Madam Christianah Oliha … I am a juju worshipper
•Skulls, ancient cowries, even tortoise
By Simon Ebegbulem, Benin-City
Relics of normal life in time past are much sought after in sacrificial preparations. Some of these objects and materials, to the uninitiated, are very hard to come by. To the uninitiated, seeing a tortoise could probably be at the zoo, but for those who indulge in sacrificial practices, they know where exactly to go, they know the right market and they know the right people to call on.
The traditional Oliha and Ekiosa markets in Benin City are the right places to go if one needs those rare animals, native chalks, coins and several other materials which have spent over two hundred years. Feathers of rare birds like ostrich, sparrow and even vulture, all of which have different connotations, as investigations revealed, you can get in these markets also.
Things that were hitherto used as means of exchange in the days of old including cowries have now become ingredients of sacrificial preparations. Invariably, earthen pots serve as vessel for the preparations. Earthen pots are still very popular in Benin because they keep food steamy. Local restaurants serve delicacies like black soup, banga soup or even pepper soup in earthen pots. Whereas earthen pots play major role in the preparation of several sacrifices performed by traditionalists, these sacrifices are kept mainly in junctions because they believe that many legs cross such places.
The practice continues among Binis, according to a resident. “The practice is still very relevant here, basically, because we love our tradition which includes sacrifices”, he boasted. There was a time Bishop Margaret Idahosa of Church of God Mission was asked to comment on the proliferation of churches in Benin City, and she said, “Is it not better we have that than the usual sacrifices we see in the streets?”
Investigations revealed some of the reasons people resort to the agelong practice of sacrifice include protection, search for luck, down turn in circumstance. Others do it to seek the face of the gods against conditions such as bareness, stagnation or to even ward off evil or unpalatable situations. On a collective note, individuals or groups gather to make sacrifice like in cases of annual festivals such as the Igue festival in Benin Kingdom or other customary or periodic ones.
Some of these sacrifices are believed to be capable of appeasing the ancestors or the gods of the land. In other instances, sacrifices have been made to bring or stop rain depending on the situation.
Situations have been seen in the past where celebrants who have invested heavily in coming ceremonies including burial, birthday parties, call traditionalists to offer sacrifice to avert rain during the occasions. In such instances, curious observers can see at a corner of a big party or event people making wood fire and pouring palm oil and local gin to seek the face of the gods and avert rain. We have the Osun Oshogbo festival in Osun State, the Olokun festival in the South-west and even in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, which all serve as pointer that people are still enmeshed in sacrificial offerings, if not obligations. Elsewhere people sacrifice to deities which they connect to, including Ogun, Olokun,Yemoja, all of which investigations showed still have active priests watching as gatemen in their (the gods) continuous existence.
To further buttress the import of these deities and sacrifices in Benin Kingdom and even other parts of the country, the people of Ikhuenebo in Uhumwonde Local Government Area of Edo State, recently, vowed never to cede any of their shrines to the people of Iguomo. Iguomo had claimed that the land, where over twenty shrines are located in Ikhuenebo community, belongs to them. The chief priest of Ikhuenobo, Chief Enawakponmwhem Aighobahi, who took Sunday Vanguard round the shrines, said they will rather die than give up the shrines.
He narrated, “Our shrines were founded by Oba Ewuare the Great who led Benin Kingdom from 1440-1473. Where I am standing now, Oba Ewuare is the founder of this Okwuainebenaka shrine. This shrine is number two in the hierarchy of all Okwaihe in Ikwe. We have been here since over one thousand years ago, we are not strangers. You can see the structure of the shrine. I am the Ohen; among the top 16 Ohen chief priests, I am the second in hierarchy. The senior one is at Ewiekoyu.
I am a descendant of Ohiobonikwe on that lineage because the title is hereditary. So it came to us as a shock that Iguomo community said that the whole of Ikhuobo land belongs to them”.
One could see that the community had not relented in their efforts to give the gods what belongs to them through daily sacrifices. This observation led Sunday Vanguard to Kemwinkemwin market, as the line where the sacrificial materials is called in Oliha and Ekiosa markets.
The visit was quite revealing. Sunday Vanguard went with a Bini interpreter, Ogieva Oyemwenosa, because those who deal in these materials are elderly women who are traditionalists and don’t speak English. It was learnt that the materials are used for sacrifices both for good and evil, while those who deal in them are also pure traditionalists who worship different gods. Walking round Kémwinkémwin could be scary because you see the skulls of monkey, owl, pigeon, sparrow, hyena, live tortoise and their skulls too. Any customer around the line definitely came to buy one sacrificial object or another. Foreigners also come from Europe and America to purchase these things because Sunday Vanguard was informed that some white people also worship Olokun (river goddess).
At the Kemwinkemwin line of Oliha market, 76-year-old Madam Christianah Oliha explained some of the materials to Sunday Vanguard: “What I am holding now are the Azáolokun, Adá and the Ebèn, used for worshipping Olokun. This one is Uleko, someone that has had his bath with juju is the one that wears it. I have taken that bath, so I am free to wear it.
What about native chalk. What is it used for?
“Native chalk (Orhue) is used for juju dance; it can be ground and eaten. When you grind it, you put it in your hand and use it to praise God. Whether you go to church or you serve juju, when you pour
it out in your hand, you add salt to it and you use it to praise God to guide you and your family.
