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Story by MUSA JIBRIL , Photos by OMONIYI AYEDUN
August is the month of Osun. The time devotees of the deity of fertility flock to Nigeria’s southwest city of Osogbo, and for two weeks, reenact age-old traditions with passion and pomp.
The annual rite starts with Iwopopo, the symbolic cleansing of the city. It climaxes in a grand procession led by Arugba, guided by a cortege of priest and priestesses. The solemn march from the palace of Ataoja (king) to the Osun River in the bowel of the verdant Osun Grove is a symbolic renewal of pact between the people and the deity they believe sustains the city.
An outsider attempting to write the story of Osun Osogbo in the pulp fiction tradition or in the style of Wilbur Smith is likely to sift his facts through the sieve of orthodox religions and weave his yarn on the theme of a river goddess and the cultural milieu of African paganism in an ancient city. There is no shortage of staples to stagger the plot to a frenzied pace and the degree of the writer’s religious bigotry will influence his propensity to use voodoo vocabularies of dark denotations.
To write the Osun story objectively requires that the writer become an ‘insider.’
An eye-opener: Olosun, as adherents are called, are comfortable with their religion.
Baba Olosun Adigun, the chief priest, told me forthrightly: “Oloosa ni wa.”
We are worshippers of Orisa.
The sentiment resonates strongly among them. It is their pride, not a reproach.
The Osun Osogbo festival, famed for its pageantry, draws more than disciples. Not every one who journeys to the city in August is Olosun. Most are drawn by the fiesta’s spectacular sights and sounds, many visited for research purposes.
On the eve of the great procession, the city is literally bursting at the seams.
If you are not Oloosa, how do you relish the kaleidoscope of colour, customs and culture around you without losing your ‘church mind’?
Go with a tourist mind.
You’d find the city of Osogbo a palette of rusty rooftops reminiscent of J.P. Clarke’s description of Ibadan––“running splash of rust and gold.” Osogbo wears the cloak of antiquity just as Ibadan. Old-style architecture, mud houses and ageing brick building, firmly-rooted customs, all reinforced the town’s ancient façade. Whilst the cultural allure of some Yoruba cities has dimmed due to modernisation, the Osogbo charm is accentuated, even rarefied by the Osun tradition that alchemises the mystic with the material. Splashes of new roads here, splatters of modern buildings there creates an intermix of the old and the new in a way that is at times beautifully jarring to the senses.
Osogbo is a city of religions. Most indigenes have Muslim backgrounds and a bulk of the populace is born from Christian wombs. Just as well, a significant number of natives are purely traditionalists––root, stalk and grains. In the tangled mix of faiths, there is no clash of convictions, however. Insofar as the city remains Osogbo––in name and in being––Osun is the first and the root religion. Osun founded Osogbo.
Of the lore of the founding of Osogbo, there is a well-sung ballad of the benevolent spirit that befriended a band of famine-ravage tribe that arrived at the bank of the Osun River surrounded by lush greenery. The tribe basked in their good fortune, oblivious of a supernatural presence until the day they fell a tree that crashed into the river and triggered an eruption of supernatural outcries.
‘They have destroyed all my dyeing pots’ was the wail of agony that was greeted with a pacifyingly crooning: “Oso Igbo pele o, Oso Igbo rora o”––Spirit of the forest, sorry, take heart.
Oso’gbo––spirit of the forest––adjured the human settlers to move out of range of her grove in exchange for prosperity. After a year of abundance, the settlers returned to the grove to honour their benefactor spirit with gifts as a token of their gratitude. The spirit’s promise of continued blessing was matched by the people’s pledge to continue the rite every year. Thus both parties entered into a bond of trust that became the Osun Osogbo festival. More than 700 years later, Osogbo is a thriving city, the capital of the State of Osun.
Other religions thrived in the city, only that they are like mistletoe growing on top of the huge Iroko tree of Osun. In turn, Osun draws its adherents from different sources and soils: Christians, Muslims, traditionalists; ‘sons of the soil,’ sojourners and strangers; artistes and artisans.
The mix makes the town a huge tapestry of faiths, with Osun as the main motif.
Osogbo’s attractions are many and miscellaneous. There is the Osun Grove, certified a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2005, and there is the river that flows through it with youthful energy.
The city is replete with Osun-inspired art of carving, sculpturing and dyeing.
The home of Susan Wenger is an open museum worthy of visit. It housed some of the works of the Austrian enigma whose contribution was instrumental to bringing Osun and Osogbo to global recognition. Her sculptures are also in the grove, including her last uncompleted project, which still stands on the river bank.
