Urhobo Historical Society


November 1-3, 2002
Goldsmiths College of London University
Goddis Restaurant, 126 New Cross Road, London SE14

Beyond Social and Political Issues in Urhoboland

By F. M. A.Ukoli, Ph.D.

Retired Professor of Zoology 

University of Ibadan, Nigeria 

It would appear that the rallying cry among the intellectual elite in Urhoboland is, “seek ye first the political and social emancipation of our people and the rest will follow”. I say this because political and socio-cultural issues tend to take pre-eminence over overwhelming scientific, technological, environmental, educational, health, agricultural and employment problems in public discourse and debates at conferences and symposia. It may well be that this is the natural order of things. But the brilliant ideas canvassedby erudite scholars in the humanities and social sciences who abound in Urhoboland do not seem to translate into positive actions towards the raising of the standard of living of Urhobo people or improving their quality of life. This, when all is said and done, is, or should be the task of both the political/social and intellectual elite alike – finding solutions to the innumerable problems confronting our people in their quest for the transformation of Urhoboland.

What significant changes can be said to have occurred inthe quality of life and living standards or life style, if you like, among the Urhobo in the last 25, nay 50 years?How far have the political changes and developmental programmes which have been instituted nationwide impacted on the life of the average Urhobo man? Is it indeed pertinent here to enquire whether Urhobo culture and tradition are worth preserving. If the answer is in the affirmative, what are the chances of survival of Urhobo culture and traditions when subjected to the onslaught from the various ethnic, religious and other foreign influences? It is these issues I wish to address by reference to three aspects namely; Urhobo life style, living standard and quality of life.

Apropos the foregoing questions, it should be stressed that Urhobo culture and traditions by and large are well preserved in the traditional society in the rural areas where the bulk of the Urhobo dwell. Depending on subsistence farming for survival, poverty has always been the lot of the peasants. But lately, this has become unprofitable because of poor quality and selection of germplasm, poor farm management practices and post-harvest losses among other factors. But superimposed on all this is the environmental degradation brought about by petroleum exploitation, which has destroyed the means of livelihood in many oil producing communities. The upshot of all this is pervasive poverty manifested in Urhobo hinterland by poor housing conditions, squalor, low life expectancy, unemployment, illiteracy and poor health care. Suffering from such serious deprivation, such people are unlikely to be able to muster the will or the capacity to amass the resources required for tinkering with their cultural heritage. Not so their affluent kinsmen belonging to the social/political and intellectual elite residing in the urban areas and in Diaspora whose role in the distortion or adulteration of Urhobo culture and traditions will be the subject of the rest of this paper.

At this point a layman’s working definition of some of the terms used is considered necessary, if for nothing else, at least to serve as guide posts for the discussion of the topic. By life style is meant the way or method by which a people live their life or do their things. The Urhobo say, “obo e ruemu oye ruemu”, a free translation of which is, “things should be done the way they should be done”. Living standard implies the level of comfort or ease/hardship or crudeness at which the affairs of daily living are conducted; the way, for example, in which the economy, health, education, nutrition and the availability of modern facilities and amenities like electricity, telephone etc. and provision of infrastructure like roads, drainage, housing, water supply system and basic sanitation etc. influence the life style of the people. For the definition of quality of life, I take my cue from the WHO definition of good health which is, “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” The indices for the assessment of the quality of life encompass the quantum of the availability vis-à-vis the deprivation of social, cultural, economic, mental, physical and moral factors as well as balanced nutrition, not merely the absence of hunger or disease I shall now chart a course by reference to a few examples under each heading to indicate how the Urhobo are progressing in preserving their culture and traditions.

Life Style or Way of Life

Nothing instantly identifies a man’s origin than his dress. Here all praise should go to the Urhobo woman. Whether at home in Delta State or nationwide or in the diaspora the Urhobo woman is a model of elegance attired in her blouse, wrappers and head tie of whatever quality of fabric, especially when adorned with jewelry of coral beads, gold or silver with shoes and handbag to match. That this mode of dress has now come to be adopted as the national dress for women is a reflection of the Urhobo woman’s success in the promotion of her culture and traditions. Not so with the Urhobo man whose uncritical adoption of the babanriga, agbada and caftan as national dress is a source of embarrassment. To many an Urhobo man, it is simply an act of patriotism to be seen in these robes both at work or in public functions, instead of donning the traditional wrapper and big shirt, with appropriate head dress, for which he is justly famous throughout the length and breadth of the nation. From the earliest times, my image of an Urhobo “gentleman” has been one of a man dressed in his full traditional attire complete with a walking stick and hand fan, strutting or swaggering along the street on a festive or ceremonial occasion. What could be more majestic and impressive than that? It is generally argued that the Urhobo dress is too cumbersome and unwieldy to be suitable for office, white-collar job. That was what they used to say in the colonial days about the agbada and babanriga, but due to the persistence of the Yoruba, Hausa/Fulani and, it must be admitted, with the support of the Urhobo and other ethnic groups as well, they are now accepted as standard office wear. Finally, nothing betrays his lack of commitment to thepromotion and preservation of his cultural and traditional heritage than an Urhobo man who appears at cultural and traditional functions like giving off his daughter in marriage, in-law condolence visits or even political rallies, decked out in anything but the traditional apparel.

