Peter Ekeh

   Date: Sat, 10 Jul 1999 00:30:33 -0400
   From: "Peter P. Ekeh" <ppekeh@acsu.buffalo.edu>
   To: edo-community <edo-community@egroups.com>
   CC: Naijanet <Naijanet@esosoft.com>, naijanews <naijanews@egroups.com>

Dr. Ademola Iyi-Eweka has been busy provoking so many users of the Edo-community's resources to comment on their ethnic relationships with Benin. As a rule, Urhobos will find the least problem in these wondrous interpretations of Benin history. But I am attracted to comment on Dr. Iyi-Eweka's conjoining that history to the Delta crisis. Some of the material I read from him this morning is humorous. Others need some serious comments.


The most humorous comments on Urhobos come from Iyi-Eweka's association of ABRAKA, where he says Urhobos first landed in their migration from Benin City, with OBARAKA, which is what he says the Urhobo call the king of Benin. I laughed myself hoarse when I read this aspect of Iyi-Eweka's history. First, ABRAKA is not an Urhobo word. It is a British corruption of Avwraka, just as Sapele is a British corruption of the Urhobo word Urhiapele. Second, no credible account of Urhobo migrations has ever associated Avwraka with the point of dispersal of Urhobos from one point. Then, even more humorous is Iyi-Eweka's mistranslation of the Urhobo appellation for the Benin king. It is a phrase consisting of three words, not one word. There is no Urhobo word that is OBARAKA. It is "Oba ra Aka" which literally translates as "Oba of Aka [Benin]." So, the association between ABRAKA and OBARAKA is faulty from all sides. We probably should blame the British for creating this problem in Ademola's mind. We should also blame the fact that Urhobo is a difficult language, even for an historian of Dr. Iyi-Eweka's calibre.


The problem that Iyi-Eweka is liable to run into is the vastness of his historical canvas. He is dealing with more than 1000 years of cultural history, while assuming that culture and language stay stable. The reason why Urhobo language has departed so dramatically from modern Benin language - they are mutually unintelligible - is that Urhobo migrations from proto-Edo culture began many centuries ago, possibly up to a millennium ago. I say proto-Edo because the Benin have appropriated the word "Edo," leaving others who share in the same root culture no space. The word Edoid is sometimes used to cover the realm of this proto-Edo culture.

There are two versions of Urhobo migrations from the lands of modern Benin. The first, popularized by Professor Onigu Otite, is that Urhobos migrated at the time of Udo, which preceded Benin City. The second is associated with the late Chief Adogbeji Salubi who thought Urhobos migrated from Benin in about the 12th to the 13th centuries. Both versions may well be correct. The Urhobo migrations were serial, rather than being one fell swoop. Either way, Urhobos left quite early. It is interesting that the Urhobo strain to call the modern Benin king "the king of the Binis" whereas they do not use such tortured phrase with respect to the Ogisos. They simply know them as the "Ogisos." That is because the bulk of Urhobos left these lands when the Ogisos were in power. Urhobo folk tales are suffused with stories of Ogiso and his obdurate wife Inarhe. The stories about the Ogisos are probably more mature in Urhobo folklore than in Benin folklore. That is because it is the dynastic rulership that Urhobos were most used to.

All of these suggest that Urhobos took away in their migration a culture that antedates Dr. Iyi-Eweka's Benin. I would like someone to find out why Urhobos call Benin "Aka" and not "Benin." In fact the word "Benin" does not exist at all in original Urhobo. When was the word "Benin" invented? Was it after Urhobos left? The word "Edo" does not even exist in Urhobo vocabulary, although "Udo" is very common in Urhobo folk tales. It is also intriguing that the high regard that Binis have for Benin City is absent from Urhobo collective memories of the lands they came from - if one is to rely to some extent on folk tales. It is almost certain that Benin City was not well developed at the times Urhobos left these areas.

