By Charles Adingupu
It was 6 o’clock on a weekend evening. New York City in the U.S. was getting set for the night life as guests of Nigerian extraction, decked in flamboyant African traditional attires, started trooping into the residence of late Ambassador Edwin Ogbu for a dinner party. The calibre of dignitaries in attendance easily indicated the importance of the party.
There were varieties of food for the guests and everyone had their fill, and left satisfied, except Chief Patrick Nwamu, the Odogwu of Asaba and multi-millionaire businessman. The dinner left him with a swollen mouth accompanied with excruciating pains which he suffered for two days before he realised too late that he had offended Onishe Ahaba, the mother goddess of Asaba, Delta State his native land. The goddess is most times simply known as Onishe.
Chief Nwamu narrates his experience: “At the party, I had okra soup. Unknown to me, it was blended with ogbono. The next day, I had a swollen mouth with severe pains. Upon investigation, I was told by the Ambassador’s wife who is a Yoruba lady that the soup I ate at the party was mixed with ogbono. It was then I knew where my problem came from. It is a taboo for Asaba natives to eat ogbono soup because our mother goddess, Onishe uses it for spiritual purification which in local parlance is known as ife-ahu.”
At the mouth of the River Niger is the sacred abode of the deity, Onishe, the spiritual mother who holds the destiny of Asaba people. Apart from the serenity that pervades the entire enclave, there are big ogbono trees lining up both sides to the groove of the mother goddess. The mystery behind these trees is the belief that for the past 250 years, neither the leaves nor the ogbono seeds have ever fallen on the ground, according to the Odogwu of Asaba. This is indicative of the spiritual value of ogbono to Onishe, as she uses it for her spiritual functions. He says Onishe is as old as the city itself.
Everyday, every hour and every moment, Onishe faithful besiege her vicinity to seek spiritual help and protection. But nobody goes to Onishe shrine with empty hands.
“If you must solicit Onishe’s assistance in whatever way, you visit her with either a full grown cock, a goat or even a cow depending on the financial capacity of the individual”, reveals Ogbueshi Nwosa Onwuegbuezie, the head custodian of Onishe.
For Asaba people, it is hard to seek Onishe’s help without corresponding result. Though, for those adherents of the deity who are financially incapacitated, they are at liberty to pledge that upon the realisation of their desires, they will appease Onishe with whatever they can afford thereafter.
Onishe, the deity
Onishe is a woman with big long breasts. She guards and guides her children jealously. According to one of the custodians of the deity, Ogbueshi Nwosa, Onishe appears to her subjects in different forms. Sometimes she could appear as a crocodile, particularly during festive periods, to accept whatever sacrifice that is being offered her. At other times, she could appear as the mother she is, dressed in immaculate white wrapper and with her big long breasts exposed.
Chief Nwamu reveals: “Onishe once appeared to my brother’s wife in Asaba. My brother came home to take the Alor traditional title. Though, before their departure from the city, my brother had warned his wife not to cook ogbono soup because it is forbidden in his place, she had refused to heed the advice. It was while she was dishing the food upstairs for the husband that our mother, Onishe appeared to her with a warning for her not to ever prepare ogbono soup for her son (her husband) again, and that she should take the soup to their non-Asaba neighbours downstairs. Immediately after, she disappeared. The woman ran to her husband to relay her experience and everybody present was taken aback.”
However, it is believed that those who see Onishe as mere absence of reality suffer consequences when they act in any way contradictory to what she stands for.
Worship of Onishe
Whoever wants to worship Onishe must abstain from sexual intercourse, at least a few days before the day of worship. Also, the worshipper is expected to dress in all-white attire, including underpants. Moreover, a woman in her period is not expected to visit the shrine.
Onishe is only worshipped on Eke day (day market). Whoever fails to keep to the rules of Onishe cannot go close to the shrine. At the shrine of Onishe, it is a taboo to drink palm wine, hot drinks, beer or any other liquor. The official and acceptable drink of Onishe are ogolo (a special brand of local brew) and Fanta.
Before Asaba people eat the new yam, they must first visit the Onishe shrine with the Asagba of Asaba, the traditional ruler. The people must first appease Onishe with a cow slaughtered at the shrine, and enough food would be cooked for everyone present. It is the tradition of the people of Asaba to pay homage to Onishe and solicit her help in the year ahead for a bountiful harvest as well as protection against any evil.
Duties of Onishe
For ages, Asaba people have pledged their loyalty to Onishe, the deity that has been their mother both in times of war and peace. The deity protects the people spiritually and physically from both external and internal aggressions. Also, the deity alerts the people on any imminent danger threatening their existence.
According to Obi Nwamu, during the civil war, Onishe was angry that her children were being slaughtered unjustly by the Federal troops. She allegedly avenged the death of every Asaba native killed when she suddenly emerged at the middle of the River Niger to upturn the ship ferrying men of the Federal troops across the river. Some soldiers on the ship allegedly survived, though.
They could not cross to the other side of the Niger, and later confessed seeing Onishe sinking the ship conveying Federal troops to the other side of the Niger. Some of these soldiers later lived in Asaba, blended with the people and eventually got married to our daughters.”
The Odogwu of Asaba, however, discloses that almost all the soldiers who killed Asaba natives during the civil war, died before they were crossed over to the other side of the River Niger.
Custodian of Onishe
There are people of particular age group selected to officiate at Onishe rituals. The method of selection is done by Otu-ahazia, delegated by the town’s traditional council to mediate between the people of Asaba and Onishe. However, those selected must be at a particular age group and their tenure expires when they attain a particular age bracket. Also, they are expected to serve for a minimum of ten years.