Osun Osogbo festival
The annual Osun Osogbo festival climaxes with the all important Arugba (votary maid ) ferrying a broad-rimmed calabash to Osun sacred grove. As the central icon of the festival, she is plainly the attraction for the more than 150,000 visitors who have come all the way to Osogbo. Omolola Itayemi and Yinka Kolawole tell a story of a maiden and an ancient myth
For the Arugba, her role as iconic as it seems comes with a lot of myth. Intrestingly, she comes across as the girl next door with even a Facebook (social media) account
Dressed in tunic-like African-wax attire, her weary mien gave her away as she managed to speak in a hoarse voice. It was the morning after she has completed two most important tasks of her life; successfully ferrying the broad-rimmed calabash to the Osun Grove without stumbling and performing her marriage rites afterwards. Though both of them are not inter-twined, it sometimes happens this way. The Arugba after performing this ritual for years (the shortest being three years and the longest thirteen) can get married on the same day when she comes of age and is ready to settle down.
Arugba is a virgin picked from age 11 or 12 and dedicated to the service of the River goddess Yeye Osun, until she eventually get matured and settled down. Usually, she would serve the town for about three to four years before she settles as a woman, but with civilisation and most of them getting educated, the Arugba now serves the town or the River goddess for over ten years, for those picked at tender ages.
Her role though familiar is very important, without the votary maiden there can be no festival. She has been performing this particular ritual for the past ten years. It doesn’t come as easy as it sounds, the process of being chosen as an Arugba is an easy feat, especially in this jet age where celibacy is perceived as more of a burden than a virtue. The practice for ages has been that the Arugba must be a virgin, a spinster from the King’s extended family and must be chosen for the role by ifa divination.
The middle-height fair-skinned Abolade Oyewale, walked in short strides as she made her way towards me. This was a bride without fun fare; no wedding ring on display, no un-ending giggles familiar with new bride but she’s no ordinary bride, she is Arugba. Except for two old men having a conversation with her, Oyewale was alone in the first floor apartment of her husband’s house with quite a number of people and activities going on downstairs but I guess after all of previous day activities, she needed no disturbance. She excused herself from her visitors to speak with THISDAY. Then the door flew open and a handsome man dressed in all resplendent white attire stepped out and passed the phone to her, her attempt to pick the phone from him (her husband and also an ifa priest) further showed she was still exhausted from the simple yet exhaustive task. Despite her weak condition, she showed little signs of tiredness.
Anyone who had witnessed the festival would understand how exhausting the journey can be, the macabre dance balancing such broad rimmed calabash and the long walk from the palace to the grove. She is the center of attraction of the entire event, which explained the rationale behind her significance in the festival, because if there is no maiden to bear the calabash, then the main event cannot hold.
The task which involves her led by the most senior Osun priestess and Aworo Osun (an assistant of some sort), kicks off before noon from the premises of the palace of the reigning Ataoja of Osogbo, enveloped on both sides by a formidable human fence, who must ensure that she gets to her destination without incident and, more importantly, with the calabash intact. As the tradition goes, the virgin so chosen ‘’is the personification of the goddess Osun and must not stumble’.
Once inside the grove, she takes a spiritual rest at the first-ever palace in Osogboland (now converted to an Osun temple) before the eventual short stroll to the totem edge of the Osun River, where the necessary prayers are said. That vital assignment done with, the Arugba then retraces her steps back to the palace amidst pomp. By this time, the groove and its surroundings is a mass of humans in dominant white attires and the sight is just amazing.
“I’m 23 this year and in my ten-year tenure have witnessed two kings. I’m grateful to God that it ended successfully and without any scandal. I met my husband four years ago and what started as a joke became reality last weekend.
She’s educated and speaks English, though our interview was a mix of Yoruba and English, her preferred lingua being Yoruba. She attended Answar ur Deen Primary School and Ifeoluwa Grammar School both in Osogbo. ‘‘I’m computer literate, I have an e-mail account and signed into facebook this year (could this have been an outcome of long distance relationship, her husband reside abroad). Its not easy to learn a trade or further your education as an Arugba. We’re supposed to be exclusively devoted to Osun deity. Being educated started with aunty Bimbo (the Arugba preceding the one before her). I had to sneak to learn computer studies because we are not allowed,’’ she revealed.
Strongly devoted to her diety, she practices traditional religion in her spare time, she also beads and plays football. Not exactly a sport for votary maidens, Oyewale laughs when she describes her love for football. If football excites her, fried rice fires up her palates. This Arugba is definitely in touch with modern times, she has lost count of her pairs of jeans and trousers which she’s given out in preparation for matrimony. ‘I’m a young girl now, I have to wear these things now’, she said as she laughs it off.
Being Arugba does come with its own perks such as enjoying preferential treatment in school one of which is spotting long hair while other students kept short hair and getting whatever she desires from the ruling king. Fellow students are wary of her but for those who are close to her, she says she is completely harmless. She wore school uniform all through her years of studies except for two bracelets on her wrists which should never be taken off. Of course that caused some few skirmishes with teachers, of which one physically yanked it off and the consequences were immediately devastating, Oyewale recanted.
