Relishing Osun Osogbo Festival

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The month of August is synonymous with festivals from Osun Osogbo to Sango to Igbo Ekwu New Yam festival highlighting the rich tapestry of Nigeria’s cultural diversity. Osun Osogbo festival, said to be over 600 years old, seems to be getting better with each passing year as it retains its position as one of Nigeria’s top festival that keeps both worshippers and tourists coming. For two weeks, age-old traditions are reenacted with passion and pomp. Omolola Itayemi  reports

As early as 9pm on Friday 22nd August, when the writer got to the palace of the Ataoja of Osogboland, Oba Jimoh Larooye II and chief celebrant of the festival, the palace was already filled to the rafters. “Ese Yeye Osun” is the common greeting here and it was on everybody’s lips. From worshippers dressed in white to tourists to members of the media there was almost no place to stand. This festival, famed for its pageantry, draws more than disciples. Not everyone who journeys to the city in August is “Olosun”. Most are drawn by the fiesta’s spectacular sights and sounds, many visited for research purposes, on the eve of the great procession, the city is literally bursting at the seams. 

The grand finale of the 2017 Osun Osogbo Festival, which began with the Iwopopo, the traditional cleansing of the town, followed three days later by the lighting of the 500-year-old 16-point lamp called “Ina Olojumerindinlogun”, and reached its highest point, with the procession to the Osun River for prayers. The palace was a beehive of cultural and traditional activities in the last few weeks. 

 The festival is less about merrymaking and more about the mind, heart and divinity of a people bonded by unique culture and history. For culture enthusiasts, the festival is like a pilgrimage. There were enthusiasts from Brazil and USA. Dancing, singing, praise worshipping, commerce and every other thing was going on at once.  

The happenings at the palace ground however got to a climax when the Arugba (votary Virgin) emerged from the inner sanctum of the palace. Frenzied scenes greeted her entrance into the groove; thousands participated in the visual spectacle of finger snapping, front to back motions over their heads to ward off bad luck as they prayed, perhaps refusing a curse or merely part of a trend.   

As the Arugba and her entourage went from one side of the palace grounds to another, the crowd filed after them, pushing and tugging with some screaming for help, as they fell into the shallow gutter lining the sides of the palace walls. At this point, the fear of contacting the Ebola Virus was abated as physical contact could not be avoided. 

Among the traditional activities that have lit the 2017 festivities was the Arugba’s Berth. Held on Tuesday, August 19, it was a day to celebrate the votary maidens, who have burnt the light of the festival these past five centuries of performance – ladies, who devoted their teenage years to the service of the deity before they were released for marriage.

 Arugba is the virgin maid who carries the famous calabash, which bears the propitiation materials to the Osun River. To devotees of Osun, the Arugba is not just a virgin maid, but also a goddess on whom they cast all their problems as she carries the calabash to the Osun River. This singular responsibility makes the Arugba the second key individual in the festival after the Kabiyesi.

The long walk to the Osun grove wasn’t different as people took to different means to get there, from motorists to commercial motorcyclists (okada). The Grove has numerous attractions. From the custodian of Osun goddess showering blessings on visitors to monkeys reigning free in trees, it’s a life-time experience. Down by the river bank, there is a mass of devotees; filling plastic containers with water, having their fortunes told, washing their heads and faces in the river, or just loitering around.

There was royal reception for sponsors and dignitaries and hordes of traditional rulers, which is preceded by the entrance of the Arugba (something of a virgin Mary figure) who carried the offering to the river. 

 Osunyemi Ataoju, a traditional believer who resides in USA and comes in every year for the festival had this to say. “As a traditional believer, the significance of this festival to the people of Osogbo is that we are doing this in commemoration of the sacred pact we had with the Osun deity in those days. It is to mark the commemoration of events that led to the founding of Osogbo town and the renewal of ancestral bonds between the Osun goddess and the people of Osogbo. We do this every year from Nigeria and all over the world, it’s like celebrating Christmas and Ileeya. Look at me, I am 80 years old, do I look it? This is the work of Osun in my life,” he revealed 

To fully understand him, we need to look at the history of Osogbo, a city of religions. Most indigenes have Muslim backgrounds and a bulk of the populace is born from Christian wombs. Just as well, a significant number of natives are purely traditionalists––root, stalk and grains. In the tangled mix of faiths, there is no clash of convictions, however. Insofar as the city remains Osogbo––in name and in being––Osun is the first and the root religion. Osun founded Osogbo.

Of the lore of the founding of Osogbo, there is a well-sung ballad of the benevolent spirit that befriended a band of famine-ravage tribe that arrived at the bank of the Osun River surrounded by lush greenery.  The tribe basked in their good fortune, oblivious of a supernatural presence until the day they fell a tree that crashed into the river and triggered an eruption of supernatural outcries. 

‘They have destroyed all my dyeing pots’ was the wail of agony that was greeted with a pacifyingly crooning: “Oso Igbo pele o, Oso Igbo rora o” – Spirit of the forest, sorry, take heart.

Mr. Ayo Olumoko, Managing Director, INFOGEM Ltd and Marketing Consultant of the Festival spoke about the festival and its impact on the city. “Osun Osogbo is growing domestic tourism in Nigeria, much more than that, it has put Nigeria on the international tourism map with Osun state as one of the biggest beneficiaries.”

Is Osun capable of rising above the pedestal of “the aboriginal religion of Africa” to a universal faith? It is a question for the gods. But mortals too can hazard a guess, taking cues from the burgeoning legion of foreign worshippers that besieges Osogbo City and the wind of accelerated loss of faith in the orthodox religion that is blowing across the world.

The last few days of the festival is marked by a surge in the number of devotees of traditional religions. Worshippers of Ogun, Sango, Ifa, the Ogbonis and members of OPC pour into the city in large numbers, bringing with them zest and eccentricities, creating a full-spectrum aperture on traditional African religion.

Academics, arts zealots and cultural enthusiasts also show up in their numbers on the day of the procession that has become the ultimate showpiece of an African religion.

The final day unfurls with spectacular moment – a day of sumptuous photo feast. Long after the festival, the spectacle lingers in the mind. Long after, the songs resonate in the ears.