Omu: Queen mother with immense appeal, authority – Her Royal Majesty Obi Martha Dunkwu
One unique cultural practice synonymous with Anioma people of Delta State is the institutionalisation of an Omu, the Queen Mother. The reigning Omu Anioma and Okpanam is 62-year-old Her Royal Majesty Obi Martha Dunkwu. Palace Watch recently had an interview with her.
What is the meaning of “Omu” and how did it come about?
OUR history has shown that Anioma people came from different places and backgrounds. While some came from Edo, others came from Nri, and some from the present-day Yoruba land. This is partly why we don’t have a general dialect in Anioma. The Ika have their own dialect, just like the Anochia-Oshimili and Ndokwa also do.
The Omu history, according to Professor Onwuejeogwu, who founded the Anthropology Department at the University of Benin, began about 700 years ago. He gave the history of the name “Omu” in our local dialect and it means, “palm frond.” To us, palm frond means “fertility.” The palm tree is female, and the frond connotes fertility. That was how they named the institution Omu. The palm tree, according to our culture, is a holistic tree, as so many things come from it.
While growing up, did you know you would become the Omu one day?
You don’t come about Omu. You don’t wish for the Omu throne in Anioma. It is a taboo to wish to become an Omu. You become the Omu as a result of the will of God. The Omu institution, as I have already told you, is indigenous to the Anioma people of Delta State. And it differs from community to community. While it is hereditary to certain families in some communities, in others, it is rotational.
When the Omu passes on, the elders talk to God and the ancestors, and the revelation of who becomes the Omu would manifest. The Omu throne is not a position or post to be contested or competed for. It is also not a position any woman in Anioma would wish for. No woman in Anioma will grow up and say she wishes to become an Omu. No, it is the will of God, guided by our ancestors.
What are the functions of an Omu?
An Omu is leader of women. She is also the custodian of the market. Thirdly, she is the spiritual guide to the community and the traditional ruler. She is the only female member of the traditional council. The traditional ruler is the father of the community, while the Omu is the mother of the community. Together, the father and mother govern the community. This is what the Omu is. Now, at the point of coronation, once you are pronounced an Omu, you have to leave your marital home, because the Omu can’t be married. At the point of coronation as an Omu, you are bestowed with male rights. So, as an Omu, you are a man and woman put together.
As an Omu, you have to leave your marital home and return to your father’s home, where a palace would be built for you. At this instance, like any other king, you are now entitled to marry two wives or more – that is, if you decide to. They will bear children, and the children are yours as an Omu.
Is it true that once you ascend the throne as an Omu, you are not expected to have sex any more?
(Prolonged laughter) I did not say that. (She went on laughing for a very long time.) But even if that was the case, do Reverend fathers and sisters marry? And Buddhist monks, do they marry? No.
For those that are Christians, when Jesus Christ went without food for 40 days and 40 nights, was it that He was not hungry? It was just that God removed the spirit of hunger and thirst from Him.
Are you saying that once you ascend the throne as an Omu, even at a very tender age like you did, the urge for those things no longer occur?
I never said these things; you are imputing them. It is all your interpretation. (Another round of laughter)
Isn’t the tradition of an Omu not living under the same roof with any man strange to our culture?
To the Anioma people and culture, it is not strange. Initially, I tried to research into it. Why is the practice so, I asked myself? If the traditional ruler could marry, why should the Omu not also marry? The research showed that because the Omu is also the mother of the whole community, both men and women, our ancestors decided that if the Omu, who is not just the leader of women in the community, but also the mother to all the people, is allowed to continue to live under the same roof with a man, and one day, the man wakes up and slaps her, the man in question will invariably have slapped the whole community. If that same man decides to disrespect her too, it is the whole community that is disrespected.
