OBI OKOSI II -- DEATH AND BURIAL, MARCH 1961


3. The Obi's Final Festive Emergence (Ofala): Afternoon Rituals

Away from the palace in the Waterside along New Market Road in the early afternoon, we saw from our Fiat 600 vehicle two men walking along the street, dressed like Hausa men (though they were Ndi-Igbo) and escorting a large, rotund masquerade figure whom they assiduously attended and fanned (left). The face of the figure was that of Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto and Premier of the Northern Region. When we tried to photograph the face of this figure, his acolyte quickly hid it with his fan (one cheek of the mask is just visible below the hand holding the fan). Though the "Sardauna" moved near the edges of the Inland Town, in a sense representing the Northern leadership of the current coalition National Government, he never entered the palace grounds (and of course no masked being would be allowed to do this, see Henderson 1972:308). (Click on the image to enlarge it.)

One of the most remarkable figures who actually did enter the palace grounds early in the afternoon was this man at right, a dancer from Awkuzu, one of a string of towns northeast of Onitsha that share with Ndi-onicha old connections with the town of Aguleri, mythic origin site of the first Nri King (Eze-Nri). His dance took the form of a slow, walking motion, in which at all times some part of his body was flowing in gestural movement. Lacking a vocabulary to describe the qualities of this hypnotic dancing, I could only bemoan my lack of a movie camera and move on. His face persistently held the same fixed smile you can see on this image. (Click on the image for a close-up.]

 

 

 

 

At left, I spoke with Jerry Orakwue, a well-respected local historian who later proved very helpful in my research. He suggested I take advantage of the photographers' platform to the right of the Uno-ifufe, which I later did (to my great advantage, since the crowd became huge).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crowds began gradually to fill the square. On the right flank, titled Onicha men and women took their seats of honor at places designated for them beneath the arbors. Below, the Ivoried women sat with their male Patrons, the senior women closest to the Palace. At right, the more junior members have occupied seats visually designated for Onitsha's Ozo titled men (the Agbalanze). (Click on each image to enlarge it.)

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Locations along the left flank were reserved for people from the European and Asian communities, local church leaders, Eastern Region Government officials and their families. Early in the afternoon, people had filled most of these spaces. (Click on each image to enlarge it.)

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Chief Nyong Essien, the Obong of Calabar, President of the Eastern Region House of Chiefs and the Eastern Nigeria Premier's designated representative for the occasion, arrived at the head of a stately procession and took his seat before a left flank arbor under his large embroidered umbrella. (In the image at far left, an Onitsha Age-Grade (ogbo) passes him on their way to salute the official Mourners.) (Click on each image to enlarge it.)

 

 

 

Various Onitsha Age-grades, each having affiliation with one of the Obi's mourners, entered the palace grounds in their squadron formations, wearing distinctive uniforms, and danced their way to the Breeze House where each group saluted its associated mourner. Below, the Ogbo Duglas Age-Grade, named after the first Onitsha District Officer, H.M. Douglas, who administered the area at the time these people were born (1906-1908). Men and women dance together in contemporary age-grades, with an Ozo-titled man leading the way. Note that women make up a much higher proportion of the local group than do the men of this age level of (roughly) 53-55 years, a function of the fact that many Onitsha men were at the time currently employed in civil service and other occupations elsewhere in Nigeria.

Below left, the Douglas Age-grade, supporting one of their members -- a daughter of the late Obi (dressed in blue) -- saluted some senior Mourners before the Breeze House. Below right, as the Douglas Age-grade completed their circle of the Palace Grounds (in the far distant right), another Age-grade was entering at left-center. (Click on each image to enlarge it.)

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Each of the genealogical daughters of the Obi danced into the square, holding her black horsetail fly-whisk of mourning, accompanied by her age-grade, the whole group saluting the Head Mourner in front of the Breeze House. At far right, Madame Ibekwe, wife of Nnanyelugo Ibekwe of Odoje Village, danced in, holding the otinri, accompanied by her daughter (at left-center, dressed in blue) and other representatives of her husband's descent group. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)

 

 

Below left, members of the NCNC political party, Onitsha Branch, gathered to present a steer to the Children of Chimuwku. The Head Mourner (Onye-isi-ozu), Ononenyi Gbasiuzu Okosi, stood before the Breeze House, holding his ivory staff as Senior Lineage Priest (di-okpala). (Click on each image to enlarge it.)