All of these linguistic fragments suggest that modern Urhobos share with modern Binis a culture that is ancestral to modern Benin. Let me toss up one of the several words that the two cultures share in common. In Urhobo the word "ohwo" means "human being." In Benin and Ishan "ohwo" means "woman." (This word is pronounced in identical forms in both languages although the Binis sometimes spell it "okhuo." Its plural form "ihwo" is also identical in both languages.) Which is the correct rendition at the time Urhobos migrated away from Udo or its later version? Is it possible that there has been a mutation in the meaning of this word in Benin language? It would be facile to assume that Benin culture and language have remained constant. No culture or language ever remains constant. Otherwise, it would die. The Benin culture of today has probably evolved a great deal from what it was eight or more centuries ago when Urhobos migrated. It would be more challenging if Iyi-Eweka engaged in such cultural history than in the exposition of the powers of the Obas. Urhobos ran away from the Ogisos and do not care a great deal about the conquests of the Obas. They are more excited about the common culture which they share with the Binis.

Ademola Iyi-Eweka must be gently told that he should not pose as the ancestor of the Urhobos. Modern Binis are not the ancestors of the Urhobos. Instead, Urhobos and Binis have common ancestors. How much Urhobo is a refraction of the culture that was in existence at the time of their migration from Udo or some later form of that culture is a proper subject for research, not royal dictation. I would suggest that Dr. Iyi-Eweka should take a look at Louis Hartz's theory of cultural migrations. It posits that cultural fragments that migrate from the original lands tend to be more conservative than the culture that remains behind. In his most felicitous phrasing of this problem, Professor Hartz says that 17th century French is more likely to be heard in Quebec than in Paris. Is it possible that Urhobo culture is a greater refraction of the culture that was in existence at the time they left the lands of the Ogisos? It is a subject worth pursuing.


I am intrigued that Iyi-Eweka is impassioned by the extent of the powers of the Benin Obas. I think he exaggerates them in Urhoboland. He says that the Obas had some "dukedom" in Ughelli. What is the Benin word for "dukedom?" I did not know we had any dukes in Urhoboland. He probably does not know that any impression that the Ovie of Ughelli is superior to the Orodje of Okpe can bring about a serious dispute. But, to return to his thesis, that the British displaced the Benin in Urhoboland: this is all part of revisionism, not of Edoid cultural history, but of the history of the Obas. Urhobos effectively ran away from the Ogisos. Even though the dynasty of the Obas has become paramount in Benin, it is not in Urhoboland. Urhobos cherish those Obas who promote the common culture that they share with Benin. That was why Oba Akenzua II was so popular in Urhoboland. But any Oba who wanted to promote his political power did not do well among the Urhobos. You see, as far as the Urhobos are concerned, the Ogisos were tougher than the Obas. They were able to escape from the Ogisos. The Obas, they are the king of the Binis, "Oba ra Aka." not king of the Urhobos. We had our taste of the use of power by the Ogisos. Our Benin cousins can deal with the Obas. We dealt with the Ogisos by running away from them. So, before Ademola's royal line came to be, Urhobos had decided not to have more of the super-royalty. We can be friends with Edoid-culture-promoting Obas, but not conquering ones.

But Urhobos share a very rich culture with Binis, even modern Benin. And it flows in both directions. I will give an example. One of the most remarkable elements of common culture in Benin and Urhoboland is the Igbe religion. It is a puritan movement of white-clothed religionists who cure illnesses by appealing directly to OSONOBRUGHWE with their clapping fans and singing. It was begun by a man called Ubiesha in Kokori (British corruption for Uhwokori) in the Urhobo heartland at the end of the nineteenth century. Such cultural ties excite my passion because they display Edoid culture. They are more powerful than the powers of the Obas. You see, the Obas did not beget Edoid culture. Rather, Edoid culture begat the Obas and their powers. That is what I would prefer that we celebrate, rather than just how powerful the Obas were. The Ogisos were also powerful, but we did not like them.

By the way, it is not true that Dogho Numa took Urhobo lands. His best attempt was Sapele in which he failed woefully. Dr. Ademola Iyi-Eweka's band-aid for resolving the Warri crisis is amusing. The Delta breeds a type of man that cultural pep-talk does not sway easily. But I, for one, wished Iyi-Eweka's romantic solution would work.

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