Stories by JOSFYN UBA and MUSA JIBRIL
Photos by WASHINGTON UBA
Left to Hollywood, Egypt and Egyptology is the soul of Africa’s art. A lot has been romanticized about Ancient Egypt––from Tut to Nefertiti to the Ramses pharaohs, from mysterious tales about the Valley of the King to the esoteric art about mummy and the cult of Anubis. The glorification of these legends, real and imaginary, is one factor that drives tourist traffic to modern Egypt. The cinematic deluge begs the question of whether there is anything of real worth south of the Sahara
The answer is Benin, a city with a plethora of lost arts of Africa and the forgotten practices of the Black race waiting to be unearthed. Benin––from the era of Igodomigodo to its present status as the heart of Edo State––is a bastion of black arts, crafts and culture. Any scepticism about this evaporates with an encounter with High Priest Osemwegie Ebohon or a visit to his Ebohon Cultural Centre at No. 1, Odenede Street, Ivbioto Quarters, Benin City, an eye-popping wonder that is an opener to the hidden treasures of Africa.
On October 5, as the parboiling morning heat is temporarily doused by a lazy drizzle, we walk into the centre, a bio-cultural museum-park with surreal, subterranean ambience, and meet its custodian, a tall, regal Benin high priest who walks with an agility that belies his age.
Ebohon Cultural Center––properly known as a Centre for Art, Traditional Religion and Witchcraft––is many things in one. It is a treasure trove of arts–carving, sculpture, bronze. It is a sanctuary for African religious practices, a potpourri of arcane religious practice. It is a hermitage for a spiritual retreat. It has an international troupe that rehearses every Saturday
What makes the centre a cornucopia is its founder’s multi-faceted personality. At 78, High Priest Ebohon is a prism––native doctor, herbalist, mystics and psychotherapist. Conversation with him will take you through different worlds, from traditional to spiritual medicine, and if you have the mind for it, to the realms of oracular divination.
Right from outside, there abound cryptic warnings that pique the visitor’s curiosity. One sign reads: “You enter this compound at your own risk between 11 pm and 5 am. Traditional security forces are at alert.”
We take him up on that.
“I have over 1000 cats in this compound. You hardly know they are here. I don’t see them except when something happens. For instance, if anyone steals on this ground, a cat will materialize and hold his foot.”
He continues: “Few months ago, once it is dusk, two big boa constrictors sat over the fence at the gate, in full view of people who passed outside.”
He takes us on a tour that lasted four hours. Our exchange seesaws between narration and Q&A as his biography unfolds.
He’s had a colourful career as a teacher, playwright and journalist. He is an author of 17 books, five of which are plays in Edo language. For the record, he is the pioneer of the Edo language plays, his early works, seminal texts for colleges of education, and notably, the Institute of Edo Studies, University of Lagos and later the University of Benin. The facts speak of a man of intellect.
In one sentence, he sums up the basic facts about the centre. Built between 1982 and 1986. Opened in 1988. Accessed by five gates–– Iyelugbo (Protector of the Laws of the Land); Iyayimwan (Our Religion) which leads to Ugbo-Ebo, Garden of the Gods; Ohiovbu, named after a succulent plant that survives all seasons; Ivie named after his first daughter, and Iwowa, the entry to the museum. All gates are locked except Iyelugbo.
Becoming who he is today was accidental, despite his precocious interest in art as a 14-year-old that took to acting.
“When I performed my first play in 1965, I searched for materials to decorate the stage. The play was about destiny. It featured the Shrine of the Ancestors. I needed props to decorate the stage, but people refused to borrow me artefacts and effigies from their shrines. They said I would corrupt the articles. They preferred to sell to me. I bought them, for little or nothing. After the play, I didn’t know what to do with the relics. So, I used them to decorate a corner of my room. Consequently, I lost many friends––“This man is no longer a Christian, we are not sure his head is correct again, they said. But some people came to admire the shrine.”
Unknown to him, he had inexorably stepped into an esoteric path. His habit further fed the flame of his new interest.
“Anywhere I encountered animal skulls, I picked and added them to my shrine. The first was the skull of an elephant in 1965.”
He dealt a blow to the long-held superstition that an elephant skull cannot be taken into human abode. Where an elephant is slaughtered is where it is quartered and the skull abandoned––to be cut and used for charms by those with the know-how. According to beliefs, he who brings home an elephant skull courts destruction. Breaking the superstition earned Ebohon a new respect.
“Anytime I was doing a new play, I would add to my collection artefacts I need. Gradually, my home began to draw a light traffic of educated people who started coming in 1968.”
It was only a matter of time before he took the drastic turn of delving into research about witchcraft and madness.
“Whenever I rode my motorcycle through the King’s Square, mad people would hail me, prompting people to wonder, “is this man having communion with mad people?” he recalls.
His aberration cost him a lot of friends until it became apparent that his fraternity with the ‘horde of the insane’ was for the purpose of research into abnormal behaviours.
