By Oghene Omonisa
The Ofuobu family of Ode-Itsekiri Town in the Warri Kingdom of Delta State recently lost their matriarch who died at the ripe age of 82. She lived a fruitful and illustrious life, leaving behind six children, many grand children and great-grand children. A successful trader, all her children are university graduates who equally turned out to be successful in their various professions. Her immediate and distant family members are proud of her because hers was a life worth celebrating. (Ofuobu is not the real name of the family. As a condition for granting this interview, the first son demanded that the family name not be mentioned. And on the request of this reporter, he came up with the fictitious name of Ofuobu, which literally means keep it secret in Itsekiri.)
But even before members of the Ofoubu family contemplated plans for her burial rites, one thought quietly occupied their minds: the ife (oracle) consultation to determine if she was a witch while alive. It would eternally be devastating, embarrassing and stigmatizing for the family if they go and bife (find out through oracle consultation) and the outcome was negative; that is, if she was a witch while alive, and so could not be given a proper burial, but her corpse would be dumped at igbele, the evil forest where the corpses of witches and wizards are abandoned to be devoured by vultures and monkeys.
The Ofuobu family is Itsekiri and ife consultation is a ritual in Itsekiri traditions which every corpse undergoes before burial.
Ife, bife, ife bibi
“There is a slight distinction between ife and bife”, says Pa Enoko Peduru, an Itsekiri elder in Warri, who is well grounded in the customs and traditions. He explains that while ife is the oracle, bife is the Itsekiri word for consulting oracle, or finding out through oracle. The act of consulting oracle is known as ife bibi. And the Itsekiri word for an oracle priest is obi ife.
Oracle consultation is not peculiar to the Itsekiris, he says. “There are different ethnic groups that also consult oracle, and they have their various names for it. The Urhobos call it evwa; the Ijaws, agbraka. To the Binis, it is iha, while the Yorubas call it ifa.”
“Every ethnic group has its share of witches and wizards”, avers Pa Omajuwa Matsese, a self-avowed traditionalist at Ajamimogha, Warri, who, along with his son, Faith, spoke to this reporter.
Pa Metsese explains that ife bibi is not unique to the Itsekiris, because when a person dies in some other ethnic groups, especially in controversial circumstances, family members of the deceased might insist on finding out through oracle the cause of the death.
“It could be found out that the person was killed through witchcraft or other evil means, or he has died from his past evil or wicked deeds”, Pa Metsese says, adding that such oracles are just for the sake of revelation as nothing is done to either the killer of the deceased nor the deceased if he had died from his past evil deeds.
“Itsekiris do not allow that”, he declares. “In our own case, if it is found out that the dead person was a witch, he is not buried on our soil inside town. His corpse is thrown into igbele, the evil forest, across the river.” But if the oracle reveals that the person has died from the evil deeds of another person, ife bibi awaits the culprit. “That is what makes our own oracle casting for the dead unique”, he enthuses.
Faith, the young Metsese, a geologist graduate and businessman chips in that depending on the prowess of the obi ife, the ife could even reveal some relevant descriptions of the person responsible for a death. It could be that the culprit is a family member of the deceased: a parent, sibling, uncle, or aunty.
“That goes to show you how relevant ife bibi is”, the elder Metsese says. But to avoid family conflict, the obi ife could just say the death was caused from within or from outside.
To bife and dump the corpse of a witch at igbele is an age-long tradition of the Itsekiris. Though similar customs and traditions in burial rites, marriage ceremonies, inheritance and others with other ethnic groups, especially their Urhobo and Ijaw neighbours, this aspect of ife bibi is peculiar to the Itsekiris.
“It’s the unique way of our traditions of punishing the evil ones in our midst”, Pa Peduru says with pride. “If you feel you could commit evil through witchcraft or any other supernatural means and leave the world in peace, ife bibi awaits you.” He adds that spiritually, such a person pays for it as his corpse being dumped at igbele causes his spirit to be restless, going by the belief, which also brings shame to his family.
But ife bibi is not only done to determine if somebody was a witch while alive, he says.
Like many Itsekiris who spoke on this, it was corroborated by Pa Oleko Ejutemiden, an obi ife at Ode-Itsekiri, also known as Big Warri, an island town across the Warri River, which is regarded as the traditional capital of the Itsekiri nation. The oracle priest adds that through ife bibi, everything could be revealed about a death, depending on the enquiry made to the ife. It responds to enquiries on whether a person died a natural death? If not, what or who was responsible?
Mr. Alfred Omagbemi, a veteran broadcaster and Itsekiri cultural advocate, however reveals that not only the corpses of evil ones are dumped at igbele. He says there are some deaths that have their peculiar ‘spirits’, causing the corpses not deserving to be buried inside town. “They are when a person commits suicide, drowns or burns.”