Reminiscing on the Arts and Culture events that defined the ending year,‘Fisayo Soyombo writes on the Osun-Osogbo festival, which has grown over the years to earn cult status among the country’s notable annual festivals
the calabash bearer (Arugba in native Yoruba language), the virgin chosen by the oracle. Hurray! The ceremony starts. Osunyeye o.”The fellow beside me quivers with palpable ecstasy.
The bearer staggers back and forth, skillfully balancing her head on her legs and sauntering out of the palace. A waiting mob of anxious onlookers cheers.
“It’s her first time as Arugba. The person who performed that role for years proceeded to her husband’s house in the evening of last year’s celebration, so she is ineligible; the Arugba must be virgin,” Saki remarks again, this time in thick Osogbo accent at its rawish best.
It’s the finale of the Osun-Osogbo Festival holding in the rustic (surprisingly so) city of Osogbo, the seat of Government of Osun State in South West Nigeria. Date: Friday, 24th August 2012.
A frenetic beginning
The day had begun with frenzied merrymaking inside the sprawling palace of the traditional ruler of the town, the Ataogbo of Osogbo. There are at least four spots where deafening speakers blare varied genres of music — Afro-hiphop, R&B, Fuji — to animated audiences, a good proportion of whom, in addition, downed bottle after bottle of beer, smouldered and inhaled stacks of cigarettes, and gobbled local dishes.
The compound is extremely busy. Women all gussied up in white attires of different styles hurry to and fro about the premises as they bring down the curtain on preparations. The Chief’s chamber also has considerable presence of young and elderly men in white. Irrespective of gender — those in white all having their hairs plaited, ending with apices that point to the heavens in discrete protrusions.
The palace itself has the festival written all over it. Nearly all the buildings are covered with thatch. Their white, muddy walls, albeit painted, are decorated with diverse yet colourful artistic murals that combined finely to give them a flattering silhouette.
At one corner relaxedly sits a group of old women clad in green native apparel,watching proceedings with that unmistakable air of self-assurance. “All these women,” Saki says in Osogbo vernacular,“had been Arugba at some point in their lives when they were virgins. Their calmness evinces knowledge of ongoing rituals.” Saki knew nearly everything. Ostensibly in her late twenties, she had lived inside the palace since her girlhood.
No sooner had Saki finished her explanation than the calabash bearer, clad in white with an Aso-Oke veil to match, appeared, flanked by two women-in-white, one of whom spills the blood of a flight creature and renders brief incantations afterwards. The two women then led her to an inner hollow where, according to Saki, she would be reinforced with power — mystical power.
Arugba steps out
The festival eventually takes off fully when Arugba finally steps out from the inner chamber into the palace compound, calabash on the head and swathed by tens of Osun adherents, to a cheering and surging crowd. Destination is the grove, where Osun, the god of the famed River Osun, will be appeased. They dance for minutes on the same spot, after which IyaOsun (Osun’s Mother) leads a round of prayers. The heaving crowd, in response, chants individual wishes but collectively raise their two hands over their heads, simultaneously tapping the thumb against the middle finger to wish away all evil. “Ore yeye o!Ore yeye o! Ore yeye o!”(‘Greetings, good mother!’),they chorus in unison and head for the palace’s exit, amidst spirited efforts of security men to prevent a stampede.
Just before the gate, flags of several countries, including Brazil, USA, South Africa and England, are flying at full mast, in testament to international participation in the festival. As a matter of fact, some whites attending the festival are dressed in all-white Osun attires. Some of them, Saki recalls, jet in from London every year, just for the festival.
One of such international tourists, French Cecile Remmy journeyed in from Paris, and says she’s just having fun: “I am here to enjoy myself; and I am loving every minute of it.”
The multitude says one last prayer for the bearer before she departs. “May the spirit of my late mother in heaven go with you,” a nearby old woman cries, stomping her feet into the sandy ground and caressing her scalp with the five fingers of her right hand. “May you go well and return so,” a disembodied voice, this time, whispers from a band of women behind.
Journeying to the grove
The palace now behind, the procession enters into the waiting hands of series of groups that had lined up road shows; they are singing, dancing and cheering. Every now and then, the Osundevoteesimsmediately guiding Arugba stop in their tracks to dance backwards, before again advancing.
Soon, it is another time for prayers. “Please, fill the stomach of my enemies with water,” a haggard, elderly woman tottering along with the crowd begs of Osun. “Fill their stomach with water!”
The crowd trudges on, buoyed by hundreds of fans mounting trees, sitting atop towering buildings and sprawling across high fences in yet another testimony to the rusticity of Osogbo.
Occasionally, the calabash bearer and her supporting cluster of Osun aficionados abandon the main road for footpaths leading to houses, where they wait for a while to dance and say prayers. They return to the main road to continue the journey.
After walking some 30 minutes or thereabouts in all, the chanting crowd descends a depression in the road to approach the grove, preparedly prettified with balloons, drapes, luxuriant stem cuttings and billboards of corporate sponsors. The air around, though, is reeking of alcohol and whiffing of cigarette, as hordes of exuberant young men had besieged the grove ahead of the arrival of the contingent from the palace.
Once inside, the calabash bearer and surrounding Osun adherents charge frontwards in a mad dash surpassable only by desperation of sprinters in an Olympic race to breast the tape. Even when the run is repeated at least three other times, the women among them display scant regard for their bosoms, allowing them to flip ungracefully against each other. During one of the prayers to Osun, following each run, an emaciated old man prays for healing to a goitreailment afflicting him, evident in the huge bulge in front of his neck!
Arugba, finally, successfully empties the calabash into the Osun River, to an ovation from the crowd who believe the gods have accepted their sacrifice. They then enter a temple of sorts just beside the river where they take turns to make supplications to Osun inside small individual compartments. By this time, Arugba, who is deemed to be oblivious of ongoing events while she bore the calabash, is already in deep sleep.
This is also the time when a flurry of activities hold at the river. There are those who say their prayers by the bank of the river. Some wash their faces; others — the majority — scoop water from the river into jerry cans of different volumes: 25 litres, 20 litres, fourlitres. These kegs travel as far as Lagos, Ogun, Oyo and even beyond the south western region of the country.
Semiu, an Osun indigene now resident in Lagos, says people like him will continue to travel far distances to attend the festival, because they grew up knowing it. “Yes, modernism has brought Christianity and Islam. But it doesn’t change the fact that we grew up knowing this festival. The god of Osun answers prayers still.”
It is not only Semiu who believes in the continued relevance of the festival. According to David Storer, a Spanish tourist currently in Nigeria, “the Osun-Osogbo festival is an ancient event that goes back 700 years or more, and it is a chance to see how Africa used to be.”
Of his overall impression, he says: “The festival is very fine and some of the sculptures in the shrine are very beautiful. Next year, I’d come back again, and I’d know more about this festival.”
And who knows, more Davids may be attending the festival in 2013. Employing some aggressive media campaign to leverage on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) inscription of the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove as a World Heritage Site, the Osun-OsogboFestival is primed to draw more tourists to the rustic southwestern town, thereby swelling the ranks of the angels-in-white who worship Oso-Igbo, the goddess of Osun River believed to protect her followers, protect them from enemies, heal them of sicknesses and afflictions, and bless their women with fertility.