The Need for Reforms in Ebira Cultural Festivals

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By Zacchaeus Ozovehe.
When we discuss the cultures of some parts of the country, we often come to the grim reality that in the past, it was abominable act to be delivered of a set of twins before Mary Slessor of blessed memory through evangelism, education and enlightenment abolished the act. Twins then were regarded as an ominous sign and they must be exterminated and even the mother may stand being ostracised! Also, in some Igbo communities, it was an unpardonable offense and affront to their traditional belief for  younger siblings to get married before their elders! I will not even mention Female Genital  Mutilation (FGM) for whatever reason because it is an undiluted act of wickedness against womanhood!
These may be funny but true and a cursory study of traditional beliefs of all communities in the country would leave you speechless on some of their erstwhile practices which of course, have been neutralised or reformed as a result of socialisation, education and enlightenment. As a student of Development Communication, I call this process of sieving the inhuman aspects of these cultural practices a positive cultural assimilation as against neocolonialism.
According to Peter Odogbor of the department of Theatre Art and Mass Communication, University of Benin, indigenous festivals are collectively owned, therefore, the involvement of members of the community is required in the celebration. This is expressly demonstrated in the yearly celebration of Ovia Osese, a virginity festival which over the years could not be subdued by religious or western influence. Time has forced the hands of tradition and this Ogori custom has survived largely because it has been able to adapt. When Christianity first came to Ogori a century ago, the new faith was at odds with the old tradition and frowned heavily at the initiation rites. Traditionally, the maidens used to come out naked and adorned with beads but the wave of reformation of the festival has seen the
Ivias (maidens) adorned in Aso oke. Yes, again, this is what I call positive cultural assimilation!
The reformed Ovia Osese had seen multinational companies like MTN sponsoring it, attracting tourists from within and outside the country. The peaceful nature of the celebration, the moral tutelage and chastity have made the work of the major religious bodies in the area less burdensome. In fact, after the week long celebration, Christians in the area troop to churches to give thanksgiving for its success and the proud parents of Ivias are always overwhelmed with joy.
Though surrounded by three hills, Ogori people could pass for a typical instance of ‘small but mighty’ with lots of Professors who have made positive impacts in the country.
My experience in 2018 Ovia Osese, thoughts on Ebira festivals
The 2018 Ovia Osese celebration of course, was a spectacular one. The invited guests were treated to a nice sight of carnival, beauty pageant competition, quiz and others. The venue of the grand finale was in Ogori Civic Centre where amazing crowd of excited people were waiting the Chairman of the occasion, Mallam Yusuf Haruna whose entourage I was fortunate to be part of.
Mallam Yusuf Haruna was a Chief Security Officer of the former Governor of Edo State, Adams Oshiomole, a position he is still maintaining for the present Governor of the state, Godwin Obaseki. Lucky me! You would say! Having ecstatically savoured the display of various age groups especially Lokoja ODU where my boss James Oyewole with his heavy carriage stole the show, the unquestionable nature pevailed on me to ease myself. And I sauntered outside the gate for that. My recourse to the venue for continuation of the show was halted by the gate.
A hefty looking man whose gaze depicts every sense of seriousness about his duty demanded from me a ticket before I could regain entrance. Guess what. Ovia Osese has been reformed, refined and repackaged to be money-spinning venture for the development of the community.
While ruminating on the economic ingenuity of the organisers, I found myself helplessly soliloquising on the possibility of Ebira cultural festivals being refined in this manner for the benefit of the community. If truly indigenous festivals are collectively owned, and involvement of members of the community is required in the celebration as posited by the communication scholar Peter Odogbor, Ebira cultural festivals (as it is being celebrated today) may not be part of the description.
Unlike the Ogorians that have Ovia Osese as one of the very few major annual traditional festivals, Ebira people have plethora of traditional festivals which are meant to mark important seasons and happenings of the past. There are Ekuechi and Okehi festivals strictly meant for males. Eche ane, ebe, eche ori are yet some other festivals celebrated in Ebiraland. Regrettably however, while Ogorians have devised ways to reform their Ovia Osese for economic advantage, celebration of Ebira cultural festivals has been corrupted and “reformed” to be theatre of war resulting to violence. No wonder Ebira festivals have suffered a lot of ban by previous administration in the state while multinational companies have been jostling to sponsor the celebration of the refined Ovia Osese.
