By Perez Brisibe
KOKORI—SUCH were the authority and fame of the late Ubiecha Etarakpo, the founder of the historic African religion, Igbe, that the reigning Oba of Benin at the time had to travel incognito as a leper to Kokori, Ethiope East Local Government Area, Delta State, to validate his power.
Etarakpo, who died in 1926, reportedly cured people of madness and healed men of various diseases even on his sick bed. He detected the undercover Benin monarch as he came in while an Igbe service was on and stood on his altar-like seat in acknowledgment.
Worshipers in mortal realm could not fathom the forces at play, but Etarakpo ushered the “strange visitor” to his seat. Marvelling at his act, his members wondered if a tormenting spirit had possessed the sect’s founder, but after the Oba departed, Etarakpo told his bewildered congregation that the person, who just left was no less a person than the Benin monarch.
“Three weeks after, the Oba visited Kokori again, this time, he came in his full regalia as an Oba and presented gifts and honoured Etarakpo for his spiritual prowess,” an unabashed Igbe worshiper told Niger Delta Voice at Kokori.
His words: “That was when people feared and respected the Igbe religion founded in the 19th century. More so, there was no division in the worship rites, as approved by the founder, Etarakpo, an indigene of Kokori.”
Etarakpo allegedly received the call of “God” in 1893 and sat on the throne in 1920 with a female called Oniruesi, also known as Erukainure. According to myth, he went to the farm and fell into a trance after he ate a native chalk given to him during an encounter with a divine spirit. When he woke up from his trance, he became unconventional and acted strangely.
Back at the community, a woman known as Oniruesi noticed something mysteriously divine about him, unlike others, who thought he had gone round the bend. Though he later got married to her, he resided in her apartment and continued dancing each passing day, eating nothing but Orhen (native chalk), healing people miraculously by praying for them and giving them the same native chalk to consume.
A school of thought said Etarakpo, purportedly mentally imbalanced, was roaming the streets of Kokori when he got a divine call, knelt down along the road, closed his hand and eyes in prayer, went into a trance and when he woke up, he saw a native chalk in his hand.
As he marveled at how it came about, a divine spirit ministered to him on the efficacy and how to go about using the native chalk to heal people. This manifestation reportedly led to the beginning of Igbe. “Armed with the power of clairvoyance, Ubiecha’s deeds quickly spread far and wide with persons trooping to Kokori to consult him on their medical and spiritual problems,” the chief priest of Igbe, Chief Oberiko Omonemu, told Niger Delta Voice.
Because of the increase of Etarakpo’s followers, who were trooping to Kokori for consultation and healing, he later built a worship house known as Ogwa, where he ministered to his devotees and made prophesies with stunning accuracy.
However, following his death in 1926, Igbe, described as Africa’s first monotheistic religion by the Urhobo Historic Society, UHS, had since split into over 50 denominations with some worshipping animals, mermaids and other divinities. The leadership crisis over who would step into his shoes started with three of his children: Igbe-Ibodje, Igbe-Akpokovo and Igbe-Emegalise.
Welcoming Niger Delta Voice into his barely lit apartment at Kokori, Mr. Micheal Ejemedefe, who described himself as the life-bearer and final authority of Igbe, being the last link and descendant of the founder of Igbe, whose mother is the eldest daughter of Etarakpo’s second son, Akpokovo, took our team down memory lane on the intricacies that befell the religion.
Worship of animals
According to him, following the demise of Etarakpo and the birth of the three circuits of Igbe, various offshoots like Igbe-Ubiecha, Igbe-Oghene-Uku, Igbe-Agege and Osanuge-Igbe emerged.
He said the offsprings gave birth to the proliferation of Igbe with most of them involved in the culture of mermaids and other divinities, while others even indulge in the worship of animals, which they describe as the custodian of the spirit of “God.”
We believe in Jesus
Ejemedefe bellowed the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth while making a point prompting the reporter to ask what darkness has to do with light. He explained: “The main Igbe worshipers believe in Jesus Christ as the son of God and also believe in his Father as the Almighty God.
“Though Jews call him Yahweh, Islam call him Allah and Christians call him Jehovah, we (Igbe) call him Owheya. “We are also conscious of the fact that religion is not defined as belief in God but the kind of life you live while on earth, hence giving room for our belief in reincarnation and a life of purity while on earth.
“Just like the liturgy of the Catholic Church, Igbe also has its liturgy, which involves Eucharistic rites and confessions before an Uku (Priest),” 58-year-old Ejemedefe, said to have amassed several degrees in London, asserted.
Clay as prescribed
A scholar in Urhobo culture, Mathias Orhero, who confirmed that Etarakpo’s sudden death in his prime, caused a big challenge to the group, shed light on the Igbe religion. He said as evident in the creation of man by God, Igbe adherents believe strongly in the efficacy of native chalk gotten from the earth’s crust.
He said: “Do not forget that according to the Bible, Jesus Christ performed series of miracles using clay and even asked some persons to go dip themselves inside a particular river seven times.
“With devotees spread across Africa, Europe, North and South America and other parts of the world, the once unified Igbe, as founded by Etarakpo, now has over 50 sects with some of these sub-divisions no longer toeing the line of their founder having introduced the worship of mermaids, divinities and animals in the worship of God.”
The chief priest (Igbe Uku), Chief Omonemu, who believes in the worship of mermaids, said mermaid worship and belief in divinities do not affect his belief in Jesus Christ as the Messenger and Son of God. According to him, “Jesus Christ was sent to the earth by God for a purpose and He had since completed the task. But do not forget that there are other spiritual messengers of God.
“One of such is what you refer to as mermaid, but we call them divinities and we commune with God through and with these divinities.”
“On the contrary, where we differ with those you refer to as Christians is that while they await the second coming of Christ, they failed to realize that He had since come and gone when He presented Himself to Etarakpo, an apparition that gave birth to Igbe,” he said.
Praise and worship session
Speaking on the spiritual implication of being an Igbe devotee, both Orhero and Omonemu said, “Igbe is a religion of purity and spiritual cleanliness. It believes that your stay here on earth is a reflection of your past life and your present life would determine your future life here on earth hence Igbe believe in reincarnation.”
Igbe operates an unwritten liturgy. The Uku (chief priest) initiates and oversees the liturgy of the Oghwa (shrine of divinity) and administers the Orhen on worshipers for their protection and fortification as well as presiding on all rituals performed in the Oghwa.
In the traditional African society, virtually everybody believes that witches are extremely powerful and possess the powers to maim and kill people. The Igbe worshiper sees the religion as a counter force against the power of withes and that is where the protection presumably offered by the sect gained acceptance.
This reporter attended an Igbe worship session at an Uku in Agbarha-Otor, Ughelli, to comprehend the liturgy better. Akin to the Christian worship in churches, the Igbe liturgy is dramatic. Reminiscent of majority of Christians, who worship on Sundays, the holy (sacred) day of worship for Igbe is once every eight days, known as Edi-Igbe or Edi-Iruo, meaning day of dance or day of work.
Like a practiced session, it was observed that all members of the Ogwa seems to adhere to an unwritten program of event, which is reflected in the way and manner they kneel during worship, enter into the Ogwa through a particular entrance and exit via a different direction and same applies to how you kneel.
The service includes dancing, praying, spiritual cleansing, confessions, intake of new members and other social/ritualistic functions.