Urhobo Historical Society



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Date: Wed, 28 Jan 2004 01:01:40 EST
From: Nigeria2Day@aol.com
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A Weekend With The Urhobo

By  Molara Wood

It was a cold, wet and dreary London evening, the kind in which one hibernates indoors with the heating full on. But I set off on a journey across town to the All Saints Centre in New Cross where the Urhobo Historical Society (UHS) was holding its fourth annual conference, attended by Urhobos from all over the world.

The opening ceremony was well under way when I arrived. I knew no one, not even Dr O. Igho Natufe who had invited me.  Someone helpfully pointed him out to me and I went over to introduce myself.  I then looked for a seat among the delegates, most of whom had braved the cold weather to turn up in all manners of Urhobo finery. Soon it was time for Delta State Governor James Onanefe Ibori’s opening address, delivered in Urhobo, of which I understood not a word. Whatever he was saying must have been humorous as people laughed along. The mood was infectious and I soon found myself chuckling too… though it was all Urhobo to me. The Governor rounded off in English and then all rose for the Urhobo anthem.

The theme of this fourth annual conference was Leadership And The Future of the Urhobo; and the serious business would start on day two at the Goldsmith College of the University of London. Among the many papers to be presented was Dr Natufe’s The Challenge of Leadership: Towards a Resolution of the Urhobo-Itsekiri Conflict in Warri. I looked forward to the presentation of the paper, which examines critically the concept of leadership, highlights its failings in Warri and proposes a way forward. In places, it is critical of Governor Ibori’s role in the crisis and refers to the “cloud over his credibility”. It would be interesting to see how the paper would be received by delegates, especially Ibori himself.

Alas, Governor Ibori was nowhere to be found on day two. Word quickly spread that he and his entourage had moved on to Malaysia, to which he seemed to have used the opening ceremony of this conference as a pit-stop. So much for leadership, I thought. Yet again I was late and had missed Natufe’s presentation. The paper certainly made an impact, as it was the most referred to by speakers throughout the conference.

I had arrived in time for Dr Rose Aziza’s engaging presentation: Women and Leadership in Urhoboland.” The Urhobos are a loose coalition of 22 nations without central leadership or government. In a joint presentation, Dr Francis Odemerho and Dr Ona Pela proposed the creation of an Urhobo Institute based in Abuja to represent the interests of all 22 nations. The proposed Institute would complement the Urhobo Progress Union (UPU). Acting as chair for this session was the great Urhobo artist, Bruce Onobrakpeya whose praise name is eni, meaning elephant.

During the question and answer session that followed, one delegate urged all Urhobos to rally round the UPU leader Benjamin Okumagba; saying that leadership had weakened under a former leader, Dr Esiri, because he was not given enough support. Founder of UPU Belgium, Mrs F. Emesiri-Akusu, spoke of the need to look to the future, reminding delegates that women have a lot to contribute to the leadership of the Urhobo. Over lunch, Canada-based O. Igho Natufe was taken to task on his paper by one delegate who said he had “bent over backwards” to the Itsekiris and Ijaws in his quest for peace. In response, Natufe said: “Conflict resolution is my discipline. My peace depends on the peace of my neighbour.” He said there had to be a way forward in Warri: “I do not know an Urhobo family without an Itsekiri”.

Dr Issac Mowoe from Ohio joined in, talking in impassioned tones of the tragic futility of the situation in Warri. “We are killing ourselves! I cannot tell where Urhobo ends and Itsekiri begins. It’s madness! If you go killing all Itsekiris you will end up killing a member of your family; if you go killing Urhobos or Ijaws, the same.” As we pondered upon Mowoe’s words, Dr Natufe remembered the Warri of the past: “When we were eight or nine we used to sing under the tree singing Urhobo and Itsekiri songs. Can the children do that now?” His question hanged in the air as we returned to the conference hall.

