Urhobo Historical Society


By Atiboroko Uyovbukerhi, Ph.D.
Delta State University, Abraka, Nigeria

A paper prepared for presentation at the 5th Annual Conference of Urhobo Historical Society held at PTI Conference Centre, Effurun, Delta State, Nigeria, and Ibru Centre, Agbarha-Otor, Nigeria, October 29-31, 2004.

The games that children play, unlike the games that adults play, are fun games.  They are not designed to impress, to persuade, to deceive, or to annoy; they are played for the playing.  And that, in a nutshell, is the difference between work and play: play is for no end but its own enjoyment.  Work, on the other hand may consist of exactly the same activities as play, but it is engaged in not for the sake of pleasure but for what may be gained as a result.  A game is not necessarily play and work is not necessarily work; but play is indeed play.  (G. R. Lafrancois,  Of Children: An Introduction to Child Development, page 261)


Like children in other parts of Nigeria and elsewhere, Urhobo children play many games on moonlight nights.  These games cover a wide spectrum of activities, including “hide and Seek,” “action songs,” “tongue twisters,” “breath control games,” “riddles,” and “puzzles.” It is not clear how and when these games originated but they seem to date back to the beginning of the Urhobos as a people and have survived till the present day.  Until the arrival of Television and Radio, these games were played from early hours of the evening (between 6.30 p.m. to 7.30 p.m.) to around midnight when almost every person in the village or hamlet has gone to bed.  These games take place, either in the courtyard of the family homestead (for tender children between five to eight years) or in the main street of the village (for children aged about nine to eighteen years).  Wearing a pair of shorts or a skirt often with no shirt on top (in case of boys), or a small piece of wrapper around their waists, the children play these games under the leadership of the most aggressive or the most domineering child in their midst.  Reporting on studies done on children’s games in other parts of Africa, Finnegan seems to share a similar view of these games when she writes:

The games are played on a moonlit night in the dry season and the singing, mostly in strophe and antistrophe, is led by one of the boys and accompanied by hand clapping, foot thumping or the action of the game.  Often the words themselves count for little.  Sometimes the meaning is almost slurred out of recognition…  (316).<>

Until recent times these games flourished magnificently in rural communities in Urhoboland.  Unfortunately they are fast disappearing from our villages and hamlets, thanks to the combined influence of Television, Radio and rural-urban migration.  Unless some effort is made to arrest this threatened extinction of our moonlight games, they may not endure much longer and what is worse, our youths will grow up into adulthood without the benefit of the nurturing activities which have engineered and defined the Urhobo ethos in the past. 

The purpose of this paper therefore is twofold: The first is to blaze a pre-cursive trail into the study and documentation of moonlight games in Uwherun clan, one of the twenty-two clans of the Urhobo nation. The second goal of this paper is to show that these moonlight games are an Urhobo version of “Creative Drama,” a valuable resource for the education of our youth and for stimulating the development of their creative talents.  But before proceeding further, I find it necessary and appropriate to address some preliminary matters that will hopefully enlighten the ensuing discussion.

One of these preliminary matters is the need to clarify some ambiguities. For example the words “game” and “play” are highly ambiguous.  Consequently some effort must be made to clarify their meanings before any meaningful discussion can be attempted.  Now the words “game” and “play” ordinarily refer to activities done for fun by adults and children.  In her book, Improvisation for the Theatre, Spolin seems to share this view of “game” which she defines as:

An accepted group activity which is limited by rules and group agreement, fun, spontaneity, enthusiasm, and joy accompany games; parallels the theatre experience; a set of rules that keeps a player playing (382)

In recent times, however, the meaning of “games” and “play” has expanded to include activities done for a living by professionals.  Such games include football (soccer), basket ball, Lawn and Tables tennis and many others that people play for livelihood.  For the purpose of this discussion, therefore, the definition that will be adopted is that proposed by Lowenfeld when she observes:


Children have played since the dawn of civilization, and descriptions of their games are to be found throughout the literature of mankind.  Every civilization has handed on to its children, from one generation to another, traditional types of games.  Moreover, in reference to children, it is in this sense that to the present day the word “play” is generally used.


