Nigeria: Oro festival including the role of the Oro priest and whether, or not, he or she is masked; whether there are any penalties invoked against those who observe the priest performing his rituals


Tuesday September 26th, 2000




The Oro festival is a traditional annual Yoruba event that is normally observed in July (Tempo 11 Aug. 1999; Lycos Destination Guide n.d.). The festival lasts several days and for its duration women, and others who are not participating, are expected to stay indoors (BBC 19 July 1999; AFP 19 July 1999; Tempo 11 Aug. 1999). Several sources have commented on different aspects of the event. AFP reported that "by tradition, the Yoruba leaders ask people not connected with the event to stay at home during which a masquerade parades through the streets of towns at night" (19 July 1999). PANA referred to "an age-old Yoruba belief that Oro must never be seen by a woman" (19 July 1999). The Lois E. Woods Museum reported that a double mask is "worn among the Yoruba in connection with rites or dances of secret societies, chiefly those of Egungun and/or Oro" (n.d.). The chairman of the Arewa council of chiefs said that "the Yorubas have been celebrating the Oro festivals for more than 56 years" (Post Express 1 Aug. 1999). BBC commented:

Yorubas nowadays may be practising Christians or Muslims, but there are still shrines to the old gods scattered around the countryside, and traditional festivals - like the festival of the Oro cult ... are still celebrated and still taken extremely seriously.

As in many west African cults of this kind, women and outsiders are forbidden to look on its masked figures (19 July 1999).

In mid-July 1999 a clash between Yorubas and Hausas was reported to have been sparked by Yorubas killing a Hausa woman who was outside of her home at night during the Oro festival (AFP 19 July 1999; PANA 19 July 1999; Post Express 22 July 1999). AFP reported that "at least 66 people were killed" in Sagamu, a town about 80 kilometres northeast of Lagos (19 July 1999). PANA reported at least 50 people killed and that "the Yorubas alleged that a Hausa woman had offended the local tradition by coming out Saturday night during a Yoruba 'Oro' festival. ... One version of the story said the angry Oro adherents reportedly attacked the woman, and her Hausa community members retaliated, resulting in the deaths and destruction of property" (19 July 1999). BBC wrote that she was reportedly killed "after seeing the night-time procession" (19 July 1999). Post Express reported that "trouble started July 17 ... when some celebrating Yoruba youths allegedly killed a Hausa woman who was said to have violated the 'stay-at-home order' during the annual Oro festival. In a flury of anger, the resultant attacks led to the killing of more Hausas by the Yorubas" (27 July 1999). IRIN reported that "the conflict erupted because Yoruba people said the Hausa community had refused to obey the traditional rule which requires non-participants in the festival to stay off the streets" (23 July 1999). The Economist reported that "more than 60 people" had died and

the killing last week in Sagamu was started by the decision of the dominant Yorubas to take their traditional night-time religious parade, or masquerade, the Oro, through the Hausa area of town for the first time in nine years, and by the refusal of the Hausas to honour what the Yorubas insisted was their tradition of staying off the streets while it was passing (31 July 1999).

An article on the World Socialist Web Site states:

The conflict seems to have been sparked off after several days of a traditional Yoruba festival, the Oro. Traditionally those not involved in the festival are requested to stay off the street. Yoruba people spoke to a BBC reporter and said that the Hausas had not respected this tradition. The Hausas said they had been attacked indiscriminately (17 Aug. 1999)

Dr. Frederick Fasehun, leader of the Yoruba Oodua People's Congress (OPC), stated:

In Sagamu, you know that the traditional Oro festival was going on when a woman, a guest among the Yoruba, violated the tenets of the Oro festival. When the Oro festival is on, no woman of any nationality should behold the Oro. Be such woman an Italian, English, American, South African or Yoruba, no woman should behold Oro with her naked eyes. The penalty for such violation is death, no matter who the woman is. That was what happened in Sagamu (Tempo 10 Nov. 1999).

