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THIRD ANNUAL CONFERENCE AND MEETING

London, England
November 1-3



SPECIAL GUEST OF HONOUR'S ADDRESS:

ASPECTS OF UBHOBO HISTORY AND CULTURE

By D. A. Obiomah
Special Guest of Honour, Third Annual Conference of Urhobo Historical Society

Chairman:

I am not unmindful of protocol. Many years ago, we had Bishop  Akinyele, sometime Bishop of Ibadan, for our guest. He was impressed by the splendid University College, Ibadan, surrounding and he did not hide his feelings. He recalled his days as a pupil of C. M. S Grammar School, Lagos. Times were modest. It took two weeks to travel to and from school, from rocky Abeokuta to Lagos, on foot. Still the students were very proud of themselves and were enthusiastic. That was how it came about when one of the teachers was about to leave and the students held a send off occasion for him, the senior boy appointed to speak was elated. It was not a day for ordinary words such as, dear. He straightened himself, turned to the master, bowed with a flourish and said "My expensive Sir"  Looking at the dazzling assemblage of Urhobo with their friends here present, I am tempted to address you as "My Expensive Ladies and Gentlemen".

My Expensive Ladies and Gentlemen, my wife and I are highly honoured to be with you.  There is this saying in Urhobo, If you do not know where you are coming from you are unlikely to know where you are going. The Urhobo Historical Society has gone back to the beginning of time to trace the origin of Urhobo to Benin from where they migrated after the Ogiso period, not Egypt with Ife and Benin as stages. So we know who we are. We also learn from Alexander Pope, "Know then thy self---- The proper study of mankind is Man." Therefore it is appropriate that the U.H.S has seen fit to promote Urhobo History and Culture both to  enable us Urhobo, as well as others, to know who we are and  be able to build the present from our knowledge of the past.

On the other hand, it is widely said that human beings do not learn from the lessons of history. As far as generalizations go, there is truth in such cynicism, which probably derives from man's innate optimism and consequent inordinate expectations. Knowledge and discovery have a multiplier effect as science bears out, such that men like Thomas Alva Edison, Samuel F. B. Morse and Michael Faraday would themselves be astounded  were they in a position to see the glorious world that has grown through success and error from their comparatively crude beginnings. Learning History therefore is not a waste of time .It helps us to correct and improve on the past and to channel change. That makes it important at a conference such as this to take a look at some aspects of our history and culture, which are either endangered or require stimulation. Some of these are:

(a) The much unjustifiably maligned female circumcision.
(b) Urhobo sport and amusement.
(c) Effect of change from subsistence to wage and corporate economy
(d)  Living and association
(e) Belief

Female Circumcision    All that the western world seems to know about female circumcision is the surgical aspect which is defined by the opprobrious term, genital mutilation. Why mutilation? We do not say tonsorial mutilation when we go to the barber for a hair cut? We say pruning of flowers, not mutilation, by the sheer fact that flowers are chopped? A patient goes to the surgical theatre for operation, not for butchering. From these examples it would appear that the choice of the word mutilation is in import,  derogatory and supremacist.

In  the Urhobo sense, the culture of female circumcision  is actually the culture of the ADORATION OF WOMANHOOD. It is largely an all-women's affair, rejected by the Church which adores the Virgin Mary.

The first stage, the surgical is strictly private, although pampering the girl begins now. In the second stage, lasting three weeks or market days, the maiden is cloistered and prevented from work of any kind. She has virgin nymphs of chambermaids to attend to her like Cleopatra's Nereids. Her skin is nurtured, made supple and full. She is fed sumptuously, which is equivalent to the fattening room treatment of the Efik's or Calabar. Three consecutive times on each market day she and her maids, their heads decked with silver studs, walk the main street to the market place in a promenade, an inferior copy of which is fashion modelling. All along the route an eloquent female representative,  prancing from side to side,  sings her epithalamion such as such this:

HERE COMES THE BRIDE




  Here comes the bride here comes the bride 
            All hail! (The crowd joins in)
Step apace' step, apace…
Our bride is well proportioned
                                Aye! 
No crooked limbs
Hands or legs
         No!
Her beauty is not of charms
                No !
But natural charm of camwood
          Yes!
She is black and glossy. 
All hail !
Complexion peerless,
Doubly enriched 
In palm kernel oil,
All hail!
Glossy, Adorable, Incomparable, step, apace 
Progeny of mighty warriors, 
Daughter of the house of wealth, step apace 
Step, step, step
All hail!
Behold our bride behold our bride!
All hail! All hail! All hail!
 