Urhobo way of life is expressed explicitly in various traditional activities like naming, marriage and burial ceremonies. The Urhobo traditional marriage ceremony is no longer what it used to be. What is essentially supposed to be a union of two families in the ancestral home of the bride at which the bride is publicly handed over to the bridegroom and his family following appropriate prayers and libation, is now quite often nothing more than a second christian wedding ceremony conducted, sometimes even in the banquet hall of a hotel or a civic centre. What used to be a family affair has now become an excuse for the blatant display of wealth in which an entire town or community (with important dignitaries as guests from as far afield as LagosAbujaLondonU.S.A.etc.) are lavishly feted. Live bands are on hand dishing out loud gospel and Urhobo-disco-makossa music drowning all other forms of communication, even the ceremonial negotiations between the ototas of the two families. There is no longer any pretence that Urhobo traditional music and dance and other cultural activities are on offer at these gatherings. No longer is the interaction between the ototas of both sides, which is an excuse for the celebration of the beauty of Urhobo language and culture, a highlight of the ceremony. While some of the ototas I have come across are endowed with a gift of the gab, many are virtually tongue-tied in the performance of their task. In many cases, this shoddy presentation serves no other purpose than paying lip service to an otherwise solemn ceremony, conducted in what can best be described as ‘pidgin Urhobo’ by people who are not even dressed in traditional attire. The occasion is supposed to provide an opportunity for the speakers to exhibit their knowledge of Urhobo proverbs and wise sayings reeled off by masters of repartee and friendly banter for the titillation and entertainment of the audience. More often than not the dramatic effect of this performance is lost in the hurly-burly and commotion which undermine the solemnity and grandeur of the ceremony.

Traditional prayers which used to be said either by the bride’s father or an elder in the family are now the prerogative of any pastor or evangelist present. In some cases, a powerful sermon by an anointed preacher is thrown in for good measure. The libation, the act of worship which is most fundamental to the entire proceedings, being now considered fetish, is either completely repudiated or replaced by a sham of a ritual involving the use of non-alcoholic wine (a contradiction in terms if there ever was one) instead of the traditional palm-wine and spirit. This “wine” is not poured on the ground in the symbolic gesture of calling on the ancestors to come and play their intercessory role in obtaining God’s blessings, but held up to high heavens as an alternative to the pagan route to the same blessings. No wonder, many of our elders today do not know whether it is customary to pray with their hats on or not; whether sitting or standing etc. Quite often, proceedings are interrupted while acrimonious arguments are raging over purely cultural issues like how much the bride price should be and the procedure for determining it. There are those who take a dim view of this exhibition of ignorance of elements of Urhobo culture, while others consider traditional practice incomplete without such bickering.

A third pillar of Urhobo traditional marriage custom is the negotiation and payment of the bride price (some still insist on calling it dowry). Traditionally, this has always been a token fee reckoned in the old English ‘shillings’; usually not more than twelve shillings representing symbolically the price of one crate of gin. But these days, the bridegroom and his family, and even friends are coaxed into ‘spraying’ the bride lavishly with currency notes reckoned in hundreds of thousands of naira, which completely eclipse the value and significance of the bride price. The Urhobo man, and indeed all other Nigerians should be dissuaded from indulging in the crude and uncivilized practice of plastering the forehead and face of the couple with filthy naira notes as a show of affection. One does not have to be a physician or parasitologist to appreciate the dangers of acquiring infection through exposure to these contaminated currency notes.Marriage, according to Urhobo “native law and custom” shorn of the ritual of libation, formalities of negotiating the bride price and devoid of traditional song and dance, and whose essence is overshadowed by an overwhelming urge for ostentatious display of affluence and conspicuous consumption cannot be said to be an admissible way of promoting or preserving Urhobo cultural and traditional heritage.

