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There’ nothing fetish about Igue Festival — Chief David Edebiri

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Chief David Edebiri, The Esogban of Benin Kingdom

Igue Festival is a celebration that has its origin in the Benin Empire. One tradition states that the festival date coincided with Ewuare’s marriage to a woman called Ewere. It is usually celebrated between Christmas and New Year, and includes the oba’s blessing of the land and his people. During the Igue rituals, the oba is prohibited from being in the presence of any non-native. The Esogban of Benin Kingdom, Chief David Edebiri recently told Palace Watch the significance of the festival to the Bini people.

What is the history behind Igue festival?
Oba Ewuare I instituted Igue Festival. He reigned in Benin between 1440 and 1473, and that was when the Igue Festival was instituted. Prior to that, there were other festivals and cultural activities. But Oba Akenzua II thought that these ceremonies could be put together to last for a couple of days because of the present movement of people. The Igue was one of the ceremonies put together and it was to be the terminal point of all. Not many people know about this; that within the Igue Festival, there are so many other festivals and ceremonies. But the Igue being what it is, being the only ceremony, where every Benin man and woman participates, it overshadows all others. So, that is why we generally refer to it as Igue festival now.

The Igue proper was initiated by Oba Ewuare I, following his experiences while fighting as a prince for the Benin throne. His name was Prince Ogun, the son of Oba Ohen. He fought a very bitter battle before becoming the king, and finally getting the throne. He travelled extensively and certain things happened while he was in the wilderness. So, he vowed that if he should ever become a king, he would establish a ceremony of thanksgiving to God Almighty, as well as all the ancestors that made it possible for him to become king. So, when he eventually became Oba Ewuare the first, he also chose the title Owoura that was corrupted to Ewuare, which means all the evils and squabbles that happened to him have all gone; and that everything was now alright. So, when he came on board as king, he remembered that vow, and that was how Oba Ewuare I instituted the Igue Festival.

Ever since, subsequent obas have held tenaciously to this festival. It has become the prime festival of the Benin people. It heralds the coming to an end of a particular year and the entry into another year, just like the English people have December 31st to January 1st. That is the genesis of Igue.

And though some people, like the new set of Christians refer to it as a pagan festival, there is nothing pagan about it. There is nothing fetish about the festival. It is a just thanksgiving service, but because of how our own development was then, the ancestors decided that on that day, every member of the family should assemble. And through whom do you thank God Almighty? You thank your head that has carried the whole body throughout the whole year, through where you then access God himself, and He will answer your prayers to make the incoming year a more prosperous one. That is what we do.

It is exactly like the New Year festival and to symbolise it, the particular leave he found on the day he was in the jungle, he noted it and called it ebowere, which means leave of victory. So, what we do during the Igue Festival is to give thanks to the Lord, to your head that has seen you through and ask the ancestors to make the coming year a better one for the city, for the community and so on. Then the ewere leaves are brought to be exchanged, just like you do Christmas cards. So, people bring the leaves to me and others do same and exchange them. The young people go to the bush and pluck the leaves, and then give the elders who could not go. The leaves are passed from one hand to another, with the same greeting of happy New Year and you reply ‘the same to you.’ There is really nothing fetish about it. It is a ceremony of blessings.

Why is it so timed that it coincides with the end-of-year activities?
That it is being celebrated towards the end of the year is for convenience. It was not so in the olden days. In Benin, we have 13 lunar months that make up a calendar year and out of these, only what we now call February was free of any ceremony in Benin. In the olden day, the other months were tied to one ceremony or the other, before it came to the terminal point around October. But because of the way the society is now, and the fact that people are now scattered all over the world, which prevents them from attending the ceremony though they would have loved to come home and be a part of it, they are able to take the opportunity of the end of year holidays to interact with their people. So, from the time of Eweka II after the British had taken over the government, it was so arranged that all the activities terminate in the Igue Festival.

How has this festival impacted Binis as a people and as a society?
Over the years, it has impacted the Benin society positively. During the Igue Festival, people are taught to be patriotic and to love their neighbours as themselves. During the Igue Festival, if you are a well-to-do person, your house is opened to anybody in your neighbourhood to come in and eat and drink, irrespective of whether you were friendly or not. It is a time of giving and showing concern for the less privileged in the society. It is all about free food, free drinks, friendliness and goodwill.

It is a period, when we celebrate from house to house. It brings harmony within the society. It has impacted the people of Benin positively, which is why no Benin man of any standing takes the Igue Festival lightly. We hold it in great reverence and we believe that through our prayers, God Almighty will always bless the land. But more importantly, during this festival, every society usually organises some form of combat sport like wrestling, which helps in the development of physical well-being of the people. Such areas as Uronigbe and Iyokhorionmown have special wrestling tournaments during the Igue festival and even in the oba’s palace. So, it helps in several ways.

With modernity, is there any fear of the Igue Festival going into extinction? 
Yes, the fear is there. There is a general apprehension on the part of some of us who are patriots that, if care is not taken, the new generation of Christians might read their Bible wrongly, which will affect the usual patronage the people give to our Igue festival. When we had the last one on December 30, all those that spoke preached one thing— that it is not a fetish ceremony, it is not about a deity. It is our culture, a part of our life. Therefore, people should not misinterpret it to their flock. We are also not giving any chance. We are also telling our people not to be taken in by the new people, and the Christians know that.

Even in Rome, the Italians have not discarded their tradition. They still cherish their traditions, where the pope is. So this is our own tradition. It has nothing to do with individuals’ faith. You could be a Muslim or a Christian; it does not affect you at all. I am a Christian. I profess Christianity because I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. I believe that He came here and died for us and He also rose. I am a born-again Christian, but that does not mean that I should discard my own tradition and culture, which gives me pride. If I don’t have a place I call my roots, then I am not a human being.

So, we appreciate the inherent danger in the propagation of certain doctrines. A leader of one of these new churches in Benin here publicly told his members not to touch the ewere leave. He asked why they should touch that dirty leave; that it is satanic. Those who were convinced by whatever he said started running away from it, but thanks to the Almighty God and our ancestors, today, people are realising that your being a Christian or a Muslim has nothing to do with upholding your culture. So, many of them are returning.

Coincidentally, this year’s ewere day fell on a Sunday, but you won’t believe the number of people that came to give these leaves. Those who will make heaven to be with our Lord Jesus Christ, will do so by their performance and not because they believe in their own tradition. We are taking steps to tell our people that this is not anti-Christ; it is not anti any religion. When I was celebrating the Igue, bishops and other high-ranking priests were all here. However, we will continue to tell our people not to allow themselves to be taken in by this cheap propaganda.


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