Vanessa Obioha writes on an annual festival that celebrates the rich culture of the Epe people of Lagos State…
One needs not to be told that it is that time of the year when the people of Epe pride themselves in their rich cultural heritage. The frenzied atmosphere ostensibly depicts the enthusiasm and clout of the riverine area. Harder to believe is the vibrancy that resounds in the crowd as they geared into full swing for this year’s Eebi Epe festival. Both young and old are seen on the streets, celebrating the feast of their tradition, adorned in different colourful native attires.
Far away from the buzzing city of Lagos, Epe town lies on the North coastal region of Lagos with road links to ijebu-ode and Ikorodu. Primarily known for its fishing occupation, the people of Epe gather yearly to celebrate their culture and ancestry in a rich colourful festival known as Eebi Epe festival. The festival attracts sons and daughters of the community both within and outside the nation as it marks the unity of households and the beauty of the communal cohesion.
Okosi Age Group
Eebi Epe festival is celebrated yearly and usually spans three months, starting from January to march. Oftentimes, it is extended to the fourth month. Besides celebrating the tradition of the people and the historical velour of the community, a notable feature of the festival is the marking of the different age groups in the community. The Okosi age group system is very important in the life of the Epe people as it is the compulsory military service that was evolved to liberate and defend the people from external aggressors.
The modern day Okosi age group system is similar to the one of the olden days except that the groups do not go to war again; rather they engage in the demonstration of war-like entertainment during the Eebi Epe festival.
The Okosi age group system is a three-stage system. A new recruit enters the system at the Ipana Kekere stage and serves for three years before graduating to the next stage, which is the Ipana Arin. He serves another three years at this intermediate stage before graduating to the senior stage, which is the Ipana Agba. At every stage, an Ifa priest will be called upon to consult the oracle to pick the leader of the group through Ifa divination. The chosen leader is called “Giwa Egbe”. Each stage of the system has about 23 chieftaincy slots with the Giwa Egbe as the head chief. Thus, the festival marks the selection of a new age group in the community whose roles are for the protection and projection of the community’s vision.
All these are captured in this feast. It is a way of telling Epe history through activities that portray the beauty of their culture. The people are garbed in colourful attires. Some are fully clothed while others make do with the wrapper. This is one feast that brings both the old and young together. The celebration is preceded with series of preparations. Once the king affirms the commencement of the festival, it’s all pomp all the way till the end of the festival. It’s a colorful and exciting event to watch.
This year’s event, which kicked off three weeks ago, is sponsored by MTN, according to the consultants of the festival, Abidev Consults Limited. It will feature all the highlights of the occasion such as rituals, masquerade dance, competition among the age groups and several others.
Boat Regatta, Masquerade Parade
However, the key features that mark the ceremony as a tourism attraction include the Okosi traditional boat regatta, Iyonfonran traditional festival, Ita-ebi, Oju Alaro Oke Rites Day and Kilajolu Masquerade Parade. The Okosi traditional boat regatta is characterized by an age group cultural procession where different age groups decorate their boats in different colours and adornment and compete on the sea.
Each group is led by a leader who receives the prize after the local chiefs grade the boats on creativity and beautification of the boat. The boat that emerges the winner is awarded the best decorated boat of the year. This competition is held at the Oju Alaro Ebute River. The young age groups proceeds through the town to the lagoon to offer prayers before heading back to the Ojualaro shrine where they circle the ancient tree three times before entering the shrine.
At the Iyonfonran rite, the king is dressed in regalia adorned by beads, which he wears once in a year. Once he puts on this regalia, he assumes the role of the supernatural, and hardly acknowledges the presence of others as he proceeds to Ojualaro shrine where series of prayers are said. There is already a heap of burning firewood but as the ruler, he picks first before any other person. From there he leads the procession to the Oju Alaro Ebute River. This river is said to be the first settlement of one of the warriors in Epe. There the king and chief priestess offer prayers and plea for the god’s guidance. This ritual is done to ask for blessings and ward off all evil spirits from the community.
The age groups garbed in different native attire to distinguish one from the other join in the prayers and watch out for any chaos in the crowd. Onlookers are thrilled by this act and are intrigued to participate in this traditional rite. This particular act draws all citizens of the riverine area, as they are eager to wish away all the enemies plans against them.
Once the king is done with his prayers, he throws the stick to the river, signifying that he has cast away all his problems and challenges in the river. The people do the same while the king heralded by masquerades, make his way to another end of the region where series of incantations is done. While he is doing this, different age groups walk around a significant tree, praying in a thankful manner for the answered prayers. One is advised to crouch low when the burning firewood is thrown in the river to avoid accidents.
The king also joins in the circling of the tree with his wife after the incantations.
The procession moves back to the Ojualaro shrine to complete the ritual while awaiting the arrival of the king and his convoy. Different age groups circle the ancient ‘Orisha’ tree where series of prayers are said before all disperse to their various destinations beaming with smiles in anticipation of the blessings of gods.
Ita Ebi and Oju Alaro Oke rites are key components of the Eebi Epe festival. This is the only time of the year the king dances publicly. It is marked by the homage to the king by different deities of the land.
Kilajolu Masquerade Parade is done in commemoration of the victory of the Epe people over the Ijaw and Mahin raiders in the past. When the commanding officer of the enemy, Akalajolu was captured, he was paraded through the nooks and crannies of Epe while young and old ones rained abuses on him. Thus at this ceremony, the masquerade, ‘Kilajolu’ is dressed up and made to parade the entire Epe town, flogging everyone on sight while the people call him various derogatory and abusive names.
For the next few weeks, the people of Epe will be on a merriment spree culminating at the end of next month where the peak of the event is celebrated. This festival is one not to be missed as it showcases the rich Nigerian culture of the Epe people.