Obowo is described as an acephalous community of fifteen (15) villages located in the south eastern state border end of Imo state of Nigeria. Like most other communities in igboland, Obowo does not have centralized chiefdom or monarchies. The people of Obowo speak the same dialect and have strong cultural affinities and are descended from Common ancestors. In Obowo, historical legend has it that Obowo is made up of two blocks of settlers, the “Ekwelenaotu” and the “Okwunansu”. Obowo has an estimated population of over 600,000 people whose religion is largely Christianity though the traditional religion still subsists. Farming and fishing are the dominant occupations of the people.
Introduction: The Okwukwu Ceremony
Okwukwu ceremony is a post-humous honour accorded a well-accomplished man in Obowo community by his children. It is a ceremony that is meant to convince the dead that his children recognize his accomplishments while alive hence his spirit is appeased. This is why this ceremony is climaxed by the first son publicly recounting his father’s major accomplishments while alive. Once a son accords his late father this rite, he automatically becomes a member of the ‘caste’ i.e those who traditionally awarded post-humous rites to their dead father/ancestors. Moreover, it’s a ceremony that runs for four whole days because the traditional Obowo society knows and recognizes only four days instead of the seven days that conventional civilization foisted on them. Those days are also the Igbo market days of Nkwo, Eke, Orie, Afo and it’s only when you appease the spirit of the dead on “Nkwo”, appease it on “Eke”, “Orie” and “Afo” that it can be said that spirit of the dead has been completely appeased. It’s an event that celebrates achievement hence every man of age in traditional Obowo society yearns and prays that their children should accord them such honour upon their death.
In Obowo, the property or title of a deceased man of repute is inherited or shared to his heirs or children after performing the ‘Okwukwu”. This is very significant especially among the deceased traditionalists. In the modern Christian reign, however, ‘Okwukwu’ is not that popular because of what some perceptions. Some people hold the view that the ceremony is fetish and so, most Christian families would not want to overtly practice it. This is even as some Christians regard it as a second burial.
The Process of ‘Okwukwu’
The process of ‘Okwukwu’ starts by consulting a traditional seer who performs some rituals to establish formally the exercise. This takes placewithin eight days or at least four days, beginning with the Igbo market day of ‘Nkwo’.
The ‘Nkwo’ market day is regarded as the first day of the ceremony. On this day, which is the day of consultation with members of the ‘caste’, the ritual sacred musical group known as ‘ndi ese’ are led to the village square by the first of the deaceased. The caste members draw up the programme and direct the involvement of the whole activity which would be borne by the first son of the deceased who would also be the chief host. Part of the directives are the requirements that would be needed and that the ceremony would begin with the ritual sacred music at 12 midnight into the ‘Eke’ market day. At this time, a number of canon shots would be fired before the take off of the music. This is believed to send signals to both the living and the dead that the deceased is being honoured by his children. This signal is passed through the melodious rhythm of the sacred music. It is believed that people whose deceased fathers or ancestors have not received this rite of honour cannot attempt to dance to the tune of the music or eat anything from this ceremony or partake in any of the functions otherwise it’s also believed that their late father or ancestors would punish such persons with death.
Part of the directives from the consulting group is what the members of the caste would be given as their rights on a daily basis although the ceremony and the time for the commencement. These items include kolanuts, drinks, meat, fowls, a number of fat yams including food items like fufu and prepared cassava pudding. The chief hosts with their relations as well as members of the caste are dressed in a cultural attire with loin-cloth and a sheathed machete at hand.
On completion of the consultation meeting and the presentation of the items of materials involved, the sacred musical group goes into operation. Playing and dancing commence and the chanting of messages for the deceased through the leader of the musical group. These activities go on till evening and members dismissed for the day at the sound of the cannot shots.
The second day’s ceremony also begins with the firing of cannon shots at 12:00 midnight followed by the take off of the sacred music. This music continues to play and at about 9:00am when cannon shots are fired in the community’s central arena. The sacred musical troupe relocates to this central arena. There, they play on awaiting the arrival of the members who join up the dancing troupe merrily. As they join the dance, they exchange pleasantries by dramatically raising their sheathed matches up and gently touching each other’s raised machetes as well. This style of greeting is specific to the ‘Okwukwu’ ceremony.
