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Safeguarding, protecting intangible cultural heritage

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor, Deputy Editor
21 December 2021   |   3:52 am
The moment thunder struck and lightning followed, thick darkness surrounded Celestine Okonkwo. He stood for seconds to let his eyes become accustomed to the darkness.

Two Ihene at Ogbo Obodo… on their waists are Mbulukwu. They are putting on Izazu and on their heads are Ebe. The two of them are holding Osho in their hands. When an ohehe dies, his ebe will be turned to the back.

The moment thunder struck and lightning followed, thick darkness surrounded Celestine Okonkwo. He stood for seconds to let his eyes become accustomed to the darkness.

Everybody had run inside immediately rain threatened. There was no motorbike in sight to take him to imogbe.
Okonkwo prayed to get one.

But he didn’t.
Okonkwo was still walking slowly from Ogwashi-Uku Motor Park in Agidiehe, when he heard loud voices from the rain calling him to walk faster.

By the time he got to Ngwu, it was already raining heavily. His clothes were drenched and soaked, so, his movement was impeded. His bag was two times heavier. It was pretty odd for him to walk home to the village he had not been to in a long while, in wet clothes and bag.

Walking a few yards from the land-marking Ngwu tree, he stood still, contemplating whether to go through Ogbeodogwu or Alio streets. By the time he got to Ojeogwu’s house, the road was already bad, as the rain made puddles on it.

He chose to go through Ogbeodogwu. But he was not fortunate to get a vehicle. No thanks to cultists who have taken over the quarter as a result of squabbles that emanated from who will be Odogwu of Ogwashi-Uku, Aniocha South, Delta State.

However, by the time he got to Ogbo Obodo, where the last performance of ‘Ndi Ihene’ — priests and priestesses of Obida, a stream in Ogwashi-Uku— normally held, he stopped.

The sky was brighter now. And he could see the long, wieldy path to Ngene, the god of justice. Okonkwo looked round for familiar spots in the vicinity but discovered that everywhere had changed. The African wild cherry (udala) tree where he used to play with other kids was no longer there. He could barely make out where Apasue’s ogwa (palace) was. His Nansu (totem) had long fallen after he passed on. He could also barely make out where Kwendu’s Unomo (shrine) was also. The same goes for Nwachukwu Atagana. Neither could he point to that of Ebiri. All the priests of Obida who made the place a holy enclave had all gone to be with the ancestors.

A born-again Christian, Okonkwo had no doubt that both heaven and hell were real. He saw good and evil in the village as practical concepts and absolute realities of the African worldview. He believed in the forces of light and darkness.

Though nobody was expected to erect any structure there because the place was considered abode of spirits, all he could see now were new houses. In fact, where Atagana had his abode, a cassava-grinding machine was already operating.

Okonkwo’s mind went to Atagana, also called Achukwu Bomboy, before he was initiated. Then, Atagana always went round in raised voices. He was always a scary sight. His body was always covered in native chalk (Nzu) with a small crowd of small boys following him, as he shouted.

Atagana’s face was impassive with a stare that seemed to see right through the soul. He walked with precision as he roused Ogbe Alio neighbourhood with his cry, which made many to call him ‘Bomboy’.

By 1974, when he was initiated into the cult of Obida, Okonkwo was already 12 years. As he walked home to his family house in Umu-Okoh, Umuologai, he could count the number of Nansu on the long stretch of road. Suddenly, it dawned on him that the stories he heard in Lagos about the festival were true. Its evocative attraction has gradually vanished.

He had not participated in Iwu Festival for a long while since he relocated to Lagos in 1996. He remembered how people normally fell over themselves to watch the performance. He shook his head in disappointment. Everything had changed in Azungwu.

The festival owes its existence to Iyi Obida.
Iyi Ubu, Ako, Ada and Obida are major sources of water in Ogwashi-Uku, but Obida stood out. It is deified, worshipped and venerated by Azungwu children.

