The annual Ọgba-Urhie Traditional festival was recently held in Otughievwen, Ughelli South LGA of Delta State. Ughievwen is one of the traditional states of the Urhobo people and one of it’s largest too, consisting of over 32 towns and villages with Otughievwen(Otu-Jeremi) as it’s capital.
Ogba-Urhie is a central symbol of the Ughievwen people. The word Ogba-Urhie literally means ‘powerful one of the rivers’ and true to that name, Ogba-Urhie is a water deity, god of wealth, prosperity and protection and very importantly, grand patron of the Ughievwen.
It holds similar significance like Olokun does for the Binis, Athena for Athens, Owhurie for the Agbarha-Ame, Apollo for Troy as the case may be.
Ọpha is a word which means ‘a maiden going through or recently undergone her rites of passage’. It can also mean ‘bride’ in marital contexts. Epha r’Ughiẹvwen are thus the maidens of Ughievwen. From time immemorial, the Epha of Ughievwen have stood out because of the high level of glamor associated with them and the attention they commanded not only among Ughievwen people but throughout Urhoboland and beyond. This festival of ’emetẹ ẹyavwọn'(female right of passage) is a major feature of the festivities and as a result, Otughievwen is one of the very few places where the practice still holds sway. Across Urhoboland, the practice is largely extinct!
This background is important because you find many people, including Urhobos, surprised and even alarmed that something like this(involving young women parading with partially unclad bodies) is still going on but it used to be a very normal thing- infact, it was a great honour for a woman to have undergone this process and in Urhobo traditional society, families did all they could to ensure they did it for their daughters who were of age with all the required rites and all that it may cost.
Urhoboland is highly Christianised and the spread of the Church, coupled with the regrettable demonization of certain aspects of our culture has contributed in no small measure in eroding some of these things.
However, the devotion to Ogba-Urhie has greatly helped Ughievwen stand out as far as emetẹ ẹyavwọn is concerned.
In those days, the epha were treated in similar fashion like the girls of the ‘fattening room’ among the Ibibio as they have come to be commonly known. As parts of the process, they’re circumcised and parade their beauty for the world to see on selected festival days. Skins smeared with isele(camwood) and ugboro(special ointments), they appear in procession with unclad upper bodies. Within this period too, they receive lessons on family life, history of the people, etiquette of womanhood, gender roles, public demeanor, private conduct and all that is necessary to equip them for adult and married life.
The Epha are of 2 categories; Ọpha v’ibiegba and Idiaware.
Epha v’ibiegba are those who undergo the process as young, virgin girls, totally innocent of sexual exposure. The ibiegba with which they’re described are metal ornaments of bronze or brass which they wear on both hands as marks of distinction. These ones are regarded more honour and prestige.
Idiaware are those who pass through emetẹ ẹyavwọn as non-virgins, pregnant women or those already with children but were not able to do the rites before childbearing. Nobody is excluded.
For 3 months exclusively, the Ọpha will do no work. Her maids are on standby and at her service. She will live in a room solely dedicated to and designed for her, she’ll eat the choicest meals specially prepared for her, made of the best fish, game and other ingredients, dress in the best of clothes and be adorned with rich jewelry. Even a new bathroom is constructed for her where she’s bathed by women at her service, a new bed is constructed for her too, custom made.
Around this time also, she occasionally goes out to sweep strategic locations in the community. This occasional ritual sweeping is the only exception to the no-work rule. She’s taken to major markets around where she’ll show off her beauty, buy goods and receive favors from admirers under strict regulations. It is little wonder then that they’re mostly married around this period because suitors throng their father’s compound especially for the very beautiful ones among them. Is it any wonder then that the same word, Ọpha that describes that state have also become synonymous with bridehood? The glamor of the Ọpha r’Ughiẹvwen is just over the roof!