In additional information from this newspaper:

TempoLife gathered that it was the failure to respect the hours of worship or to restrict the fetish to the sacred grooves that led to the clash between a section of the Hausa community and oro cultists in Sagamu last month. In a chat with the magazine in Abeokuta, Ogun State, Taiwo Oloyede, a traditional healer, said the Sagamu tragedy could not have been the hand work of serious oro people since the Hausa woman allegedly killed by oro people did not vanish and her body was found. A ki i ri ajeku oro, he said, meaning that if it were real oro people, her body would not have been found. "It was a mere case of murder," he posited.

In the alternative, he said, if the woman had seen oro and that the oro contained the magical powers, she would have died a "natural" death without anybody touching her.

The alleged death of non-members who see the fetish or are caught by its followers is where the cult comes under severe criticism. The "fundamentalists" among Moslems and Christians see it as an abominable system which "believers" must run away from. But even among the believers, opinions are divided. Engineer Taye Ajibola is a devout moslem living in Niger Republic; whenever it is time to celebrate oro in Yewaland, he comes back home to take part. He argued that oro is not a pagan practice but a way of gathering the members of the community and giving them a sense of purpose. On the killing of women who get caught in the oro process, the engineer who, as a child, used to stay away from oro festivals said, "a game must be played according to its rules!"

Similarly, Shuaibu Yekeen, a Moslem cleric in Lagos who sends his sons home to get initiated each time they come of age, said all is just fun. More importantly, he claimed, before sending his first son, he had sought God's advice on the compatibility of oro with Islam and the owner of the religion (i.e. Allah) had given him the go-ahead. True?

Actually, for the natives, the goal of oro is just to prevent women's revolution. This, to the traditionalist, is to ensure that the social fabric is kept intact (11 Aug. 1999).

A curfew was imposed on Sagamu by the State governor (PANA 19 July 1999; Post Express 22 July 1999). A few days later the clashes spread to Kano state, reportedly in response to the return to the state of Hausa persons who fled Sagamu (IRIN 23 July 1999; Post Express 28 July 1999; World Socialist Web Site 17 Aug. 1999). While IRIN reported on 23 July 1999 "no confirmed" deaths, Post Express reported on 17 July 1999 "no fewer than 30 persons were feared dead" in Kano, and that the "death toll had risen to 40" by the next day (28 July 1999). On 31 July 1999 The Economist reported that President Obasanjo had sent a delegation to Sagamu and that it "had been alarmed by the extent of damage and loss of life."

Further detail on the Oro festival is provided by Tempo:

Oro is not a religion but a system for ensuring peace and harmony in the land. ...

In Egba and Egbadoland, it is always the case whenever the oro cult members are out to perform. A curfew is imposed all over the land. Women must stay indoor lie down and cover their heads and those of their children, especially the female ones. Oro curfew is, for the women folk, a sort of death sentence out of which the only reprieve is the innermost of their various bedrooms.

This having been achieved, the young oro cult members started chanting and dancing across the village. For the older ones, it was time to go out and discuss serious issues effecting both the individuals and the community at large, especially those issues they can't or wouldn't like to discuss in the presence of women and children. That might, the menfolk had a field day doing among themselves all such things. ...

Oro, is also called "baba" (father) and "Oluwa" (lord). The Anango people of Ogun State and Benin call it by those three names but they have other names such as ita, ajala and alugbe, the latter meaning (a reliable lord).

In Egba and Ijebuland, oro is an instrument of community control used by the elders. Its usage is under the control of the Osugbo, the traditional executive council. In Anangoland, there is an executive council too but this is simply called "awon agbagba". It comprises the ajano (or ajanan) and other cult ministers such as the abore, the atobo, the eleri-ogun or olori ogun. But there, the system is more amorphous than in Egba or Ijebuland. Apart from the ajano and the elders in the community seem to be members, if they believe in the system. Sources told the magazine that this is possibly due to strong influence of foreign religions, even though in his studies of Yoruba society, Dr. Felix Iroko, history professor at the University of Benin Republic, Abomey - Calavy, postulated that though Sakete and environs have been "highly islamised", oro and other cults have not been negatively affected.

The oro cult festival takes place once a year; it lasts two weeks. But outside the festive period - this is usually between July and August - the cult members may perform on ad hoc occasions. Such can be occasions for offering sacrifices to ancestral spirits on the "oju oori", the burial ground of the founders of the community or when there is security problem in the land and the elders want to control people's movement.