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As the crowd swelled into a vast mass, the age-grades found their way increasingly congested -- note the group in the foreground, far left.

Groups of policemen were called into action, pushing people out a ways so performers had a bit of space to dance near the Breeze House. At near left, an orchestra accompanies one of the groups dancing beside the Breeze House.

(Click on each image at left to enlarge it.)

 

 

A standing cluster of Onitsha elites gathered along the left flank between the press platform and the left-flank arbors. Below left, an assortment of expatriate government officials and businessmen (including the American Businessman George Russell, heading up the new Pepsi-Cola bottling plant being constructed on the edge of town, dressed in orange and black Agbada at lower left in the image), stood beside the clustered representatives of the Hausa community in Onitsha. Below center, B.C.I. Obanye, an Onitsha man currently Chairman of the Onitsha Urban County Council, gives directions to a visiting chief. Below right, the Onitsha District Officer, the Town Clerk and Assistant Town Clerk confer in the presence of Mrs. Russell (at far lower right) and various prominent lawyers, politicians, and government officials. (several Eastern Region Ministers of State, heads of the judicary, and Provincial Commissioners attended.) (Click on each image to enlarge it.)

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Some wore formal richly variegated European dress and bowler hats, others flowing agbada gowns with embroidered Hausa fezzes or Soviet-imitation-fur caps. The half dozen turbaned representatives of the Muslim communities living in the Waterside (at Ogbe-awusa, "Hausa Village") arrived late, in a single group, and stood somewhat aloof in a cluster in front of the left arbor. Soon the people who were occupying the reserved seats of honor under the arbors found their views of the square blocked by standing groups of men, and after a while the burgeoning crowd on both flanks of the square (which included not only many roughly-clothed men but also innumerable children) entirely obliterated the view of those who had chosen to sit in the chairs provided. Only those of us who had climbed onto the elevated press platform found relatively unobstructed fields of vision.

Finally, a dancing group from outside Onitsha appeared -- from the Ogbaru town of Aguleri, and the police had to push the crowd back vigorously in order to open a space of sufficient size near the Breeze House where the dancers could perform. Below left, the Ogbeni-Oba -- Royal Hunters Association, said to be a Benin-linked organization, culture-borrowed from Ndi-Onicha along with the Kingship -- entered the arena, led by their Antelope Masquerade escorted by raffia-skirted drummers and warriors who were firing off matchlock rifle shots into the surrounding trees as they danced, filling the air with noise and gunsmoke. In the image second from left, you can see a silhouette of the Antelope figure, at far right Head Mourner Gbasiuzo Okosi after greeting the group. (Click on each image below to enlarge it.)

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The King of Aguleri (an important Anambra River trading community culturally related to Onitsha and to Nri) had also sent several of his red-cap Chiefs to greet the Head Mourner. The Riverine town of Aguleri owed its Kingship to the Onitsha Obi, and these two royal figures maintained respectful relationships.

As the first Onitsha senior chiefs approached the sacred palace grove, an array of small cannons ("petards") were detonated sequentially alongside the entryway on Okosi Road. Petards are cannon-like devices dating from medieval western Europe, bell-shaped iron powder holders with fuses attached at the base. Onitsha people hired a collection of them to fire off as the Onitsha Senior Chiefs -- Ndichie-Ume -- approached the Palace Grounds, escorted by men of their respective villages. Below left, local boys guard some of the petards; Below right, smoke from the gunfire billows up to the right of the Palace entryway, as hazy smoke disperses from earlier shots set off to the left of the entryway. (Click on each image below to enlarge it.)

