THIRD ANNUAL CONFERENCE AND MEETING
November 1-3, 2002
THE MISSION OF URHOBO HISTORICAL SOCIETY
By Peter P. Ekeh, Ph.D.
State University of New York at Buffalo
Chair, Urhobo Historical Society
Special Guest of Honour
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen
I am heartened by this splendid attendance at our Third Annual Conference. Our annual conference of November last last year was plagued by the shadows of the crisis of World Trade Center, which prevented many people from coming to the venue of the Conference in Persippany, New Jersey, USA. Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya and Governor James Ibori cancelled their travel plans to the United States as a consequence of the uncertainties of that period. We carried on our business, but it was a small conference. By contrast, this is a large gathering. I am happy.
In this address, I have three main responsibilities. First, I want to thank those who have sacrificed so much to travel from Nigeria, North America, Europe, and various areas of the United Kingdom to attend this Conference. In addition, I want to express the sincere gratitude of Urhobo Historical Society to those who have worked with us to become what we are. Second, I want to explain to you what Urhobo Historical Society does and what its mission is. Third, I am here to challenge you to join in our mission of service to Urhobo history and culture.
Words of Thanks and Gratitude to Those Who Have Worked With Us
Let me begin with the easiest of these responsibilities, namely, thanking you and those who have helped us in the past. To begin with an expression of appreciation that is fully deserved, we thank Governor Felix Ibru for his friendship for Urhobo Historical Society. Olorogun Felix Ibru was the first civilian Governor of Delta State. He served with grace and without corruption. More importantly, he was loyal to Urhobo ideals while serving all of Delta State. Governor, we are particularly impressed by your record in the matter of the State Capital which military rule arbitrarily took away from the Old Delta Province. You were not intimidated in your embrace of your Urhobo roots. We salute you for your courage. We look forward to working with you in our mission of serving Urhobo history and culture.
Our Special Guest of Honour, Mr. D. A. Obiomah, is a friend of Urhobo Historical Society in words and in deeds. His work on the history of Warri has been central to our documentation of this piece of British imperialism in Nigeria's Niger Delta. Daniel Obiomah's exposition of the wrongful conduct of British colonial officers and courts in attempting to take away the lands of his ancestors in Agbarha-Warri, despite the British treaty of March 14,1893, with the elders and chieftains of Agbarha that recognized their ownership of Warri lands, is, in our view, a profile in courage. Mr. Obiomah, we salute you for your pioneering endeavours in the history of Warri and your poetic affection for Urhobo culture. In addition, we are thankful to you for your generosity in allowing us to reproduce your published works in our web site. And we thank Mrs. Lily Obiomah for sharing in these great accomplishments.
In this important gathering of distinguished Urhobo men and women and their friends, I can see those who have spent their resources for travelling from inside Nigeria for the sake of this Conference. If I miss your name, don't be angry. From Warri, we have with us here Professor Frank Ukoli and Dr. Emmanuel Urhobo, cousins from an illustrious Urhobo family in Agbarha-Warri. From Port Harcourt, we have Dr. Amy Emerhi, Nigerian director of International Association for Impact Assessment. From the University of Ibadan has come our Keynote Speaker, Professor David Okpako. From Lagos, a galaxy of Urhobo talent. Chief Imo Otite has been a friend of Urhobo Historical Society from its beginning. We thank you. We are encouraged by the friendship from Urhobo Social Club, Lagos, in having its leadership with us tonight. In the last week, we were informed from several sources from inside Urhoboland that Urhobo Voice carried a paid announcement on our Third Annual Conference. That was the initiative of Chief Johnson Barovwe from Lagos. Johnson, we thank you for your generosity. We look forward to working with you.
There is a class of actors that I do want to thank especially for their patience with me and my colleagues who are daily engaged in prosecuting the affairs of Urhobo Historical Society. They are the wives of active members of Urhobo Historical Society. From my own point of view, they especially include my wife, Helen Ekeh from Buffalo in the Unites States; Mrs. Olubunmi Edevbie in Detroit, Michigan, USA; Mrs. Bobbie Clarke-Mowoe in Columbus, Ohio; Mrs.Onakpoma Oyiborhoro in Long Island, New York; and Mrs. Victoria Obruche in London. They have all tolerated my daily telephone calls, sometimes at impolite and late hours. I thank you for your patience and for your love for Urhobo culture.
Finally, permit me to name two special Urhobos who have contributed much to our work of the last three years. Senator David Dafinone sought us out in May 2000 with words of encouragement. He attended our first Annual Conference in Niagara Falls, Canada, and gave its keynote address. It was a spectacle to see the Senator in deep conversation with young Urhobo men and women in Niagara Falls in November 2000. They looked like playmates! Senator Dafinone offered to fund an endowed chair in Urhobo Studies at Delta State University, Abraka, if Urhobo Historical Society would arrange it with the University authorities. Sadly, the Abraka authorities have yet to respond to our enquiries and invitation. And the good Senator gave us much needed financial assistance in 2000, shortly after the conference. We salute Senator David Dafinone for his commitments in serving Urhobo history and culture.
