A Ritual dorsal plate imported from Katab
At first sight, Abisi seems to have lived on a kind of socio-economic self-sufficient island separated from others by their cultural and linguistic particularities. But this is misleading because they never lived in complete autarky.
They had developed an autonomous subsistence agriculture but also relied on bartered products with their neighbors.
Surely, they did not import goods because they cost less than their own as it is in Nigeria today but they did when they lacked some useful natural resources.
In fact, they imported many goods they could have produced themselves but for some reason, they preferred the foreign varieties.
The consequences of such a self-restriction of production is that exchange with regional partners was a central part of their economic setting.
They never developed a special branch of production just for exchange, agriculture could produce all surplus needed to barter. It consisted mostly of sorghum or some maize. Millet was rarely exchanged and acha was never traded. Goats were often exchanged.
Barter was used to get goods used in different economic spheres: individual, production, or ceremonial: use for personal needs, to work with or for public display. A brief inventory gives some perspective on these exchanges.
Abisi smokers, mainly older men, get their pipes from Rukuba craftsmen who also make all kinds of small wood objects and they also imported Irigwe tobacco said to be better made than their own.
Abisi women know how to make grass carpets but when possible, trading for Chawai color carpets is preferred. Men buy red paint to make a red mask around their eyes, the /iwàzurↄk/.
The two main limitation in the production sphere are the lack of a raw material like iron minerals or lack of good skill to make quality products like pottery.
Abisi blacksmiths were well renowned and could be invited to work elsewhere. It is said that in Egbak, a Rukuba village, sorcerers polluted the area with bad medicine that prevented the local blacksmith from making large hoes but that an Abisi one was often used.
Food was also exchanged, beniseed (sesame) was bought from Amo for example. Birom are said to buy Abisi dogs to eat…but this is a delicate subject.
The Rukuba neighbors were expert horse breeders ( even if they deny it) and there are no reasons why Abisi could not have technically succeeded in doing the same. Abisi got and traded back stallions from Rukuba in exchange for goats, salt, and grain.
Abisi also valued imported goods: importing stallions, getting special ceremonial dies during common rituals with neighbors, importing paraphernalia like Dodo dancers’ suits, or Katab back plates used in women’s Bori ceremonies.
Tobacco is produced in Abisi but they may have, like the Rukuba, preferred Irigwe preparations to their own. It is similar with Rukuba pots that are preferred to the local ones. Salt could be locally prepared by women.
They would burn Acha grass, fonio, guinea-corn or millet grasses and filter the ashes in a /rikan∫i / a pot made of a small one with an open bottom placed on top of another larger one. Pouring water into the ashes would filter the salts. The resulting salted water could be used as such or dried. Acha salts could be used as a medicine.
Hausa salt bricks were preferred when trading with Rukuba and were used in bridewealth. Abisi, like many other communities in the region, have always traded with each other, an openness that contrasts with their cultural distinctions in language, marriage, and world view.
For outsiders, they may seem to be an isolated small population but that was really never the case.
These transferred goods were not really commodities, it’s only with British colonization that a process of transition to replace barter with the use of money took place.
They also traded because they believed that exchanging goods is a good way to entertain amicable relations with their neighbors.