SHE was no masquerade. But with her face partially hidden by the calabash on her head and the drape around her, she partially resembled one. Young, barefooted and dandily expressionless, there was no missing the Votary Maid, upon whom the success of the closing ceremony of the Osun Osogbo festival rested on penultimate Friday.
After about a week of reconnecting with the heritage of the city, as symbolised by the myriad of activities of cultural and traditional significance, the yearly Osun Osogbo festival came to a head with a mammoth crowd embarking on the procession from the King’s palace at Oja Oba to the Osun Grove in Isale Osun area of the town where both the symbolic cultural and social sacrifices and displays took place.
But the centre of attraction was the young, nubile votary maid. She had been specially chosen and prepared for the onerous task of playing the carrier of the bond between the people and their ancestors. Top on the requirements of choosing the maid is that she must be a virgin and for that alone the curiosity around her by men was high, as much as the admiration for her by other girls, who wished to be in her position in subsequent years.
Yet, somehow, she emitted awe, as she led the procession, followed closely by traditional chiefs and scores of her predecessors who had once carried the calabash. In that small container, locals said, lay edible sacrificial objects with which the goddess of the river would be appeased.
But the votary maid does more than that, according to a member of the Osun Osogbo Heritage Council, Mr. Olufemi Osunmakinde. She communes with the gods and ancestors of the land once she enters the Osun courtyard, where she goes into a trance, away from the prying eyes of festival goers. Also, the festival does not officially come to an end until the maid has handed the calabash back to the traditional king, Oba Iyiola Oyewale Matanmi, after a usually dramatic hide-and-seek game at the palace.
And so, hundreds of people, both from within and outside the country, thronged the awesomely decorated grove to behold the young girl who neither spoke, winked nor coughed throughout her four kilometre trek to the shrine; and who began to dance, sometimes rather hysterically, but still with a measure of choreography, as her unfettered trip to the grove meant a successful intervention from the gods of the land. Hundreds of faithful hailed her intermittently; others simply shed tears.
One might not see the image of a mermaid in the votary maid, but in her gaiety and comportment was an unmistakable carriage of the messenger of that goddess of fertility, Osun, in whose memory the festival is held every year.
The goddess of the river, according to the chairman of Osogbo Heritage Council, Chief G.O. Oparanti,
was believed to have assisted Oba Larooye and Timehin, the two co-founders of the city, in creating a settlement beside the riverbank. Being the first king of the town, Larooye’s royal title – Ataoja – was derived from Atewogbeja (one who receives the god-fish on his palm) as a result of the belief that he received the fish sent by the river goddess on his palm.
The fish has remained the symbol of Osogbo for centuries. “We are here today neither to worship idols nor some lesser gods, but to fulfil the vow made by Oba Larooye to the Osun goddess more than 500 years ago. This is about celebrating our tradition and promoting tourism,” said the festival committee chairman, Chief Adejare Agboola.
For a festival that attracts many tourists from abroad, dignitaries from the political and business class, it was not unusual to see people try to use it as a subtle platform for social and political gathering, but nevertheless, the overwhelming cultural import of the day was not lost on the majority at the occasion.
With the old traditional chief, Alagbaa, fully prostrated in front of the King, saying immaculate words of prayers for the traditional ruler who is the custodian of the people’s customs and the entire town, together with the chief worshipper, Yeye Osun, on her knees, doing the same thing, the spirito-cultural import of the festival became infectiously engaging.
The meaning came to the fore seeing the traditional ruler and his subjects bonding on the same spot where their progenitor founded the town. It might look at first as an eerie gathering to have stumbled upon, but one does not feel like an intruder at all. This was cultural tourism at its best.
The subsequent parade of the different prominent families and social groups, mostly in white clothes, before the king, did not only add colour, but also gave a seal of approval to a timeless tradition that has this day become the most noticeable cultural carnival in South- West Nigeria.
But while the festival has a feminine beginning, Osun being the goddess of fertility, the celebration today, even where issues of the fruits of the womb are concerned, is evenly distributed between the genders. Nowhere was this more evident than at the riverbank where thousands of people milled to either watch the votary maid empty the sacrificial materials into the river or wash themselves in it. Many people drink from the river, not minding the pollution it had been subjected, due to the heavy traffic of human legs inside it on the festival day.
“There is no way you can claim to know Osogbo inside out without visiting the river and the Osun grove,” Oparanti said. Commercially minded people realised this as well. They came with small white plastic kegs, among other items, for sale. At N80, festivalgoers could buy and use the kegs to fetch water from the river and take home for different purposes, including healing.
