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Festivals as panacea for cultural preservation: Ogiri and Oyarore in perspective

By Habila Ibrahim Adokwe

All African societies have unique socio-cultural and religious methods by which they worship their gods and coordinate activities of their communities. The Alago people are no exception of this order. Alago are indigenous nation of Kwararafa extraction who possess some socio-cultural and religious institutions and ceremonies which they celebrate and practice over the years. The natural causes of events for the survival and continuity of these ceremonies is the smooth handover from one generation to another. However, this has not been smoothly done as a result of some obvious reasons which fundamentally, is the encounter of Alago with modern civilization (new religions). We are therefore, at a time when our society is in transition from its original culture to the alien practice. This obvious transition is gradually leading to cultural extinction of some socio-religious practices. Oyigbenu asserts in his book The Story of Agwatashi, 2005 that “Alago is a product of a rich culture with a well-defined tradition. The people have over the years exhibited unshaken commitment to the observance and respect for all cultural items of ancestral heritage. These items, he believes, manifest in the ways of life of the people and in different festivals as bequeathed to them by their forebears. Typical of these festivals are among others, the Ogiri festival of Olosoho (Agwatashi) and Oyarore festival of Akyana (Keana) which this topic seeks to discuss for the purpose of comparative knowledge.

It is believed that festival is one of the strong activities that enhance cultural preservation, particular in most African societies. This is because of the display of traditional bustle during the celebration, which perhaps, has been bequeathed by the forebears. Now let us reflect on the roles of Ogiri and Oyaore Festivals of Olosoho and Keana.

The Ogiri Festival

The Ogiri festival of Olosoho is an annual festival that is celebrated between December and January every year, preceding harvest as a thanksgiving to God and the spirit of ancestors for bumper harvest. Another version believes that it is a commemoration of the victory of wars which is celebrated to serve as appreciation to God and the spirit of ancestors for the victory at war. The two versions of Ogiri festival indicate an annual thanksgiving to God and ancestors. Ogiri festival dates back to the reign of Osoho Okyetami (1787-1860) when Agwatashi community moved from their old settlement (Olenekye) and established the present-day Agwatashi, and because the major occupation of the people of Agwatashi at its establishment was farming, the need to show appreciation to God Almighty and the gods of the ancestors for bumper harvest of the farm produce became utmost; hence, the celebration of Ogiri festival. It is believed that the constant celebration of the annual Ogiri festival made the whole Agwatashi land to be more fertile for farming activities, thus, attracted people to come and settle at Agwatashi for farming.

It is worthy to note that, the community first experienced inter-communal war with the people of Keffi during the reign of Osoho Agye (1881-1915), when Keffi people noticed that Agwatashi was still practicing traditional religion. This made them to storm Agwatashi with the intention to make the people of Agwatashi to shun the traditional belief and accept Islamic culture through Jihad; and as a result, it became a war between the two communities. When the war ended in favour of Agwatashi, the community merged the celebration of victory to Ogiri festival (appreciation to God and the gods for bumper harvest, as well as the celebration of victory).

The Oyarore Festival

Oyarore festival of Keana is a celebration of life, being, existence and settlement of the people of Keana. It is to be noted that the establishment of Keana is associated to the salt discovery during the sojourn of the migration of Alago people. The celebration of Oyarore is therefore, in appreciation to God and the ancestors for the discovery of salt and subsequent abundant exploration in the area. It is believed that whenever the Oyarore festival is celebrated, the salt exploration becomes more abundant.

Oral tradition has it that, when the first Osana of Keana, Akyana Adi wanted to appreciate God for the salt discovery, he gathered his followers and celebrated in a traditional method, as he believed that by showing appreciation, the subsequent production would be in abundance. The celebration of Oyarore is a double celebration: the celebration of the salt discovery and the celebration of the establishment of Keana community.

However, this celebration was seamless until 1862-1902 during the reign of Osana Ozegya Eladoga who paid homage to Bauchi Emirate in acceptance of the Emirate’s request of creating relationship among themselves. When this relationship started, Osana Ozegya still maintained the practice of his traditional religion but some people in Keana started accepting Islamic religion since the first contact of Keana with some Muslim traders around 1782 when Osana Ozegya Adi returned from Wukari and was accompanied by some Kanuri warriors who were then, Muslims. By this encounter, they started deviating from participating in Oyarore festival. This development however, did not affect the traditional institution of Keana community but affected massive participation in Oyarore festival.

The Ogiri and Oyarore festivals are widely recognized festivals of the Alago people of Agwatashi and Keana. They are among the long established cultural practices that have been handed over to the peoples of Agwatashi and Keana by their ancestors, and they constitute the strategies of cultural preservation through which the peoples display their cultural heritage, assert their powers in the midst of their neighbours and create an avenue for cultural exchanges.