Obida’s purity is next to none, as nobody with dirty clothes dare gets near the stream to fetch water or even swim. In fact, there is a limit to where you can go inside the grove of Obida.

The different genders have where they bathe. A snake once encircled a man and his wife who tried to bathe together. The stream needed to be supplicated before they were disentangled.

There is also a myth surrounding the chicken found around the stream. It is said that anybody who Obida loves, she gives the person chicken to rear. The enclave is filled with a lot of them, as people come regularly to pay homage.

The pebbles from Obida or Mpulu Obida, as it is called, has efficacy. It is believed that anybody, who has Mpulu Obida, is saved from witches and wizards’ attacks, as well as accidents of all sorts. It also protects any person holding it from armed robbery attacks. It also attracts promotion at work and business.

The Guardian gathered that a living Ohene Obida forbids a lot of things: You never say a person is dead around him or her. The dead are referred to as Ogwe. Nobody also visits them with a mourning cloth. They also forbid fire being pointed at them, but whenever an ohene dies, the other priests and priestesses will come around to poke fire at the dead one. They are also buried sitting, with their ebe turned to the back.

To Azungwu people, Iwu Festival inspires excitement and enthusiasm. Not anymore. It has become a blind festival: a victim of religious adventurism and globalisation. If there are still celebrants, they are just a few.

An active participant in his youthful days in Ogwashi-Uku, Sunday Okechukwu, vice president of Umuologai Family Union in Lagos, said, “once, it was fashionable to be an eze-iwu. Any young person, who was not one in Azungwu felt bad, as he was not entitled to know the secrets of Obida.”

Stanley Nwokocha added, “I was excited to be an eze iwu.”
During the festival, the refrain he enjoyed was Onye Abu Na Ngwu A Kwa.
This expression livened the spirit. He said, “we always waited hopefully for the festival to shout Iyade… Iyade. Now you can count the number of Ihene still around.”

The Guardian gathered that over the years, there has been call to stop the ancient practice, especially by those who see it as heathen, sinful and archaic practice.

Tristan Francis, an Azungwu son, however, does not feel Pentecostalism should have anything to do with the festival.

“I know there is Christianity but believe me my children must know my tradition. Yes, my grand father made me understand a lot of Ogwashi-Uku tradition and culture. Not even my own parents and I owe them more than a face value knowledge at the festival,” he said in his facebook page while celebrating this year’s feast.

But Augustine Eke, who is from Ogbeodogwu, is not happy that the festival is dying gradually.
Eke said, as a result of Iwu, “our people were careful in their deeds. Then, people who committed evil were usually confronted with their bad deeds, so, people generally avoided evil in our society.”

IN the 70s and early 80s, Azungwu sons and daughters looked forward to the festival. In fact, they prepared ahead for it, as they avoided social vices.

Eke said the number of priests in the community was much, and in almost every family. “It is not so, now.” According to him, “there are less than 10 ihene Obida, as people are no longer being initiated into Obida cult.”

Okonkwo, whose uncle, Nwachukwu Atagana, was a priest, told The Guardian, “From Ofebunor in Idumu Ubulu Aliko, who was the chief priest, to Kwendu, Apasue, Joseph, Nwanne, Ebiri, Nwachukwu, Ikem and Elegele, there were so many of them in Umuologai and Ogbeodogwu.”

For Okonkwo, “this year’s festival, which held between August 27 and September 2, was not as colourful as it used to be.”
Adducing reasons for this, he said, “the influx of cultism in Ogwashi-Uku has reduced the glamour associated with the festival; hence, most people no longer show interest in it.”

Okonkwo said, “Iwu is dying gradually due to cultism. Our sons and daughters, must, as a matter of urgency, shun cultism to save the festival.”
Speaking on the festival, Mr Francis Azuka Okoh, president of Umuologai Youths Association, said this year, “there was serious police presence to prevent the festival from being hijacked by cultists.”

