Things Fall Apart comes in to show us how the Igbo maintain social cooperation via kola nut fruit. In chapter 3 of the novel, the importance of kola nut and how it enables the Igbo to conduct their affairs is observed, for Okonkwo had approached the wealthy Nwakibie to ask for yam seed to start his business, as he had inherited nothing from his father, Unoka. On his arrival, two elderly neighbours were sent for and the two sons of the old man were present with him in his Obi (house). Nwakibie presented “a kola nut and an alligator pepper, which were passed round for all to see and returned to him”. He broke the nut saying: ‘We shall live. We pray for life, children, a good harvest and happiness. You will have what is good for you and I will have what is good for me. Let the kite perch, let the eagle perch too. If one says no to the other, let his wing break.'”

“After the kola nut had been eaten, Okonkwo brought his palm wine. In an exchange with the wealthy farmer on the issue of borrowing yam seed, Okonkwo uses a proverb to sustain his love for hard work and promises to pay back. Nwakibie responded by saying that: ‘as our father said, you can tell a ripe corn by its look. I shall give you twice four hundred yams.’”

The Social Values of Kola Nut

“Kola nut is used virtually in all ceremonies in Igbo society where people gather to celebrate one aspect of their value system or another. The offering of kola nut often precedes other activities during any occasion. As a social regulator, kola nut is used to lodge complaints against a fellow citizen who is found to be troublesome. The complaint would use the kola nut to inform his kindred of the issue at stake. The kola nut would be first broken and eaten before the full message is narrated. Similarly, the Igbo believe that the act of presentation of the kola nut to a guest, with the indispensable prayer, Igo Oji (kola nut prayers), the splitting and eating of the kola nut by both the host, the guest, constitute a covenant (Igba ndu). It is believed that after sharing the kola nut, neither party would contemplate harming the other, because of the Igbo belief in the supernatural origin of the kola nut. The Igbo hold the view that it can kill any party that contravenes the covenant which they freely entered into by sharing the kola nut.”

Spiritual or Ritual Values of Kola Nut

“There is a great sacredness associated with Cola acuminata (Oji Igbo) because the Igbo believe that the breaking of the kola is an invitation of the supernatural to be part of the activities of the living and bear witness in any occasion they are summoned. According to Obineche, the living and the dead share or partake of kola nut. The ancestors, deities and malingering spirits are requested to share from the kola nut and allow the living unmolested. It is in this regard that kola nut is traditionally seen as a sacred nut which is used as a link to communicate with the gods (spirit beings), hence, it was chosen by the elders as the king of all seeds. In such prayers (rituals), bits of the kola nut is waved over the head in symbolism, expressing the exchange of kola nut for life and thrown out to the spirits and the ancestors. The diviners need kola nut to appease and seek the favour of their invisible spiritual agents in their professional routines. Upon suspicion of any laxity in the responses of the spirits to his operations, the diviner is forced to present more kola nuts to awaken them from their slumber or sleep since it is believed that the kola nut drives away sleep even among spirits as among the living. In such cases, the diviner may even chew that nut and spit it on all the items that represent the deities in the shrine.”

Medicinal Values of Kola Nut

“Kola nut, bitter kola and alligator pepper are traditional plants which are often eaten as snacks, especially among the elderly in Nigeria. Traditionally, these nuts were chewed as a masticatory substance, to stimulate the flow of saliva but are now widely consumed as snacks in West and Central Africa. In traditional medicine, kola nut and bitter kola are dried, grounded and mixed with honey to make a traditional cough mixture. The bitter and astringent flavour of kola nut according to Onwu-Otuyelu is used as digestive aid before meals to stimulate gastric juice and bile production. Also, its caffeine and theobromine content makes it a potent neuro-stimulant that is used to combat fatigue. This was the reason why among the West African elites in those days, tins of cigarettes and kola nuts are complementary items of conspicuous consumption. It was popularly known as Acada biscuits (Academic biscuits) as a euphemism for kola nut coined by and current among West African students. This is against the background of the students’ convictions that kola nuts are needed to prevent fatigue to sustain and encourage longer and more mental demand for academic work.”

Kola Nut and the Influence of Modernization

“The advent of colonialism in Igboland brought far reaching consequences. The modification in Igbo culture resulted in serious ramifications. The ramifications were visible in terms of religion, social structure, language and the Igbo worldview. And the kola nut was one of the major victims of the waves of change in the sense that the sacredness of the kola nut was violated. This sacredness according to Ezeugo is observed from the planting, nurturing, plucking, breaking and other aspects of kola nut even to its tree, wood and leaves. Women were forbidden from planting, climbing, plucking or breaking of kola nut. Similarly, Emeh laments that the ritual dimension of the kola nut had been adulterated by some “Westernized” individuals. According to him, these overzealous individuals often invoke the name of Jesus when kola nut is being offered to God, the gods and the ancestors. This exercise is a manifestation of extreme culture corruption and mutilation arising from deep inferiority complex. It is also a result of excessive detribalization.”

“It is an established tradition in Igboland that the kola nut does not understand any other language except Igbo when being used for prayers or thanksgiving; but today, the educated elite had corrupted this age-long tradition. For instance, an elderly Igbo “westernized” professor was given a kola nut to pray in order to invite the blessings of God, the gods and the ancestors, the professor decided to use English. According to him, kola nut belongs to the traditional societies where customs and culture are observed; any kola nut that defies the traditional abode and enters the university must attend school, understand and speak English fluently. With this logic, the professor went ahead to defile the ancient tradition. In as much as we may not be able to return Igboland to the pre-colonial era, there is a need for us to preserve those of our cultures that survived colonial intrusion, and kola nut is one of such symbol.”


“Among the Igbo of Southeastern Nigeria, the kola nut occupies an exalted position – often seen as the king of all fruits on earth. To the Igbo, the act of presenting, offering and breaking kola nut constitutes in itself a serious ritual enactment. The significance of kola nut among the Igbo is seen in their ancestral claim that the kola nut originated in Igboland, hence, the people see the kola nut as the universal symbol and identity of acceptance, cooperation and solidarity.”

“Again, there is this erroneous belief that the kola nut has Western origin as a result of the role it played in the emergence of Coca-Cola drink. In an attempt to get around local laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol in the 1880s, John Pemberton, the Georgian pharmacist, took caffeine extracted from kola nuts and cocaine-containing extracts from coca leaves and mixed them with sugar, other flavourings, and carbonated water to invent Coca-Cola, the first cola soft drink. Since the kola nut’s majestic role in birthing Coca-Cola, many people around the world do not know that the kola nut also plays a bigger role in the life and culture of West African people where it originated. If this present study brings to the fore the West African origin and the role the kola nut plays among the African people, then, the objective of the study might have been achieved in part.”

“The Igbo of Southeastern Nigeria has traditional unifying factors they all commonly subscribe to. And the kola nut protocol is one of the main tenets that are shared by all Igbo-speaking people. Therefore, the kola nut tradition should be encouraged since it affords individuals the opportunity to interact with other community members regardless of class affiliations.”


Ikenna Ukpabi Unya. (2021) The Historical Significance and Role of the Kola Nut among the
Igbo of Southeastern Nigeria. Journal of Religion and Human Relations, Volume 13 No. 1, 2021