“…the people of Igbuzo as a result forbid the eating of fishes from the Oboshi River. The Chief Priest of Oboshi is “Ohene”, popularly called Ohene-Mmili. The last of the Ohene, Ohene Ezedi, died on 7 January 2009” – Wikipedia entry
I was 9 years old when I first saw the Ohene, the traditional chief priest of the Oboshi river. My family had just moved to my home town Ibusa (also known as Ibuzor or Igbuzo). Ibusa is birth place of famous novelist Buchi Emecheta and is believed to have been founded by a prince of Isu named Umejei. We lived inside the compound at St Thomas’ College where my father was Vice Principal. A rocky road ran along the fence cutting off the school compound from the Demonstration Primary School which I attended.
A green field ran from the Principal’s one storey building to the fence and, after school, my friends and I would gather there to play. When we lived there the Principal was called Father Jones, a tall Irish man who loved to drink whiskey and always visited our house on Wednesdays when my mother made porridge beans which he loved.
One afternoon, as we lazed about, we were awoken by the sounds of raised voices and a distinctive jangling. Fascinated, we walked to the fence to see. There was a small crowd of people trailing a man who walked in the middle and was the source of the jangling sound.
He stood about 5 feet 4 inches tall and was dressed in a skirt that seemed to have been made out of Oto-ogwu, the white cloth native to Anioma people. I would later discover that it was called Izazu and is made of raw fluffy cotton. No one knows who or how it is made and if hung outside cannot be blown away by the wind.
The attire was skirted with beads. Every step he took was a percussive experience as the beads and tiny bells around his skirt and ankles jingled. I would learn later that the anklet tied around his ankle was called Osha. It was akin to the anklet worn by Atilogwu dancers I would later encounter in secondary school.
The Ohene was a scary sight.
His face was impassive with a stare that seemed to see right through your soul. He walked with deliberate precision shaking the staff he held in his hand as he moved. The staff called Osho was a fearsome thing that rattled as he shook it but that was not where the fear came from. It came from what happened if and when that Osho staff was thrown at you.
Once it made contact with you, you would be possessed by the spirit of Oboshi and would not come out of it until cleansing had been performed at the Oboshi river.
The Ibusa river is one of the two most popular rivers in Ibusa. The other being the Atakpo river. “For many centuries,” according to the same wikipedia entry, “Oboshi, Atakpo, Oduche, Asiama streams remained major sources of water to the people but Oboshi and Atakpo stand out as streams venerated as deities. These two streams are venerated because of the powers with which they have protected not only the people but the whole town, according to the belief of the people.”
The fish of the Oboshi river is not hunted nor eaten and failure to adhere is seen as sacrilege.
That day, as we watched, the Ohene suddenly flung his Osho at a boy standing nearby. Stunned into what seemed like apoplexy, the boy spun on his feet like an Iwu dancer then staring stone-faced he took off on a trot that soon became a sprint and in his wake raced the Ohene and his coterie.
I ran home, screaming and shaking.
I would encounter the Ohene many more times later and even come to know his children. His full title was Ohene-Mmili Oboshi and he was from Umu-ogwo in Umuekea quarter. The first Ohene, many believe, came from Ejeme-Aniogo, a descendant of Eze Ofuani who was the paramount ruler of Ibusa before the other chiefs conspired with his wife to unseat him. In response to her deceit, Eze Ofuani bared his nakedness in front of her in full view of the court in what is a ritual shaming exercise called Ikpo-ike and which is grounds for automatic divorce.
Eze Ofuani subsequently abdicated his throne and fled with his entourage to Ejeme-Aniogo where he settled and raised a new family. One day one of his sons fell into a trance and ran all the way from Ejeme-Aniogo to Ibusa where he collapsed and fell into the Oboshi river.
He was in the river for seven days and seven nights until he emerged carrying in his hands, on his shoulders and on his head huge stones from the river bed. He walked out of the river and walked the steep incline into town. He walked and walked until he got to Umu-ogwo in Umuekea quarters. That was where he weakened and finally dropped the stones and built himself a homestead.
The ohene does not live in a house made of sand or mud or blocks. His house is made of wood and so are his utensils from cups to plates. The pots are made from clay. He thus became the first chief priest of Oboshi with the mantle falling on his children after his death.
The traditional greeting for men from Umuekea is Omogwu but there is a different greeting for the Ohene who is hailed with Iyi, meaning river, as an identifier of his role.
The last of the Ohene, Ohene Ezedi, died on January 7, 2009 and ten years later, there has been no replacement. Many blame this on Christianity which has become wide spread and which has made many young people uninterested in what they now regard as animism.
When will a new Ohene-mmili emerge in Ibusa? The answer is rippling in the river.