An elderly man, who gave his name as Uwa, from Umudei, whose mother was born in Umuologai, told The Guardian, “everything has changed about the festival. The music, the dance and the performance, everything has really changed.”

The festival usually heralds the eating of new yam. Every celebration begins with Ufe Iwu (Iwu Vigil), which is followed by Isime Iwu — The fasting and meditation to Chi-Ukwu Okike (God Almighty) — the last day was Ihana Otite.

The Guardian checks revealed that at 4:00pm on the day of Isime Iwu, after the town crier must have done his job, all the traditional priests called ‘ndi Ihene’ assemble in the Diokpa Ihene’s Ogwa to prepare him for the rest of the festival.

They drink and dance while smearing the chief priest with the blood of goats and cocks. He sits, resting his feet on a heavy black rock that is planted by the god of Iwu. His only attire is a piece of woven white cloth, less than a yard called Akwa ocha.

From his seat, he pours libation and throws bits of kolanuts in supplication to the gods, who are believed to be present. The chief priest does not dance, drink nor stand throughout this preparation, which often attracts spectators from all parts of Azungwu village even neigbouring villages.

Another Umuologai son from Umunaga Quarters, Matthew Sunday Utulu, a septuagenarian said, “at midnight when everywhere is quiet, the chief priest leaves the hut of preparation to go into the inner shrine, Unomo, where it is believed he will be able to commune with the fertility deity, Obida, and see his ancestors.”

He said, “In this dark room, under towering Oaks and Iroko trees, the chief priest spends four days in seclusion and fasting. He does not entertain any visitor, not even any member of his family. The other priests also go into seclusion and without food but theirs are mild, as they can once in a while attend to the elders of the town who come for prayers to the gods through them.”

The whole period of four days of seclusion without food for the chief priest and his assistants (ndi-Ihene) is known as Okpukpu.

During this period also, the whole Azungwu quarters where this festival is held would be in absolute quiet and curfew is imposed. “No hooting of horns by vehicles, no shouting, no loud talking, no crying for the dead and no fighting or splitting of fire wood,” said Utulu.

Azungwu villages— Umuologai, Isi Okwe, Ogbe Odogwu, Umu Ochele, Umuzu and Idimu Ubulu Aliko —are adorned with palm fronds, thereby, making the road and paths look more beautiful.

Check points mounted to ward-off offenders whose punishments of fines range from life he-goats (ewo gba me), cocks, chickens, kolanut, white native chalks, pots of oil to flogging and being banned from going to the farm or stream.

“On the completion of the four days of seclusion, the fines are collected or when the person refuses to pay, especially for his/her religious beliefs, punishments like sickness, death, etc, are meted on the offender,” Okoh told The Guardian.

Okoh said, “everywhere in the village especially the festival arena goes agog with noise and the noise is usually deafening. People dance with joy moving towards the festival area, Ogbo Obodo, giving gifts of money and animals to the chief priest and his assistants. This is done to celebrate the fact that he is no longer in the spirit world. After some time, everyone retires to prepare for the festival proper.”

At 4:00pm, the festival arena, Ogbo Obodo, becomes packed with people dancing and jubilating. The priests emerge, each in a new costume. Dressed in flowing white skirt with beaded red blouse, jingles around their ankles, powdered with native white chalk from elbow to the wrist, three ox-coloured beads tied round their wrists and blood of an unknown animal rubbed across their eyes to the ears. White eagle feathers tucked behind their heads, sticking to a short stump of hair on the middle of the head left there since they were ordained as an Ohene. Each has a helper, Enem, elderly woman, who bears a wooden tray filled with powdered native chalk, Okwa Nzu, with which they bless the people with by sprinkling the powder on the people.

Utulu said, “the chief priest’s appearance is greeted with music and dancing. He is dressed differently from the others. His blouse, Izazu, is made from the fur of animals with small jingles, Ikpo, which are little oval-shaped mirrors all over the blouse, the length dropping skirt, Mbulukwu. His headgear, Ebe, is made from ostrich feathers. To his left hand he holds a small trumpet made of elephant tusk, Otulaka, which he blows at intervals while he uses his right hand to sprinkle powdered white native chalk, Nzu, which he collects from the bearer of the tray, Okwa Nzu. It is believed that whomever the white chalk touches is blessed and protected by the gods.”

