A night of mystery with Oro devotees

By Alfred Olufemi

ALFRED OLUFEMI spent a night, embedded among Oro adherents during its annual festival in Sagamu, Ogun State, to unravel the mystery of the age-long tradition. In this report, he gives a personal account of his eerie experience

When the idea of embedding among Oro devotees was suggested to me by my editor, I had chills thinking about the idea. I felt uneasy for days and thoughts of things that could possibly go wrong raced through my mind.

The mere thought of the Oro deity, with its existence and activities shrouded in mysteries, kept me awake for nights. But I knew it was a story to be done.

Months of in-depth research and interviews had already gone into the report which centered on the prevalence of the Oro tradition, which is common in Yoruba communities across states in the South-West.

The investigative piece focused on the mystery, intrigues, controversies and legality of this age-long tradition.

However, there were obvious gaps in the report that had to be filled and questions begging for answers. The quest to finally have a compelling, balanced report, despite the inherent dangers, first, led me to Sagamu, in Ogun State, to locate the Hausa community where a young lady was flogged to death for violating the restriction put in place by Oro adherents in 1999.

It was no longer a secret that the tradition, which is gender-specific and patriarchal in nature, forbids women from seeing the Oro.

The infamous killing of the Hausa lady led to an ethnic clash that claimed scores of lives. The journey to Sagamu was smooth, safe for the potholes that dotted the ever-busy Lagos-Sagamu Expressway. When I alighted at Isale-Oko Motor Park, a notable converging point for interstate buses, I was greeted by a burst of activities.

From drivers, both young and old yelling obscenities at passengers and compelling them to complete their fares before they can proceed on their journey, to mobile phone accessory sellers haggling prices with potential buyers, everywhere was a cacophony of sounds.

 

Upon my arrival in Sagamu, the first assignment I had penciled down was to locate someone that could vividly recall the tragic incident that took place 23 years ago.

The Isale-Oko motor park, a place filled with elderly people, was for me, the ideal start off point. I was, however, slightly disappointed after seven persons that I approached declined to comment due to the sensitivity of the topic.

Literally, I became a ball tossed from one point to the other, as I was subjected to endless responses like, “Go there. Ask that man over there. That man should know better.”

A glimmer of hope came unexpectedly when a man casually strolled to where I was seated and volunteered to take me to the chairman of the motor park.

The chairman, who had grey beards, introduced himself to me as the Balogun of Isale-Oko. After warmly welcoming and offering me a seat inside his makeshift wooden office, he asked why I was so keen about getting to know about the Oro. He was also interested in the places I wanted to visit.

After answering most of his questions, the rotund man told me he had no answers to my questions and referred me to a man that lived two streets away from the park.

“He will tell you all you need to know. When you get there, tell him you are from Balogun Isale-Oko,” he said in Yoruba.

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His description would later lead me to the house of a famous traditionalist in Epe, Chief Owodunni Ajayi. Epe is one of the 13 suburbs that make up Sagamu Kingdom.

It should be noted that while the 13 communities are under the direct control of various traditional rulers, they are answerable to the Akarigbo of Remoland.

 Welcome to Ajayi’s residence

Ajayi was not at home when I got to his place. His house fits the description of atypical ‘face-me-I-face-you’ abode; a term used to describe cramped living arrangements obtainable in densely populated areas of most cities.

The only difference was that he lived alone with his immediate family in the building, which can only be accessed through a small door. The compound was fenced round and had fierce-looking dogs constantly barking to ward off strangers.

As I made my way into Ajayi’s compound, the dogs struggled to break free from the chain used to tie them to a tree.

Amid the chaotic reception, Ajayi’s wife told me that her husband went out briefly and would soon return. True to her words, her husband, a tall, pot-bellied man in his 60s, dressed in faded traditional attire, sauntered in not long after.

We exchanged pleasantries and as I was about to tell him the purpose of my visit, he launched into a chant.

He later revealed that he typically does not attend to visitors without offering them a drink. Ajayi then sent a young girl to get some bottles of alcoholic drinks, including a bottle of dry gin for himself.

After opening his drink, he poured libation on the ground and took a mouthful. He later revealed that he was the Olootu Ile, a vantage position that puts him at the forefront of the Oro festival in Sagamu.

Our conversation later moved from the significance of the Oro deity to the delicate issue of women’s exclusion from Oro’s procession. It was while defending the age-long practice and its sacrosanct stand on females that he mentioned that the Oro festival would be held in Epe by the end of June.

For a journalist who had all the while been brainstorming on how to go about getting embedded among Oro adherents, I saw it as a perfect opportunity and I quickly latched on to it.

It was a risk but knowing full well that the story’s impact would largely depend on that angle, I was ready to go the whole hog. With my heart beating fast, I asked Ajayi if I could join the procession.

After much persuasion, he hesitantly granted the request and we both agreed that I would join the Oro parade on the third night of the festival. Going by our agreement and barring any change of plans, I was expected to be back in Sagamu on June 28.

The preparation

I was back at Chief Ajayi’s residence on the afternoon of June 28. I hoped to pass the night there but had a change of mind.  Reasons for that would later be revealed.