The festivals summon Alago people of Agwatashi and Keana to reunite and work together, and for the younger generation to learn about their culture amidst merriment. The festivals which often span a period of seven-days, encompass a variety of activities that stress communalism and attract not only the interest of the peoples of Agwatashi and Keana but their neighbours as well, through various protocols of interactions, such as inter-marriages, resettlement, migrations and trade among others. During the celebration of these festivals, the people of Agwatashi and Keana, use the period to pray for protection against war and afflictions.

It is pertinent to note that, Ogiri and Oyarore festivals contribute to the preservation of intangible cultural assets such as living cultural knowledge, identity, meaning, and core values embedded in the traditional customs or rituals of the host communities, which museums cannot adequately display, such as the traditional attires, the protection of shrines and the practice of traditional songs. In addition, there are events preceding the celebrations of these festivals. For instance, Ogiri Festival is preceded by Onya ni ya me’be which is observed for seven days and ended with a beautiful dancing procession by masquerades, beautifully dressed, with young men singing and demonstrating their physical and spiritual prowess. Before the staging of Ogiri, there is a pilgrimage to the ancestral Adekwu, where prepared condiment is sprayed at a spot called Okwa. It is expected that the very crab that appeared in the anointing of the Osava Ekwu would appear to eat up the condiment. If the crab eats up the condiment, there will be a shrill chant that heralds a celebration of peace with the ancestors and the gods of the land. The Ogiri festival is climaxed with the lifting of Eku which is the principal masquerade of the festival as a mark of honour. During the period, many traditional rituals are performed which depict cultural practices in relation to the significance of Ogiri festival. The Oyarore festival on the other hand, is also preceded with Ogworose, Ojakioba, Agwonya, Owebibi, Alene, Igyonya, Otonobi, Adumasa. Meanwhile, the Osana’s systematic royal steps to the rhythm mark the climax and apparently, the end of Adumasa. The Oyarore festival is concluded with verdict, where all title holders will converge in Otowuso, a special Court in the palace, to review the conduct and or the success recorded, and errant members of the society are appropriately sanctioned.

However, it is imperative to point that the celebration of these festivals got hampered as a result of the intrusion of Islam and Christianity in Agwatashi and Keana as in other African communities, where we started witnessing divided allegiance to traditional worship and customs. While the new phenomenon reduced the number of adherents and participation in Ogiri and Oyarore festivals, it did not affect the essence of these festivals, as the usual ritual rites and communal activities have been preserved. These festivals continued to serve as communal tools for cooperation among the peoples of Agwatashi and Keana and those of their neighbouring towns, in spite of the influence of the alien cultures.

It is heartwarming to state that the restoration of Ogiri festival is indeed playing the role of cultural preservation and unity in Agwatashi. However, the continued decline of Oyarore festival as a result of external influence has greatly affected the customs and traditions of the people of Keana. This, I must say is a great point to understand cultural preservation in Agwatashi and cultural extinction in Keana.

Furthermore, it is argued that modernization and civilization contribute in changing the phase of the celebration to meet with the modern trend. It is also believed to have affected some traditional rites of the festivals. Suffice to point out that the Alago people’s priority in the cultures which I considered to be “received”, has fundamentally affected Alago culture and traditions, particularly in Keana. By implication, all efforts to engender peace and unity amongst Alago people may not yield result because some communities have completely neglected the major event that fosters unity. Without any contradiction, I wish to state that for over a decade of near absence of festival in Agwatashi, there had never been an event that brings sons, daughters, friends and well-wishers of Agwatashi together for a common goal until the 18th of December, 2021 when Ogiri festival was resuscitated. It is not so in Keana, as event which should bring the people together for a common unity has been neglected and watched to go into extinction. I am aware that Keana community has introduced an annual Islamic lecture, where renounced Islamic scholars are always invited to sensitize the people of the community. It is not wrong, as modernity moves. But the Islamic lecture is for the benefit of a particular religious faith. While I commend the people of Keana for the effort aimed at bringing sanity to the community, I also challenge them to evolve measures towards reviving the Oyarore festival for the general benefit of the people of Keana, and by extension, Alago.

To this end, like other great cultures that flourished and declined in history, some Alago communities are on the verge of losing their history if we did not protect and preserve our customs and traditions. Ogiri and Oyarore festivals have undergone a process of change from their inceptions. Even though modernization has helped in shaping the celebration of these festivals, it has also contributed to their decline, as a result, interest and participation in the event has been dampened by the influence of Islam and Christianity in Agwatashi and Keana. We have a responsibility, therefore, to rise up to the challenge and preserve our cherished culture which was handed over to us by our forebears.

Adokwe is Matawallen Agwatashi

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