Ìwòfà

Possible Iwofa driving man riding on a chariot in front of Lagos police station, southern Nigeria. Early 1900s. Servitude like this was acceptable till the fist half of the 20th Century.
Man riding on a chariot in front of Lagos police station. Early 1900s. Servitude like this was acceptable till the first quarter of the 20th Century. Source: emmeonmedia.com

Ìwòfà, translated as ‘pawning’, was the system of constrained labour used in offsetting debts of different kinds in the 19th and 20th Century south-west Nigeria. In ancient times where a family had not the money to meet the funeral expenses of a relative, the members would sell the slaves they had or place themselves, their children or any personal property they had in pawns for the purpose- working “one week for their owner and one week for themesleves until they or the family had saved sufficiently to redeem the pawns”.

Pawned kids normally lived in the creditor’s household but married adults are allowed to live in their own houses to work for the creditor for an agreed duration. Rights of pawned individuals are reserved but the measure of their service to the creditor is targeted to either repay loans fully or to pay only the interest on the loan. Pawning was banned throughout southern Nigeria between 1928 and 1948, and the practise finally died towards the end of the colonial period. The Iwofa system has been compared with or even associated with indigenous slavery, which was not abolished in the southwest until 1916