Deacon Gamaliel Onosode chaired the afternoon session and introduced the keynote speaker, the Very Revd S. U. Erivwo of St Andrews Cathedral in Warri. What pure joy it was to behold the dazzling presence that is Gamaliel Onosode. Combining a traditional Urhobo cap with a suit, one could even read into his physical make-up a lifetime of discipline and forthrightness. I savoured every moment of watching him; every movement, every gesture. And to say the man has the gift of the gab would be an understatement. Wit overtook wit as he spoke: “Correct me if I’m wrong, and I’m frequently wrong”. He recalled his time at the University College Ibadan, “not studying anything of importance.” Onosode said Revd Erivwo’s life exemplified why we must “never keep silent. We are called to be witnesses.”

When Revd Erivwo rose to speak, it was as though a gentle leaf landed ever so softly on my soul. He had a humility one rarely sees in church leaders these days. I could almost imagine the weight of the world on his non-assertive shoulders. There was no forcibly acquired accent, no swagger, no designer suit. Just a simple man of God. Erivwo told a trinity of stories illustrating the problems facing the Urhobo language, urging that children should be encouraged to take delight in their mother tongue. He recalled the achievements of three Urhobo church leaders - Aganbi, Agori Iwe and Stephen Umurie - who helped commit the Urhobo language to writing; a process that culminated in the publication of the Urhobo Bible in 1978. Erivwo also noted the contributions of traditional religious leaders.

“A people’s self consciousness is usually reflected in their attitude to language”, said Erivwo as he urged all to help promote Urhobo language and culture, especially through the internet. He said the Urhobo should also prevail upon government to introduce the teaching of their language in schools. On Warri, he reassured that: “the church is not silent”, giving examples of how the Warri cathedral has worked for solutions.

Deacon Onosode later jokingly noted how his own father had gone unmentioned in the Aganbi story. It was Onosode Snr who persuaded Aganbi to make a crucial journey to Ogbomoso, and even presided over the Bible translation committee. The moral of the story? It is the many faceless people who really make a difference. “We do not have to clamour for the great leadership positions - we can make a difference”, said Onosode who recalled the line from Milton: “They also serve, who stand and wait.”

In a departure from the programme Delta State Commissioner for Housing, Love Ojakovo, was called to speak. Though unprepared, he spoke stirringly, bemoaning what he called the lack of shared ethos in Urhoboland, especially among the youth “who no longer want to go to school.” He also talked of the apathy that politicians face in the grassroots: “Do you want better facilities, clean water? They say ‘NO, you are talking nonsense, give us money.’ ” One delegate butted in: “They don’t trust you, that’s why.” Ojakovo replied: “No. That’s what they think. That’s their ethos.”

Speaking later, Professor Ajovi Scott-Emuakpor rejected the view of some that the Urhobos have no leaders. “There are active and passive leaders”, he said, as the session came to an end. The evening programme at the All Saints Hall featured a lecture on the Igbe Religious Movement given by Professor Michael Y Nabofa of the University of Ibadan. The highlight of the evening was an exhilarating dance performance by the London Igbe congregation. Dressed mostly in white, they moved with jerky grace to the music, like swans shedding their deliberate slowness for an energetic dance. Even Professor Scott-Emuakpor joined briefly in the dance.

The final day started with the women’s round table, followed by a special presentation by Dr Perkins Foss, Guest Curator of the Museum of African Art in New York. The closing event, a reception in honour of the absent Governor Ibori, was going ahead later that evening at the Hackney Town Hall. I was going to give it a miss as I had caught a heavy cold from criss-crossing London during the three days of the conference. But I had no regrets. I had gained a better understanding of the Urhobo and shared their concerns about the future. It was an enriching experience. And in celebrating with the Urhobos their culture, my Yorubaness was not diminished, only enhanced.

On the journey home, I changed trains at London Bridge only to see Mr Love Ojakovo walking down a station stairway. I introduced myself, saying I’d been impressed with his speech the day before. He would be attending the closing event but was going to church first, he said as we parted. Here was a Delta State Commissioner. He had not come to the UHS conference in a fancy car, neither had he used his position to grab a lift with delegates. He was taking the train, just like me. I was even more impressed. Perhaps Professor Scott-Emuakpor was right: the Urhobos have leaders. It is a question of finding the leaders, and the leaders finding themselves. I was warmed by this thought as I walked away from the Commissioner.