May we get to know you sir?
My name is Bobo Sofiri Brown. I am an Amaopusenibo of Opobo in Igbani Clan.
What does Amaopusenibo mean?
Amaopusenibo means that you an elder recognized by the King and the Council of Alapu or Chiefs. It means that you have responsibility as adviser to the king and the council of Alapu or chiefs. It means you also have primary duty of getting your own war canoe house and Polo organised. You assist the chiefs and elders in your Polo in arranging Polo and your war canoe house to be better organized in order to make more positive contributions to the kingdom.
From what we have seen so far, it appears that almost every Opobo person who can find time to be home is home this period. Is it something that is mandatory on them to come home or it’s just a tradition?
There is a cultural sanction that we are born into where every Opobo son or daughter comes to recognize that the Nwaotam is a symbolic ritual of renewal. When the Nwaotam climbs the roof it does not climb for himself as a masquerade. It climbs for the entire Opobo and Igbani nation. Their aspirations are hanging in the air with the Nwaotam. The New Year is up in the cloud with the Nwaotam. Until it jumps down successfully the year has not begun. So, the jumping of the Nwaotam from the roof down is a demonstration of heaven’s blessings coming from the sky down to the people. That is why it is very very culturally sanctioned for an Opobo son or daughter not to be home to participate in this.
We grew into it and over the years, it has made the kingdom stronger. If an Opobo son or daughter is not at home by the 31st of December questions would be asked if the person is well or not. Or could the person be in jail because any free indigene knows what 31st December means and what 1st of January means. First January begins our expectations that the aspirations of the people would come down to earth as the Nwaotam jumps down.
Apart from the masquerade displays, the parade of drummers and dancers around the town, there are also other things that go on in Opobo during this period; people visiting homes and being entertained lavishly and all that. Is it part of it or it just came along?
No. It was deliberately designed from the founding of the kingdom in 1870. One of the things you missed is the starting time of the festivities. It starts from December 24th. Every War Canoe House you pass through has a flag pinned. It is pinned at the entrance to the War Canoe House, in the centre of the War Canoe House and at the exit gate. That identifies an autonomous political unit of the kingdom. It is a unit of governance, a unit of economic productivity, a unit of community mobilization and a unit of solidarity for better performance and progress of each unit within the kingdom.
So, on December 24th, every War Canoe House would bring down the flag. But they also bring down something else that is equally symbolic. In our culture, the flag and the Ekere at every gate house are the symbols of autonomy of a chieftaincy house. They are brought down on December 24th for every Chieftaincy House.
The 14 founding houses of Opobo are called Polo. In those 14 founding houses, the full compliments of the Ekere would be there. And the Ekere is beaten on December 24th. It is called Ekere Fari (the beating of the Ekere) to remind us of the origin of the kingdom.
When they beat that Ekere, there are seven wooden drums that are arranged in tonal order from descending to ascending. And then they are beaten in rhythm to convey Igbani messages where they call the names of the founding fathers; they call the names of War Canoe Houses; they call the names of ancestral personalities. They must have drum names. When those drum names are beaten the sons and daughters of the War Canoe House respond. If you are passing by, you answer. If you are coming from a different War Canoe House and you are passing through a gatehouse where they are beating the Ekere Fari and they know you, they call your ancestral drum name. If you cannot answer it, you are put to shame. If you name the name, you answer to the Ekere.
So, it begins that day and then several masquerades perform between the 26th and the 31st. On the 31st, there is the Nwaotam Regatta where all the dance troupes that would participate in the Nwaotam Festival hit the sea and perform the Regatta Display to bring the spirit of the Nwaotam home to the land.
So, when they land by 6.30pm on December 31st, the Nwaotam spirit covers the land like the harmattan breeze. And so you come to January 1st or 2nd (when January 1st is a Sunday) as was the case this year. When this play finishes today, the masquerade season starts tomorrow for the New Year.
The Owu Ogbo Group would take over. They regulate the town masquerades. These ones would run until 31st of January. In between, the various War Canoe Houses would squeeze in their own masquerades. So, Opobo Kingdom has a 30, 31-day solid festive display for the season.
I noticed that a lot of beverages including alcoholic beverages were consumed during this period but there was hardly any case of violence in Opobo so far. Someone even said it was customary for everyone in Opobo on the 31st December night to lose their head.