It can therefore be concluded that what passes for Urhobo traditional marriage ceremony can at worst be described as an adulteration of the culture or at best an admixture of a multiplicity of influences mainly of Christian and English origin.

Urhobo traditional funeral ceremony can be assessed likewise. Guests cannot be blamed these days if they get away with the impression that burial ceremonies and funeral rites in Urhoboland comprise nothing more than christian wake-keeping (fondly now known as ‘service of songs’), funeral service the morning after, interment conducted at the graveside by a reverend or pastor, and a ‘thanksgiving’ service in church the final day. Who consults the Urhobo calendar these days in subscribing to the concept of Omamede as against Edewor in choosing the auspicious day for the burial, or marriage ceremony for that matter? What about the peculiar features of the Urhobo traditional funeral rites; the dirges, the characteristic songs and dances, the special food, all of which reflect the cultural heritage of the people? What of the catafalque? This magnificent work of art specially constructed and exquisitely decorated for the lying in state of a distinguished Urhobo man seems to have disappeared completely from the Urhobo cultural landscape. And yet on my insistence, twenty years ago, that my father be accorded “full traditional funeral rites” at Agbassa in the heart of the modern oil city of Warri, the people were able to recreate it from memory; I never saw it before nor have I seen it since.

Even if all of the foregoing is an anathema because they are at variance with christian traditions, how about the simple matter of the time of interment? Christian practice in this regard invariably conflicts with Urhobo traditional injunctions. All this notwithstanding, the Urhobo’s respect for freedom of worship accommodates the choice of any form of funeral rites. But give the genuine Urhobo tradition its due recognition.

Finally, there are many ways of showcasing the cultural heritage of a people. One is by the creation of symbols representing their ‘deities’, establishing museums, erecting historical monuments and setting up historical sites. There is no museum worthy of the name in Urhoboland, nor are there any foundations or endowments, the means by which such projects are funded, in the offing. Of the seven sites and monuments considered worth mentioning in the Official Tourism Brochure of the Delta State Government, not one is sited in Urhoboland. The mention of festivals of arts and culture which were annual events organised by governments at local, state and federal levels is now only of nostalgic significance; in Urhoboland, whatever their impact is now minimal. The Urhobo world view challenged their intellect and creativity, expressed by their sculptors through the carvings used to adorn our ancestral homes. Many Urhobo having been convinced about the evil of these pagan practices have renounced them. But rather than treatingthese ‘gods’ of the converts as artifacts to be stored in a museum as is done in other ‘civilised’ parts of the world, out here, inexplicable anger is vented on them, after which they are set ablaze. The resulting loss of our traditional heritage quite apart from the economic loss through tourism can well be imagined.

True indeed traditional festivals were celebrated annually in virtually all the towns and villages of every one of the 22 kingdoms in Urhoboland. Essentially, these festivals provide opportunity for ancestral worship, purification of land and the people as well as a medium for fertility rites. Unfortunately, in most communities, these festivals have succumbed to the onslaught posed by economic, religious and educational influences and have thus gone into oblivion. For the few that have survived, the ravages of violence engendered by youth restiveness, political hostilities and armed robbery have taken the shine off the excitement, merriment and entertainment these festive occasions were traditionally created to provide for indigenes and visitors alike.

Living Standard and Quality of Life

Urhobo are predominantly rural dwellers being traditionally mainly farmers. They are among that lowly class of people who are said to belong to the grassroots. How is development expected to filter down to the grassroots? If development can be measured by the people’s access to modern amenities like electricity, telephones etc. and infrastructural facilities like roads, drainage, housing, water supply system and basic sanitation as well as provision of health and educational facilities and availability of adequate food supply, to what extent have the Urhobo benefited from these? These are the very issues that are at the root of raising the living standard and improving the quality of life of the Urhobo people. Time constraints compel me to do no more than to highlight the main issues thatmust be addressed when discussing this topic.