What about cowries?
“Ikpigho (cowries) are used to worship Olokun. We use them for good things, we don’t throw them away. You can use them for Orunmila (god served with white clothes), you can use it for Sángo, and you can also use it to plant evil.
How long have these things been in existence?
“It has been long, over two hundred years. I grew up to meet them. When I was growing up, Anini (Benin coin used those days for transactions) was used to buy things. Initially, cowries were being used for transaction. From the cowries, we started using Anini. It was the Anini that I grew up to meet. From Anini, we moved to Ekpini. All of them are here. From Ekpini, we started using Kobo. Cowries were used for transaction during the time of my forefathers.
“It is used when one wants to perform a juju ceremony. Alligator pepper mixed with Afòr, native chalk (Òrhue) and ash (Emuè) is used to clean abomination. With native pepper, you use it to cleanse yourself before you start the juju ceremony. This is what was applicable in the days of old. You grind the native chalk, put your leg on it and count six, take it round your neck which signifies cleansing before entering inside for the main juju ceremony”.
Asked when she started the business, Madam Oliha explained that she was into yam and goat business before she “entered the juju properties (Kèmwinkèmwin) business and so far it has favoured me and my family”.
She continued: “This business has been good for me. It has improved the life of my children, it has given me all I require in life. People started the business before most of us, our mothers were in this market before they died but today it is our turn. I have spent over 15 years in the business”. Explaining some of the materials in her shop, she said: “This is the head of a goat used for sacrifice. This is the head of a bush meat (Akwághá), it can cure epilepsy. This is called Akwá. This one is medicinal; it can be used to cure people suffering from pile and cough when burnt”. Asked what the clothes in her shop represent, she said: “The red is for worshipping Satan or Olokun. If you want to worship Olokun, it is the dark red that you will use to sew a very big skirt and shirt (Bulukú). For Sango (god of thunder), you take both the red and white. For Ogun, you add the red; black and white together in sewing the skirt and shirt. The broken eggs are used for child bearing while the native pot is used for bathing when performing juju, you can also use it for cooking medicine”.When Sunday Vanguard tried to find out whether she goes to church, she asserted: “I am not a Christian. I am a juju worshipper. Not that I don’t believe in God, I do. A clean mind serves God. My intentions are good toward men and women; I don’t feel hatred for anybody. I will not see a rich man and be angry with him. I feel the pains of others and I will always beg God to assist them. I am not a devil, I worship juju. My mind is even cleaner than the so-called Christians who attend church every Sunday. Juju worshipping is our tradition and you are punished when you do evil to an innocent person”.
At Ekiosa market, Kèmwinkèmwin blossoms too. Madam Rose Omorodion, who declared that she was a juju priestess, started by narrating the history of the market. According to her: “Ekiosa market started with the Jehovah’s Witnesses; this was where they built their church when they came to Benin and that is why it is called Ekiosa meaning God’s market. When they left, we came here and started selling provisions, yam, plantain, beans, rice and this our business also started. The market started like that before government came to build it for us; then it caught fire. We did not know what caused the fire but this is the second time they are building the market. This is the Kémwinkémwin line of Ekiosa market; it is a place where you can find the things of the old including the native pot (Ákhá).
The native pot can be used to worship Olokun which we serve in the river. This one is the statue of the Olokun (displaying it to Sunday Vanguard), called Aza. This one is the white man’s money while the other one is the cowrie used for business transaction in the days of old. After the cowrie, we had the coin. So we said the cowrie cannot be destroyed because of its importance and we decided to keep it. This one is Unién. You can use it to cook and it is also medicinal. This one is the statue of Sángo (Ukiisángo). The other one here is Ekò. It is chewed when a man or woman’s stomach is hot, especially pregnant women. We have the olden days knife used in the shrine of Orumila. We use the tortoise to prepare serious juju medicine”.
Asked why she took to this trade which is against the Christian faith, Madam Omorodion declared she had no apologies being a juju priestess. “I am a real juju woman, a river goddess. So I can be called upon at any time if Sango is troubling someone. I can heal the person. I can also deal with people that are being troubled by the river, I can bath the person and it will stop. Traditional healing of river spirit which is called Ogbanje by others is better than what they do in churches.
If we traditionalists want to bath a child from the river, we fetch some leaves, squeeze them together and use it to bath the child. When I was a child, I used to die every day due to spirit. But when an old man from Kokori was invited, he bathed me and showed me how to deal with the river goddess after he said I am a goddess from the river. I became okay and since that time I have never been sick and I am over 60 years now. I have the powers today and that is why I help people with similar problem. Some people come from abroad for help, I bath them and when they go back they are never sick again.” Asked to react to the comment that the tortoise is a powerful animal for rituals, she stated: “Yes. Even when a person is cursed by Ogun to die, the tortoise can be used to relieve the person from that curse because, since the tortoise is a tricky animal, the curse on that person is averted by the tortoise”.
On her part, Madam Mary Erhese told Sunday Vanguard that that the materials they sell also help in preparing rituals for Benin sons and daughters who travel abroad. Her words: “There are mothers who come to us for help for their children who travelled and have not reached their destination. They will come to us to give them materials and, when we do, before one month, that child will get to where he or she is going”..