So, in their own wisdom, they said no, this woman that is going to be the symbol of motherhood to all of us couldn’t be allowed to live with a man again. So, they agreed that the Omu should be put in a pride of place, where she will not be a variable of three meals a day. This is one of the reasons: once one is crowned as an Omu, she is bestowed with male rights. This is again one of the reasons an Omu has her own traditional council of chiefs, although the Omu’s chiefs are inferior to those of the Obi-in-Council. But even at that, the Omu has her own chiefs, her palace and her functionaries. If she decides, she also has her own wives and children. The Omu’s children have the same rights as the ones you had biologically before one got into the institution. This is our tradition and this is the way our forefathers designed it.
What are the challenges of being an Omu?
I would say the challenges are really herculean in physical terms. The work of the Omu is 80 percent spiritual, as she is all the time praying for the community, praying for the people to make progress in life, as well as seeking solutions to their problems or challenges. Because an Omu operates in a higher spiritual realm, I don’t think I would want to see the work of an Omu as extraordinarily challenging. As I am very much aware, God does not give one an assignment one can’t undertake.
There are lots of taboos in the markets where you superintend. For example, one is not expected to carry loads with two hands at the centre of the market. There are also daily issues of stealing, quarreling and fighting, among others. It is your duty to settle all these. How do you go about your assignment on a daily basis? How do you handle strangers that are not used to your customs and tradition?
Because we are living a cosmopolitan world now, when strangers stray into those areas, we ask our functionaries to correct them and let them know that what they are doing is wrong. A human being is very complex animal. So, if we leave the market without control, there will be killings, stealing, as well as fighting. That is why our forefathers decided that the market must come under the purview of an Omu. And whatever an Omu says in the market is final.
Even when local government officials are coming to do anything in the market, they first seek the Omu’s opinion. And if what they are coming up with are things we don’t really want done, we tell them nicely. We work hand-in-hand with local government council officials.
So, what we are doing is to help move humanity forward. We try in all that we do to help lay a solid foundation, and where such is shaky we lay a new one. Like I normally tell my people, it is like we start all over again on a fresh canvas. We try to paint a new picture that would be a masterpiece.
So, the Omu not only helps Local Government Councils to function properly, but also helps the council to generate money. How do you deal with the politicians that head these councils? How do you get them to do what is right for the people?
Council chairmen are politicians, and are involved in a lot of intrigues. But as the mother of the community, who wants the community to move forward, I have to do what is right, put the community’s interest first, and find a way of working with these politicians, so there won’t be disharmony. But if I have to take sides, I will stand with my people. Politicians are transient; we are all transient on planet earth. We human beings are transient in the sense that once we finish our earthly journey, we return home. But the transient nature of politicians is that they have four or more years to perform in office, after which they are out, whether they like it or not. And we are still on the throne, so we have the interest of the community at heart more than that of the politicians.
Your Majesty, you were once saddled with the responsibility of managing the image of the immediate past Oba of Benin, Oba Erediawua and Benin Palace. What happened and how did you get that job?
If you must know, I come from a traditional background and I am today sitting on a traditional throne. So, I would not say that assignment was complex coming from that background.
I first met with Oba Erediauwa in 1976, when he was the Commissioner for Finance in the defunct Bendel State. I was working in the Ministry, while he was the Commissioner. I then travelled overseas in 1977, and returned in 1984.
In giving me the job, a lot of confidence was reposed in me, as Benin kingdom is massive. It is a revered throne respected worldwide. So, for the monarchy to ask my company then to manage its image was not only awesome, but also showed that; obviously, a lot of respect and confidence was reposed in my person. So, I made sure I did all within my powers never to disappoint the Oba.
Could you tell us some of the unique experiences you had while managing the late Oba’s image, alongside that of the Palace?
Almost all you do for a king is unique, because he is a different person every day and at every different occasion. So, I won’t single out any one thing, though I must confess it was a very challenging and very humbling experience. I felt gratified that Benin Palace found my establishment and me worthy to handle their images.
The job was made easy because Omo N’Oba Erediauwa of blessed memory was broadminded and vast. He knew how to handle every ethnicity and tribe. He knew very well about the institution of the Omu, even before I eventually became the Omu. So, I learnt from working with him how to become man and a woman put together. To a great extent, I would say the late Oba helped to prepare me for the throne I am occupying today. May the Lord continue to bless him wherever he is today!
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