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A peep into the secret Oro festival in Yorubaland

By Alade Aromashodu

The Oro Festival is a festival celebrated in South-West Nigeria by the Yorubas. It is an event celebrated by towns and settlements of Yoruba origin. It is an annual traditional festival that is of patriarchal nature, as it is only celebrated by male descendants who are paternal natives to the specific locations where the particular event is taking place. During the festival, females and non-natives stay indoors as oral history has it that Oro must not be seen by women and non-indigenes.

*Oro participants in procession. Photo:thenationonlineng.net

According to Osorun of Tomaro Land, Chief Labra Bashorun: “The ceremonies surrounding the celebration of Oro differs from town to town, and one is often called after the death of a monarch.

The festival lasts several days and throughout its duration, women and other non-participants are expected to stay indoors. Several sources have commented on different aspects of the event.

“Yorubas nowadays may be practising Christians or Muslims, but there are still shrines to the old gods scattered around the countryside, and traditional festivals – like the festival of the Oro cult…are still celebrated and still taken extremely seriously. As in many parts of West Africa that practise this type of cult, women and outsiders are forbidden to look at the masked figures,”  Chief Bashorun said.

Also, Chief Musibau Junaid, the Baale of Okobaba Community in Mainland Local Government Area of Lagos noted: “By tradition, the Yoruba leaders ask people not connected with the event to stay at home when the masquerade parades through the streets at night. It is an age-old Yoruba belief that Oro must never be seen by women.”

Sometime ago, there was a clash between Yorubas and Hausas in South-West Nigeria over the killing of some Hausa women who were outside of their home at night during the Oro festival.

In 1999, the late Dr. Frederick Faseun, leader of the Yoruba Oodua People’s Congress, OPC, stated before his death, when there was a clash between Hausas and Yorubas in Sagamu: “You know that the traditional Oro festival was going on when a woman, a guest among the Yoruba, violated the tenets of the festival. When the festival is on, no woman of any nationality should behold the Oro, be such woman an Italian, English, American, South African or Yoruba; no woman should behold Oro with naked eyes. The penalty for such violation is death, no matter who the woman is.”

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According to the TempoLife magazine report, “it was the failure to respect the hours of worship or to restrict the fetish to the sacred grooves that led to the clash between a section of the Hausa community and Oro cultists in Sagamu. In a chat with a traditional healer in Abeokuta, Ogun State, Taiwo Oloyede, the Sagamu tragedy could not have been the handiwork of serious Oro people since the Hausa woman allegedly killed by Oro people did not vanish and her body was found ‘a ki  nri ajeku oro’ (you can’t find the remains of oro victim), he said.

“If it were real Oro people, her body would not have been found. It was a mere case of murder. If the woman had seen Oro that has the magical powers, she would have died a natural death without anybody touching her. The alleged death of non-members who see the fetish or are caught by its followers is where the cult comes under severe criticism. The “fundamentalists” among Moslems and Christians see it as an abominable system from which “believers” must run away. But even among the believers, opinions are divided.

Engineer Taye Ajibola, a devout Moslem living in Niger Republic noted, whenever it is time to celebrate the Oro in Yewaland, Niger Republic, he comes back home to take part. He argued that Oro is not a pagan practice but a way of gathering the members of the community and giving them a sense of purpose. On the killing of women   caught by the Oro,  Ajibola, who as a child, used to stay away from Oro festivals said: “A game must be played according to its rules.”

Similarly, Shuaibu Yekeen, a Moslem cleric in Lagos who sends his sons home to get initiated each time they come of age, said all is just fun. More importantly, he claimed, before sending his first son, he had sought God’s advice on the compatibility of Oro with Islam and the owner of the religion (Allah) had given him the go-ahead.

Oro’s raison d’etre, according to the legend, is to ward off evil in the community and, at the same time, entertain. The followers act as vigilante whenever they are out to perform. So, such acts as stealing and robbery are prevented, at least, in the traditional setting. Also, the Ifa oracle is consulted and the necessary sacrifices are made. Such, people believe, can help to ensure peace.

The irony is that in most Yoruba cities, people hear only about Oro, the husband. They are totally ignorant of Majowu, the wife of Oro. Myth has it that Oro is a god living on a very high plane, unreachable by humans. It is said especially in Anango and Egbadoland that Oro is a male god. Between him and the humans is Majowu. The message she carries about is from the husband, Oro.

Majowu speaks the language of the gods as well as that of the humans. She is probably the Yoruba equivalent of Janus, the two-faced Roman fetish of beginnings and doorways. Only that here, images don’t come in at all. But the truth about Majowu is this: It is a man, a male human being who goes about with traditional mouth organ made up of a bamboo pipe blocked on both ends by a cellophane membrane and having in the middle an opening for the mouth. As the man talks into the small organ, the wind from his mouth goes out through the blocked lateral openings, making the cellophane membrane to vibrate and produce weird sounds like those of the mouth-organ or harmonica. That is why the use of the harmonica is not very much tolerated in Anago land.

In traditional Yoruba communities, no man is such until he is initiated into the cult. In effect, the initiation marks the passage from childhood to adulthood. It takes place at about the age of puberty, depending on the assessment of his abilities by his parents and other males in the community. Before initiation, one is usually considered an ogberi (or egberi), that is the uninitiated person, an inferior man with the status of a woman. The initiation opens the secrets of the world to the new entrant.

Contrarily, celebration of the festival may affect our economy as investors coming into the country during the festival may be denied access into the community where it’s staged.

But   a traditional ruler in justifying the Oro cult insists that “investors will rather come to our community with passion if  we’re thoroughly cleansed.”

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