On the 31st of December, once you come to Opobo for the New Year, whether you arrive on the 24th or on the 31st, throughout the period of the New Year, the Gods of Opobo and our ancestors enter into every bottle of drink you take and seize the alcohol. It has been proved scientifically though not in any laboratory that people drink in Opobo and don’t get drunk. You can drink as many bottles as you like. By the time you trek from one end to another, somehow the drink just disappears. So, we have come to the hypothesis that in Opobo during this festive season, the Gods and ancestors of the land ensure that alcoholic beverages do not intoxicate in this kingdom and you can take that to the bank.
Have the rituals of Nwaotam got anything to do with idolatry?
No! Quite frankly, no. Opobo is predominantly Christians of different churches. Those who dance as I tried to introduced to you today, you find them eminently educated; professors, Ph.D holders, professionals, medical doctors, engineers, top level security officers, politicians. It is one place where your political party doesn’t matter. You would eat and drink together. You saw that today as they were in my house, the Mkpa group. All the groups that come to you, come to you because you are the son of the soil. They don’t care about your partisan views. Everybody stands on the same level ground. Your party, your birth, your faith; those things don’t count. So, you can say that in Opobo, the idea of the things that can differentiate people are treated at the level of individual identity. They are not allowed to separate us. They are just identifiers so that we can become a bouquet of indigenes making the kingdom achieve its best aspirations.
People have noted that there seems to be some kind of peaceful coexistence among Opobo people that is hardly found in other communities. Could it have something to do with this homecoming festivities, creating peace and unifying the communities?
I do not quite support the idea that there is something exceptional about any group. We are just culturally related. The difference is that the economy affects the temperament of a people. Let me explain it. In the communities where violence is associated with disagreements in the Niger Delta, it’s a new thing, relatively so. When there was no money sharing issues; when there was no agitation for rights and inclusion, violence was not the language of the Niger Delta people. That’s how come they were able to accommodate the Europeans from the 15th Century that they started trading with the Europeans or even before the 15th Century. At least, recorded history talks about the 15th Century in places like Benin, Calabar, Bonny, Sapele and other parts of the Niger Delta, which were busy with European presence and business.
We found that in the 1980s. In fact, 1970 to 1980 the incidence of communal unrest was not associated with the kind of violence we started seeing in the 1990s. I will like to believe that it is the element of economic hardship and the issue of sharing money, especially compensation money from oil companies or government that intensified the culture of violence.
Opobo Kingdom has been lucky. Yes, the people’s civility and the cultural demand for hospitality which is not peculiar to Igbani people alone. Every Rivers and indeed Niger Delta community has some degree of hospitality embedded in their culture. But amongst the Opobo people, as you saw for yourself, December 31st to January 1st, you can enter any house and eat and drink. Whatever they have they give you. It’s a sense of communal goodwill and solidarity, which reinforces the bond of oneness. It also shows that there is no sharp knife of currency dispute and compensation agitation separating the people.
Remarkably for Opobo Kingdom, we must note that even in the time when they had had two major agitations. The first one was the struggle for inclusion in Rivers State after the Civil War. Opobo Kingdom was originally included in then Southeastern State. So, from the 1970s when factions of Opobo people started agitating for and against inclusion in Rivers State, that dispute was handled with utmost civility. Both sides would disagree; go to court. But on December 31st, you would enter each other’s house, drink, eat. They would come from wherever they are; the Lagos group, the Port Harcourt group; they would meet at a point and enter Opobo together in the same vehicles, eating and drinking together. That is the spirit of December 31st in Opobo.
The second instance was when there was a dispute over the kingship, the succession to late King Douglas Jaja, who was a father to all. The period of 22 years or so when the agitation was raging for and against the popular candidate who was presented. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. But incidentally, Opobo people would come out from court, having had intensive argument made for them by their lawyers, they enter a small bar, both for and against the state and drink their beer, eat their pepper soup to the chagrin of and amazement of their lawyers; and they enter the same vehicle and come back to wait for the next court date.
So, we have had this pattern of behavior which as I said has been consolidated by the absence of any dispute related to the economy of the people. The economy is key in determining group beh
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May we get to know you sir?