Otughievwen for centuries, have been more or less a Mecca or Jerusalem for all people of Ughievwen descent and many others. The Eki r’Ughiẹvwen(Otughievwen market), the Ogba-Urhie and it’s endless streams of devotees, together with the traditional institutions of Ughievwen people which are closely tied to the Ogba-Urhie have all contributed to the popularity of the town overtime. It becomes more beautiful when we consider that for Ughievwen people, whether it’s your father, mother or grandparents that are from Ughievwen, as long as you can trace your ancestry to any Ughievwen compound and community, you’re eminently qualified to pay homage to, and to obtain any of the titles that come forth through devotion to Ogba-Urhie.
Princes of Ughievwen- Traditional Socio-Political Organization
Ughievwen traditional society is highly republican in design and outlook. At the community, town level, these institutions hold sway like in other Urhobo communities
Ekpako – Elders
Eghewya – wives married into the community
Emetẹ – daughters of the community
Uvwiẹ- youths amongst others
At the central or clan level however, Ughievwen is organized along 4 societies at the apex. They are;
Adẹ, Ẹbo, Igbu Otọ and Igbu Eshovwin. Each with it’s own Ọgwan(hall) in Otughievwen and it’s own unique hierarchy.
Adẹ are a class of chiefs and aristocrats
Ẹbo are priests of the realm
Igbu Otọ are in charge of dispensation of justice in the land and among her people(more like judiciary/police)
Igbu Ẹshovwin lead the military wing, warriors whose duty it is to fight battles and to defend the potentate of Ughievwen against aggression, on land or at sea.
In precolonial times, before Ughievwen instituted the office of the Okobaro(traditional ruler), These 4 Ẹgwan(sing. Ọgwan) represented the highest political, religious, judicial, legislative, executive and military authority of Ughievwen traditional society.
Doghudje, my great great grandfather of Urhiephron town was an Ọbo of Ughievwen. I digress.
Each Ọgwan has it’s own head, the oldest title holder, called Odede. Among these 4 Idede, 1 is usually elected ‘primus inteperes’ and becomes automatic overall leader of Ughievwen.
The first Okobaro of Ughievwen, Chief Ugen Eyagbologha was a member of the Ẹbo and Igbu societies, the 2 of which he lived long enough to lead as Odede. He eventually became the Okpako Orere(oldest man) of Otughievwen. Such a man he was!
Title holders are held in high esteem and till today, it is still a thing of great pride to be vested with the Adẹ chieftaincy title for example. The glamor and beauty of it all is nothing but spectacular. As the song usually sung during processions at chieftaincy celebrations goes; “Ughievwen a ya d’uvie, me rhire- Ughievwen where royalty is obtained, here I am”. Ughievwen people know how to put action to that statement. I remember experiencing how a neighbor of ours who obtained the Adẹ title in Otokutu was celebrated. Pomp and pageantry. Weeks of celebration. Royalty in full display.
Today, these traditional institutions don’t weild the powers they used to, but the ceremonial aspects of them, still remain very much intact.
As for Otughievwen, the practice of traditional celebration of maidenhood will continue for as far as Ogba-Urhie receives devotion and Otughievwen maintains it’s place of importance among Ughievwen people and affiliates.
Aladja, Otor-Udu and Orhuwhorun in Udu are examples of other places where this practice still holds sway encouraged by the deeply entrenched traditional institutions too.
This period of endless rains is characterized with festivals across Urhoboland. A good time to be home.
Infact, during the Ogba-Urhie celebrations, especially where the processions will take place, it is unheard of for the sun to be seen. The rain makers are usually on ground fully, firing on all cylinders.
We’re told too that before the totem of Ogba-Urhie is carried for procession, it must have rained to a point where the water of the river reaches a certain level above which it must not pass, below which is must not also fall, else, Odede faces sanctions!
I look forward to attending this festival and making proper documentations someday. But for now, I connect with my people in songs of festivity and in honour of our great men and women who have gone before us.
Ughievwen! A peculiar people with unique language, a land with beautiful geography, exotic taste in food, great dress sense, good music and dance, resilient culture and many more. My first point of inculturation. I love her to pieces!
Onoriode Ufuoma Peter, a cultural enthusiast, wrote from Ile-Ife, Osun State, Nigeria. He can be reached on: 08100607343. firstname.lastname@example.org