Esther Nwogwonuwa Wright could have passed for a pleasure-seeking tourist in her wide-legged pair of jeans that hugged her firm waist as she sat in the midst of community leaders that morning at a hotel lobby in Ajao Estate, Lagos. Far from that assumption, she is a researcher, writer and more importantly an adventurer who strongly promotes a rebirth of interest in our cultural heritage. For two years, she sought an understanding of Ubulu kingdom by relocating from Lagos to her hometown in Delta State to develop a documentary script around the Ubulu people who are reportedly spread across five states in Nigeria.
“There was a lot of discussions as people were talking about this subject in different versions and most of the custodians of this culture were dying,” she explained.”I planned a short visit but then I knew I had to live among the people to really get to the heart of the story. Most of the time, what you get on the field determines what you will do. Initially, I wanted to do some select communities in Delta state. They are found to be inter-related. There were lots of migration so I decided to move around twelve communities. Ubulu got its name from a tree and had been reported for centuries. I met this tree as a child. This tree connected many people. There were many communities that I couldn’t reach because of time constraint bit I gathered enough information about them. By time I was done, I discovered that all I had was too much for an hour documentary film so I decided to put it in a book. After the book, I can go back to my directing.”
During her research, she discovered a lot of festivals, rituals and taboos. There exist some parallels in the legal framework that is operational in our contemporary society and traditional setting. She felt even more compelled to document her findings for good reasons in her latest book titled, The Story of Ubulu Kingdom, launched recently in Delta State.
“It is said that we don’t write about our history but I found out that our history was written in our festivals, dance, music and worship. I am a Christian but I can tell you that I went to the shrine. There had been attempts to do this research but many got discouraged by the enormous nature of the story. I found out what connected us as a people, the similarity in us. I discovered that one of the traditional rulers migrated from Ile-Ife. Some of them said they came when Orunmila was coming to Benin. We have the taboos and banishments. We also have penalty for women who have extra-marital affairs. That is how I got my book. Most of the people I spoke to are between the ages of 70 and 100. When my book was completed, I had to add more stories because some of the people felt excluded. I made a lot of references to what people said and I didn’t try to parade what they said as my own thoughts. There will be a volume two.”
Asides the historic landmark of Ubulu tree, Ubulu people have a mask that is very similar to the mask of Ile-Ife, which lends credence to the migration narrative. But can oral narratives be trusted? One of the greatest criticisms against oral narrative is that it can vary from one narrator to another; very prone to omissions and additions or exaggerations. For the elderly, it can be a challenge to recall the details of history accurately but Wright was prepared for all that.
“I know what dementia is and I know how to handle the elderly,” she continued. “When you are talking to them, you don’t give them many questions. Then I repeat the questions over and over again to see if I will get the same response. There was a particular woman I was talking to. She was about 115years old. I wasn’t sure she could hear me and I decided to talk to someone while she was narrating a story to me. She said, “You are not paying attention. Why are you shouting? I can hear you. I was at the National Library in the UK, University of Ibadan, Yaba College of Technology, University of Benin and Nsukka. And I got a lot of information online. I spoke to a lot of kings. I visited forests. There were places I could not enter without making enquiries.I am hoping that our place can attract tourists so I have to know the rules of the place. When you destroy shrines, you destroy the history of a people. I search for the similarity in humanity in Ubulu Kingdom.”
Wright dug into libraries in the United Kingdom, University of Ibadan, University of Benin and National Library, Yaba as well as online archives to consolidate her findings in the two-year research that culminated in a book.