At the market square she has her special seat. Her nymphs dance for her to the admiration of the crowd who praise and shower them with gifts. The nymphs themselves give sweet sugarcane treasured by the recipient as a blessing. Back home the women folk dance ISIAKENE dance. They are fed food and drinks and given peanuts, take home food and domestic items and money. The happy mother is made proud. Eghwere, the Spirit of Abundance and Good Fortune is invoked for her and her family, for the guests and the whole land, like this:
.
 

  Eghwere, Eghwere will bless you,
With beauteous things uncountable, 
Mother of Hearths bless you,
Fertility give, longevity too. ,
Peace to the bride and the kindred,
In ways more than two hundred 
Fulfilment to women,
Conquest to manhood,
Contentment round.
 

The suitor or prospective husband pays homage by providing his consort among other things, a tall bed and a bathing place to and from which she is delicately lifted up or down so that she does not labour to walk,  her feet do  not touch the ground, she floats in the air, a queenly experience. At night the best storytellers and minstrels entertain. Such was woman's  joyous initiation to womanhood and motherhood.

All of these blandishments, celebration and joy are now endangered by ignorance. Have we become so contented that we must do away with joy? "What is this life, if full of care?"  says the poet Henry Davies. Who is the notorious one who wants to cut his joys, not his cares?

It may be that certain details are due for change. Today's young women may object to the use of cam wood for skin and facial care because it stains everything. Substitute modern cosmetics will do as well.

I am not aware of any statistics on the danger of so-called mutilation which was done by a traditional expert and can be directed now by gynaecologists. But the local reputation of the Urhobo woman in contrast to that of those who do not practice " mutilation" is that she stays in marriage, is continent, devoted, and industrious, so much so that even those who quarrel with Urhobo marry Urhobo daughters, making such peculiar adversaries 50% Urhobo by blood. Among Urhobo, marriages are implicitly and explicitly for life without divorce rate of one in three marriages .How much more evil or desirable is a permissive society than the culture of "mutilation" with occasional surgical error, like anything human?

We go now to belief.

BELIEF.  We believe in creation by an omniscient, omnipotent, moral and just God, as well as individual or group gods. We believe in other worlds, including the world of those dead to our world but alive in their own world of the "dead" from where they preside over the moral conduct of individuals in our world, reward and punish. On the arrival of Christian missionaries, (and even up to now), traditional beliefs were condemned. I dare to postulate that irrespective of what is believed in, that in all religions the nature of Faith is the same. It is the environment of Faith, that is, culture, power doctrine, liturgy or practice, that makes the difference, whereby one is characterized as civilised and true and the other primitive, idolatrous or fetish. Theology is the offspring of faith, not the other way round. By making us diffident about our beliefs and by foreign religions imposing themselves on our forbears and on us, we lost and continue to lose a certain amount of our human dignity and prepossession. We need to rescue ourselves from this inferiority complex, but not so easily in these days when miracles are brazenly advertised as quick fixes and the name of the Messiah is a trade mark talisman  or Aladdin's lamp. One area where prejudice still manifests itself strongly is the traditional marriage and Holy Matrimony. In the past the Church deprecated traditional marriage. Now it is an ambivalent attitude of rejection and acceptance. The traditional wedding takes place at home and the Church wedding invariably follows the next day. Celebrating two weddings in place of one is said to be wasteful, time consuming and physically exhausting.  Has this attitude any more to support it than bigotry in face of the fact that Holy Matrimony is far from holy in Europe, the land of its aggrandizes? The inference is that our marriages have succeeded so far due to our traditional mores, not to Genesis Chapter 2 verse 24. Our Urhobo Christian priests should explore the possibility of merging the best in the two systems into one without the one despising the other.