The second day of ‘Eke’ market is noted as an important day of the ceremony. It is believed to be the feasting day of the ceremony and the entire arrangements are made. The chief host in a meeting is informed of the presentation which is big enough to attract the approval of all the members of the caste. There is usually a presentation of the ram which is done on the ‘Orie’ market day. There is the information also to chief host on the presentation of the oration of the same ‘Orie’ market day. The chief host is guided on how to articulate the oration which would neither be written nor read out. These beliefs are related through the leader of the sacred musical group in a melodious rhythmical backing. It requires a sound orientation to cope and understand the directives. At the end of the directives, the music is played until dawn and the day’s programme comes to an end for the third day being the ‘Orie’ market day.
As usual, the day begins with canon shots and the sacred music play from 12 midnight which plays on till 9:00am. The usual canon shots are released at the community square announcing the meeting time. The sacred musical group relocates to the community square to continue the music. Members of the caste still arrive and join the dancing crew after their usual greetings with their sheathed machetes. On formation of quorum, the chief host presents kolanuts and drinks. He is reminded of the day’s programme which are the presentation and slaughtering of the ram, the presentation of the funeral oration which are moderated by the rhythmical beating of the music.
The oration which is orchestrated by music, highlights the deceased lifetime achievements. These are in turn okayed by the first son and applauded by members and spectators. If the first son of the deceased is so young and is unable to carry out the oration, a member of his family would help him to do it, by dictating for him while he echoes out what he dictates. This programme is followed by a heightened musical interlude.
The next event would be the presentation of the ram by the chief host amidst the sacred musical play. The chief host while holding the ram with his left hand and the machete in his right hand, raised for the usual greetings from members of the caste and relations, demonstrating in accordance with the rhythm of the music, is cheered and admired by all. The music plays on and he attentively listens to the directives of the musical play, when he slaughters the ram in one machete cut. As the music plays on, he holds the ram on its horns in between his legs and with the machete placed around its neck, he slices its throat on a cut. It’s followed by applause as he quickly drops the ram and it convulses to death. The musical play is heighted and greetings with machetes galore. Donations and presents of cash are cheerfully made to the chief host as he dances joyfully. And that brings the day activity to an end.
The activities of the fourth and final day take place at the ‘Afor’ market square. As usual, the canon shots and musical play take off atmidnight. The music plays on till morning at about 9:00am when canon shots are released at the market square. The musical group relocates at the market square to play on. Members of the caste dress up and head to the residence of the chief host who presents a ram or cow or cattle depending on his financial abilities. The members of the caste escort the chief host leading the ram or cattle to the market square with canon shots fired at intervals. At the market, with the deceased picture carried by the senior daughter, they dance excitedly to the rhythm of the music gradually moving from one end to the other and back homewards, all amidst cannon shots and cheers from friends and relations.
On getting home, the chief hosts and his relations are commended for a successful post-humous rights to their father or ancestor. They direct him for the final ritual or sacrifice which they offer to their deceased father. The sacrifice requires a cockerel, a piece of cloth and two raffia bamboo. They tie this piece of clothe to the two raffia bamboo offering the ritual, tie the cockerel on one of the bamboos and stick them up to stand erect. The cockerel will die there hanging while the piece of clothe stays there as it gets rotted. This concludes the ‘Okwukwo’ traditional post-humous rite to the dead in Obuwo.
Like most African communities, cultures are the unifying factors in most communities, the “Okwukwu”ceremony is one of such cultures. It is a ceremony that brings together people from neighbouring communities, close and distant relations and friends of the dead man. Other people that had one form of contact with the dead man also participate. This, therefore, serves as a final reunion for friends and relations of the dead in a much happier atmosphere than the burial ceremony which keeps everybody in a sober mood. It also relieves good memories of the dead man and heightens the recognition accorded the dead in all.
Finally, it promotes upright living as the living is now deeply concerned about what will be said of him on the “Okwukwu” and this makes him strive to live uprightly and acquire good reputation in the community while alive.
Chidiebere N. Ojogho, a curator, writes from the National Commission for Museums and Monument, Abuja.
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