By Jimoh BABATUNDE
If one is to believe the Bible declarationÂ that King Solomon had so manyÂ women that he loved and that he married an Egyptian, the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites,Â then one might be tempted to believe that one of the 700 or 1000 wives he was reported to have married was Birikisu Sungbo, regarded as the BiblicalÂ Queen of Sheba.
Birikisu Sungbo’s grave has been shrouded in mystery and sustained by religious curiosity at a rustic village called Oke Eri in Ijebu Ode, Ogun State, Nigeria.
So a journey to the shrine from Lagos takes about one and half hour to Ijebu Ode by car. Since there is no direct vehicle from the park to Oke Eri, one has the option of taking a chartered car or a motor bike, so I decided to go on a motor bike for this journey which took less than half an hour.
Being Sunday, the entire Oke Eri village was quiet and few of the inhabitants of the village were in the churches around.
From inquiring as to the road leading to the Birikisu Sungbo shrine, an elderly man asked the bike man to take the only tarred road in the town straight down and that at the end of the road was the shrine.
So, the journey into the unraveling of the shrine has begun. At a stage there was fear as to where we were heading to as the road was desolate except for one or two white garment churches members who were seen coming out from the forest.
The fear became more palpable when one saw a snake that was killed on the road. The snake was grayish with white tail.
Arriving at the gate leading to the centre, it was under lock and key, with over grown weeds and pockets of new buildings under construction.
In a dilemma as to what to do, the bike man, John, suggested we go back to the village to inquire on how to gain access to the shrine. This we did.
In the village, after some inquiries, we were directed to see an elderly man who was said to be in charge of the Bilikisu Sungbo shrine.Enter Chief Moses Awofeko.
Meeting Chief Moses Awofeko in his room with broom in hisÂ hand, which he used to drive away flies, probably attracted to the compound by the numerous dogs around, evokes a memory of the village story teller.
I said â€œBaba Good day.â€Who is that? He asked.Baba, I am directed to see you Why? He asked.
â€œI am here to seeÂ the shrine of Birikisu Sungbo.â€ I replied.Ha ha ( laughter)Â If it is because of that you have to see me o! . Baba said.
I then asked if I could come in and he answered in the affirmative.So on entering the room, Baba Moses Awofeko as he introduced himself,Â said he would only tell me the story of the legendary woman if I gave him money. After some haggling, I gave a little amount of money and the story began.
But before he began, he said the keys to the shrine had been taken to Abeokuta, the State Capital, by government officials whom heÂ saidÂ wanted to renovate the place to a world class tourism attraction.
â€œShe came here from Ethiopia, where she was born with her numerous servants and is the first lady to wear a crown in this part of the world as she came with a crown on her head. But there was no means of transport in those days. It was claimed that she travelled in a whirlwind or rode on the back of an eagle.”
Pa Moses Awofeko, who claimed he is about 90 years, said King Solomon during his life time had the power to talk and interact with animals and birds. It was one of those birds that told Solomon about the pretty lady, Bilikisu, and Solomon came looking for her.
Asked who told him the story, Pa Awofeko claimed it was handed down to him by his forefathers and that he has spent the last 30 years of his life relating the story to tourists.
Another angle to the story is that the Birikisu of Sungbo was said to be the Queen of Sheba, an Arabian who met and fell in love with King Solomon. Later, the Queen of Sheba in her old age returned to Oke Eri where she died and was buried.
The Bible is silent on whether the Queen of Sheba ever married King Solomon. But, Pa Awofeko believes that Queen of Sheba (Birikisu) did, but did not have any child for King Solomon.
Pa Moses Awofeko went further to say that Birikisu Sungbo was a wealthy woman who was a leader of a group of women potters.
â€œIn her lifetime, she had many slaves and many important visitors came to her from far and near whom she hosted, lavishly. Sungbo herself travelled widely, possibly to return the visits made to her.â€
Birikisu was believed to have supernatural powers. She was believed to have dug pits around the village with a mere needle.
â€œThese pits could be found throughout Ijebu area and could have been dug to serve either as remembrance of her greatness after her death by her devoted slaves or as a source of water supply in the dry season. The pits are generally called Sungbo Rivers.â€
On her tomb no weed has ever been known to grow there and on the spot where she was washed before being buried.
Asked if this is still the case, Pa Awofeko responded yes.
Women, according to the culture of the place, are forbidden access to the real tomb.
It was claimed that a European woman, the wife of Captain Ross, the Resident in Ijebu Ode, who put the taboo to test, died soon after she deliberately stepped on the grave.
Both Christians and Muslims are convinced the grave is a sacred place, so thousands of Christians and Muslims come to pray there every year.
HeÂ explains why many of them are convinced that Birikisu Sungbo is none other than the Queen of Sheba.
â€œAll what Iâ€™m saying is in the history given to me â€” whatever is asked for at her grave side is accepted.
You will not believe the crowd that moves there during the Christmas period or Muslim festivals when the religious faithful go thereÂ to pray.â€He said most of them do come back to thank her for prayers answered.
The State government needs to do more than it is presently doing at the centre. Recreational facilities being built for the convenience of the visitors should be completed on time. The two chalets there are nothing to write home about.
The access road is in a sorry state and it needs to be up-graded.
As the world celebrates Tourism and Biodiversity later in the year, the groove of the Birikisu Sungbo shrine is a good example of a healthy ecosystem which forms the cornerstone of thousands of tourist enterprises and products worldwide, attracting hundreds of millions of tourists each year. Let’s keep this legacy alive and reap the proceeds acruing therefrom.