That does not mean Ebohon didn’t have a normal life. His professional portrait is like an oil painting. He was a Grade II teacher and a good preacher at 21. He also doubled as a freelancer for the Midwest papers, where he was formerly employed as a senior reporter in 1968. Before he left the Nigerian Observer as society editor, his crusading style of journalism led to the removal of a medical doctor of a specialist hospital and a principal of a college (“I wrote the truth,” he pleads). His statue stands in front of the Observer as a tribute to him.
With the Edo Cultural troupe he founded in 1965, he travelled round Nigeria, his exploits motivating Brigadier-General Samuel Ogbemudia, then military governor of the Mid-West State, to establish the Midwest Arts Council.
Teaching, journalism and performing arts. He would soon leave all that behind. At the art council, he was hounded with a campaign of calumny that culminated in a decree that “…those in secret cults should resign.”
He recounts the episode: “I called a press conference told them, “I am not in a secret cult but I am in so many religious cults.” Finally, they imposed someone on me and I took an honourable exit.”
He also left Christianity in 1972.
Ebohon still remembers the title of his last sermon in the church: “Thou Shalt Eat the Fruit of Thy Labour.”
He has since preached in churches overseas, though not as a Christian, but “as a visiting philosopher.”
He says: “I am a devotee of African traditional religion. I have discussed religion everywhere on earth. Imported religions are not supposed to live in the same place with our traditional religion because one will corrupt the other.”
In the past, he has been a constant target of invectives by adherents of the orthodox religion, demonised as the Mad Priest or the Anti-Christ. Ebohon did not waver in his faith in traditional African religion.
“We are in a world ruined by religion,” he says with conviction.
He leads us on tour of the centre, through the bowels of interconnected halls, gardens and shrines. If art is your joie de vivre, then the Ebohon Cultural Centre is an art utopia. His museum harbours crafts with unadulterated African motifs, art pieces of the upmarket type coveted by connoisseurs. The collection in its entirety would melt the heart of genuine art collectors. The rooms, one after the other, done in marbles and tiles and dazzling white paint, exquisitely decorated.
On our way to the Divine Kingship Room, we encounter an awesome bronze bust of Queen Idia N’Iyesigie. There is Oba Esigie’s war dress, a bust of Iden and her husband, Oba Ewuakpe. He pauses beside an assemblage of small bronze pieces of ships. “These pieces depict Oba Ovonramwen’s exile to Calabar in 1897. They show some of the things used in prosecuting him in the court, such as slavery and all of that. This boat took him to Owan. That one took him from Ughoton to Calabar on Feb 17, 1897. That was him in the boat with chains on his foot.”
The collection was exhibited in Austria.
He points out the Royal Chests used for keeping treasure in the olden days.
How did he acquire his art pieces?
“I bought some, I commissioned some. For instance, that one [a gnarled carving with seven troughs] was a tree in the middle of this centre, which I uprooted. I commissioned the carving based on my imaginations.”
He stops before a plastic chair. “This is where I sat watching my mother giving up the ghost on September 29, 2013, watching her breathing her last. Whenever I want to regain energy, I come here. It is the link between a mother and a child.”
He shows us into the Treatment Room––remember he treats spiritual and mystical problems as well as conventional diseases. In the room are old, exotic coins, from all places.
The Grandfather’s Sanctuary turns out a luxury room with king-size bed, a dazzling room decorated with exquisite marble and chandelier.
It is obvious that Ebohon’s collections are not exclusively of Nigerian culture. “My collection is eclectic, not restricted to Benin alone. I promote African culture, African traditional religion, African traditional medicine,” he explains.
He continues: “I use my money to buy things that remind me of the past. The problem I have now is where to put these collections. About 600 pieces of my works––including an eight feet throne, labelled Benin, A Kingdom in Bronze––have been travelling overseas for the past 22 years. I am trying to repatriate them, but will have to wait until UNESCO exhibits them in Smithsonian Museum.”
Three of his works––original and exclusive––loaned to leading art museums, were part of a 16-month exhibition of Benin Arts in Vienna, and later Paris and Berlin in 2000.
He shows us other points of interest. Shrine of the Witches. Garden of the Gods. Olokun Shrine. Palace of Ancestors.
Now, we are back in the garden that seems like an Avenue of Statues. After we sign the visitor’s book, he delves into esoteric subjects. It starts with a building that housed a bed with carvings of intricate patterns. An inscription on the wall reads: Bed of Life, “took 747 days of sweat, blood and tears to carve from the womb of an Iroko tree. Etched on the body of the bed are over 201 ritual symbols of animals and other mystical water entities.”
Bed of Life is an alternative source of insight into the future for those with an aversion for oracle divination.
He outlines the modus operandi. “We purify it, you lie on it for 16 minutes, three hours or a night. Whatever you see, there is nothing to change in it. If a young lady sees that she has three children, so be it, God will not add one more.”