Okonkwo, very eager to relish moments of Iwu, said, “while this jubilation and dancing go on, a group of youths from the village, between 13 and 18 years of age, set off very early in the morning to Obida. They tie a small white woven cloth, Npe, round their waist just to cover their nakedness. From their knees down is covered with native chalk beaten together with some herbs and barks of special trees, Ogbasike, to enable them run far tirelessly. They hold small canes, Itali Ezeube, to ward-off the spirit of any other challenging god on their way and an empty can to collect pebbles from Obida.”

He said, “their leader has in one hand a red box of concoctions and messages, Otite, to deposit at the foot of the hill from which the stream rises. On return, just on time before the second phase of the festival starts at 4.00pm, they stage their dance and the whole village is happy that their prayers have been answered and that all the youths returned (none was seized by Obida). Then the other youths of the village (boys and girls alike) join and they dance in a group to various chiefs in the company of the chief priest and his assistant.”

The most notable chiefs in Azungwu are, Odogwu in Ogbe Odogwu, Odafe in Isi Okwe and Okugba in Umuologai. The priests receive gifts from the chiefs.

Finally, before proceeding to the palace of the Obi of Ogwashi-Uku to represent the success of the festival, Utulu said, “the chief priest, his assistants and the youth converge on the foot of Ngwu tree. They pour libation and pray to the god of Ngwu, guardian of the Azungwu quarters. (Coincidentally, the land marking Ngwu tree fell months ago. The second time in living memory after about a century.) The Obi accepts their message with joy and also presents gifts of fowls, goats and drinks to Ndi-Ihene and youths of Azungwu too.”

The septuagenarian said, “once the chief priest and his assistant priests retire, there is usually a very heavy rain. It is believed that the rain takes the message and concoctions deposited at the foot of the hill of Obida by Eze Iwu. After which the ‘otite’ taken off from Ndi Ihene begin their journey to Abor, where it is awaited for them to commence their new yam festival. And if they do not get it for that year, there would not be new yam festival for them.”
ASIDE from Iwu Festival, glimpses of rich cultural treasures are all around the continent. However, like the coast battered by wild seas, African traditional value systems are facing strange weather condition.

Renowned photographers and chroniclers of Africa’s vanishing cultures, Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith, commenting on the rapid changes facing traditional Africa, said: “We have witnessed the loss of traditional cultural practices and beliefs as each new generation moves forward and embraces the 21st century, bringing with it the powerful influence of the outside world. We have felt compassion for the elders as they watch their traditional world and values disappear, and empathy for the young generation seeking a new way of life. We are touched by the children of this generation who come to us asking about their grandparents — who were they, where did they come from and what did they believe in? Over 40 per cent of what we have recorded during the past 35 years no longer exists or has changed dramatically. We have dedicated our lives to documenting the last of the truly traditional cultures on the continent.”

The Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention
At a recent United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) workshop, participants reaffirmed the importance of safeguarding living heritage, which includes traditions or living expressions inherited from the past, such as performing arts, social practices, oral traditions, rituals and festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature or the knowledge and skills used to produce traditional crafts.

They noted that the continuity of practicing and safeguarding living heritage is essential and that there is need to acknowledge and support the people who are transmitting them.

Intangible cultural heritage refers to practices, representations, expressions, knowledge and skills handed down from generation to generation. This heritage provides communities with a sense of identity and is continuously recreated in response to their environment.

