Posted 04 September 2011, by Tadaferua Ujorha (Daily Trust), AllAfrica, allafrica.com
Oshogbo — Oshogbo was in a festive mood last weekend when the grand finale of the annual Osun-Oshogbo Festival held. The happy day began with a gentle shower which was like a blessing from the goddess herself. Our reporter was present and vividly captures the very soul of the great event.
The woman who wore an enchanting hairdo was of middle age and danced like a young happy girl. Ten years seemed to fall off her age as she joyfully danced, keeping pace with the drums which were at their most lyrical this morning. The years kept falling off as she danced, making her younger, fresher and more agile with every new turn that she made. The gap between her teeth seemed to glow all of a sudden.
She danced within the palace of the Ataoja of Oshogbo on the final day of this year’s Osun Oshogbo Festival and easily became the cynosure of all eyes. We were simply spellbound. Her dance seemed to radiate the joy of the townspeople who were quite elated on this final day of the famous festival, which lasts twelve days and usually holds in the month of August. During the festival, the town is symbolically cleaned, evil is warded off and the good is wished for or attracted.
Osun, the goddess of fertility, the helpful Being in the Grove, only seen by pure ones, is believed to be at the heart of this process. The dancing woman was dressed in a white wrapper and blouse, and was endowed with a beautiful smile, made more appealing by the splendid gap between her front teeth. All around were a crowd of people equally dressed in white clothes. Some of them wore beads of varying colours. The atmosphere was festive and the rich drumming helped to strengthen this splendid mood.
The festival usually attracts persons from different countries which include Spain, Jamaica, US.A, Brazil and Cuba and the Osun River Grove becomes the centre of so many rituals and activities which are integral to the festival.
The Grove is ‘the domicile of the Osun, the goddess of fertility. Ritual paths lead devotees to 40 shrines, dedicated to Osun and other Yoruba deities, and to nine specific worship points beside the river’. This years festival was its 642nd edition. Some priestly personalities soon came around dressed in white.
They strode around looking very noble and kept their heads up as they moved around. Not one of them allowed his head to hang downwards. The men among them have done their hair in plaits .It is common to see this at Festival time, Sunday Trust was told by a staff of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM). I had arrived Oshogbo the previous evening. After settling, my contact informed me that I should try to be at the palace of the Ataoja of Oshogbo by 7.00 am the next morning. The Votary Maid or Calabash bearing Maiden would emerge from the palace and proceed to the Osun Oshogbo Sacred Grove carrying a covered calabash followed by the Oba, his titled men and countless townspeople to the sound of much music, he tells me.
The Votary Maid has to be a virgin and must also hail from the palace. The Osun Oshogbo Grove is the foundation of Oshogbo and its people dating back to 1370 AD, so Olakunle Makinde, Curator, Osun Grove, tells me in a communication by email. The Grove sits on a 75 hectares of land, and tree felling, poaching and the catching of fish are prohibited, he adds. One publication says the annual Osun Festival ‘is a living, thriving and evolving response to Yoruba beliefs in the bond between people, their ruler and the Osun goddess’. According to Suzanne Magazine, the festival ‘symbolizes a pact between Larooye, the founder of Oshogbo, and Osun. The goddess promised to give prosperity and protection to the Osun people if they build a shrine for her and respect the spirit of the forest’. I slept a bit late but rose early enough to be at the palace by 6.50 am.
There was a light shower that morning, and near the palace were a considerable number of policemen. Then there came a great concourse of persons heading into the palace to share in the fun and the festivities. The stream of persons never seemed to end.
Chief Ifayemi Elebuibon, a foremost Ifa priest in an interview with POSH9ja, says of the Osun Festival ‘Osun is regarded as one of the spirit gods which contributed to creation.
She is a beautiful and powerful goddess..She loves children and she gives babies to barren women. She also protected this town when there was about to be an invasion of Oshogbo by the Fulanis.’ This was in the 19th century.
Jeremy Fernandez hails from Cuba. He is in Oshogbo for the Osun Oshogbo Festival and is also doing a comparative study of the forms of Bata, a type of drumming, present in both South West Nigeria and Cuba. This afternoon when Sunday Trust meets him, he is quite ecstatic.
On the Osun Festival, he says, ‘The festival is incredible and beautiful. The Dundun, Bata and all the other drums from Sagamu, and all the festive elements, really fascinate me. The spiritualness of it is very exciting and I am glad to be here’. Julia, on a visit to the country, hails from the United Kingdom. But this is her second visit to Oshogbo. Her words ‘I have come to love the place.The religious aspect impresses me a lot. But this is also linked with art. So, how they come together makes it a very special kind of festival.’
She adds enthusiastically ‘I will definitely be coming back’. Janine Sytsma is another visitor to Oshogbo and is currently writing a Dissertation on contemporary Nigerian Art. She first visited the country in 2008 and visited again in 2009. She is here again for a whole year. On the festival, she says, ‘I have come to Oshogbo a number of times. I think it is a celebration of culture. We see here an effort to preserve culture and that’s worth celebrating. ‘On what she likes most about the Osun Grove, she says ‘I always enjoy going to the Grove. It’s a very beautiful Grove’.