When oro is out, there is curfew over the land. That is what tradition demands. Only grown up males can come out; children may not. Women must not. In fact, one of the main features of the cult is the exclusion of women from any knowledge of whatever oro is. Whenever the deity is out, it is said that oro se'de or oro gb'ode, literally meaning that oro has taken over the land or that it has imposed a curfew over the land.

In the olden days and indeed, in the rural areas at present - the two-week yearly festival takes four full days and the nights before and after each of such days. The starting daily session is known as the awodun oro. The second session is held 48 hours after the first and is called eta, the third day.

The third session takes place seven days after the first and is, therefore, known as eje. The last one is the etadogun. Though this literally means the 17th day, it actually takes place on the 16th day. The fact that each one of the four stages starts one evening and last the whole night, the whole of the following day and the next night could justify the appellation. Traditionally, after the etadogun, the festivities are rounded off with an all-night masquerade feast at which both men and women assist. This is known as the efe ikagba oro. It takes place within three months after the four oro sessions.

For the two weeks the oro festival lasts, women are not to go out. They are advised to get all their needs at home because oro could be "lurking around" and watching whether they would "misbehave." On the specified four days, the curfew is lifted only briefly twice daily, first from 8 to 10 a.m. and later from 4 to 6 p.m. It is a period when women buy various types of chamber pots which they go and empty in the bush when the curfew is lifted.

When the curfew is to be lifted temporarily, a man goes round the village shouting: "oro has ordered everyone to go out and ease yourselves but nobody should go too far away from home." And, when the short break ends, the same man goes around shouting "Baba ni ki alara paramo," meaning by the decree of the lord, the curfew is on!

Despite those restrictive orders, women are the ones who enjoy the festival most. This is because, while indoors, they rest and enjoy the songs of the "adaba oro". These are the youths, members of the cult, who go about drumming and singing. The songs have very high moral messages and, at the same time, entertaining. For instance, the men could use the songs to insult those women who fail to keep proper care of the environment. The songs can also bar women from dangerous night journeys.

A day after each session, it is the turn of women to do their own, by day time, in the open but without seeing the oro. There is nothing as good as seeing women in their natural elements, dancing, jumping up, each with a cane in hand for whipping one another. As is the case with men, the purpose of the mutual canning is to make people resistant to bodily pain and accustom them to endure their neighbors' misbehaviors without taking it personal or getting annoyed.

They sing songs such as: who is insincere is peeping through the door to see the god.

It must be noted that these two songs are women's version of the one sung by the menfolk, accusing women of excessive curiosity and insincerity. But these songs differ from one locality to the other and some are improvised as responses to particular situations.

Before taking to the village where they dance from house to house - as their men counterparts did a day earlier, the women first gather in front of the Igbo Oro (Sacred Forest).

That place is known as the Ojubo oro or oju igb'oro (oro sanctuary). There, they receive messages of goodwill as well as admonitions from the majowu, the goddess of oro. The goddess message is a sort of address on the state of the nation as it concerns the womenfolk. When the goddess is speaking, no woman dares talk. Fear grips everyone. The women kneel down and say their prayers. The dancing and singing start only after the majowu ends its message and releases them by saying "e maa lo ki e si maa se jeje-e-e-e o! Oro a gbe yin-in-in-in o!" (go, behave well and be bleee sss eeed!).

It must be noted that it is only at this stage that there is a semblance of worship in the real sense of it. Of course, it happens in all religions, there is always the risk of adulteration as the faithful or adherents sometimes embrace alien practices hitherto not recommended.

For instance, oro has degenerated into an occasion, in many communities, to worship other deities such as Ogun (the god of metals) and Oju oori, the tomb of the ancestors also called Oju Egungun in some areas. Also, the ajano (Chief priest) goes about wielding his staff of office, a carved walking stick which has been given a frightful, fetish look, thanks to ceaseless pouring of palm oil libation.

Ethymologically, majowu, in Yoruba language, means "don't be jealous". And, that explains the myth behind everything. In the traditional Yoruba society, a man must have as many wives as he wishes and none of the wives must be jealous of the other or prevent the husband from acquiring more and more wives. Majowu, as the goddess of peace and discipline among women frowns at women "misbehaving", out of jealousy. While touring the village from house to house at night, majowu talks to everybody, especially the women. She blesses those who in line with the norms and values of the community, "behaved well." At the same time, she admonishes those who "misbehaved" in the preceding year. Those who committed serious offences may be fined.

