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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Welcome to Oworo land, where Igbo, Nupe, Yoruba etc tongues meet


Oworo land: Where the tongue includes Igbo, Yoruba words and chief bears Nupe title
A view of Agbaja in Oworo (2009). Photos: MAURICE ARCHIBONG. Copyrights Reserved.

Welcome to the Kogi State community of Oworo. Kogi State is in Nigeria’s Middle Belt area, and that state’s capital is Lokoja. Nigeria’s two major rivers, The Niger and Benue meet in Kogi near the state capital, which is why car number plates celebrate Kogi as Confluence State.

Oworo land is located on a plateau and is, therefore, very refreshing and rarely posts the torridity that sent colonial overlord, Federick Lugard, running out of town and relocating his seat of government to Zungeru, over Lokoja’s comparatively high ambient temperature.

Aside the cooler ambience of Oworo land, another plus for this terrain is the plenitude of prospective tourist attractions. A colonial catering rest house and another structure, which locals say served as Lugard’s country home is among these sites.
Vanishing: Ancient houses in Oworo.

In the same vein, Oworo throws up two streams and a spring. Elderly Oworo indigenes told us that this spring, which flows out of a rock on the way up the plateau, has never gone dry. Seeping from the rocks, many people collect its water for drinking with the belief that it has been purified by nature.

As Omu-iye, the name of one of the streams suggests, Oworo people believe there are therapeutic consequences after a wash in this river. In the same vein, we were also informed that Omu-Oke, one of the other waters located in Agbaja, also has spiritual cleansing powers.
A piece of Arigidi, Oworo traditional hand-woven textile.

“In ancient times, Omu-Oke was used to cure barrenness. A woman, who could not get pregnant, became fertile after a bath in Omu-Oke. We believe the waters are still potent, otherwise people would not be visiting tham as they do till date”, one of the chiefs told us.
Oworo water source.

Also, the Oworo settlement of Agbaja boasts Olu-iho, which translates as King of all holes. Olu-iho (or is it Oluwo) is the mouth of a tunnel that links Ebere-Aba to Agbaja, about 2km away. Olu-iho or Oluwo is worshipped every three years and features some sacrifices. And, a matrilineal son of the Aba Ruling House usually presents the offering.

During this one-day festival, always in the dry season and after necessary sacrifices had been made, there will be rainfall, even before the participants got back home. If no rainfall trailed the ritual, it means the gods had rejected the supplicants’ offering.
A view of Ojega Street in Oworo (2009).

It is worth noting, however, that this supposed triennial indaba had not taken place for roughly 10 years in Oworo land preceding our visit here in 2009. In fact, the latest Oluwo observance took place in 1999, and the one that should have been celebrated in 2002 was skipped because the then monarch had embarked on his final journey.
Apart from Agbaja, Oworo villages include Jakura, Ohiji and Tajimi. Over 40 villages make up Oworo country, which is bordered by Bunu Kabba, to the West; Igbirra Koto and Kogi Local Government Area (LGA), to the East; Adavi/Okehi LGA, to the South and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) to the North.

Getting there and where to stay
As earlier stated, Oworo villages stand on a plateau near Lokoja, and the duration of the journey by car from the Kogi State capital is barely 30 minutes. But for the serpentine nature of the dirt road linking Oworo to the rest of this world, the trip would last much shorter.

To worsen matters, the narrow avenue carved out of the sides of the rocks throws up at least three hair-pin bends, which call for extreme care driving up or down. For our safety, we left the driving to a chauffeur provided by Nostalgia Hotel Limited, which also runs car hire and tours services in these parts.

We stayed at Nostalgia Hotel, during our latest trip to Lokoja, and operated from that town’s Lokongoma Quarters, where this lodge stands. After trudging up the narrow and dusty road in the hills, we finally made it safely to Agbaja, the spiritual headquarters of Oworo territory. 