It added that when these cultural heritages are fully exploited, they have the potential of attracting, not only international assistance and recognition to the country, but also repositioning Nigeria globally in the comity of nations, within the framework of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

The Intangible Cultural Heritage Committee, in fact, met online from December 13 to 18 to examine 55 new applications for inscription submitted by States Parties to the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

One of the most influential genres of African music and dance, Congolese rumba, is now on UNESCOs intangible heritage list.
Attaining this status is the end of campaign by two countries – the Democratic Republic of Congo and neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville.

They both occupy what was once the ancient kingdom of Kongo – where the sinuous dance originated according to the two nations’ joint application.

Congolese rumba joins other living traditions such as Jamaican reggae music and Singaporean hawker food on UNESCO’s “intangible cultural heritage of humanity”

Despite its African origins, another school of thought also have it that rumba has become more closely associated with Latin dance. Indeed, Cuban rumba was granted UNESCO intangible cultural heritage status back in 2016.

The style of rumba that emerged in Cuba in the 19th century had its roots in the drumming of slaves from central Africa, which was then combined with melodies from Cuba’s Spanish colonisers.

The rhythm however kept its distinctive character to the extent that when vinyl recordings were exported to central Africa in the 20th Century it was immediately recognised as rumba.

Among the earliest heroes of Congolese rumba were Wendo Kolosoy, Paul Nkamba, Franco and TPOK Jazz, Tabu Ley Rochereau, and Dr Nico.

Already, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) in a report, warned that the disappearance of traditional knowledge that, “Nature secrets, locked away in the songs, stories, art and handcrafts of indigenous people, may be lost forever as a result of growing globalisation.”

The Federal Government has, however, been urged to encourage a bill that will incorporate the contents and framework of the 2003 UNESCO Convention on the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in Nigeria.
The need for protection

Culture purists believe that African youths have turned away from their elders, breaking an ancient but fragile chain of oral traditions. And when cultural norms and values are changed suddenly, a vacuum is created with serious consequences.

In Nigeria, cultural sites, values, traditions, national monuments or heritage objects lack protection, even from some sections of government. For example, there was an allegation that Lagos State Government, under former Governor, Mr Akinwunmi Ambode, in 2016, was responsible for the demolition of the Ilojo Bar near Tinubu Square, Off Broad Street, Lagos Island.

The state government, to date, has not arrested or prosecuted the perpetrators of the crime, at least to prove that there was no official complicity in the demolition of the 161-year-old Ilojo Bar.

Designated as a national monument in 1956, the building, also called Olaiya House or Casa da Fernandez, was of Brazilian style designed-architecture.

Built in 1855, Ilojo Bar belonged to the Olaiya family of Lagos, whose patriarch Alfred Omolana Olaiya was said to have bought it from the Fernandez family in 1933.

However, the proposed-bill seems to have prescribed penalties for state or FG agencies that may violate provisions of heritage laws.

The bill, in prescribing punishments for violators, separates individuals from institutions. Dr. Sola Balogun of the Federal University, Oye Ekiti, said as a result of globalisation, Africa’s culture and traditional knowledge and experiences are dying, leaving the continent in danger of losing its past and jeopardising the future of its values, which are stored in the memories of the elders, healers, griots, midwives, farmers, fishermen, hunters and thinkers.

The academic added with the pace of modern life, an ever-shrinking rural and traditional world and ever- encroaching global standardisation of all aspects of life, Africa’s unique and vibrant culture is being slowly subsumed.

He pointed out that there are aspects of culture, which are directed towards socialising young members into functional adults by implanting norms, beliefs, values, knowledge and skills, as well as socio-cultural ideologies and social philosophy based on historical background of the people.

Prof. Olakunbi Olasope, Head, Department of Classics, University of Ibadan, said: “Many urban centres are shadows of themselves. Everybody is ‘escaping’ to Lagos. A friend of mine just got back from Offa. And he has this to say of the town. ‘The town is dwindling. There is evidence everywhere that its past was better than its present. Many abandoned houses, facilities in ruin, etc.’ Towns and cities across the country need to maintain the minimum of facilities and amenities that will attract and enable youthful energies, not repel them.”