Good enough, the fiery dogs were a bit friendly than they were during my previous visit. Ajayi was not at home when I arrived, but the warm reception I got from his wife made me feel at home. I found a wooden seat propped against the fence and sat down.

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From my vantage position, I observed that those who trooped into the compound, came with live birds (chicken and turkey) of various sizes to obey homage to Ajayi and other notable Oro adherents that converged on the massive compound.

 

By 4pm, Ajayi strolled in, accompanied by the Oro chief priest, known as the Olumale and some traditionalists.

Around 4:25pm, the Olumale and some young men entered a secluded part of Ajayi’s house, where the Oro was housed and began to sing and beat drums. With time, the rhythm and tempo of the drums increased, while bells were rung at intervals.

As this was going on, two big pigs were brought out and slaughtered, and their blood was collected in a white container for appeasement. The heads of the pigs were decapitated, while their bodies were roasted and shared among the initiates.

I also got my sizable portion, which I was afraid to eat and cunningly left it untouched, with an explanation that I would have it for dinner.

The prospect of ingesting the meat after watching the way life was snuffed out of it and its blood drained made my stomach churn in protest.

As time went on and darkness started enveloping the environment like a blanket, the Oro chief priest ended his propitiations.

It was at this point that some men, whom I learnt were Oro priests that came from other parts of Ogun and Lagos states for the festival, were allowed to access the sacred grove to pay homage to the deity.

When the men came out, they sat down and gulped dry gin, while exchanging banters. Together, we waited for the appointed time to begin the procession.

Mysterious business of the night

At a point, everyone slept off, except me. Dozing off, even for a second was a risk I was unwilling to take as a stranger in an environment where a tradition surrounded by several myths and suspicions was being practised.

In my heart, I just did not want to end up being the story. Amid my inner fears, I had to put up a bold front.

Around 10pm, Ajayi was woken up by his wife and served dinner. Done with eating, he called his wife to clear the plates.

The urgency in her steps as she packed the plates and made her way into the house gave away her apprehension. Sounds of doors closing and locks being latched could be heard inside the house. I was later told by Ajayi that she would not step outside until the next morning, by which time the Oro procession would have been over.

He reiterated that it was a taboo for women to see the Oro.

By 11pm, some of the Oro worshipers started beating the Obete drum, which I learnt was associated with the Oro festival. Its sound pierced the stillness of the night. 11: 30pm was the hour anticipated by everyone and by then, streets were deserted and quiet, and the sound of a pin drop could literally be heard.

I came outside the house with Ajayi and we were later joined by the chief priest and other traditionalists that were apparently in high spirits.

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At exactly 11:35 pm, a strange figure sauntered out of the house, making a weird, inaudible sound that made me have goosebumps. At the entrance, it lowered its body to prevent a collision with the door frame.

The staggering figure in a multi-coloured flowing robe, which turned out to be the Oro, had as its head a giant wooden mask painted in bright colours.

Its eyes were blazing red, while its white mouth glowed. The image was scary enough to make a person seeing it for the first time become transfixed with fear.

The shouts of “Oro, Baba o” filled the air as elated worshippers hailed the grotesque figure as it staggered back and forth.

While this was going on, the chief priests who had travelled down for the festival took turns to pay homage to the deity.

They poured local gin in their mouths and splattered it on the deity as they chanted incantations.

After they were done, the deity, accompanied by male adherents, filed into the deserted streets. I stayed a safe distance from the Oro.

Though the strange figure made its own unique sound, the actual sound recognised as that of the Oro, was the whirling sound produced by a thin strip of wood fastened to a long stick with a tiny rope. After the parade, the deity moved to the King’s palace where eager male spectators awaited his arrival.

Some of the spectators were seen smoking heavily and the atmosphere was heavily laced with a thick smell of tobacco.

As if on cue, as soon as the strange figure saw the men, it went into a frenzied dance, entertaining the jubilant audience.

At exactly 3:30 am, the show was over and the Oro sauntered back to Ajayi’s residence. It retired into its sacred grove, guided by its adherents and went silent.

Based on an earlier arrangement with Ajayi, I was meant to spend the night in his house, but after witnessing the oddest of traditional activities, I had a change of mind.

A plethora of weird imaginations raced through my mind, one of which was the likelihood of being made a scapegoat.

Not wanting to spend the next minute within the environment, I strolled into the streets in search of a hotel to lodge.

With people still too scared to venture out, I could not find anyone to direct me to the nearest hotel. Also, since all street lights were put off, including signages, the possibility of getting a hotel was not feasible.

At this point, the only option left was to trek to the expressway, which was quite a distance from Ajayi’s place, to wait for dawn. As I sat by the roadside, I was joined by three men heading for Lagos around 5am.

Not long after, a Toyota Hilux van pulled over and the driver asked if we were headed for Lagos. After agreeing on the fare, we all hopped in. As I went over the events of the night in my mind, nature took its course and I dozed off.

I was awakened by the voice of the driver announcing our arrival in Lagos. When I checked the time, it was 5:32 am and I grudgingly dragged my tired body out of the vehicle. I breathed a sigh of relief as I made my way to the comfort of my home.