…Time to give Eri-Okpe Festival global status
…Next Eri-Okpe Festival holds 2025
By Ozoro Opute
OZORO town, headquarter of Isoko North LGA, Delta State, was in festive mood from March 26 through April 1, 2022 when it held its famous Eri-Okpe Festival. The cultural feast was to celebrate and pay homage to the town’s prime deity, Eri-Okpe established by the town’s founding father, Opute, centuries ago after he successfully arrived from ancient ‘Uredo’ Kingdom (now Benin City) while supposedly fleeing from the scorching anger of his half sibling, Ogwara, to avoid the bloodbath that would inevitably have ensued after a family quarrel. It would be 15 years since the festival was held last, and it partly accounted for the huge interest and large turnout of Ozoro Opute citizens, and people from neighbouring communities, who were eager to witness the re-enactment of such important cultural history.
Two days prior, the equally famous Onwe fishing lake was invaded by fishermen from all over Isoko, a lake believed to be the deity’s pool, where he took his bath and drink. Eri-Okpe has its shrine in the centre of town, nestled among ancient trees that shield the central ogwa from the prying eyes of the public. However, most townsfolks complained that Onwe lake did not deliver as much fish as it should; some said visiting fishermen from neighbouring communities made better catch of fish than Ozoro citizens and had them displayed all over social media. Some went as far as saying that Onwe did not deliver as much as it should, because a black bull was provided for the celebration of Eri-Okpe instead of a white bull. What was worse, the black bull was also tethered, a clear negation of how Eri-Okpe’s bull should be kept before the feast; those familiar with the feast said the bull is usually allowed to roam the town, going as far as neighbouring towns like Ellu, Owhelogbo, and even as far as Oleh, adding that when it’s time, the deity would guide the bull back to town from it wandering. Denying Ozoro citizens fish, they further claimed, was the deity’s way of showing its anger at the multiple infractions of its priests.
At dawn of the main day at the shrine, the five quarters – Uruto, Erovie, Etevie, Urude and Oruamudhu – participated in a contest over who should take home egbo, the ram. Although a symbolic contest, it’s the prerogative of Uruto, Opute’s first son, with the others deferring to him, to have the upper hand in the mock contest and take home ram.
In all, it was a good outing for the Odio Berkely Asiafa-led organising committee, the town’s President-General, Chief Miller Akpoili, and of course, Ozo Idhudhu, Ovietobore Ogbogbo, Ibuka 1, Ovie of Ozoro Kingdom. What was more, Ibuka 1 had the traditional presence of brother kings from Okpe-Isoko and Orerokpe, all the way from Urhoboland, who have brotherly affinity with Opute, founder of Ozoro. The king and his royal entourage, dressed mostly in red attire, arrived in a fine procession with courtly gentlemen and ladies, all bedecked in fine costumes, dancing ahead of the royals; they gave the king’s arrival at Eri-Okpe shrine an unmistakable measure of pomp and pageantry the town had not seen in a long while.
While the other two kings and the king’s resplendently adorned wife sat facing the entrance of Eri-Okpe, Ibuka 1 joined the chief priest and other priestly entities inside the inner chambers of the shrine. It is the king’s duty to commune with the deity that gave him royal endorsement alongside the priests to offer prayers and communion and make atonement for a deity that had obviously been starved of such devotion and adoration for 15 long years, a deity usually celebrated at three years’ intervals.
Meanwhile, outside the perimetre of the shrine, dancing, singing, drumming and all kinds of displays were going on. Men of the revered Igbu cult dressed in red loin cloths burst into the scene wielding their long machetes, and people made way for them, but the crowd was so overwhelming that it tempered their usually exuberant machete displays. Other dancers and magicians who had pierced both cheeks across the mouth with the quill of a porcupine without drawing blood also displayed their unusual skills. It was a motley crowd of entertainers in celebratory mood in honour of a deity that remains a symbol of resilience that Ozoro town represents from ancient times.
But as part of globalising Eri-Okpe Festival, better crowd control measures and marking out the performance area in front of the shrine would make for orderly festival. The surging crowd did not allow for meaningful performance by the dancers and other performers like the Igbu, opiri and others who were willing to show off their skills around the perimetre of the shrine. A clearer marking of the performance arena should have helped in terms of crowd control. The three kings pushed their way through the crowd to get in and did the same to leave after officiating inside the shrine.
From March 28 through April 1, 2022, all the five quarters of Ozoro Kingdom took turns for the ilu-uje celebratory procession along major roads in town to arrive at the king’s court to pay him homage with dancing, singing and other acrobatic displays. First to make iluje procession was Opute’s first son, Uruto, then followed the king’s quarter, Erovie; then Etevie, Urude and finally the last born son, Oruamudhu. Urude, however, is usually adjudged to make the best and most elaborate uje in terms of the many acrobatic, opiri and stilt dancers that the quarter boasts to the admiration of other quarters. By April 2, the celebration came to an end and it became the talk of town, as citizens were left speculating when next Eri-Okpe Festival would be held again given the long layoff that followed the previous one before this year’s festivity.