Because majowu's voice is like that of the harmonica, not all women can comprehend what it says. Consequently, the goddess has a human being, (a male, of course) as interpreter. That person takes responsibility of interpreting the goddess' message in plain language, devoid of harmonica sound. That is where the myth is.

Oro's raison d'etre, according to the legend, is to ward off evil in the community and, at the same time, to entertain. The followers act as vigilante whenever they are out to perform. So, such acts as stealing and robbery are prevented, at least, in the traditional setting. Also. the Ifa oracle is consulted and the necessary sacrifices made. Such, people believe, can help to ensure peace.

The irony is that in most Yoruba cities, people hear only about oro, the husband, they are totally ignorant about majowu, his wife. The myth about oro is that it is a god living on a very high plane, unreachable by humans. It is said especially in Anango and Egbadoland, that oro is a (male) god. Between him and the humans is majowu. The message she carries about is from husband, oro.

She speaks the language of the gods as well as that of the humans. She is probably the Yoruba equivalent of Janus, the two-faced Roman fetish of beginnings and doorways. Only that here, images don't come in at all. But the truth about majowu is this:

It is a man, a male human being who goes about with traditional mouth- organ made up of a bamboo pipe blocked on both ends by a cellophane membrane and having, in the middle, an opening for the mouth. As the man talks into the small organ, the wind from his mouth goes out through the blocked lateral openings, making the cellophane membrane to vibrate and thus, produce a weird sound like that of the mouth-organ or harmonica. That is why the use of the harmonica is not very much tolerated in Anagoland.

In traditional Yoruba communities, no man is such until he is initiated into the cult. In effect, the initiation marks the passage from childhood to adulthood. It takes place at about the age of puberty, depending on the assessment of his abilities by his parents and other males in the community. Before initiation, one is usually considered an ogberi (or egberi), that is the uninitiated person, an inferior man with the status of a woman. The initiation opens the secrets of the world to the new entrant.

Majowu's husband, oro which 'shouts" so loud that his voice can be heard up to 10 kilometers away is a myth as well as a reality. A myth because the sound comes out of a small piece of wood or metal. It is a small, oblong shaped object, the size of a tail feather of a domestic cock or hen. As the object is flung briskly in the air, it makes the air molecules vibrate. And, it is the vibration which causes the weird sound that is very similar to the barking of a dog.

To make the flinging and vibration easy, the piece of wood (or metal) is attached to very flexible string. The string itself is usually fastened to a flexible pole about two meters long. As the pole is rotated briskly, it transmits the movement to the string and onward to the oblong object which barks by vibrating in the air.

Sometimes, when the string gets worn out, it gets cut in action and thus the object is flung away like a projectile. When such happens, there is another myth which helps to cover that inadequacy: the cult members present plead "oro, ma so'ko! ... oro, ma so'ko!" (oro, please, don't throw projectiles; please, don't throw projectiles!). The idea is to give non- members the impression that the oro fetish is angry and is thus throwing stones about. In case the laity hear the noise of the object when it lands, for instance, on a roof top, they may not understand what happened. But despite the plea, that oro should not throw stones, the thing still gets flung away. Hence the Yoruba adage which goes thus: ti a ba so wipe ki oro ma so'ko, oro a ni oun o ni so omiran sugbon eleyi to wa lowo oun yi, on yoo so o (when you tell oro not to throw projectiles, he accepts on the condition that he will first throw the one in his hand). The adage comes in handy when a person is advised or begged not to do something after he has theoretically taken a step which, for him, is irreversible.

Before the advent of modern means of communication, the gadget also served as a means of communication in times of emergency. When it is sounded persistently at an awkward period, or time, the natives know something unusual has happened or is about to happen. So, the elders start converging on the village square or the spot where the noise is emanating from. And, when they go, they do so as "real men", with all the guns, machetes and juju possible. It still serves that purpose today in the rural areas. So, the institution of oro is largely a way of maintaining group solidarity and the attachment to the rules and principles of social obligation.

