By Hon. Josef Omorotionmwan
The Igue festival is here again. There is a decline in the acceptability of the Igue Festival, particularly in our rural areas, where the festival was originally held in the highest esteem. The decline here is not unconnected with the unfortunate fact that, over time, some idle minds have succeeded in planting the erroneous belief that Igue is idol worshipping.
In the Benin Kingdom, the Igue Festival is such an important celebration that must not be allowed to die. If we must achieve the goal of reinvigorating, internationalizing and turning the Igue into a major money spinner as a hub for tourist activities, the time has come to begin to examine the entire circumstances around the festival.
Various theories exist about the origin and history of the Igue Festival. We are particularly fascinated by the pains-taking research of our kinsman, Prince (Dr). Ademola Iyi-Eweka, who carefully chronicled the events around the Igue Festival from its inception during the reign of the 13thOba of Benin, Ewuare the great (c. 1440-1473 AD).
In its original form, Igue was non-religious. In just the same way that President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, proclaimed a National Day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens”, the founding fathers of the Edo Nation had much earlier proclaimed Igue as the“Ultimate Thanksgiving to OSANOBUWA, OSANUDAZI, OGHODUA – the Almighty Creator of Heaven and Earth, the Alpha and the Omega… the protector of the human race against the vicissitudes of life”.
And in just the same way that Thanksgiving is celebrated by Americans, irrespective of their religious affiliation, the Igue festival was meant for all Edos of all religions. But incidentally, the African traditional religion, which predates Christianity and other religions here, was the only thing on ground when the other religions arrived. Christians should have done well to key into the celebration. Rather, they were preoccupied with destroying everything they met on ground and trying to indoctrinate the indigenes into Christianity.
As mentioned earlier, the Igue festival was originally celebrated with greater intensity in the rural areas than in Benin City. The ruralites who were mainly farmers faced greater hazards in the course of the farming year. For instance, in those days, there were no motor-saws. As a result, those big trees were brought down either with fire or with axes. In the case of the latter, able-bodied men tied scaffolds around the big trees and hewed them from the top of the scaffolds. It was quite hazardous and those who survived it had to celebrate big.
We also invaded the animal kingdom without being hurt by the wild animals – the lions, the tigers, the elephants, the gorillas and the rest. Since our farms were too far from home, we slept there for an entire native week of four days and only visited home on the native Sunday – theEken market day. We survived all the dangers through the mercies ofOsanobuwa and Igue provided an opportunity to thank Him.
The Americans celebrate their Thanksgiving with turkey meat. We celebrate the Igue with dried bush meat collected over the three-month period prior to the Igue and preserved in the fire place.
We recollect, with nostalgia, that on ordinary days, attempts could have been made to share one crayfish for two children, the erroneous belief being that children did not require meat; but on Igue day, each child was sentenced to two legs of big grass cutter with a big bowl of pounded yam to match! We ate almost to saturation point; went to play for a few hours; and came back to deal with the balance. Throughout the year, we really looked forward to the Igue Festival. For us, it held a greater attraction than the Christmas, New Year and Easter combined.
If only people knew the similarities in their lives, much of the controversies between the African traditional religion and Christianity would not arise. At the church Thanksgiving, people are anointed with olive oil and at the Igue festival people are anointed with coconut oil and coconut water.
The Edos have strong attachment to their ancestry. This is not any different from the Bible’s continuous references to the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Essentially, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
The Ewere leaves are reserved for victory dance. On D-day, the villagers dance to every house with the Ewere leaves, pieces of which they proudly paste on the forehead and on both sides of the ears; and in the evening, the ceremony culminates in the “Ubi” in which the villagers again dance round every house down to the village square, hitting the ground with palm fronts to exorcise evil spirits from the village, chanting songs like “Azen …… Olelubirie”, “Oso…..Olelubirie”, “Okpokpomwan….. Olelubirie”; “Ologhomwan….. Olelubirie” – meaning, witches, wizards and all workers of iniquity are gone with the “Ubi”. At the end, the palm fronts are either burnt at the entrance of the cemetery or simply deposited in the cemetery.
The palm fronts are symbolic. They provide yet another important meeting point between the ancient and modern. From ages past, they have been useful with the African traditional religions. It is also not by accident that the Catholic and other orthodox Christian religions have days specially set aside as Palm Sundays and the Pentecostals make extensive use of palm fronts at various times. It is still the same world, after all.
It is only major catastrophes and major disappointments that can abort the celebration of Igue in any particular year. That explains the non-celebration of Igue during the period 1897-1914 when Oba Ovonramwen was on exile in Calabar, an era of deep melancholy to the Edos.
Besides, at the macro level, we recollect that the Igue Festival was aborted at Oghada in 1954. That was the year that a big tree fell on one of the prominent farmers in the community, Nwajei Aghayere, and he died instantly! That event threw the entire community into deep confusion and shock.
Admittedly, occupations have become more diversified and farming has become less hazardous; but nothing here vitiates the fact that the Almighty God is the Author and Finisher of our faith. The Holy Book is right – in every situation, we must give Him Thanks. The Igue Festival provides a veritable opportunity for that.
Christians will understand that Igue is not fetish. Rather, it is the ultimate annual Thanksgiving of the Edos; and it should be embraced by all. The tourism potentials in the Igue Festival are enormous and cannot be buried under any religious guise. When the Brazilians celebrate their Samba they do so to the glory of God and still collect their foreign exchange. That is the new way to go. It is a good race in which Edo must not be left behind.