However, Asiafa debunked some of the speculations around this year’s festival, saying that using a white bull to honour Eri-Okpe is a myth, as there was no record of such observance in past festivals. However, not allowing the bull to roam the town, he stated, was because of the short notice the Okpe priestly family allowed for the festival to hold. He added that usually, the bull would have been procured three months (90 days) in advance, then the chief priest would feed it with ore (native white chalk) and set it loose to roam all over town and beyond. Asiafa also dispelled fears about the regularity of the festival, saying that Eri-Okpe Festival would not be allowed to stay so long before it is held again, adding that it would now be held every three-year interval. He therefore charged Ozoro citizens to look out for the next Eri-Okpe Festival in 2025 and prepare for it.
Globalising future Eri-Okpe festivals as tourism destination
FOR not holding Eri-Okpe Festival for a decade and a half perhaps held great fascination and excitement for everyone even though the town probably lost in terms of tourism mileage. The organisers, the town’s governing body and the entire town might have congratulated themselves for a job well done. The idea of resuscitating an almost forgotten festiv Ial is no mean feat, and organisers have reason to celebrate. However, this year’s feast was restricted to the mere basics of an ancient festival the way the town’s ancestors celebrated long ago in a world long modernised beyond mere symbolic gesture that a festival the magnitude of Eri-Okpe should attract.
Clearly, Ozoro is yet to come to terms with the inherent power of tourism that Eri-Okpe Festival is capable of generating and make it a festival truly deserving more than mere observance but tapping into the huge economic and cultural potential it possesses in abundance.
Onwe lake, for instance, ought to be made more significant as a fishing mini-festival on its own capable of drawing tourists from farther afield than only Isoko. Still leaving it as a mere fishing lake is not taking full advantage of Onwe as an important natural resource. Apart from fishermen and women, tourists can also visit to see how the actual fishing is done with drumming, singing and dancing like Argungun Festival in Kebbi State with the expectation of the biggest fish catch. Organisers can mobilise corporate sponsorship to monetise the biggest fish caught and other prizes that would spice up the Onwe fishing aspect of Eri-Okpe Festival.
Importantly, Eri-Okpe is about culture, the culture and tradition of Ozoro people, and by extension, that of the entire Isoko, particularly at a time when Isoko language and culture are fast being eroded. Young and old Isoko people alike living in Isoko do not hide their disdain for Isoko language; they show strong aversion to speaking it, with pidgin as the preferred language. What better way to look inward and resuscitate a dying mother tongue of the people than through such cultural agency as Eri-Okpe and other such festivals in Isoko.
To achieve this task, some intellectual mix to the festival events would have to be added to spice to take it a notch up. For instance, days before the actual festival or even during the seven-day festival proper, Isoko historians and cultural activists and advocates could hold lectures and symposia to speak about the history of Ozoro, and Isoko by extension, and other important cultural aspects of the people, with a display of Isoko arts and crafts. If organised towards holiday season, it could be an avenue to get Isoko youths back home and teach them Isoko to Isoko; they way Eri-Okpe then serves as a pilgrimage, a time for homecoming to Isoko. It would generate hunger for homecoming, as there would be something important to look forward to in Isoko – a cultural immersion!
And in these historical and cultural re-enactments at Opute Hall, both the king and the edio of the five quarters and other prominent sons and daughters of the kingdom would be present to lend their presence and knowledge, interact with the people in what could easily become a marketplace of communal gathering for ideas and camaraderie.
A re-enactment of the founding of Ozoro or even Isoko in its entirety through storytelling or a researched drama performance staged at Opute Hall could also provide not only entertainment but important cultural and historical education to the youths and visitors alike who are in their numbers in the ancient town on account of the newly established Delta State University of Science and Technology (formerly Delta State Polytechnic, Ozoro). These performances can also be avenues to showcase other dramatic offerings about Isoko, written by Isoko sons and daughters, who are playwrights and poets.
There’s a need therefore to rethink programme planning for the next Eri-Okpe Festival (and indeed other communal cultural offerings in Isokoland), so all the potential it can yield can be brought to the fore for a true cultural tourism fiesta of global proportion. With Ozoro’s large and vibrant population put at over two million residents, and still growing by the day, alongside the huge population of neighbouring Oleh, Owhelogbo, Ellu, Arathe, Idheze, Okpe-Isoko, Emevor, Olomoro and Iyede who would visit Ozoro for Eri-Okpo Festival spectacle, marketing Eri-Okpe for corporate sponsorship should not be hard.
In the 2025 edition of Eri-Okpe Festival therefore and subsequent ones, it is expected that a year-long line up of activities should be pre-figured, so every aspect is thoroughly worked out. If possible, a marketing/communication company should be assigned the portfolio of marketing the festival for sponsorship such that uje procession by each of the five quarters provides better spectacle than the usual traditional one that happened this year. Ozoro and indeed Isoko have credible sons and daughters in the marketing/communication ecosystem who could happily undertake this endeavour. Seasoned festival organisers should also be contracted to work out the intellectual aspect of the festival, so the right resource persons are invited to speak on various aspects of Ozoro and Isoko cultural history.
With Ozoro as the fastest growing town and the status of a city only inches away, Eri-Okpe Festival’s tourism ideals beyond a mere communal offering deserving global dimension has become imperative. Telecoms companies, the banks, and drinks’ companies should jump at the huge figures that Eri-Okpe Festival is capable of mobilising and delivering. The last feast provided enough marketing potential and testimonial. Eri-Okpe Festival is huge; it will serve no one any useful purpose to sell it short.