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The image above right shows a simple fact of the situation by the time the Ndichie-ume and their groups arrived: the entire palace grounds were completely packed with human bodies, following an utter failure of crowd control. Some policemen were present, but Ndi-Onicha themselves made no provision for organizing the masses of people who had come either to participate in or merely to observe the ceremonies. Thousands of youthful Ndi-Igbo traders, laborers, and schoolchildren from the Waterside joined with the Ndi-Onicha, European expatriates and other foreigners to form a dense throng which not only filled the palace grounds but overflowed into the surrounding forest and out into the street, numbering in the tens of thousands. Perhaps three times the normal total resident population of the entire Onitsha Inland Town were gathered to witness the final drama. Notice the representatives of the Muslim community in the lower-right foreground, jostled among the diverse individuals surrounding them.

The climactic moments of the Onitsha Festive Emergence ceremony now began, as each of the Onitsha senior chiefs, wearing his elaborately feathered Great Crown was escorted into the palace grounds by the other red-cap chiefs and men of the village he represented. Ideally the chief wearing his crown and his village men (any subordinate chiefs wearing red-caps) form a compact, unified group reflecting the structure of the Great Headdress itself -- the Headress figuring a Great Tree surmounting a mound of earth (the whole image comprises a synthesizing symbol of Onitsha leadership) and bristling with feathers representing the clustering and perching birds and other creatures who find refuge and nurturance there (his red-capped chiefs and other escorting village men). As the group marches forward in unison, the senior chief periodically forays out from it in brief dances, confonting the onlookers with his flashing Ceremonial Sword, in challenging warlike dance. When they arrive at the Breeze House, he touches his sword to the Royal War Gongs, dances to their rhythms, silences them with the same gesture, then afterwards retires with his fellows to the right flank of the courtyard immediately beside the palace entryway, where they sit among the other chiefs and await the Emergence of the Obi from his palatial seclusion. In a normal annual Harvest Festival Emergence (one I had witnessed the previous October), the Obi would come forth wearing the most magnificent Great Tree Headdress of them all, and proceed to dance around the palace with his Senior chiefs (now in red caps), who cluster around him in centripetal support, a visual modelling of social unity and centering.

On this occasion (in contrast to the Emergence of the previous October, when ample space had been available for the standard ritual procedures to occur in the palace square), the crowd of onlookers had become so vast and dense that neither police nor Inland Townspeople could effectively control them, and the orderly pattern of entering processions could not occur. As the chiefs now proceeded through the tight-packed crowd, they and their village supporters became separated from one another and engulfed by the spectators. The clustered groups of Onitsha village men were dissolved in the milling chaos of individuals of varied backgrounds, ages, and social status. Below left, the Onya, of UmuEzeAroli, is escorted by Chukwudebe Adazie (with red cap, holding his brass spear, immediately to the Senior Chief's left). Below right, the Onowu (Prime Minister), of Ugwunabamkpa, at far upper left in the image, has been separated from his more junior chiefs -- the Odua (of Iyiawu sub-village), at left foreground, and the Asagwali of Umuase, barely visible in the crowd at far right. (Click on each image below to enlarge it.)

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Slowly each senior chief managed to make his way toward the place where the Royal War Drums were kept. A small opening was cleared at the left flank of that space, near the cluster of richly-dressed businessmen, lawyers, government officials, and other members of the educated elite. There the senior chief danced his sacred war dance before them, encouraged by their shouts of praise and enthusiasm and their occasional echoing of the traditional leaders' performances with their own dance movements. Below left, the Owelle, the most junior of the Senior Chiefs, performs his dance. Below right, the Onowu performs his, while another Senior Chief awaits his turn. (Click on each image below to enlarge it.)

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In the final formal dance, each Senior Chief would touch his ceremonial sword to the royal war drums, and dance to honor the deceased Obi. Below left, the Owelle is shown completing this performance. The brass color of the sword is visible just right of his body. Then, after again touching his ceremonial sword to the royal war drums, Each Senior Chief retired to his place by the right flank beside the palace archway, where his great Headdress was removed -- as shown for the Onya, below right. (Click on each image below to enlarge it.)