And our arrival could hardly be more fortuitous.
Five Oworo chiefs in 2009.

Encounter with Oworo chiefs
mauricearchibongtravels was lucky to meet at a go, at least five chiefs of different parts of Oworo nation. These royal fathers were Maasi (of Agbaja), Chief Abubakar Alugbere; Wokili of Oworo, Chief Abraham Mokelu, who is a retired Assistant Commissioner of Police; Mayaki of Oworo, Chief Gabriel Ehimni; and, Shaaba of Oworo, Chief Abdullahi Adama. Chief Adama (Shaaba) is also Chairman of Oworo Traditional Council (OTC).
The traditional rulers had gathered in the residence of the Maasi in Agbaja, District Headquarters of Oworo country, for a meeting; which is how we succeeded in meeting so many of them in one go.

The OTC is responsible for picking an Olu, paramount ruler of the Oworo nation, and we needed to find out why Oworo people have gone without a paramount ruler since the passage, on 25 March, 2002; of their last sovereign. Shortly, we shall dwell on that issue.
Welcome to Oworo land, where construction of a proposed new road has lasted more than seven years, yet the project remains far from completed!

Although Oworo lands stand on a plateau near the Kogi State capital, Lokoja, Nigeria’s famed Confluence City, only two of the 40 clans of Oworo; Agbaja and Tajimi, have pipe-borne water. In fact, Agbaja is the only settlement connected to the national electricity grid.

On a less depressing note, however, we gathered that Igbonla and Tajimi might soon join the league of electrified villages since a transformer had already been installed at each of these two settlements.

Another positive note: Commendable strides have been recorded in Oworo land with regard to the provision of healthcare and education. For example, each of the 40 Oworo villages boasts primary and secondary schools, and Agbaja has a cottage hospital, while other villages boasts dispensaries.

But, who are the Oworo?
Although numerous Yoruba words can be identified in Oworo vocabulary, there is no letter f in the latter’s alphabet. However, the more attentive listener would probably notice that more words are virtually the same, except that letter h takes the place of f in the Yoruba tongue.
Umebe Onyejekwe (extreme right) with five Oworo chiefs in 2009.

This explains why Oworo speakers call the local Lugard House Ile Onihun. Ile is the Yoruba word for house, while Onihun probably derived from enian-funfun a Yoruba phrase for white person. In the Oworo tongue, funfun comes down to hunhun because letter f is not part of their alphabet.

While the Oworo tongue sounds like a dialect of the Yoruba language, a few of their words are also common to the Igbo lingo. Apati and Oka, which stand for bag and maize in both Igbo and Oworo are two examples.

Moreover, whereas other Yoruba say, wa for come, Oworo’s equivalent of that call is the same as Igbo’s bia. Furthermore, the morsel meal made from a mix of guinea-corn and cassava, which the Ibo of Onitsha call Nri-oka comes out as Nje-ka in the Oworo tongue.

So, who really; are Oworo people? The chairman of Oworo kingmakers’ society said Oworo are ancestrally Yoruba from Ile-Ife. “We are descendants of Oduduwa”, was his remark.

However, the opinion of another chief was: “The ancestor of Oworo people emerged from the earth”.

Those, who share this view, believe that ancestor sprang from the bowels of the earth spontaneously at Aba.

While this myth does not tell us where this ancestor found a wife or wives through whom the clan multiplied, it throws up more curios; for, Aba; the place that the progenitor emerged from the belly of the earth, is pronounced exactly as the name of the Abia State traders’ hub, Aba, aka Enyinba City, is rendered.

The observations become more fascinating with the realisation that the name, Mokelu; is also borne by both Oworo and Igbo folks. However, Chief Mokelu, one of the five chiefs of Oworo we spoke with at Maasi’s residence in Agbaja, was keen to point out that there are tonal variations in the rendition of his Mokelu and the Igbo equivalent.
Welcome once again to Oworo land: One community with three palaces. As regards the age of Rani, the throne of Oworo paramount ruler; Chief Yakubu Ejinda had this to say: “Oworo has been in existence with paramount chiefs for more than 200 years”.