In the first place, it is now generally accepted that “the high prevalence of communicable diseases, along with poverty, ignorance and hunger are indisputable indices of underdevelopment.” And what is the basis of development in Nigeria today if not agriculture? And yet agriculture is still largely at the subsistence level. In Nigeria with all her oil wealth, peasants residing in the rural areas (of which the Urhobo form a significant part) produce the bulk of the food consumed inNigeria. But, as I declared to the Nigerian Medical Association at Effurun in November 2001, it is among these poverty stricken rural dwellers, as well as, it must be mentioned, their hapless cousins crowded into the incredibly insanitary urban slums that the term ‘poor health status’ assumes its true meaning. Their health and welfare suffer a level of neglect which is incompatible with their level of productivity… No wonder then that “these people cannot promote or fully benefit from development.” As I said in my book, Prevention and Control of Parasitic Diseases, development therefore involves efforts at enabling the people to build up the capacity to do something about raising their standard of living and improving their quality of life and welfare by:

providing safe and potable water supply; raising their level of

sanitation through the provision of efficient excreta and refuse

disposal facilities and elimination of squalor; improving their

nutritional status; promoting personal, food and environmental

hygiene through health education …

This is what Primary Health Care (PHC) is all about.Sadly, in spite of all the rhetoric about the establishment and implementation of PHC, particularly during the military era, the fears expressed by WHO that it should not be allowed to develop into “a parallel system that is a ‘poor relation’ of the existing health care system” have come to pass. Provision of health care facilities is one of the cardinal selling points of the present elected civilian regime.But erecting the more visible components of the secondary and tertiary levels of health care is of greater vote-catching significance than preaching the gospel of the ‘healing power’ of PHC. But whatever the politicians choose to do, most of the attention should be focused on the rural areas, because that is where the problem prevails; and that is where the bulk of the Urhobo reside. PHC should therefore be seen as a tool for impacting positively, albeit unobtrusively, on the health status and quality of life of the people.

The food and feeding habits can also be a reliable index of the standard of living and quality of life of a people. Traditionally, for those Urhobo who relish and can afford three square meals a day, breakfast consists of boiled yam, palm oil and pepper soup with fresh or dried fish or ukodo, while lunch/dinner consists of banga soup or oghwo with fish (fresh or dried), beef or bush meat garnished with dried crayfish and periwinkles eaten with starch or garri (eba). It is a thing of pride that these dishes have taken their rightful place as part of the national cuisine and are in great demand in bukas, restaurants and hotels nationwide. But the gastronomic virtues or delights of the Urhobo diet notwithstanding, it cannot be said to be nutritionally balanced. This diet can be described as high in carbohydrates, fats and proteins but low in vegetables and fruits and hence deficient in the essential vitamins and minerals needed for the maintenance of good health. For the poor peasants in the rural areas, it does not matter how much carbohydrates they consume, even if they can afford it, because the excess is not stored but burnt off during the physical exertion entailed in the laborious, energy sapping business of farming. Hence the typical Urhobo peasant has that lean and wiry look that lacks any trace of fatty tissues. But the political/social and intellectual elite, on the other hand who, because they can afford it, literally ‘feed fat’ on this rich fare, because of lack of physical exertion or exercise are unable to burn off the excess fat which is accumulated in the abdomen, buttocks, thighs, upper arms, necks etc.. They, both men and women, thus present a prosperous, full-bodied appearance, which is sometimes mistaken as ‘evidence of good living’ especially when attired in the traditional dress.But this semblance of good health, the effect of indiscriminate and uncontrolled consumption of large quantities of carbohydrates, fats and proteins could be dangerous symptoms of obesity, diabetes, arthritis and diseases of cardiovascular origin which are now seen to be taking their toll among the Urhobo these days. But whether living in penury or in affluence, anyone whose nourishment derives from this diet is bound to suffer from health conditions traceable to vitamin and mineral deficiencies. If traditional feeding habits seem to preclude the eating of vegetables and fruits, then nothing prevents the consumption of appropriate food supplements, which is now the vogue; if they are available and affordable, that is. Traditional wisdom preaches that undue indulgence in the eating of protein like fish, meat and eggs makes a thief of a child. Because of this and the reason of poverty, many an Urhobo child has been raised on a protein-deficiency diet resulting in a number of conditions responsible for the stunting of the physical and mental development of children.

One more parameter for assessing the standard of living; the establishment of infrastructural facilities like roads, waste disposal and management and drainage systems, housing etc. The long military reign of 15 years left most towns and villages in Urhoboland inaccessible. The construction of the Oviorie – Kokori road in the last two years has opened up Agbon kingdom and has contributed in no small way to the raising of the standard of living of the people as expected.Other parts of the Urhobo hinterland are being similarly gradually opened up. But a similar success story cannot be told about provision of facilities for solid waste management and the construction of drainages. The urban landscape is blighted by huge garbage dumps which constitute an eyesore as well as being a source of infection by communicable diseases. Whatever drainage system exists is liable to clogging when it rains, resulting in flooding which in turn helps in the spread of these infective agents. There is not a single sanitary landfill in Urhoboland; nay, anywhere in the Niger Delta; nor are there municipal wastewater treatment facilities. There is no sophisticated, centralised sewerage system to speak of in any city in the Niger Delta region, not to mention Urhoboland, while in the rural areas, indiscriminate defaecation and urination is the order of the day. And because many households in the urban areas lack toilet facilities, people simply discharge their faeces and other human wastes directly into open drains and the nearest water body just as they do with wastewater.