“It is a matter of belief,” said a primary school teacher, Mr. Olu Ogundele, who earned extra cash taking tourists round the town. “Every religion attaches great importance to water. I have seen people who claimed the Osun water had healed them of ailments, but I think it is better to come early in the morning to fetch clean water rather than the typhoid-prone coloured water that many now have inside their kegs.”
But with hundreds of beautiful babies paraded by happy parents at the riverside, as a mark of gratitude to the river goddess, it is hard to debate the potency of the festival or the people’s faith in it. Still, at the Yetty Mama restaurant, one of the most patronised in the city, Obadana’s faith in the Osun water was unmistakable. Thanks to mobile telecommunications, the bearded trader in clothings briskly informed his wife “everything went well. I’ve got the water.” His wife in Kaduna, he said, was “afflicted” by fibroid but he was informed in a dream, after years of fruitless marriage, that the cure lied in the water of life from his native town. He did not think twice before taking the one-hour flight down to Lagos and another two hours drive to his native town where he left 15 years ago for greener pastures in Northern Nigeria, but where his faith had now led him.
His case typified those of many others who accord fertile meanings to this festival that tend to nourish people with keen eyes for arts and culture, and deep appreciation for their tradition. Nowhere are mortals and gods meet in a refreshingly glorious atmosphere than in the 70 hectares mass of land called the Osun grove.
Lush, green plants spread out to the visitors as an inviting abode of the gods. Shrines that are older than the oldest festivalgoer stand erect all over the place with antiquities exhibiting the rich cultural heritage of the town. They constitute the ‘wow factor’ of modern architecture that relied heavily on pricesless heritage; a prehistoric world of mystery and magic. But in this green, serene landscape, a visitor could only aim with his fingers; law and taboos have kept out bulldozers, chainsaws and guns.
It is the land of the gods!
The Osun grove was made sacred by the natives since its creation. It was protected by the traditional rulership of the town before it was acquired by the Federal Government in 1986 as a national monument, where tree-felling, bush-burning, hunting of animals, farming, building and dumping of refuse are strictly forbidden.
The Osun Grove Support Group, Osun Osogbo Heritage Council and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments have since nurtured a common vision of preserving the land that represents the identity and totality of a people.
All around the grove, relics and antiquities are nurtured and preserved for posterity. A mass of carvings, sculptures and paintings, in addition to the more traditional shrines, have lately transformed the expanse of land into a place of awesome wonder.
A visitor might try not to be seduced by its charm or struggle not to fall in love with the fascinating landscape of the grove, but it would be hard. So it becomes inevitable to go along with the Museums Commission in its plan to make the grove lovelier in a more environmentally sustainable way. This, according to the governor of the state, Prince Olagunsoye Oyinlola, was necessary to make the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization enlist the grove as a World Heritage Site. In order to fulfil UNESCO’s requirements, Oyinlola announced at the festival that his government had started diverting the electricity lines and roads passing through the grove to an area where they will not constitute dangers to the natural habitat.
In October when UNESCO officials would come again, the Osun grove could have become a world heritage site as a potential huge foreign exchange earner for its people.
Tourism, he admitted, was intrinsically linked to the cultural heritage of humanity and that his government was keen on cultural tourism, which was why the state had decided to embark on the construction of a Five-Star hotel, a golf course and the hosting of the first Osun State Tourism Carnival that will hold between September 27 and October 2. Yet, the grove in its entirety has been made a museum of natural history, according to the Curator of National Museum, Osogbo, Mr. Oluremi Adedayo, who gave the hint that with UNESCO hoping to enlist the sacred grove, the name might change to the Osun Osogbo Cultural Landscape.
He said though the cost of protecting and preserving the grove might be enormous, as a world heritage site, the benefits would be global “because the site will be known worldwide and visitors will come from all over the world.
“Revenues that will accrue from tourists do not meet the expenses, but there are some culture-based industries that will spring up to provide income and employment for the localities. Also, export of artistic work will provide some revenues for the people,” he said.
However, part of the greatest support the government has accorded the grove was in acknowledging the Austrian-born artist and notable worshipper of the Orisha (deities), Suzanne Wenger, as an integral part in the development of the grove.
Wenger, 89, who came to Nigeria in 1950 and has remained here ever since has been personally responsible for the production and arrangement of the visually engaging art works that have transformed the grove into a rare place of aesthetic splendour.
Reprinted from Naijacommunity.net