Since all the activities of children, other than eating and sleeping, seem to the watching adult to have no serious purpose, a description of them as play appears apt and fitting and to draw a line rigidly, for example, between the play of an individual playing alone and games which are played in groups, seems the act of a purist (Hodgson 46).

In addition to the words “game” and “play” another ambiguous word that needs elucidation is “child”.  On the surface, the meaning of the “child” seems quite transparent.  It would seem to refer to a living human being within the age bracket of between one to eighteen years or between one to twenty years.  But a closer look reveals complex and even unexpected connotations.  A child’s status is not always defined only by its chronological age.  It can also be defined -- and is sometimes defined -- by other parameters often diametrically opposed to diachronic methods of determining age.  Finnegan makes this point quite clearly when she states:

It is common for a ceremonial initiation to mark a clear dividing line between childhood and maturity, often taking place at around the age of puberty, but in some societies (or with some individuals) this may be much earlier or much later.  In some cases initiation may be as young as, say, seven or eight years old, and the special initiation songs which are so often a feature of this ceremony might seem to parallel songs sung by similar age-groups in other societies (Finnegan, 304)

It is quite clear from the above statement then, that the definition of the word “child” varies from one community or ethnic group to the other.  There might even be variations from clan to clan within a single ethnic group.  However, it must be noted that since the advent of Western education in Urhoboland and other parts of Nigeria, the definition of the word “child” has been considerably modified by Western notions of “school children” and “school age”, the idea being that a person attending a primary school or a secondary school is automatically classified as a child regardless of his individual status or classification within his home community. On this note, we may turn to the discussion of moonlight games.   



Moonlight games in Uwherun clan of Urhobo land are fun games.  They are played by children on moonlit nights, during the dry season.  They are a recreational activity.  To be sure there are other games or similar activities that take place on moonlight nights and such games include abo emuo (wrestling) eha egbe (dancing) and esia erhoho or esia egbe (story-telling drama performances) But these games or game-like activities that also take place on moonlight nights are not the focus of this paper and therefore need not detain us any further.  The moonlight games, here discussed, are those referred to as “Egbo” These games are characterized by songs, rhymes and movement (realized as gesture, dance and mime) performed “on the principle of the circle, the arch and the line” (Finnegan 313).  The songs and chants usually take a “call and response” pattern.  For example, the “egbo” games in Uwheru often begin with a call by the leader to all children in the neighbourhood to come forth and form a circle. The call is often couched in coercive language.  Here is an example.


URHOBO                                                  TRANSLATION

Call: Wayarhe aheha                          Call: Everybody come forth let’s play

Response: Ayi she riuwovwu             Response: They are sitting at home

Call: Ode tobawhare                          Call: When it comes to farm work

Response: Aye mevworebe                Response: They will demolish the weeds

Call: Okro ghogho                                      Call: Their waists are stiffened

Response: Ukei!                                Response: Like stone!

This opening song calls forth the children from their various homes. Then the invitation to form a circle follows thus:

URHOBO                                                  TRANSLATION

Call: Omo r’osiusi-i                           Call: The child who doesn’t form a circle

Response: Omomwo duvwo karidje!  Response: May (the omwa) fish pierce him permanently.

As this song is rendered the children keep trooping out of their homes and joining the circle being formed.  It is important to note here that the above song is integral to and simultaneous with the action of using the soles of their bare feet to draw a circle on the ground.  Immediately after forming the circle, the children stand around the circle with one foot outside it and the other foot inside.  Scooping up a handful of dirt in one hand, the children begin a song as follows:


 URHOBO                                                 TRANSLATION

<>Leader: Ovo!                                    Leader: One!

Response: Kparigogo chufie!             Response: Kparigogo forbid!

 Leader: Ive!                                      Leader: Two!

Response: Kparigogo chufie!             Response: Kparigogo forbid!

Leader: Erha!                                    Leader: Three!

Response: Kparigogo chufie!             Response: Kparigogo forbid!

Leader: Ene!                                     Leader: Four!

Response: Kparigogo chufie!             Response: Kparigogo forbid!