The Osun goddess likes White, as do many other Yoruba Deities popularly known as Orisha, with the sole exception of Sango. Her priests, priestesses and devotees generally dress in this colour. This morning, the Osun Grove which is very green in colour, unfolds in luminous white as the devotees gather in their thousands to pray and rejoice at another festival. There is a lot of drumming, dancing and singing. One or two persons seem to be in a trance-like state. You remove your shoes as you enter the grove which is a marvelous, lovely, spiritual sight. Green and white, which are coincidentally, Nigeria’s colours, define the scene. Art works lend not a little beauty to the setting. These are some of the contributions made by Suzanne Wenger, the late Austrian who once dwelled in Oshogbo and swiftly became a committed Osun devotee, and remained so till she passed on. Here too are some of the largest bamboo trees which this reporter has ever seen in his life.
The Grove is of gigantic proportion in many respects. An extraordinary statue of the goddess with arms outstretched stands by the banks of the Osun River, and is draped in a white cloth. It looks so solemn, kind and great. Close to the entrance to the Grove is another statue of the Osun goddess. It presents Osun as the goddess of fertility, as the statue has many children carved around it.
A great multi-coloured crowd stands or kneel by the river, wash their feet and arms and pray, beseeching the goddess for one favour or the other. There is a lot of gentle praying going on in the area, and each man respects his neighbour, since the river bank can only take a few devotees at a time. Some wait for those uttering their prayers to conclude the activity. Then they fill their positions by the river bank.
River Osun is held by many to have fertility, healing and protective powers. There are many who have prayed to the goddess for a child, and this was soon granted. So, at the next festival following the granting, they joyfully return to the Grove, to thank the goddess for her rich blessings. Many have similar stories to tell. Some years ago, Sunday Trust was told, the devotees began to earnestly pray that Oshogbo would be made the capital of Osun State. This eventually happened.
By the time this reporter returns to the Grove in the afternoon, the Calabash bearing maid is within the first palace of the people of Oshogbo, which is located within the Grove. It is a building of remarkable architecture. Very soon, the maid emerges from the palace and the crowd previously solemn and meditative, become quite animated. It is a stunning transformation. The Votary Maid is akin to a magnet just now. She literally pulls the crowd along with her. Men, women, young and old hurry after her. It is a magical, believable sight. Earlier, she had arrived the Grove, escorted by the Ataoja of Oshogbo, his titled men, as well as the townspeople.
According to Oyintiloye Olatunbosun, ‘the Ataoja …is not leading the procession, but the Arugba, whose appearance from the palace road prompt(s) the people into prayers refuting bad for good, as well as hoping that her appearance ushered new things into their lives. This month is significant as the Arugba’s passage to the grove is believed to have warded away the bad omen in the society’. Now, she is making the return trip to the palace.
As she progresses, she stops from time to time and dances. She dances to her left, and then dances again to the right. While doing this the basket which is covered with a nice red cloth, is balanced so nicely on her head. The red cloth is sublime in appearance. It is said that the cloth is guarded as though it were the Central Bank. My source added that any man who looks at the cloth at a moment when he is not supposed to, such as at festival day, stands the risk of going blind.
On the other hand, a woman may become barren. The maiden continues towards the palace and the overjoyed crowd escorts her. Along the way, groups of excited women look from houses, or stand by the road with arms outstretched, seemingly praying to the Osun goddess as Arugba passes by. The closer Arugba gets, the more animated the women become. It’s a stirring sight which cannot be easily replicated. The crowd runs along to catch up with Arugba who doesn’t run, but walks swiftly, a pace which is rather swift and almost creates the impression of running. But Arugba does not run.
One tour operator whom Sunday Trust came across, says that the Osun Festival is a great event, but adds that Nigeria could do a bit more in terms of showcasing what it has to the outside world. According to him, there is a strong link between culture and a people’s technology which Nigeria needs to connect with
Major players in the tourism and culture sector were present. These included the Minister of Culture, Chief Edem Duke, D-G National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) Yusuf Abdallah Usman, Adedayo Funso, Director, Heritage Monuments and Sites, the Deputy Governor of Osun State, Titilayo Laoye-Tomori, private tour operators, and the Ataoja of Osogbo, Oba Jimoh Olanipekun. Interestingly, the Osun State government stated at the festival that it hopes to attract 20,000 tourists to the state by the year 2015. There were many other remarkable points about this year festival. One is the fact that it coincided with the month of Ramadan, and so this affected the turnout of visitors and devotees. But the population present was huge, despite this. Of course, there were the ever present jerry cans brought by the devotees who used them to fetch water from the River Osun. At home they would now drink the water, which is believed to possess healing or curative powers. The entrance to the Grove which had buntings, balloons and art works, so beautifully arranged, is something one cannot easily forget. The road slopes downwards as you approach the Grove.
At a point it rises. Then it declines as you now enter the Grove proper, through a little gate. There were numerous stilt-walkers who added not a little drama to the festival, and whose unusual size and quick movements hinted at the numerous powers, or even blessings, of the goddess of fertility. Also, there were women from Sagamu who arrived the Grove dressed in white and expertly bore white pots on their heads which contained green plants.
They were largely quiet as they stood by the river. Then suddenly, from time to time, as though under a higher influence, they began to dance and sing. They brought colour and some physical and verbal poetry to the event. Finally, there was a beggar pleading for alms from the devotees as they passed by him, in much the same manner as the latter were beseeching Osun for blessings. It was impossible to ignore him as he lay on the ground, as expensive cars and richly endowed persons passed by. He had weak, thin legs. But he also had eager lips, which didn’t stop pleading for help.