In the final days of the festival, the city is drenched in vivid colours and couture. One is easily awed by the elaborate and exquisite fashion display by women of Osun. They complement their attires with exquisite and chic accessories: earrings, anklets, necklaces, bracelets and rings wrought from bronze and beads. Women, old and young have their feet and hands hennaed with intricate patterns, spotting artistic hairdos, especially the Agogo style which is exclusive to high-ranking priestess.
Day One of this year’s festival was Monday, August 7, 2017. That was the day of Iwopopo, the traditional cleansing of the town. The 500-year-old sixteen-point lamp, ‘Ina Olojumerindinlogun’ was lit three days later. Monday, August 14, will be time for the rite of Iboriade, the assemblage and blessing of crowns worn by past Ataojas of Osogbo.
Each passing day, the festivity gathers momentum, revved by social activities, until it peaked in the grand procession led by Arugba, the votary maid that bears the calabash of offerings to River Osun.
There is a lot of depth to the Arugba persona. Tunde Kelani’s eponymous movie, Arugba is a good expose on the cult of the Osun votary maid, but hardly three-dimensional.
It was in 2015 I met Faderera Oyebanjo, the oldest, living former votary maid. She was about 100 years. Her service, she recalled, was in the first year of the reign of Ataoja Oyedokun. From the age of 20, she carried the calabash for seven seasons.
“We are respected because of our position. While in service, nobody antagonises us. No male dare play with us,” she said.
Arugba, a young virgin, is the reigning king’s kin. Though, selected according to Ifa divinity, the duration of her service is her prerogative.
“It depends on her capacity to continue. If she can, she may serve for six seasons or more. During the time of yesterday’s king, one maid took the calabash to the river 12 times, another one 10 times.”
To opt out of the role? It is as simple as the maid declaring her desire to be wifed.
“Either she was given out in marriage, or she found someone and brought him before the king, after she carried the calabash for the last time to the river, she would be taken straight to her husband’s house in the evening.”
What if she mistakenly ‘plays’ with a man?
“No, it will not happen,” Oyebanjo affirmed.
She stared at me gravely: “It has dire consequences.”
Another former votary maid, Abimbola Adeyemi, provided an insight into the dynamics of their family life.
Popularly referred to as “Arugba Agba,” Adeyemi was 13 years when she started her service in 1982 and continued for 10 years. She of a Muslim parentage is married to a devout Christian. She remains a staunch worshipper of Osun.
“He is doing his faith and I am doing mine,” she said of her husband. “As for our kids, some followed my path, others their father’s. They go to church. During Osun festival, they also participated.”
Here is one of the wonders of the religion: The Osun gravity pulls large and heterogeneous followers. From far away land, they come heeding the call of Osun. Austrians. Germans. Portuguese. Brazilians. Colombians. Venezuelans. Cubans. Japanese.
In 2012, I met Georgina “Sangolaja” Vazquez in the city of Lagos. The 40-year-old Mexican travelled from Mexico City to Lagos to deepen her knowledge of the African traditional religion. We hacked a decent conversation in halting English. Vazquez graduated from Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) in 1996 with a bachelor degree in business administration and had worked in bank, supermarket and government establishment in Mexico City. Born a Catholic, her quest for true religion led her to the discovery of Sango, the Yoruba deity of thunder. Three years after picking interest in traditional African religion, she travelled all the way from Mexico City to become a student of Baba Olosun after contacting him via Facebook.
“My brother-in-law practises traditional religion in the diaspora, he started talking to me about the religion,” she told me.
To attend the festival in 2012, she saved money for one whole year. Vazquez is one of the tens of thousands of foreigners that have become disciples of Osun.
Is Osun capable of rising above the pedestal of ‘The aboriginal religion of Africa’ to become a universal faith?
It is a question for the gods. But mortals too can hazard a guess, taking cues from the burgeoning legion of foreign worshippers that besieges Osogbo City and the wind of accelerated loss of faith in the orthodox religion that is blowing across the world.
The last few days of the festival is marked by a surge in the number of devotees of traditional religions. Worshippers of Ogun, Sango, Ifa, the Ogbonis and members of OPC pour into the city in large numbers, bringing with them zest and eccentricities, creating a full-spectrum aperture on traditional African religion.
Academics, arts zealots and cultural enthusiasts also show up in their numbers on the day of the procession that has become the ultimate showpiece of an African religion.
The final day unfurls with spectacular moment. A day of sumptuous photo feast.
Long after the festival, the spectacle lingers in the mind. Long after, the songs resonate in the ears.
Ekore yeye o!