BY OBICHERE IWUAGWU
From time immemorial, the worship at the shrine of Chileke Oriukwu has been the singular identity of the common ancestry of the teeming people of Ezinihitte Mbaise who originally camped and resided around Oriukwu. It was their belief that Orieukwu Oboama-na-Umunama was the seat of the creation of the world and the spirit.
Before Christianity gained considerable foothold in Ezinihitte, the communities, once a year, gathered at the shrine of Chileke Orieukwu to offer worship to the Creator (Chileke) for their fortunes and harvest of the year and as well render supplications for the future.
The ceremony was preceded, eight days ealier, by a secret and mysterious race in the night called, Oso Nwannunu which was led by the Priest of the shrine of Amachi of Akpokwu Egbelu in Akpodim to the shrine of Chileke Orieukwu. Nobody ate or drank anything until the special function of itu aka had been performed by the priest of Amachi of Akpodim.
During the itu aka, the priest of the shrine of Amachi recounted the events of the year, poured libations and recited incantations. He concluded the itu aka function by touching his throat and lips thus announcing the commencement of feasting, and people regaled themselves on the sacrificial meals and other food brought for the occasion. By this cultural interaction, it was believed that the forefathers maintained their ancient affinities with the living.
How the kola nut festival was approved
But in the thick of the Christian religious worship, the traditional worship of Chileke Orieukwu has survived only in its lowest ebb. The declining attendance of the votaries of Chileke Orieukwu to the yearly rituals, in the wake of Christain religious proselytism, rendered the annual worship an ineffective socio cultural assembly for all Ezinihitte Communities.
For this reason, in August 1953, a home and abroad meeting of Onyeaghala Nwanneya was convened at No.84 Hospital Road, Aba and the deliberation centered on evolving another cultural event that could draw all Ezinihitte Communities together irrespective of religious affiliations.Thus, the kola nut (oji) festival received approval.
However, the ceremony would no longer be held at Orieukwu. But since the communities still guard very jealously their age-old cultural links, Ezinihitte people evolved another ritual with the kola nut which is still celebrated today as Oji Festival. Through this act of commensality, the people thus, bring into relief the principle of “Kola nut Communion” through which the kola nut is shown as the greatest symbol of affinity (Ife ’92).
Therefore,on 1st January annually, all the Ezinihitte towns/autonomous communities assemble to trace their roots and relieve the spirit of brotherhood as people with a common background. The towns/autonomous communities come together on equal status despite size or population (Udo ‘90).
Although the communities attend the celebration on equal footing, certain autonomous communities had protested against their position in the circle of Oji Festival. Their present position, they claim, is not in keeping with their place at the age-long traditional worship of Chileke Orieukwu. This was the Case notably with Akpodim and Udo which withdrew from the Oji celebration until issues appeared tentatively resolved through the grouping the communities by consanguinity.
This arrangement affirms the tradition:that kola nut from a host’s house, must first rotate among immediate blood relations before it travels to more distant neighbours. The cultural fiesta sets off with glamour in the afternoon on 31st December with the formal hand-over of Okwa Oji to the host Eze in Council and the officials of the community Development Union at the boundary by the host community of the previous year.
Amidst the booming of cannon shots, singing and dancing, the Eze receives the Okwa Oji and goes home with his council comprising; Ndi Eze, Ndi Nze and Chiefs, the officials of the Ezinihitte Development Union (EDA), Ezinihitte Heritage Club, Ezinihitte Social Club, Special guests and others present.
The procession moves slowly with reverence and decorum on foot or in cars, depending on the distance, until the Okwa Oji arrives at the Eze’s Palace. Grand feasting of the above sets of at the Eze’s palace. At the palace, Ndi Eze and the official of the EDA sit together to review the programmes and preparations of the next day.
The events of 1st January commence about eleven in the morning when crowds of people from the communities and from far and wide flow into the arena. The Ezinihitte communities take their seats in the various booths arranged in order from Oboama-na-Umunama to Onicha. The central booth is occupied by Ndi Eze who as custodians of culture and customs oversee the organization of the festival with the aid of the EDA.
A booth is made available to accommodate VIPs and other dignitaries from Ezinihitte, other parts of Mbaise and beyond. Ndi Eze and Chiefs find it more expedient to occupy the booth with their communities. Meanwhile, the concourse is enthralled with various displays of traditional dances. Finally, when all is ready, Ndi Eze, finely dressed in their regalia, come into the arena in a cortege.
The ceremony begins with introduction of the Chairman of the occasion by the Master of ceremony and the rendering of prayers. Addresses are presented by the host community and the Ezinihitte Conference of Traditional Rulers.
From one corner of the arena, the Cabinet members of the host community, all resplendent in their native attires, have gradually been moving the Okwa Oji with singing and rejoicing, place it in front of the Traditional Rulers.
The presentation of the Okwa Oji and the Oji (kola nuts) by Ndi Nze and Chiefs of the host community to Ndi Eze marks the actual commencement of the Oji ritual. The Okwa bears the Oji and Ufra (Nzu) which are the main items for the day’s ritual. The climax of the performance is ichi Oji.
This slightly edited version culled from Mbaise News is originally published in the book, Mbaise-A Development Survey