We in Urhobo Historical Society can never pay back in any fair measure for the work that Mr. S. S. Obruche has done for us, right from the beginning of our Society in 1999 and stretching to this very moment. He sought us out in 1999 with words of encouragement and important advice. It was Mr. Obruche who introduced Daniel Obiomah's writings on Warri to us. It was he who, on his own, approached Daniel Obiomah for his publications that we have now reproduced in our web site. It was Simpson Obruche who sent documents on Urhobo Progress Union that we have published in our web site. When in 2001, I was empowered by the General Meeting to inquire whether London would be willing to host our next Annual Conference and I then I asked Mr. Obruche, he snatched the idea. That is how we are here today. Yes, it is this man who phones from London to the United States every week and sometimes several times a day. As the good old Apostle would put it, neither gold nor silver do we in Urhobo Historical Society have. What we have for Mr. Obruche is abundance of praise. Simpson, we salute you for your genuine and selfless love for Urhoboland and for Urhobo history and culture.
Our Work and Our Mission
I must now tell you about the work we do. The best way of doing so is to narrate to you the circumstances that compelled us to to inaugurate Urhobo Historical Society on August 28, 1999. In 1999, Urhobo affairs at home in Nigeria and even in the Diaspora were troubled. There was a great deal of in-fighting within Urhobo communities. We were regularly taunted by several of our neighbours who sought to interpret our history in ways that suited their interests but in manners and words that often disparaged Urhobo history and culture. Whenever we sought to reply to untruthful accounts about our people and Urhobo affairs, we were compelled to go to internet media controlled by those who made unsavoury remarks that we wished to correct. We had no significant presence in the new medium of the internet in 1999. But we realized then that this new medium would provide large opportunities for us to tell the Urhobo story from our own perspective, without seeking to hurt our neighbours with whom we share so much in common.
Such circumstances in 1999 helped Urhobo Historical Society to shape the conduct of its business. First, we were intent on telling the truth about Urhobo history and culture. We have been most determined in defending Urhobo history and culture against unjustified attacks. In doing so, we have tried our utmost to compile documents on Urhobo history and culture.
We recognize that Urhobo's history, culture, and welfare are intertwined with those of many communities in the larger Niger Delta. We have therefore also defended the Niger Delta and its environment against hostilities from Nigeria's Federal Government and the oil companies that mine our petroleum resources. Thus, our very first effort was the documentation of the great fires that ravaged Idjerhe in 1998 and Ekakpamre in 1999.
Beyond occasional responses to those who sought to attack our interests, we have carried out the main business of Urhobo Historical Society in three ways.
First, we have devoted a huge amount of time and financial resources to build two web sites: http://www.waado.org/Contents.html and http://www.urhobo.kinsfolk.com/. The larger web site, http://www.waado.org/Contents.html, is currently rated among the best African web sites in the internet. It is a comprehensive web site that is designed to grow in many directions. For a few examples: (1) It has an unchallenged leadership in the the documentation of the environmental problems and issues of the Niger Delta. (2) We have published important documents on the history of the UPU. (3) Our web site leads in the biographical accounts of Urhobos. We have reproduced two books on the biography of Chief Mukoro Mowoe. We are currently working on the reproduction of Bishop Agori Iwe's biography by Professor Samuel Erivwo. (4) We have published Mr. Daniel Obiomah's books on the question of ownership of Warri. (5) We have published Professor Samuel Erivwo's and Professor Michael Nabofa's studies of Urhobo religion. (6) Our publication of accounts of the history of Sapele and of early history of colonialism in Urhoboland by Chief Adogbeji Salubi brings out afresh the scholarship of one of our indigenous leaders. (7) Our publication of the treaties that the British made with the Agbarha of Warri and with the Itsekiri of Benin River has opened up a whole new perspective on the history of Warri. (8) Dr. Aruegodore Oyiborhoro's compilation of Urhobo names in our web site has become a leader that many nationalities throughout Africa seek to emulate. (9) Professor Albert Aweto, from the University of Ibadan, has contributed an entry on the Geography of Urhoboland that has become reference material used in many universities throughout the world. In addition to these important examples, I should add that we have published a large number of Urhobos and such others as Perkins Foss -- scholars, intellectuals, and good men and women -- who make the study of Urhobo history and culture their business.
A second main way in which we serve Urhobo history and culture is to build up a virtual Urhobo community through our email services in the internet. It is a difficult and demanding task, but we believe that the potentials of the new internet medium will allow us to bring together Urhobos who live in different areas of the Diaspora. When we began sending out mail in the internet in 1999, the bulk of our recipients was in North America. However, the list has grown substantially to include Urhobos in North and South America; the United Kingdom and Europe; Nigeria (mostly Lagos and Abuja); South Africa and Botswana; and Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirate, and Kuwait. Apart from daily mail, we send out material that is of special Urhobo interest to this virtual Urhobo community. We hope that the quality of this service is judged as high by those who receive it.
