Celebrating Owu-Okoroshi cultural performance in Ogbaku
The Owu-Okoroshi Festival is a cultural practice/performance among different communities in Imo State. Okpuala Ogbaku is among these communities that practise the Owu-Okoroshi Festival. The community shares border with Okwu, Umuabagwo, both communities are in Ogbaku. Okpuala also have a border with Umuekpu. Umuekpu is a large community in Agwa in Oguta local government area. The Owu-Okoroshi can simply be referred to as Owu.
The Okpuala community is known for farming and trading. They have a very fertile land. They produce more of cassava, palm oil and yam. They strongly believe that this Owu-Okoroshi being the water spirit helps them to water their land during farming season which helps them to have bumper harvest.
The Owu-Okoroshi festival is an annual event usually performed at the peak of the rainy season.
The Okoroshi masquerades are believed to be a water spirit from the spirit world. When the rainy season peaks, they come out to dance for a period of six weeks in the traditional week days namely; Orie, Afor, Nkwo and Eke.
These for market days make one week in the Igbo culture.
Four weeks before the Owu-Okoroshi festival day, an initiation of the youths in the preparation of Okoroshi festival known as Ito Nkwa takes place.
This aspect of the cultural ceremony is a period of initiation of young male teenagers into the cult. It is not full initiation yet. This ceremony takes place in the evening.
During this ceremony, selected heads of clans or kindred, usually aged men gather at the village square to remind the community of the up-coming Owu-Okoroshi.
Teenagers wishing to be initiated are also assembled before the “Onye Isi Owu” (i.e. the leader of the Owu-Okoroshi) a night before the Ito-Nkwa day. As he addresses the teenagers, the teenagers are painted with Nzu (white chalk) prepared by the Onye Isi Owu.
In Okpuala Ogbaku, “Onye Isi Owu” receives tributes-yam tubers, kolanuts and other accessories including money from other kindred known as (Onu Mkpu) in the same community before the Owu day.
He distributes same gifts among members of his own clan based on seniority/age. The Owu culture or celebration attracts different communities to witness Okpuala community.
Friends and well-wishers are usually invited to this celebration. Different dishes are prepared which includes rice, eberebe, eroso and different soups with pounded yam and fufu for entertainment of guests.
The Owu masquerade is performed in public at the village square. The music rhythm and dance steps of the Owu are very distinct and during festival, no other music may be displayed. The dance may be satirical and menacing yet beautiful and appeasing.
The ceremony continues till about 4.00pm, when the rhythm of the music changes; at this point the song of the Okoroshi begins to be drummed. People begin to cheer in excitement. Everyone begins to look around themselves to see where the Okoroshi will emerge from.
The Okoroshi costume includes a wooden mask of usually white or black. On the Owu day, a black mask may be used. The Okoroshi is covered by a carved wooden mask sewn together with a pair of blanket, a pair of hose to cover both hands and legs.
He dances back and forth until he reaches the village square. Although, the first Okoroshi does not speak, the ones preceding known as “Wukuruta” do communicate in a secret language and utter mysterious cries in public during the day or at night.
In the weeks of the Okoroshi celebration, all un-pleasant activities are reported to ‘Onye Isi Owu’. He alone has the right to caution the Okoroshi.
Okoroshi appears in three days out of the four that make up a week. On a good day, one can have as many as ten Okoroshi appearing in a community, but in the sixth week especially on the Nkwo day, only one Okoroshi appears.
It is said that the Okoroshi has defiled the Nkwo day. That is a sign that in two days’ time, the Okoroshi masquerade will come to an end. After the Nkwo day, you may have as many as thirty Okoroshi coming out of the village.
This will depend on the number of youths and resources available to them. Sometimes they borrow materials from neighbouring towns. It is fun and very interesting to see different masquerades and costumes in the last two days before it is over.
In the two days remaining for the Okoroshi to end, the Orie market is very significant. On the Orie evening, all the Okoroshi move from house to house to collect “Utu” (i.e. gift from people).
This movement is called “Igba Olila” i.e. preparation to depart. All through this night all the Okoroshi cry and shout throughout the night until a few minutes to midnight when another type of Okoroshi “Nwa Nshi” appears. No Okoroshi must encounter “Nwa Nshi” otherwise such Okoroshi will not appear for many seasons.
“Nwa Nshi” is believed to be highly fetish and as short as a dwarf. Only the elders in the cult can escort the “Nwa Nshi”.
The “Nshi” has a peculiar way it cries. It can be recognized by other Okoroshi and they run into hiding to avoid any encounter with him. Though this not the end for other Okoroshi, early in the morning at 4:00am other Okoroshi reappear in their numbers.
At this time, they are all escorted to the evil forest where they are assumed to find their way to their spirit land.
Since the Okoroshi masquerades are water spirit, they believed to have come from a far dark world; the makers come with blessings for ripening of yam crops in preparation for the new yam festival and the eating of other crops like new corn, which begins in August in the land.
During the period the Okoroshi masquerade is performed, no woman is permitted to cross paths with Okoroshi or dare stare or point fingers at the Okoroshi.
It is believed that any female who speaks loudly and the Okoroshi responds to her voice, or answers to her; she has defiled the Okoroshi and must be fined. The Okoroshi does not recognised women. Ladies must not be seen on trousers by the Okoroshi and should never go alone. Women are usually accompanied by an elderly person or any middle aged youth who has been fully initiated into the Okoroshi cult.
In Okpuala-Ogbaku, virtually all the male youths ranging from age 15 and above are either fully or partially initiated into the cult. Any male youth who is not initiated into this cult in the community is meted out the same treatment as other women.
The full initiation of any youth takes the gathering of other youths who are fully initiated, one or two large trays of rice with stew and meat is prepared with five kegs of palm wine. The Okoroshi is brought into a room with the ‘would be’ youth.
After they have finished eating, the Okoroshi exposes himself to the youth and may try to frighten him as other members of this gathering tactically excuses themselves leaving him with Okoroshi to discuss.
All of these come with much satisfaction to both the family and cult members. This is the initiation into the Okoroshi masquerades.
The Owu-Okoroshi is still practised today, though the interest and followers are gradually waning due to education, Christianity and youth migration to urban centers in search of jobs.
The Okoroshi era is a season of display of high occultic powers amongst communities too. This is a minus in the Owu-Okoroshi practice, though practitioners see it as a season to display power and suppress enemies. The Owu-Okoroshi period is a season of refreshment, enjoyment and community unification.
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