Urhobo Historical Society



A Review of Studies in Urhobo Culture


By Hope Eghagha, Ph.D

University of lagos, Nigeria


Title of book: Studies in Urhobo Culture

Editor: Professor Peter Ekeh

Publishers: Urhobo Historical Society

Place of Publication: Ibadan, Nigeria.

Year of Publication: 2005.

Pages: 768

Cover price: Not stated.

As the title implies, ‘Studies in Urhobo Culture’ is a work of research into the culture and social life of the Urhobo people. Necessarily, it puts this monumental study into historical perspective by providing detailed information on the origins of the Urhobo people. Such a background study prepares the reader for the gamut of material which the book presents in subsequent chapters. To be sure, the historical antecedents of the Urhobo are intertwined with that of some of its neighbours, notably the Benin, the Ukwuani, the Itsekiri, the Isoko, and the Izon. As a result, in the course of presentation and explication, the roles and interests of some ethnic neighbours in the development of Urhobo culture are also documented. It is in this context that Professor Peter Ekeh joins issues with Egharevba’s conventional wisdom about the migrations and migration history of the Urhobo.

There is a sense in which we can situate the reasoning, logic of and raison de’tre behind Studies in Urhobo Culture within the phenomenon of the resurgence of ethnic nationalism. For, as we know, the prevailing political climate of our immediate milieu re-emphasizes the need to define and identify the ethnic identities of the nationalities which predominate the Nigerian geographical space. This has to be done within a particular ambience, geographical, cultural and perhaps political. Except we correctly and explicitly write our history, our fortunes will be decided by external factors which are often at variance with our hopes and aspirations. What this implies is that intellectuals and contributors with varying backgrounds have injected their knowledge into distilling the essence of Urhobo culture for general consumption. The editor makes the telling point that whereas the language and culture of some of the major ethnic groups received intellectual and anthropological attention nearly one hundred years ago, ‘to date’ and I quote, “the most comprehensive study of Urhobo culture by any Western scholar came with Perkins Ross’s edited companion catalogue of an excellent art exhibition titled Where Gods and Mortals Meet: Continuity and Renewal in Urhobo Art. It was published in 2004!”

Edited by renowned and international scholar, Professor Peter Ekeh, the book parades an array of scholars of Urhobo extraction and two non-Urhobo who have distinguished themselves in different fields of human endeavour and academic disciplines. There are also essays written by non-academics, men and women sufficiently versed in Urhobo customs and traditions as to offer views which generally convey the Urhobo worldview. This makes for easy and broad reading. In other words, both the academic and non-academic will benefit immensely from the information presented for consumption. 

However, Studies in Urhobo Culture goes beyond a window-dressed presentation of the cultural life of the Urhobo people. It vigorously interrogates the historical processes which produced the Urhobo nation. It also rigorously examines some theoretical postulations and historical assumptions on the origins of the Urhobo people. It disputes or contests some broadly held opinions on history, interethnic relations, land, and values. The implication is that as a people we must be ready to contest for space by asserting the spirit and letter of our true history with a view to leaving a worthwhile legacy for the future.

It also boldly confronts the language question and how imperative it is for the Urhobo language to continue. Dr Macauley Mowarin takes up this issue under the title ‘Language Endangerment in Urhoboland’.  This problem is not unique to the Urhobo. It is a problem of underdevelopment. Mowarin observes that

African languages are going into extinction due to the

belief of Africans in the inferiority of their indigenous

languages and the superiority of former colonial languages.

African languages are marginalized because Africans

believe that their languages are not socially and economically

useful to them. 

We are therefore compelled to ask whether Urhobo language is being taught as a subject in all Urhobo local governments in Delta State. Are we producing enough teachers to teach the language? Is there sufficient interest in the language by the powers that be? Do we have the necessary will to do so?    

As an academic endeavour, Studies in Urhobo Culture boldly traverses the entire spectrum of Urhobo cultural life. It is interdisciplinary in approach drawing from Language studies, History (including an exegesis of migration theories and assumptions), Geography, Religion, Agriculture, Philosophy, Art, and Music. The book is thematically divided into nine sections, with a total of twenty-nine essays. A lucid and evocative essay written by the editor prepares the reader for the main contents of the work.

Studies in Urhobo Culture investigates the philosophy and practice of naming persons of Urhobo stock as a major aspect of Urhobo culture. All contributors in this section seem to agree that naming is a ‘cultural phenomenon’. Names, according to Edevbie, are also a linguistic phenomenon. Apart from the purpose of identification, names can be “relied upon for understanding the various social-cultural forces that govern the life of the people in their communities”.    

Religion is central in all ramifications of Urhobo life. The essays in this section examine the two main religions in Urhobo land – traditional religion and Christianity. Within the broad group of traditional African religion, some beliefs and value systems are examined. It is also a framework that permits a study of totemism and an interface between traditional African religion and Christianity. Pursuing the subject of religion further, contributors to the book dwell on Igbe Ubiesha and Osanughegbe as ventures into monotheism. Against the background of a surge in the activities of the Pentecostal movement in Urhoboland, such a study can be said to be apposite at this time in the history of the Urhobo people.  