Thirdly, we organize our affairs through Annual Conferences. The first two Annual Conferences of Urhobo Historical Society were held in Niagara Falls, Canada (2000) and in Persipanny, New Jersey, USA (2001). By the Grace of God, we all are now here as the beginning of the Third Annual Conference of Urhobo Historical Society.
Our business and commitments of serving Urhobo history and culture have grown larger than we expected in 1999. The body that supervises our business is the Editorial and Management Committee of Urhobo Historical Society. This body has supplied most of the resources that have enabled the work of Urhobo Historical Society to expand. The burden on its members is growing quite big. Fortunately, it is a group of people whose special call is to serve. We have also received significant help from several members of Urhobo Historical Society in North America.
Our mission is thus wrapped around our motto which is Serving Urhobo History and Culture. In this sense, we regard ourselves as servants of Urhobo history and culture. But you may well ask: Why all such efforts? To what purpose is the work of Urhobo Historical Society? These are legitimate questions to which we should provide answers. Indeed, we have four classes of answers to these questions.
First, since the turn of the nineteenth century, when the British began their colonization of Africa, the Urhobo have settled in many communities throughout West Africa. Nowadays, probably more than half a million Urhobos live outside Urhoboland -- including those of us in Europe and North America. All Urhobos, at home and in the Diaspora, yearn to know our history. Nothing makes me feel happier than receiving letters from young Urhobo men and women saying they are proud to be Urhobos because they have read good accounts of Urhobo culture and history in our web site.
Second, Urhobo has important history. If we do not write it up ourselves, others will do so. When others, particularly our neighbours, write our history, they may well twist its facts to suit their purposes. That is a price that we cannot afford to pay for our negligence. We have a responsibility to tell the truth about our history and culture.
Third, the new age of globalization will visit havoc upon many cultures. Experts in UNESCO say that many languages will perish. They will die with their cultures. Those in this audience who will live to the next century, or close to it, may be appalled to see that many languages and cultures in Nigeria and Africa, which are currently with us, are dead or close to dying. Safeguarding any cultures and their languages and histories may require hard work. We cannot take for granted that Urhobo will survive on its own if our culture and history are not recorded. We in Urhobo Historical Society believe that the task we are engaged in has such momentous significance. We all must make sure that Urhobo language and culture will survive.
Fourth, we have been most delighted to discover that the world is interested in learning about Urhobo culture and history. Many universities and secondary schools use material from our web site because they want to learn about Urhobo history and culture. The world is ready for our folk tales, our biographies, our experiences with British imperialism, the tragedy of petroleum oil exploration in our communities, etc., etc.
Our Challenge to You
It would be nice if we in Urhobo Historical Society can do all that needs to be done in this gigantic task of recording Urhobo history and culture. But we cannot. We have only scratched at the surface of it all. But we have seen a vision of what can be done. The resources for doing it are well beyond our means. However, we are sure that if we are all ready to serve Urhobo history and culture, Urhobo will flourish. You may well ask, "But what can I do?" Our answer to you, individually and collectively, is, "You can do a great deal." Let us be more concrete.
The histories of our hometowns and villages -- in which our fathers and mothers, our grandfathers and our grandmothers, and our ancestors lived -- the records of these good places deserve to be preserved in the internet for posterity and for humankind. You may have a father or a mother; a grandfather or a grandmother; or even ordinary towns folks whom you consider to be heroes. Make an effort to record their stories. If you are not gifted in writing, tell a school teacher, a catechist, or your own secondary school child to help you record the story. The power of the internet is that it will preserve such stories for you. You will be surprised how many in Japan, Australia, or Argentina will love these stories.
Just consider the area of short stories. The internet community of the world wide web is waiting to share these stories. Consider the wealth of our songs, during funeral ceremonies, for instance. They all deserve to to be recorded in the internet. The world will listen to them.
The cost of not recording our history and culture could be tremendous. I will give you an instance. On October 17, 1998, a huge petroleum fire consumed more than a thousand of our brethren in Idjerhe. Who remembers that hell fire now? Should we not have their pictures? Should we not remember those innocent people who died in their homes and farms through no fault of their own? If we do not attempt to document their fate, the rest of the world will forget them.
We are here to challenge you to join in a brigade of service to Urhobo history and culture. At the General Meeting on Sunday, November 3, 2002, we will propose an Urhobo Historical Society Endowment Fund in which gifted Urhobos in Nigeria and the Urhobo Diaspora can mobilize resources for recording our individual and collective experiences in Urhobo villages and towns and in the Urhobo Diaspora. In other words, there is room for everyone here to make some contribution towards serving Urhobo history and culture.
We look forward to working with all of you in this enterprise. I thank you all.
Professor Peter Ekeh
Urhobo Historical Society
November 1, 2002