Let us now turn to economic matters.

FROM SUBSISTENCE TO WAGE ECONOMY

The traditional community owned the aggregate of lands. by which  the community was known and geographically defined. Within this aggregate families owned specific parcels of land. The economy was largely agricultural. Nobody could  be left without food. Fish, meat, carbohydrates, spices, fruits and vegetables, firewood and medicinal herbs came from the bush. With the white man came the wage economy . Hiring and firing hitherto unknown became the order of the day. The more capable or fortunate became literate wage earners with the rest looking up to them. But the land remained available for the livelihood of the majority, or to fall back on.

Then an important land mark was reached when a colonial ordinance made the land belong to the natives but the minerals under it belonged to the Crown. Successive post-independence administrations have maintained the status quo ante. So the Federal Government has been able to allocate blocs of oil concessions to oil companies who now virtually own the highly productive land subject to payment of Federal taxes. The companies  cannot employ every member of their host communities. Indeed they employ a negligible percentage. But they lay the land waste through oil spillage and fires, gas flaring and allied activities. The communities' receive no share as of right of the revenue and royalties received by the Federal  and State  Governments. Quite rightly the relevant State Governments push as owners orchestrating the now famous phrase of Resource Control. Oil producing communities --  and large non-oil areas but all the same ruined by gas flaring, acid rain and the criss-cross of oil pipelines which are prohibited areas for farming -- do not as yet come  into the reckoning. Paradoxically they are impoverished by wealth. Even the quota system in employment, scholarship awards and admission to State and Federal institutions of higher learning in their areas, do not provide for them the possessors of the immediate cashment areas. Well has Urhobo Historical Society begun to ask questions and urge right action? .

Also, we are here fortuitously in London, in England, the land of William Wilberforce, the land of William Blake. When the evils of the Transatlantic Slave Trade became manifest, despite its economic profit, men like William Wilberforce stood up with the Abolitionists and worked tirelessly for abolition and the doctrine of Legitimate Trade came into being, confirming that life has no vacuums. Good succeeds evil and promotes progress. In many respects  the situation back home can be likened to the conditions existing during the Industrial and Agrarian Revolutions in England. The ills of the time produced Charles Dickens' memorable characters Mr. Bumble, less remembered, and Oliver Twist.

William Blake Lamented:

And did those feet in ancient times
Walk upon England's mountains green ?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
Because the answer was yes, William Blake was on fire to fight to correct the dire situation .So determined he goes on:
I will not cease from mental fight
Nor will my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
On England's  green and  pleasant land
U.H.S are not less religious, nor lack the will. Tomorrow pays for today. Hence the fathers having eaten sour grapes their children's teeth are on edge, as it is today in Urhobo and the Niger  Delta . The U.H.S has set its hands on the plough and must not look back. It must be made clear that U.H.S are not about to wield the sword. The pen is mightier than the sword. The struggle however is not for U.H.S alone. Britain, an active pristine colonial player and now leader of  the Commonwealth should brace up  to correct the ills stemming from the colonial past, including Warri called by some the Palestine of the Niger Delta. We have more than enough of troubles in Warri. Who owns Warri?

Britain has the inside story. Warri is Urhobo. There was a Treaty of Protection. Let  Britain speak up and protect. "Conscience is an open wound," said our own Othman Dan Fodio, "only truth can heal  it." All the facts are there, here and everywhere. Let Britain open her historical chest and  speak truly  on Warri. We need to hear from the horse's  mouth.  It is a function of  History to correct the errors of the past which are still harmful today . Let Britain show concern.

As I finish up let me specially thank Urhobo Historical Society, the Uvworo-omoko of Urhobo:

(Greeting in Urhobo)
Emo re Urhobo mini waado, waado i iye!

Song:

The tree the roost of parrots
Now and again thrills with glee.

(In Urhobo)
Urhe re imoko uwerhe
Adia - dia  omi  kuvwie iye!

Thank you.

                   D.A.OBIOMAH


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