Such is the fear the Arugba evokes in people, but I guess when you leave your parents’ abode to reside in the king’s palace, communicate with a deity frequently and responsibility of the town’s well being is placed on your shoulders, you are no more a mere mortal.
But beneath the veneer of popularity enjoyed by the Arugba, she also has her challenges. As soon as she is chosen by the deity, most assume she is denied some self-satisfying acts, which her age-mates enjoy, as her time and essence is taken over by the dictates of the goddess. She prepares her food, she cleans her abode and she’s on hand to help with errands when visitors come calling and need assistance with getting items required by the goddess. All these some parents frown at but Abimbola, a former Arugba has no regrets. Her reign was one she looks back with happiness. She is also of the belief that what you don’t know cannot hurt you. ’’Before I was chosen I wasn’t doing anything I couldn’t continue after I was chosen and this helped shape my character. I didn’t miss anything from the outside world and I don’t have any regrets. There are a lot of myths associated with arugbas, one of which is you won’t settle down and give birth and those are lies. I am married and have children (she showed me her children milling in and out of her apartment in the king’s palace).
Who knows maybe the next Arugba might be a degree holder, as the years go by and the stakes get higher.
An ancient city
Osun Osogbo’s history is not without a tree-falling incident, spirits, water goddess, virgin, groove, hunters and a 16-point lamp and all or most of these elements fused into the festival.
The annual festival is celebrated for two weeks with various traditional and cultural activities lined up for each of the day. This year’s festival like any other began with the clearing of traditional paths called “Iwo popo”. The Ataoja of Osogbo and his traditional chiefs with the priestess of Osun otherwise call Yeye Osun during the Iwo Popo sit at Gbaemu area of the city. They all sit in the middle of the road.The reason for considering Gbaemu, according to chief Oparanti was because the area, which is now the heart of Osogbo, was in the outskirt of the town when the festival began some centuries ago.
The grand finale of the festival which took place last weekend at the sacred groove, a World Heritage site (2005) believed to be where the goddess of the river resides.
The traditional ruler of Osogbo, Ataoja, Oba Jimoh Olanipekun, the direct custodian of Osun groove, said ‘the festival serves as a remembrance of the founding fathers of the town and an avenue for blessings as the goddess of the river is believed to be giver of children. Water flowing from the river is curative, water that flows eastward of river Osun is for deliverance from all forms of diseases for those who believe in it.’ According to the monarch, the festival is also an occasion to appreciate the goddess of the river for peace and stability.
“There was an everlasting covenant between the goddess of the rivers and the founding fathers of Osogbo land. It was a unique covenant which cannot be broken. Both parties have honoured theirs, little wonder why Osun festival has turned out to be an international festival that is now celebrated not only in Osogbo or Nigeria, but in other countries like Brazil and France,” he said.
At Gbaemu, the traditional chiefs and Oloris pay homage to the traditional ruler three times before leaving the area for the palace of the Ataoja. The next in the series of activities is lightening of the 16 point lamp at the palace of the Ataoja, this is to be followed by a traditional event call iboriboade, which is a time when all crowns used by past Ataojas will be worshiped by both the incumbent traditional ruler and chiefs. Before worshiping the crowns, they are showcased at the palace of the Ataoja where indigenes and interested individuals watch them. During the occasion, cola nuts and hot drinks are presented to worship the goddess of Osun and the founding fathers of Osogbo. The Ataoja during the iboriboade dances round the palace square after the Osun priestess has performed all necessary rituals. Traditional songs are chanted while the Ataoja and his Chiefs dance round the palace square.
One of the songs chanted during the event, according to Oparanti is Obi yan, obi yan loni, odi peregede, pere gede, o yan.
Chief Ifayemi Elebuibon a prominent and world acclaimed Ifa priest, also corroborated. He said the blessings attached to Osun River are enormous for those who believe in it. Elebuibon, a visiting professor of Ifa Mythology at the University of Chicago, said many lives from both within and outside the country had been blessed by the goddess of the river. He said he derived his first name, Osundagbonu from the goddess of the river, having been given birth to after a promise to his mother by the priestess of the river.
“There is no doubt in the ability of the goddess of the river to give to people whatever are their requests. My mother was barren for several years and she later went to the river Osun where she was promised a child if she could drink the water from river, and I was told that my mother conceived that same month and I am the product of that covenant, that’s why I was named Osundagbonu,” Elebuibon stressed.
A traditional chief of Osogbo and historian, who is also the second in command to the Ataoja, Chief Gabriel Oparanti, while speaking on the mystery behind Osun Osogbo festival said the festival had been celebrated since Oba Larooye founded Osogbo some centuries ago. He pointed out that the goddess of the river was a living being, and the annual festival was to appreciate it for its covenant which it never breaks since it was made many years ago.
“The Osun Osogbo festival started within the grove, in 1370 AD, when Oba Olarooye and his subjects settled at Ojubo, a place that is now called Osun temple. Oba Larooye set up the first palace at Osun Shrine. We have three shrines: Osun, Obatala at the Osun groove and Osun shrine at the palace of Ataoja of Osogbo,” he said.