From all the above, it is clear males cannot worship oro. They can only use it as a means to an end, to assert their authority over women who are made to venerate oro fetish.

That is where the reality comes in. Originally, when the elders carved an oro, the whole community gather their juju or magical powers which is "woman- proof". The power is conferred on the carved piece of wood so that any woman who sees it dies a natural death. In such circumstances, it is not the piece of wood or metal per se that is considered as taboo for women to see but the magical powers conferred upon it. It is like a photographic film; the real thing is not the celluloid material that we see but the chemical (such as silver hallide) spread on it and for which the celluloid merely serves as support. Therefore, the real oro woman cannot see is not the piece of wood (or of metal) but the aggregate of all the oogun (magical powers) of the community of elders to which women are mortally allergic. An oro without those powers is not an oro, but a sham.

But those magical powers are fast becoming legends. It is in the absence of these that people resort to physical force to silence women who see oro and that is the case in many places nowadays. If a woman sees it or is thought to have found herself in a position to see it, she is silenced forever because it is believed that secrets are too much a burden for women to bear. It is in a bid to prevent her from divulging the secret that she is silenced. And, should there be other profanes there, whether male or female, they are all silenced. The jargon is that o ba oro lo (she has vanished with the oro) or that oro gbee mi (oro swallowed her). When such is the case, the remains of that person is interred in the igbo'ro (sacred forest). ...

Even today, in the remote areas of Yorubaland where the whiteman ideas have not mutilated indigenous culture, profanes who venture out on prohibited days are "swallowed" by oro. Such was the case some three years ago in Oja-Odan (Ogun State) where the police discovered three fresh human heads at the Ojubo oro.

Originally, to prevent curious women from peeping though the door or wall crevices and thus die untimely, there was this saying: Bi o wo o firi e e ku firi, bi o wo o wara e e ku wara (look at it furtively and die furtively, see it quicky and die quickly).

Even nowadays, where people still hold on firmly to tradition, the elders are still believed to have powers for conferring mortal allergies to oro fetish.

But in many instances in Lagos and many other big cities oro has ceased to be sacred as miscreants often exploit it to create panic, steal or commit other misdemeanors. This is unlike in the past when majowu used to go about with ase or epe in hand. Those were magical powers which "she" used to make sure whatever she said, whether as prayer or a curse, came true.

In a bid to reduce human sufferings while keeping oro's flag flying, the time for its performance has been tremendously reduced in towns and on major roads in the rural areas. Now, in such areas, it takes place in the dead of the night. Broad daylight performances are usually restricted to the sacred grooves. ...

Oro is a piece of wood on which magical powers were, in the past, conferred and out of which comes a sound. Yes. But as TEMPOLife found out, it is neither the piece of wood nor the magical powers on it that the founders of Yoruba culture wanted women to fear and, perhaps, venerate. Rather, it is the sound coming out of it. It is true that the Bible and the Qur'an condemn idol worshipping in unequivocal terms. But there is no idol worshipping in oro. What is there is to see a superior being though sound and vibrations. And, there being no worship, in the real sense of the word but only fear, oro cannot really be said to be a religion - whether pagan or not - but a mere confraternity. ...

But the real danger to oro, as found out by the magazine, is not from without but from within. The real danger is the cultists themselves: "when area boys highjack the festival and commit murder under the name of oro and the whole community fails to rise and condemn it, great damage is done to the image of the cult," a source said.

In the late 1960s, a funny case came up for hearing at a court in Sakete, Benin Republic; it was a case of two groups of oro worshippers who slugged it out at gun point over a disagreement on how to go about the oro festival. The judge, a profane and a non-Yoruba who sat over the case, asked the oro worshippers one important question which later became the subject of songs throughout Anangoland: mo se bi eyin ni e ngbe igbo oro; ki lo wa de ti e ko mo ede oro?" (is it not a shame that you, the worshippers of oro don't understand the very message of oro which is a message of peace!). That question remains relevant, even now (11 Aug. 1999).

The Research Directorate was unable to corroborate the details in this report within the time constraints of this Response.

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum. Please find below the list of additional sources consulted in researching this Information Request.