All these culminate in the contamination of the flood waters which arise in the rainy season, which thus become veritable sources of infection. In the dry season however, the open gutters serve no other purpose than as canals for the collection and retention of putrid, stagnant water, the stench emanating from which is quite simply unbearable. The urban poor are condemned to a life in such unsanitary environment because successive regimes have not demonstrated sufficient appreciation of the public health significance of environmental sanitation through solid waste management and the installation of effective excreta treatment and disposal facilities and a drainage system. They care less about the aesthetic appeal of all this in town planning. The motivation and capacity for the creation of alternative technology and ideas for tackling the problems seem to have eluded the people, just as Urhobo leadership seems to lack the political will to do something about it. The urban poor and their poverty-stricken cousins in the rural areas are thus constrained to live in harmony with filth. Having been cowed into submission by several years of military dictatorship, their attitude towards the matter is now fatalistic; they hardly ‘make a hue and cry’ about their plight. Even if they do, they wield no influence to command government attention or action. The war on the social and political fronts must go on unabated; there should be heightened awareness amongst the Urhobo that the provision of safe water and basic sanitation being indispensable for the maintenance of the good health and well being of the people, is a fundamental right worth fighting for with equal vigour.

After all is said and done, the question persists; are Urhobo culture and tradition worth protecting, preserving and promoting? The transformation of Urhoboland into a land flowing with milk and honey, in which culture and traditions are cherished, is inextricably tied up with the emergence of the right kind of leadership.For the former, government at all levels has the principal role to play, but they are not doing so. For the latter, it devolves on the leadership at the traditional level to make a positive impact. As I argued in my paper on “The place of the elite in Urhobo leadership”, hitherto, leadership was provided by the social, political and mercantile elite who, by being inducted into the Ohonwvoren (chieftaincy) Institution were qualified to have a say in the social and political affairs of their people through the Ovie-in-Council system. The elite class was then drawn from the ranks of homegrown farmers/traders and latter day merchants, businessmen and contractors in the urban centres. However, in the last 30 – 35 years there has been a build up of an educated elite which are in a position to give intellectual impetus to whatever developmental initiatives are forthcoming from the erstwhile chieftaincy class.

But what do we find? Although we haveintellectuals and professionals of Urhobo origin in every conceivable field of study holding their own and jostling for position in both the public and private sectors, unfortunately Urhoboland does not seem to be deriving the fullest benefits from this blessing. As I said, “A multitude of graduates specialising in a multiplicity of disciplines, but their combined knowledge, skills and experience are harnessed neither for the political, economic, agricultural, industrial and technological transformation of Urhoboland nor for the preservation of their cultural and traditional heritage…” There are two main reasons that come readily to mind. Most of these people show little or no inclination to settle down at the grassroots where they come from and make their direct contributions. They seem to prefer roughing it out in the rarefied and sophisticated environment provided by cities like Lagos, Abuja, Ibadan, Asaba and Warri, and it must be said, the Diaspora, because there is where the good life is and fortunes are made.

The second reason, I daresay, has to do with the reluctance of the intellectual elite from aspiring to membership of the Ohonvworen Institution which precludes them from assuming leadership roles in their various clans at the grassroots level. This is either because of the prohibitive minimum entry requirements in financial terms or because of the perception of the initiation ceremonies as having a semblance of fetishism which is incompatible with Christian beliefs and practices. But all that is now history. The ceremony has been modernised in many clans by removing those inhibiting conditions which make initiation unattractive to Christians, while special concessions like waiving the payment of the prescribed fees have been made for any person who, in the opinion of the Ovie, deserves to be honoured by virtue of his contribution to society. I end by quoting from myUrhobo leadership article:

This inability to draw from the pool of abundant talent and expertise

at our disposal could be due to a failure to mount an aggressive

campaign to raise awareness about the benefits to the greater

society ofbelonging to the traditional chieftaincy institutions…

Planning and conducting research to proffer solutions to our problems

surely does not depend on membership in traditional chieftaincy


How to induce Urhobo intellectuals and professionals to come back home and contribute their quota remains a task that must be done.


F. M. A. Ukoli
November 1, 2002.


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