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As each chief took his seat, the collection of Great Tree Headdresses accumulated on the arbor overhead until the place where they sat looked like the nesting places of innumerable great birds.

Finally the senior son of the late Obi Okosi II, Joseph Okosi, strode out into the throng, wearing one of his father's royal caps and escorted by two junior brothers (who also wore the king's red caps). However, rather than appearing with one wearing the Great Headdress, and then encircling the entire palace square with the chiefs surrounding the central figure (as the living king would do at the normal Harvest time ritual), the three princes merely walked to the front of the Breeze House, where the senior son (accompanied by his brothers wearing various of Okosi's ritual hats) took up his father's Ceremonial Sword and danced the final dance of Obi Okosi II's reign:

As shown in the image above, when the prince finally touched the dead king's sword to the war gongs to silence them, the funerary celebration was at an end.


Some reflections on the funeral

Gradually then the huge crowd began to disperse. As I climbed down from the press platform to meet my friends, I thought how ironic it must seem to the Onitsha people, so intent on preserving their traditions from incursions from without, to have their greatest ritual invaded by this flood of people which included so many foreigners. My anthropological colleague R.E. Bradbury, who had driven to Onitsha from Benin to witness the funeral, voiced considerable surprise at the apparent disorder of the event in comparison with the highly structured and physically segregated ritual performances he regularly witnessed at Benin (which Onitsha people claim to emulate in their kingship). One of the expatriate Anglican churchmen who attended the funeral later stated that it was a "typically Ibo" celebration, whether that of a traditional ritual or a "party" held among the contemporary elite: these social gatherings consistently display, he maintained, evidence of a formally structured model for procedure at the outset of the drama, but social status boundaries are rapidly breached in the developing situation as the mass of people refuse to "keep their appropriate place" and flood the scene in clamorous disorder.

When I asked Onitsha people about their impressions of the celebration, however, I encountered no trace of displeasure at the swamping of the primary actors by the centripetal pressuring of the masses. Was not the attending crowd surpassingly huge? Did they not include people from all walks of life and all parts of the world? And did these facts not indicate the central and increasingly powerful significance of the Obi of Onitsha in the scheme of things? Onitsha people expressed pride in the sheer human scale of this Ofala, the degree of respect indicated by such a turnout. All Onitsha funerals should indicate the range and complexity of the deceased's involvement with others (and the greater this is, the greater the funeral).

Several points of interest seemed relevant to me. First, it seemed odd that, despite the written scheduling of "dance groups from neighboring towns", the only non-Onitsha dancers at the funeral came from Aguleri, a town located at a considerable distance from Onitsha (though Onitsha people claimed that all of the immediately neighboring towns derived their own, recent chieftaincy customs from Onitsha, and "pay it tribute" on major ceremonial occasions).

Second, aside from the inadvertent effects of crowd size, the formal patterning of the ritual seemed aimed at proclaiming the disintegration of the chiefs: instead of a final clustering, they each entered and performed while escorted by their separate village units and never combined as an active whole. This might appear symbolically appropriate, since the Interregnum announces a time when villages assert their separate interests and wills.

On the other hand, at the climax of the ceremony a nice formal balance had evolved between the traditional chiefs, who ultimately seated themselves on the right flank of the palace, and the visibly "modernistic" elites (including both Onitsha and non-Onitsha people), who stood far over on the left. When chiefs entered the palace grounds and moved down the left flank, before crossing over to the center (at the Obi's Breeze House, his place of communion with the forces of nature) to perform their ritual dances, the Senior Chiefs with their Great Tree Headdresses were each approached by the modernistic elites, who saluted them and praised their dancing with exuberant, energetic enthusiasm. At these moments, the educated elite accorded the traditional leaders high-intensity and very public measures of respect and regard.

The fact that new and old elites might celebrate each other on this occasion was unsurprising, but other meanings lurked in these processes as well. The absences seemed significant, as well as the strength of leadership being signaled (in terms of ritual-oriented crowd control).