We halt under the shade cast by a canopy of tall trees, beside an exquisite statue of a woman holding aloft heads of snakes wrapped around her curvy body. Her leg tapered to a fishtail in the manner of a mermaid. Crocodiles and snakes symmetrically lounge at her feet. A riveting statue. Here, we talk about the mysterious of traditional religion as per alternative realities blurred by the philosophies of orthodox faiths. On these, the high priest is a fountain of knowledge.
For instance, the subject matter of reincarnation, the first topic of discussion when we arrived. Unlike the vague and vacuous ramblings of Lobsang Rampa, Ebohon’s thesis is without any ambivalence.
He deconstructs reincarnation in a practical hands-on manner.
“If you have a relation that is old and dying when the body is still warm, put something in his palm––a cross, a coin or chaplet––and close his palm over it. You may put a trinket or a white rope around his neck instead. When he comes back, the mark will be there.”
He draws his anecdotes from a case study. His mother’s.
“My mother was born four years before she died. She said she would not die until she was born. One day she said to me: someone had just taken in and would give birth to me. I will name that child before I die. A few months later she asked how her pregnant grandchildren were faring. “Anyone who delivers between now and tomorrow morning, that is me. We have passed ourselves on the way.” The next morning, she demanded, did anybody deliver? “These people are wasting my time. What are they waiting for? I will not die and go back because that would mean rescheduling my life.” As we discussed, my phone rang. My first daughter had delivered a baby girl. Aha, you see, I told you yesterday I will come back.”
He elaborates with a backdrop to his mother’s rebirth. “Many things were wrong with my mother in this life. She suffered. She had 13 children. Only me survived. Her mother didn’t live long but died while having her third child. After recounting her struggles in life to me, she told me of her next coming, “it is going to be a very beautiful life.”
The incarnate, his eight-year-old first granddaughter, is resident in America, born of parents for whom life blooms generously––according to earlier prediction. “Since she started school, she has been outstanding and multi-talented. She dances and plays the violin. She sewed a shirt for me before she was eight. Whenever I see her, I look beyond that child to my mother.”
His mother-granddaughter is not the first incarnation in his family tree. The first was his first daughter who reincarnated his maternal grandmother.
At this point, Josfyn asks: “Give me a sense of how you want to die?”
He replies calmly: “I am trying to see if I can bury myself before I die. I want to preside over my burial. For seven or 14 days, there will be dancing and feasting––only I won’t eat out of the cooked food. The ceremony is very ritualistic but painful. I have already procured all that will be used to bury me. So at the time of my death, nobody pays anything, my family would only come around to help my children lower me into a shallow grave.”
He dwells briefly on witchcraft. “Witches are not as bad as they are painted. Witchcraft is wisecraft, the craft of the wise. There are nine categories of witches. Like you have in the society the good and the bad, the last five are very dangerous.”
Are you a witch? The question did not rattle him. “I am one by implication, not by involvement,” he replies.
A few feet away, an inscription on a board says: “Plants love and hate. Do not annoy them. They also feel pain. Do not hurt them.”
With that, we open the chapter on herbalism. The centre is a botanical garden of over 2,000 plants, rare and medicinal plants valued by herbalists.
“A lot of trees in the centre are very old. The one in the garden is over a thousand years old,” he informs, going on to talk about plant personality. “All trees have energies. Some are ordinary trees. Some are mad trees. Some are trees associated with witchcraft. The types of human beings you have are also the type of trees you have. Whatever activities man performs, trees also perform. As there are kind and wicked humans, so are herbs. It is the duty of the herbalist to decipher which of the plants are ready to work.”
He drops a nugget of the secret of herbal healing. “A native doctor of high repute, before collecting herbs for treatment, will query the plant this way: I have a patient that is suffering from stomach pain, can I use you to treat him? If the tree shakes its head, it is telling him, it is not for that ailment.”
Plants by their shapes, he claims, correlate with certain parts of the body they function for. Also, he speaks glowingly of the Genesis plants––the first 32 plants that appeared on earth. “They take control over other plants. They tell you which to use for particular ailments.”
Ebohon, however, insists a herbalist must first get to a point where “he can talk to these plants.”
The body of knowledge at the Ebohon Centre is inexhaustible. There is the subject matter of Olokun divination (he gave us copies of his books Olokun Worship in Benin Kingdom), the mysterious art of rain-holding and the practice of the Third Eye which we could not discuss due to a shortage of time.
Maintain such a priceless centre comes at a price. “At times I don’t go out of this compound for six months. Since I started my collection in 1965, I have never collected a penny from anyone, including government––save for two individuals who had given me gifts, recently, this year.”
An effort is ongoing to get the centre listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the pursuit of a New Order of Edo Arts and Culture by the Edo State Government, Ebohon is one of the icons and his centre, a top attraction, earmarked for the new thrust.
Our last question: To what end?
He replies candidly: “I am trying to preserve all that is necessary in our culture. All these legacies I’d leave for Nigeria.”