Leader: Iyori!                                    Leader: five!

Response: Kparigogo chufie!             Response: Kparigogo forbid!

Again it is important to note that while this counting song is going on (some informants say the count stops at five times, others say is stops at the tenth count) each participating child (and all the children are players, there being no spectators) throws down a bit of dirt or sand on the chanting of the word Chufie! (Forbid!).  On the fifth count (or the tenth) all the children are expected to vacate the circle, the last child to leave it becomes the “loser” and on him devolves the responsibility of starting the next game.  This he does by standing in the centre of the circle and acting as follows:


URHOBO                                                  TRANSLATION

Leader: Egbo!                                             Leader: Egbo!

Response: Gbo!                                          Response: Gbo!

Leader:Mecharooo!                                    Leader: Here I come!

Response: Eeeee!                                        Response:Yeeees!

Leader: Ore mi muru me vwo rie irihibooo!       Leader: The one I catch I’ll eat him with pepper.

Response: Eeeee!                                        Response:Yeeees!

The leader chases the other children around in a kind of “hide and seek” game chanting as above and the other children responding accordingly.  The leader runs about trying to capture one of the children and the children on their own part trying very hard to evade capture.  When the leader does finally capture one of the participants, the captured one takes over the game and the chase begins all over again.  This game continues until they tire of it and switch to another games. 

Now the switch to another game does not happen by chance. ”Egbo” (moonlight games) contain a large repertory of games or activities from which the children can draw.  This repertory contains many games or activities of the same kind.  For example, there are many “hide and seek” games, just as there are “riddles”, “puzzles” “trick tales” or “tongue twisters”.  Consequently the performance of one game frequently calls forth the memory of a similar game existing in the repertory.  Thus, for example, the initial game of “hide and seek” calls forth the game of “missing money” which takes the following form.  (Again here it is important to note that the “missing money” is purposely hidden for discovery in the course of the game).


URHOBO                                                  TRANSLATION

Leader: Ushene vwe uwhruru                       Leader: My shilling is missing

Response: Onu shene magwono                  Response: One shilling we’re seeking

Leader: Hwejobi, Hwejobi                           Leader: Everybody, everybody

Response: Hwejobi ye gwonu shene vwe kevwe.     Response: Everybody go find my shilling for me!

The children (players) keep chanting (as above) going round the playing area until one of them finds the money.  At this point the finder hides the money and begins another round of chanting and searching until again, the money is found and another round of chanting and searching commences.  This circle of searching and finding lasts only as long as the attention span of the players will allow.  Thereafter they switch to another game.  The number of games performed in a session of “Egbo” is quite large so it is neither necessary nor appropriate nor even possible to describe them all for the “Egbo” contains a large repertory of games accumulated from successive generations of child players.  But for now it is sufficient to say that several games from the repertory may be featured every night(when moonlight is available).  Here a few examples will suffice.  At this juncture we may mention four types of games within the “Egbo” repertory, namely:

          a)       T
rick Tales

      Tongue Twisters

       "Description” and

       "Breath control” <>

We will touch briefly upon these game types in turn.


This is played within the usual circle formation.  The leader tells a “trick tale” with a “trick question” at the end of it.  This question he puts to the players to test how fast they can think or reason.  The right response allows the player to stay in the circle and the wrong response attracts a friendly beating (or not-so-friendly beating) from the other players.  Such a player also leaves the circle.  Here is a short example.


     URHOBO                                                       TRANSLATION

Leader: Itaye!                                             Leader: Here is a story!

Players : Ye!                                               Players : Story!

Leader: Asavwe and Ejavwevwo                  Leader: Mr. Pinch me and Mr. Leave me

              Aye towe kugbe                                           They dug a pond together.

              Ejavwevwo kowhuru                                     Mr. Leave me then died.

              Kono vwe awe na?                                         Who owns the pond now?

Player : Asavwe                                        Player : Mr. Pinch me.