In keeping faith with contemporary trends of academic discourse, a whole section is devoted to the role of women in building the family unit in Urhoboland. All contributors are united by the view that marriage remains a socio-cultural institution which brings two individuals of opposite sexes and their different families together. There is also an essay on ‘Isoko-Urhobo traditional marriage ceremony in the Diaspora’ in this section. Marriage remains an institution for the Urhobo which must be respected. As a union between two families individuals are expected to circumscribe to the communal ethos in arriving at fundamental decisions. Within this context, religion as enshrined in the codes of ‘dos and don’ts’ plays a dynamic role in the marriage institution.

Studies in Urhobo Culture
also examines the contributions of Urhobo artistes to the poetry of Africa. Three essays explicate this issue. While the first and second examine aspects of Urhobo poetry and the political-economic factors of Urhobo poetry, the third presents poems which are thematically preoccupied with Urhobo life. Poetic forms embody the cultural, social and moral values of a people. A close study of these poems therefore reveals what the Urhobo think about life, death, and interrelations with other groups, marriage, social responsibility and life after.

Space constraints restrict me from commenting elaborately on the poem as an example of Urhobo culture. It is a mother’s day and the feast that follows is celebratory, giving thanks to the deities that govern the cosmos. Art forms also reveal aspects of culture which are inherent in the mode of expression adopted by the artist. They also reveal the verbal strengths and weaknesses of a people.   

Academics and researchers know the significant role played by ‘folk history’ in trying to reconstruct the history of a people. In the case of the Urhobo where there is a dearth of written historical materials, folk history as well as oral traditions has helped the process of reconstructing the past.  Folk history captures like in prehistoric or preliterate times. It has provided source material for reconstructing the Omonose story of Okpara land. In this section, questions are raised about impotence, marriage as a responsibility, as a question of choice and the degree to which a family can intrude in a man’s personal life.

Under the broad title ‘Aspects of Urhobo Art’ the next section examines the creative dramatics, a poem on playtimes written by one of the foremost Urhobo historians Chief Daniel Obiomah, socialisation through dance and the art of one of the greatest artists of our time Professor Bruce Onobrakpeya.

The final segment focuses on the geography and agriculture of the Urhobo people. It puts the land and area mass of Urhoboland at 5000 square kilometres. With a population of 1.5million, its major towns are Ughelli, Sapele, and Warri. The natural vegetation is that of rain/ swamp forest. It further presents oil and natural gas as the mineral resources of Urhoboland. In terms of agriculture Urhoboland ‘occurs in the drier landward part of the Niger Delta where crop farming assumes considerable importance’.   

As we observed earlier on, one of the fundamental concerns of this conference is the state of the Urhobo language both as a form of communication and a form of identity. Ironically, if we were to conduct this conference strictly in Urhobo language, many scholars of my generation would be left out. In other words, most academics of my generation may not be able to convey their profound thoughts in their own mother tongue. This is one of the dilemmas of the modern youth. We are aware of the radical position of Kenyan writer on how the metropolitan language is a tool of mental domination. This most of us realised very late. But I remember that while in primary and secondary schools in Sapele we were precluded from speaking ‘vernacular’, vernacular being synonymous with our mother tongue. Now we know better.

The question therefore is: are we not certain to lose some of the nuances of the very culture that we enunciate by entering into a discourse which to a great degree is language of exclusion? Although the book does not address this problem it points out redeeming features and how we may in the years ahead stress the cultural and social significance of language growth and development.

In spite of the profundity of the contributions there are some infelicities that could have been corrected with a more careful proofreading. For example ‘Okpewho’ is wrongly spelt as ‘Okpwho’ p. v;   bride price’ is presented as ‘pride price’ p. 579; and at page 591 ‘attunement’ is incorrectly used for ‘atonement’.

In a prefatory note the editor acknowledges the absence of certain spheres of Urhobo life from the book. It is hoped that subsequent editions of this book would incorporate such areas as modern political culture, education, the kingship system and the current state of things in the family unit. It may also be worthwhile to include an essay on how the discovery of oil has affected work ethic in Urhoboland. It is also hoped that the new sub-cultures (?) of ‘born for’ and ‘credit marriage’ which are gradually redefining marriage relations and their implications on inheritance would be considered in a subsequent work.   

Finally, Studies in Urhobo Culture is both a collector’s item and a researcher’s delight. It offers historical and sociological information about the Urhobo people expressed in such language that will be accessible to all categories of readers. The enormous and stupendous energy put into this compilation of essays on Urhobo culture is commendable and should be sustained by all stakeholders in the Urhobo nation.


Hope Eghagha, PhD
Senior Lecturer

Department of English

University of Lagos


19th October 2005.