We gathered that Olu Aba, premiere paramount ruler of Oworo, was installed 1860. Prior to that coronation, this nation’s government was a confederacy, it seems.
Oworo nation boasts three ruling houses; namely, Aba Royal House, presently headed by Shaaba; Ajeto Royal House, headed by Rania Maasi and Adeopa Ruling House, headed by Wokili; while the Chairman of the kingmakers’ body is the Mayaki.

According to Chief Mayaki, a candidate had already been nominated and that the incumbent ruling house is called Akodi. Oworo, we were informed, has three palaces because there are three ruling houses in Agbaja.


Cultural diffusion and Oworo People
As has been the experience of other communities, the arrival of foreigners and their religious beliefs in Oworo land has had adverse impacts on these locals, where some traditional craft, like hand-woven cloth for which ancient Oworo was well-known, have virtually disappeared.

Many local shrines no longer see visitors bringing offerings because an uncountable number of Oworo indigenes now belong to either the Christian or Islamic faith. As one of the traditional rulers rued: “Civilization has taken its toll.”
Another impression of Oworo landscape in 2009.

Albeit, traditional worshipping persists, as could be gleaned from Oluwo observances; an annual festival, which takes place in the dry season. Oluwo is observed across Oworo land to this day, despite the adoption of Semitic faiths by virtually every member of this community.

Although Westernisation has taken evident tolls on Oworo people, Maasi of Agbaja declared; “Our masquerades have remained the same over the centuries. In fact, it is taboo to modify anything relating to these masquerades”.
In deed, there are various other festivals across Oworo Kingdom: Pre-planting season festivals in Oworo land include Egungun festival, called Ikoje.

Villages, where Ikoje takes place from April include Ogbabo, Tajimi and Jakura, according to Mr. A.A. Momoh, Maintenance Manager of Nostalgia Hotel, Lokoja.

Mr. Momoh, who is an indigene of Oworo, also named Boko, a festival that takes place in commemoration of the harvesting season, as one of his community’s most popular fiestas.
The Anglican Communion’s All Saints Church, which berthed at Oworo in 1912, is the oldest Christian House of worship in these parts, we gathered. As usual, the Christian mission established the first school in this community. That institution, set up in 1912 by the Anglican Mission in Lokoja is today known as the Local Government Education Authority Primary School.
Farming and hunting were the main traditional occupations in ancient Oworo society, and these trades predominate to this day. The major food crops include plantain, mango and cashew, while cocoa, coffee and kola-nut are the major cash crops cultivated by Oworo farmers.

However, local farmers, who entered the coffee planting business in 1950, began reaping the fruits of their labour, 10 years later, with the first harvest in 1960.

Vanishing mores
Arigidi is the Oworo word for hand-woven cloth. Until about a century ago, cloth-weaving was a thriving industry across Oworo country. Unfortunately, this craft has died out completely.

Such is the situation that only Chief Ejinda, one of the five chiefs, could come up with a small piece of this indigenous textile. That particular piece of cloth was woven by his late mother, Madam Ramatu Ejinda, who died in 1962 at the age of around 80 years.

Given that this weaver’s transition took place more than 45 years ago, and assuming she wove that textile at mid-age, say 40 years old, the fabric we saw was a veritable piece of antiquity!

Truly, Oworo is a goldmine waiting to be tapped. But, the mining can only begin in earnest after a befitting road has been built to enable tourists climb the plateau safely.

If, Oworo textile weaving tradition and other indigenous craft were revived, and the colonial Catering Rest House as well as Ile-Onihun reconstructed and turned into thriving tourist sites, economic activities; currently at very low ebb in these climes, would certainly witness a boom.
By MAURICE ARCHIBONG

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