Edjenu Festival celebrates ‘Ladder To Heaven’ masquerade at Okpara
Edjenu Festival 2018 of Okpara Inland is celebrated among the Agbon Kingdom, Delta State, Nigeria. The Edjenu Festival normally happens once in 50 years and the masquerade is a rare sight that forms a central part of the festival celebration. Although the number of years has been reduced to 20 years and the last one was celebrated in 1997. Many people used to see it only once or twice in their lifetimes.
There are other notable masquerade festivals in Okpara such as Eni and Okekere. The Eni or Elephant comes out once in 25 years. However, no other masquerade festival rivals Edjenu in the whole kingdom.Other Urhobo and Isoko communities have elaborate masquerades, which evoke awe among visitors. However, many have argued that no other masquerade festival rivals Edjenu.
Described by some as a ladder to heaven, Edjenu masquerade is a symbol of pride for all Okpara people because it foregrounds their history and achievements over the years. Edjenu masquerade has its origin in Agbarha-Otor, from where it was imported into Okpara and perfected by the creative craftsmen in Urhu-Igbere from where it comes out and goes back to the spirit world at the end of the festival. The masquerade has four legs, representing the four sons of Agbon – Okpara, Kokori, Eku and Orhoakpor. At the top of the extremely tall masquerade is a carrier, who is appointed by the gods to undertake the task of carrying the masquerade around the quarters of Okpara.
The Ovu people partake in this because of their powerful deity, Ovughere, a god of war). This festival is deeply steeped in the Urhobo traditional religious experience and it is one of the masquerade festivals that have survived the onslaught of Christianity and the so-called ‘modernity.’
The festival is divided into various sections and the climax of this year’s celebration is about to begin. It is also important to note that the history and myth of this festival have been appropriated by the renowned writer, Tanure Ojaide, in his novel entitled Stars of the Long Night. The novel centres around a character, who has been chosen by the gods to carry the Edjenu masquerade around Okpara. The task is sacred and comes with many preparations and responsibilities. Ojaide explores all of the nitty-gritty of the festival against the backdrop of patriarchy in the African society.
It is also important to know that Edjenu cannot be photographed. Photographers are warned and cautioned not to take photos or videos of the festival in order to preserve the awe and mystique of Edjenu. The photograph attached to this post is a rare one and possibly the only one that has made its way to the Internet. Unfortunately, this was the only photograph I could. All and sundry are invited to join the people of Okpara, Agbon Kingdom and indeed the Urhobo nation at Okpara Inland, Ethiope-East LGA of Delta State.
While passing through the worn, Edjenu’s had Igbe dancers and adherents of other traditional religions, as forerunners. After going round the quarters of the town and performing its ritualistic functions and rites, it was escorted back to its point of origin and other sacrifices and rituals were observed to bid Edjenu farewell till the season of its appearance. The carrier of Edjenu also disembarked from the masquerade and performed some final rites as well. The carrier’s task is sacrosanct and selfless. Edjenu is kept at the Efi, its ceremonial household.
Unfortunately, State government and the entire country did not take particular interest in the festival for whatever reason. Rare festivals of this nature should normally be a source of revenue through tourism if well publicised. The festival is not even listed in the compendium of significant festivals in Delta State and Nigeria. It is hoped things change before the next Edjenu Festival, which will hold in 2031. Indeed, this is a festival in the class of Osun Oshogbo and similar ones, which should even command greater attention on accounts of its rarity in appearance. Sadly, cultural heritage as driver of tourism suffers abysmal neglect and so its economic value left to waste.
This is also a call on scholars in the Arts and Humanities to pay close attention to this festival in order to unravel some of its aesthetic features as well as the folktales and songs, myths and legends, theatricality, history, religious experiences and other art forms that are embodied in the festival.