<>Obviously this player is not very bright.  To be sure he gave the ‘rughtest’, most logical answer to the question.  But the catch in that answer is that it is an open invitation to the other players to “pinch” him all over his body thereby giving them much fun and laughter at his expense! So in this situation any player who wants to avoid being pinched will either say:

Ejuvwevwo (Not Mr. Leave me) or Ohwovuovo vworo-o (none owns it).



Again another circle game.  The fun in it consists of saying the “twister” as rapidly as possible and getting stuck as a result.  Every player participates actively.  Any player may suggest a tongue twister to be spoken.  Here are some examples:


URHOBO                                         TRANSLATION


i)        Obo mie obo opia                     i)  A herbalist has taken a matchet from a herbalist

ii)       Igoro r’Echivwoko rib o gbe bo        ii)  The frogs of Echivwoko that croak any how

iii)         Okpame oye omwe ovwo mo     iii)  It’s in the dry season the omwe tree fruits.


This too is played in the circle.  The leader starts a song describing the characteristics of certain animals or objects and the players confirm the rightness of that description by either responding or remaining silent if the description or classification is wrong.  As in the “trick tale” and question, the wrong answer attracts a friendly beating from the other players.  Here are some examples:


URHOBO                                                  TRANSLATION


Leader: Avi sherio!                                     Leader: It has horns!

Players: Avi sherio!                                    Players :It has horns!

Leader: Evwe ari sherio                               Leader: The Goat has horns!

Players: Avi sherio!                                    Players :It has horns!

Leader: Ogegede avi sherio!                        Leader: The sheep has horns

Players: Avi sherio!                                    Players :It has horns!

Leader: Urhe avisherio!                               Leader: A tree has horns!

Players: (Aye fore)                                     Players : (Silence)

In this particular game a player not bright enough or not alert enough to discern that a tree has no horns definitely gets a friendly beating or a not-so-friendly beating from his peers in addition to being expelled (temporarily) from the circle.


This game is not played in a circle but ends in it. Like all the others discussed in this paper, it is a group activity.  It starts by the leader directing every player to find a palm nut each (the type from which the palm oil has been extracted).  Then he directs them to chant a song and hold a specific note of the song while running form the spot where the other players are gathered to a fairly distant spot and returning to the group, still holding the same note.  The player who is able to do this is considered a winner and is cheered by his peers while the one who is unable to hold the note is considered a loser, but in this particular instance, he does not get a friendly beating for failing.  Here an example will make it clearer:

PLAYERS (Starting from among his peers, trotting to the target spot tounching it and returning to starting point holding the “eeeeee” note right through): ooooooo maaaaaaaaa muuuuuuuu vweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee lo!  

In this game, the players take their turns doing this breath control exercise and those who succeed (they are usually few, very few) are welcomed back in the circle amidst cheers from their peers while those who fail or “die on the way” are booed and kept out of the circle (for the duration of this particular game).

As mentioned earlier the “Egbo” (moonlight games) repertory is quite large and the above described game types do not pretend to even begin to scratch the surface what is available in the field. However, I hope enough has been said so far about the context and nature of these games to stimulate further research and documentation. For now, it is sufficient to state definitely that these games emphasize competition, mental alertness (i.e. having ones wits about him or her), verbal dexterity, team spirit and problem solving.


It is clear from the broad picture sketched in the preceding section that “egbo” (moonlight games) in Uwherun clan are designed as a traditional form of informal education.  In these games the children articulate and explore themes that will later engage and rivet their adult energies.  Thus in these games we find themes such as nurture (food), power (winning and losing, reward and punishment), seeking and finding (seeking people or things)  In other words, the children through these games, are training themselves for the various roles they will play later in life.  Barrault makes a similar point when he argues:

… play, therefore, enables us to understand that it is a training for living, a sort of temporary inoculation of evil and danger, a disruption of the balance, like a vaccine which allows us to live, in a substitute way, all the dangerous circumstances of life, so that we can conduct ourselves better when the dangerous circumstances of life are real… play is therefore a training for life and not an activity without a purpose (Hodgson, 22-23)

If the content of “egbo” (moonlight games) is a “pre-hearsal” of the themes the children will deal with in adult life, the structure of these games is no less a reflection of the adult world in which they will have to perform when they graduate into adulthood.  At this point it is useful to recall that the “egbo” in reality are skits structured in the form of a “call and response” performance or as Finnegan aptly puts it “strophe and antistrophe” – a sort of dialogue between the members of a micro-community.  This dialogue is carried out in song and action; there is always a leader calling out in song or chant and action and his peers or fellow players answering back also in song or chant and action.