Traditionally, masquerade festivals is believed to be a cult which is exclusive right of male folk in Ebira land. This is because women are believed to have supernatural powers which permit them to manifest in different forms especially in the night. There are about eight prominent masquerades in the cult. These are Eku’rahu, Eku’ahete, Eku’okise, Eku’echichi, Eku’oba, Eku’ububa, Eku’ahere and Eku’uba. Eku’rahu features during the night performance of Ekuechi, Ebe, Okehi and Otu festivals. It can also perform at the funeral ceremonies of a deceased male elder to ‘transport’ him to the transitional void, and to embody the spirit of the dead for a gentle repose of his soul in the world beyond before transmigrating into an ancestral figure. This performance also takes place at night. Eku’ahete ensures a safe and free passage in the ancestral visits to earth during Ekuechi festival. Eku’okise proclaims divine messages from God and prophesies to the people with clairvoyance, featuring in both Ekuechi and Echane festivals. Eku’echichi is performed fully masked during Echane festival, which is mainly a broad daylight affair with active women involvement in the general celebrative format but not in the core performance rituals. Eku’echichi also performs in Ekuechi festival as Agadagidi. The performers are now referred to as Agadagidis because they do not don their full costumes and often do not mask. They chase people around and playfully flog them.
Sometimes, some men offer themselves to be flogged to test and exhibit their manly valour. Akatapa, a jester masquerade with caustic tongue would mock the Agadagidi and other spectators. Eku’oba does not feature in Ekuechi or any festival. It announces the masking season is also performed in some core traditional funeral rites and to commemorate deceased male elders of high traditional standing as the Ohinoyi (the traditional political head of Ebira people), Ohindasi, Ozumi, Obobanyi (of Emani, Ohueta, and Ohionwa clans in Ihima), Ohiomata, Ogasube, Idu and Onoba who are key figures in Ebira traditional council.
To have an Eku’oba perform is considered an extreme honour because it is believed that its appearance will atone for all the sins committed by the deceased while alive. Thus heavenly bliss is assured in the world beyond. Eku’oba can come out during the day or at night but always fully masked, irrespective of the time of appearance. To acknowledge this unique and valued appearance, the families of the deceased often sacrifice rams or cows, depending on their financial capabilities, to mark out a bloodline for Eku’oba to cross into their compound.
The traditional importance of this masquerade is further established by the fact that it must rain within that same day or the next of its appearance. Its coming out is also believed to secure peace for the land. It is the wish of an average traditional Ebira man to live long enough to merit the appearance of an Eku’oba at his funeral.
That majority of these prominent masquerades of the Eku cult feature in Ekuechi ensemble makes the festival a converging forum for Ebira ancestors, and further enunciates its unifying force for the corporate existence of Ebira people.
Ekuechi festival enjoys corporate ethnic involvement in terms of preparation and presentation. At its artistic peak, the festival can easily be mistaken for a celebrative spectacle meant to entertain only. But it always has conceptual bases that transcend mere entertainment objective.
Put differently, there are some functional values of the festival that are conceived and manifested within the general festival atmosphere. For instance however entertaining, satirical songs are rendered for social control. Very often, an important personality of the community who is satirised might be carried away by the entertainment values of the songs without instantly apprehending their import. He then sneaks away from the festive arena in shame at the point of cognition.
By and large, Ebira cultural festivals were originally meant for entertainment, correction of the ills of the society and delivery of good and prophetic messages from Ihineba, the Almighty God.
Pathetically, the adulterated Ebira festivals have been a source of communal clashes. War songs, brazen display of weapons and other vices have charactised its celebration no thanks to the youngsters who seemed to have lost touch with its essence.
Just like Ovia Osese, this is a clarion call for reformation of Eku festivals in Ebira land where income could be generated for the development of the communities. Concerted effort should be made by traditional festival custodians to remove all the negative influences which has led to its intermittent ban over the years. If Ogorians can reform Ovia Osese and has placed the community on the fore for national recognition, Ebira can surely do same with their intensive and spectacular festivals for the unity and development of our communities.
However, the recent Eche’ane festival in Ihima has shown signs of good things to happen to our festivals.The foremost masquerades such as Ura (Ozuda), Evako, Akoko and few others held their spectators spellbound by spectacular performances. The 2018 Ihima Echa’ane festival was simply colourful. It is on this note that I commend the security chiefs, traditional rulers and custodians of masquerades on the recent peaceful celebration of the festival in Ihima where there was even high presence of dignitaries, top government functionaries and researchers. To consolidate on this, I call the Ohi of Ihima, His Royal Highness, Abdulraheem Ahmed Ogidi to work closely with his chiefs like the six clan heads in Ihima and beyond to work out modalities where our traditional festivals would attract visitors and tourists for economic benefits as the world used to know it before it was sadly bastardised and vilified. The festival are rarely rich in the true sense of the word.

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