From the Past



By Uthman Shodipe

 Lagos had gone to sleep. Nothing stirred. Nothing was perceived. An enormous shroud of spectral darkness flung across the city in a vast, vacant anonymity. A ghostly stillness pervaded the air. From the narrow cluster of Offin Canal hugging the northern rim of  the Lagos Island, through the stretches of Olowogbowo, down the dusty corridor Itafaji, far into the leafy boulevards of Epetedo, the swampy expanses of Itanikantamo and the muddy waters of Isale-Eko- the great city appeared deserted, enveloped in solitude.


It was the eve of Adamu Orisha (Eyo) festival. A cultural curfew had banished everyone to private hearth. An ancient ritual was being enacted beneath the veil of the night. At Isale-Eko the narrow strip of asphalt that leads to Iga Idunganran, the royal seat of Oba Adeyinkla Oyekan II, was wrapped in haunting expectancy. It was 2 a.m. Somewhere in that hooded immensity there was the fearsome, unchallenged dominion of Orisha Oniko, the cleansing deity of Eyo Oniko, festooned in a huge, bewildering heapof raffia strings which dragged  about the earth in a sweeping, sanitising metaphor.


Orisha Oko, third ranking deity in the Eyo  hierarchy, has left its shrine  in a sacred propitiating  role, obliterating the dark portents from the land, communing with Osugbo, Opa and Okala,  the spiritual triumvirate that anchors the Eko heritage. Now absorbed in a fervid incantational energy the deity whirled across to Imoku  (the symbolic repose of Lady Oyinkan Abayomi) in a frightening spiritual emanation, chanting, singing, wailing, plumbing the deep primeval recesses in the abstruse, evocative language of the gods. Here, in this enchant­ing splendour, the living dead spoke to the dead amid a shrieking refrain of the ancestral praise-song: “Atabatibi! Atibitaba! Egun Oniko! Orisha Apena! Aii woo! Aii koo! Ebora Esu! Agemo Oosha!


Woven in this cultural eloquence the deity and its train swept through the lanes and corridors of  Idunganran in ex­uberant cadence, wheeling to the royal court to wake up the Oba of Lagos, de­livering to him the tidings from the an­cestral medium. It was already the break of dawn. Upon the royal command Ori­sha Oniko now hurried to the shrine of Orisha Adimu, the leader of all the Orishas and the representative deity of Eyo Adimu. It was exactly 5 a.m. At the her­alding entrance of the purifying deity the spiritual enclave of Orisha Adimu lighted in jubilating ecstasy as the pri­meval drum called Igbe throbbed loud and long, rising in enthralling rhythmical flourish amid the bewitching chanting of ancient women fervidly praising the residing deity.


Swollen by the laudatory expansiveness of the traditional spectacle, Orisha Adimu now rose in the frightening total­ity of its ancestral eminence completely shrouded in the awesome simplicity of an unvarnished sack, glowering in in-timidatory majesty, swaying in godly promptitude, chanting in fierce esoteric enlargement. It was in this full spirit­ual sanctification that the emergence of Orisha Adimu signified the beginning of the Eyo pageantry.


It was a bright Saturday morning but there was no bustle of commerce at the old, zinc-roofed market of Ereko. The weavers’ looms, in their glowing, intri­cate patterns, which often sang and murmured in musical cadence as the traditional Aso-Ofi (native cloth) were woven in the family compounds of the Cokers, the Alapafujas, the Olaniyonus, the Dosunmus and the Darochas were now muted with the weavers gone.


At Aroloya, the bellowing furnaces of the goldsmiths which wrought fashiona­ble necklaces, rings and hand-chains for the socialites were equally silent. The fishermen at Ajele had halted their ad­ventures on the lagoon, casting their idle nets into the bosom of the wooden vessels. And at Odunlami street where artisans sculpt the repose of the dead, sawing, nailing and moulding planks into polished casket, there was yet an unusual stillness, the abandon of com­merce.


Lagos was throbbing in the full ani­mated gaiety of the festival. Everywhere there was an infinite parade of various groups of Eyo, all uniformly adorned in a brilliant vastness of sheer, alabaster splendour. Prancing about in the copious majesty of their flowing gowns with their high-dome hats and their shiny di­aphanous hood, the great array of Eyo surged and dashed about, flourishing their mighty Opambata (a huge paddle) as their Aropale (a white loin cloth) splendidly dragged about the earth, sym­bolically sweeping away disease, suffer­ing, death amid the raucous evocative promptings of the talking drums.


There was a festal universality in this massive profusion of cantering, dancing, singing spirits who wheeled about in wild, threatening possession. From Eyo Adimu to Laba Ekun, Oniko, Ologede, Agere and hundreds of other Eyo groups — every authentic scion of Eko regis­tered an emotional unifying presence in a thronging bachannalian rally.


For this was the melting pot of the Eko identity, the ritualistic testament of their ancestral oneness. In this ceremony which was first recorded in the middle 17th century as part of the funeral rite for Olugbani, mother of Oba Ologun-Kutere, there emerged the bonding chord, the spiritual unity of a people, the certification of a shared cultural provenance. It was here Lagosians were reminded of their common purpose. It was here they affirmed the energy and the concerted force of their Yoruba heritage.


And even here, amid the strung canopies around city hall, Campus, Apongbon and Idumota where food and drinks were shared, friendships were renewed, disputes were settled, hopes were stirred in a new communal enterprise. For here there was a fortification of the collective faith which was beyond the artificial reaches of the state. There was a cementing of spirit, a deepening in ancient truth which no alien imposition can alter. There was a strong stirring of traditional mould which no usurper can erode.


Lagos thrives in its own originality and its own truth. Its sustenance is anchored upon the dynamic signification of its culture, the unyielding persevering spirit of the land, and the fierce summative candour of the indigenes who yet reside on the swift moving shores of the ancestral lagoon. In the metaphoric cleansing rivet of Adamu Orisha, the natives of Eko  yet attest their eternal renewal, affirming purgation of the dark forces, symbolizing the unceasing rebirth of the land they love.

First published Tuesday, 12 November, 1996.


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