The significance of this “dialogue” is rather obvious.  Although on the surface what we see is children at play but below the surface we discern a living “micro-community” carrying on the business of life, working together, depending on each other, like an ant colony or a bee-hive for the overall success of the whole community.  In short, when we watch the “Egbo” (moonlight games) we are seeing the genesis or quintessence of the “group soul” or “team spirit” that sustains the macro-community from generation to generation.


Now, the Egbo (moonlight games) described above may be regarded as an Urhobo version of “Creative Drama.” They contain closely similar features as those found in creative drama.  Creative drama has been defined as

          As improvisational, non exhibitional, process centred form of drama in which participants are guided by a leader to imagine, enact and reflect upon human experienced… The creative drama process is dynamic.  The leader guides the group to explore, develop, express and communicate ideas, concepts and feelings through dramatic enactment.  In creative drama the group improvises action and dialogue appropriate to the content it is exploring, using elements of drama to give form and meaning to the experience (Davis and Behm, 10-11)


A comparison of “Egbo” (moonlight plays) and Creative Drama shows that they share many features as the following table will make clear:  

a)       Is improvisational, non exhibitional and process centred  a)   Is improvisational, non exhibitional and process centred
b)         Involves group activity directed by a leader b)    Involves group activity directed by a eader
c)         Uses chants, songs and actions and little or no dialogue to give form and meaning to human experience c)   Uses more dialogue and occasionally songs chants and actions to give form and meaning to human experience
d)         Performed by children on moonlight nights d)    Performed by children during drama lessons in school.
e)         It is an informal style of education e)     It is a play way method of learning.


The point being made in the above comparison is that “Egbo” (moonlight games) bears a strong resemblance to creative drama, suggesting that both activities are homologous, that is, they perform similar functions in the Urhobo communities and in Western communities.  The implication of this observation is that if “Egbo” is allowed to disappear, as it seems on the verge of doing, the Urhobos will have lost a tried and time honoured resource and method for engineering and nurturing the Urhobo mind and ethos.  Such a loss will produce culturally deprived children that are less capable of facing and handling effectively the challenges of an emerging global order in the 21st century.


From very ancient times Urhobo children have been playing “Egbo” (moonlight games). These games are usually played on moonlight nights from about 7.00 p.m. in the evening to around midnight when everybody in the village has gone to bed.  Based on the principle of the circle or ring, arch and line these games which include “hide and seek,” “action songs,” “breath control games,” “riddles,” “puzzles,” “trick tales,” “tongue twisters,” and problem solving games emphasize competition, mental alertness, cooperation, verbal dexterity and team spirit.  They are skits performed on the pattern of “call and response” and have assisted the children to develop and handle the challenges of adult life.  These games are a valuable heritage that must be documented and preserved for future generations for they are a proven help that has enabled our children to face their adult futures in the past.  With some effort on our part we can develop these games and offer them to our children and thus enable them to face their futures and the challenges of an emerging global order in the 21st century. 



Barrault, J.L “Theatre the Best and Worst of Professions” in Hodgson, J. (ed), The Uses of Drama. London: Eyre Methuen Ltd, 1972.

Davis, J.H And Behm, T “Terminology of Drama/Theatre With and For Children: A Redefinition” Children’s Theatre Review, 27 No1, 1978


Finnegan, R  Oral Literature In Africa London: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Lefrancois, G.R   Of children: An Introduction to Child Development.  Belmost Califoronia: Wadsworth Publishing Company, Inc, 1977.

Lowenfeld, M in Hodgson J. (ed)   The Uses Of Drama. London: Eyre Methuen Ltd, 1972.


Spolin, V  Improvisation For The Theatre. LONDON:  Pitman and Sons Ltd, 1963.