Cultural revival through Oluwo Festival on the Agbaja plateau

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By Denja Abdullahi

Oluwo masquerade entertaining dignitaries including Festival Consultant Mallam Denja Abdullahi (secomd right) at the festival ground in Agbaja

THE sleepy town of Agbaja, the spiritual and administrative headquarter of the Oworo people, located along the eastern and western banks of the Niger-Benue Confluence and on the plateau off Lokoja, the capital of Kogi State, came alive on Saturday, May 14, 2022, with the celebration of Oluwo Festival after the last one was held 23 years ago in 1999.
Oluwo is a triennial (celebrated after every three years) festival of the Oworo ethnic group, found in Lokoja Local Government Area of Kogi State. In ancient times, Oluwo Festival was celebrated by the people of Agbaja every three years to appeal to the god of the earth for bountiful harvest before the commencement of every planting season. Observance of the festival commences with the performances of some rites at the sacred site connected to the festival, which is a tunnel of about two kilometres long, located in Agbaja upland that leads to the valley below. The tunnel is called Olu-Iho (King of Tunnel) from which the name of the festival ‘Oluwo’ is derived from. The festival has grown since ancient times to involve all the towns and villages of the Oworo people, who operated a kind of confederacy during the pre-colonial period till the present time, though the ethnic group now has a paramount ruler designated Olu of Oworo.
The 2022 edition of Oluwo Festival which came after such a long time, occasioned by the death of the paramount ruler in 2002 when the follow up festival to the one in 1999 should have held, followed by a period of political interregnum in the land which was without a paramount chief for a length of time, social upheaval and economic downturn, came as a welcome development for Oworo people. The festival itself has grown to be the unifying point of cultural convergence of Oworo people in their harmonious internal diversity with the strains of origins and influences that make up the people. During the festival, all the villages and towns that make up the people converged at Agbaja with their songs, dances, and masquerades in various forms of cultural display. These consist of those from Murtala Mohammed Bridge in Jamata up till after the famous cement town of Obajana at Oshokoshoko (bordering Bunu people in Oweland of Kabba Local Government Area) to the upland area around Agbaja plateau.
The highpoint of Oluwo Festival is always the masquerade displays by the various villages that make up the ethnic group. The Oworo are rich in the art of making masquerades with very colourful masquerades adept in the art of entertaining the ecstatic audience with nimble dance moves, acrobatics, dramatic gestures and magical displays. The Oworo have about six unique masquerades in variations (Iyenigbo, Agila, Ohuna, Ehingabo, Naroko and Ileyo). There is another masquerade that is invisible; it is called Abure, who actually announces the celebration of the festival seven days to its commencement and plays a prominent role in safeguarding law and order among communities in Oworo.
The masquerades that performed a Oluwo Festival 2022 did not disappoint in their famous role as the epicentre of every festival celebration. They displayed spectacularly to the frenzied inspirational chanting of women and girls. The women and girls’ chants (Ye ye ye ye) to accompany the dancing masquerades is stylized, high octane and appears unique to the Oworo. In other places, women flee on sighting masquerades. In Oworoland, masquerade displays without the spectre of women and girls performing their traditional chanting would be lacklustre. At Oluwo Festival 2022, it was a herculean task controlling the chanting women and girls who connected in a sublime and liminal manner to the performing masquerades.
The District Head of Agbaja, Alhaji Abubakr Isa Alugbere, who stood in for the paramount ruler of Oworoland, the Olu of Oworo, Mallam Muhammed Adoga Baiyerohi (Agbosi II), Chairman of Festival Organising Committee, Chief (Engr.) Yahaya Adoga Umar, Chairman of the Occasion, Dr. Onimode Bandele and Festival Consultant, Mallam Denja Abdullahi, were all unanimous in their speeches at the occasion on the need to sustain the celebration of Oluwo Festival, as it embodies the unique history and culture of the Oworo people. They also emphasised the unifying factor of the festival and its potential, as a rallying point for the general development of Oworoland. They also did not fail to note that the festival should be extended with new and modern events that will call attention to the boundless tourist attractions on the Agbaja plateau and surrounding valleys that are rich in agricultural and solid mineral resources waiting to be tapped and invested in.
Dignitaries from all walks of life such as the House of Representatives member representing Lokoja/Kotonkarfe Federal Constituency, Hon. Shaba Ibarhim, representative of Senator Smart Adeyemi, representative of Lokoja Local Government Area Chairman, traditional rulers and chiefs across Oworo land and other neighbouring communities were present to witness the revival of Oluwo Festival that also featured the launching of a publication The Oluwo Festival: An Overview, written by Umar.
From all indications and judging from the excitement Oluwo Festival 2022 generated, especially after the 23 years’ hiatus, everyone is looking forward to a bigger, better and much improved celebration of the festival in 2025.

* Abdullahi is a UNESCO-certified cultural expert and festival consultant for Oluwo Festival 2022

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