Olasope noted, “The society needs to create better opportunities and channels for youthful energies (creativity) and for handing on the torch of excellence from the most worthy elders amongst us (culture). We have the materials to hand, a teeming young population and a ‘past’ that we all agree is far better than the present in its achievements.”

According to Dapo Adeniyi, a culture programmer, journalist and founder of Lekki Film Festival, rejigging Nigeria’s cultural heritage “is both a practical and intellectual pursuit.”

He said, “practical, because we must create sustainable or enduring cultural and creative markets — Something meaningful, not superficial. Cultural and creative products must be saleable so those who indulge in them can devote themselves to it and concentrate. Careers must be nurturable and pursuable. Then the benefit must be realisable on a social and industrial scale.”

For Dr. Sola Adeyemi of the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing, University of East Anglia, Norwich, United Kingdom, “our culture is our everyday customs, norms, values, traditions and beliefs. Our cultures are expressed through our cultural products, our performance, art, media, commerce, language and so on. A famous scholar says that ‘by their performance shall you know them’. So, how we perform our culture is important. Because of this, there are some dimensions to culture.”

Adeyemi canvassed the need to protect Africa’s tangible and cultural heritage. The culture scholar said, “We need to devise means to practice the promotion and imposition of our culture politically and economically as a determination of values. We need to transform our goods, services, ideas and other products into what can promote us for others to recognise and appreciate.”

He said, “We need to promote the contents of our culture – our performances, our art, theatre, music, clothing, food and language. These are our heritage. We must institutionalise the practice of all these to develop and grow our culture. And to sustain and popularise these, there has to be locations of identification of these practices.”

According to him, “culture has a positive social function, to unite people and establish a sense of shared pride, understanding and unity, and we need to harness this. We need to perform our culture to evolve.”

The former coordinator of master of art programme at the Goldsmith College, before he moved to University of East Anglia, said some towns are considered creative cities such as Osogbo, Abeokuta, Akwete, Awka and Osu . The textile and sculpturing centres of Osogbo, the textile and food centres of Abeokuta, and manufacturing centre of Awka – all these need to be recognised and turned into centres of excellence where our cultures are practised and performed.

“These centres should be turned into cultural schools to research our cultures, and to teach our people what they are gradually forgetting due to erosive and corrosive foreign models,” he said.

Balogun said: “Cultural policy of Nigeria makes it mandatory for governments at all levels and the private sector to harness, preserve and promote the country’s artistic and cultural products. Hence, both sectors should strategically initiate projects in this direction. For example, establishment of cottage industries where artisans and youths can learn and produce various artworks such as paintings, drawings, batik, craft, etc. should be encouraged right from the grassroots to the state and national levels.”

He added, “if the country’s culture policy is properly revisited and implemented, Nigeria would surely unlock the potential and values derivable from our teaming youths and their products would ultimately translate to monetary and aesthetic gains for our communities and cities.”

An opinion the artistic director of Arojah Theatre, Jerry Adesewo, also holds. The theatre practitioner said, “we can leverage culture and creativity for sustainable urban development and growth by creating policies that have to do with community development because growth start from the below.”

Adesewo said the lockdown and social exclusion interventions have highlighted the value of arts and culture for people’s mental wellbeing – and, likely, health, due to the increasingly recorded psychosomatic effects of cultural access.

But the benefits of safeguarding cultural heritage do not stop there, as Adesewo said. “One point that should be noted is that creative cultural industries attract tourism. Another would be that they provide an enhanced quality of life, which attracts companies and independent workers, particularly, for businesses that could be located anywhere.

Balogun concluded, on the part of the government, “political power should be utilised to encourage cultural peoples, regardless of their tribal divergence, to develop interest in promoting and marketing their cultural uniqueness and potency, which could be of socioeconomic advantage.”

A national policy framework on safeguarding living and cultural heritage in the country is long overdue, as the previous heritage legislation from the Colonial eras focused mainly on the conservation and management of tangible forms of heritage.

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