It is said that remembrance is a human and a religious activity. For the Onitsha society of eastern Nigeria, traditional colourful dancing is always a big part of the festive season seen particularly, when the community – political, cultural and family systems – celebrates anniversaries and commemorate important events in order to create life-giving stories, hope and a sense of purpose.
In particular, the Ofala festival held every October captures the main religious ceremony of this community. This is an occasion when the natives/indigenes join together for dancing, singing, seeing old friends and making new ones.
Dressed in traditional attire, tens of thousands of men and women dance to the heart-pulsating beat of traditional drummers and make merry. The festival arena is the king’s palace considered, sacred ground after the various cleansing/blessings that go into the palace preparations before the big occasion.
A highlight of the festival is the king’s entrance in his royal regalia and decorated crown (opku ododo) announced, by traditional trumpeters. Earlier on, the red-cap chiefs (ndichie) in their traditional attires arrive independently, each accompanied by their village music. They also proceed to the king’s throng, and in order of seniority. There, they pay him homage to the king by kneeling on the floor and bowing down before him.
The celebration then continues as they dance according to seniority, to the tune of the sacred Royal music/drums (egwu ota), at intervals of three along the palace grounds. The beat also changes in accordance with their respective titles, and positions.
The royal music set the rhythm for the Obi’s dancing during his three outings. These royal drums, like most traditional ones are, made by stretching animal hides over a frame. Sometimes, these are tied together with rawhide. Other drums are also used depending on the occasion.
During the festival, dances and songs by the indigenes also traditionally attired are performed, with the performers wearing colourful traditional clothing. (These activities include war dances).
When attending this festival, it is very important that respect is shown for the Onitsha history and way of life. More importantly, the festival is a great way to keep the heritage alive because as it is said, those who forget where they come from won’t know where they are going.
Others important ceremonies include Owuwa ji (Festival of the First Yams) in which the indigenes chant prayers to their ancestors and seek good rains that will ensure abundant crops. In times of drought, their prayers are more fervent than ever. Held variously by different villages at certain intervals, this festival culminates in the Obi’s special Owuwa ji ceremony.
One is often nostalgic for the celebrations associated with these ceremonies such as watching the ulaga na otuiche masquerades.
Obi Joseph Okwudili Onyejekwe, 19th Obi of Onitsha, 1962-1970
Artist: Fred Okechukwu (Umu Asele Village, Onitsha)
Prince Obiora A. Onyejekwe: In his Onitsha traditional regalia during the 1970 last Ofala festival in honor of his late father - Obi Joseph Okwudili Onyejekwe, 19th Obi of Onitsha, 1962-1970 (above)
*Obiora (called Obi) was a pharmacist with the Park Plaza Hospital, Houston, Texas, USA.
Ulaga Otuiche Left: A Musical Group With Masquerades
Chineze J. Onyejekwe, PhD
Women’s and Gender Studies
Northern Arizona University
Flagstaff, Arizona, USA.
*This is an excerpt from her book tilted, Onitsha Ado N’Idu On My Mind. Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Publishing Inc., 2011.