Singing, dancing and praying at the Osun-Osogbo festival
In this report, written in August 2011 and published now for the first time, ‘Fisayo Soyombo describes the spiritual and ecstatic atmosphere at the annual Osun-Osogbo Festival Grand Finale
Here comes Arugba, the virgin chosen by the Ifa oracle to carry the calabash for the grand finale of Osun Osogbo festival, holding on Thursday 26 August 2011 in the rustic (surprisingly so) city of Osogbo, the state capital.
“Osun yeye o,” the crowd, several hundreds of them, chants merrily.
Arugba staggers back and forth, steadily balancing her head on her legs and sauntering out of the palace of the Ataoja of Osogbo; a mob of anxious onlookers, stationed on the procession route as early as the first light of dawn, jostle among themselves, competing for vantage position as they cheer the virgin on.
“It’s her last time as Arugba. After the festival she will proceed to her husband’s house this evening, so she will be ineligible henceforth,” Saki says in an unmistakable Osogbo accent.
The day had begun with energetic merrymaking inside the sprawling palace of the traditional ruler of the town, the Ataoja. There were at least four spots where speakers boomed with varied genres of music — Afro-hiphop, R&B, Fuji — to an animated audience, majority of whom downed bottle after bottle of beer, smouldered and inhaled stacks of cigarettes and gobbled local dishes.
The compound is extremely busy. Women who were all gussied up in white attires of different styles hurried to, from and about the premises as they bring down the curtain on preparations. The king’s chamber also has considerable presence of young and elderly men, all wearing white. Irrespective of gender, those in white all plait their hair, with earpieces that pointed to the heavens in discrete protrusions.
The palace itself has the festival written all over it. Nearly all the buildings are covered with thatch. Their white, muddy walls, albeit painted, are decorated with culture and artful tradition — drawings of different colours, shades, shapes, and intensity that combined finely to give them a flattering silhouette.
At one corner of the compound sit a group of old women clad in green native apparel who watched proceedings with unmistakable self-assurance.
“All these women had been Arugba at some point in their lives when they were virgins,” Saki says. “Their calmness evinces knowledge of ongoing rituals.”. Saki knows nearly everything to do with this festival. Ostensibly in her late twenties, she’s lived in the palace since she was a teenager.
No sooner had Saki finished explaining than Arugba, clad in white with an Aso-Oke veil to match, appears, flanked by two women-in-white, one of whom spills the blood of a bird (I couldn’t determine which it was) and render brief incantations afterwards. The two women then lead her to an inner chamber where, according to Saki, she would be reinforced with power — mystical power.
The festival eventually begins when Arugba finally steps out, calabash on her head, swathed by tens of Osun adherents, to a cheering and surging crowd. Destination: the Grove, where Osun, the goddess of the famed River Osun, will be appeased.
They dance for minutes on the same spot, after which Iya Osun (Osun Mother) leads a round of prayers. The heaving crowd, in response, chant their individual wishes but collectively raise their two hands over their heads, simultaneously tapping the thumb against the middle finger to wish away all evil.
“Ore yeye o! Ore yeye o! Ore yeye o!” they chorus in unison and make for the palace’s exit, amidst efforts of security men struggling to prevent a stampede.
Just before the gate, flags of several countries – including Brazil, USA, South Africa and England – are flying at full mast, a testament to the international participants at the festival. As a matter of fact, some foreigners at the festival are dressed in all-white Osun attires. Some of them, Saki says, jet in from London every year, just for the festival. One of such international tourists is French tourist Cecile Remmy.
“I am here to enjoy myself and I am loving every minute of it,” she tells me, adding that she flew in from Paris.
The multitudes say one last prayer for Arugba before she departs.
“May the spirit of my late mother in heaven go with you,” an aged woman nearby cries, stomping her feet into the sandy ground and caressing her scalp with the five fingers of her right hand.
“May you go well and return so,” a guttural voice whispers from among a band of women behind where I’m standing.
The palace now behind, the procession enters into the waiting hands of series of groups who had lined up road shows in wait; they are singing, dancing and cheering. Every now and then, the Osun devotees guiding Arugba stop in their tracks to dance backwards, before again advancing.
Soon, it is another time for prayers.
“Please, fill the stomach of my enemies with water,” an elderly woman tottering along with the crowd begs of Osun. “Fill their stomach with water!”
The crowd trudges on, egged on by hundreds of fans mounting trees, sitting atop towering buildings and sprawling across high fences in yet another testimony to the rustic air of Osogbo.
Occasionally, Arugba and her supporting cluster of Osun aficionados abandon the main road for footpaths leading to private residences, where they wait for a while to dance and say prayers. They return to the main road to continue the journey.
After walking some 30 minutes, the chanting crowd descend to a depression in the road leading to the groove, already decorated with balloons, drapes, luxuriant stem cuttings and billboards of sponsors. The air around though reeks of alcohol and whiffs of cigarette, as hordes of animated young men had besieged the Grove ahead of the arrival of the contingent from the palace.
Once inside, Arugba and the throng of Osun adherents charge forward in a mad dash akin to sprinters aiming to breast the tape in record time at the Olympics. The run is repeated at least three other times. During one of the prayers to Osun, and following each run, an old man prays for healing to goitre that’s afflicted him for years. He is markedly emaciated; the bulge on his neck is quite visible.
Arugba empties the calabash on her head into the Osun River to a loud cheer and ovation from the crowd who believe the gods have accepted their sacrifice. They then enter a temple of sorts just beside the river where they take turns to make supplications to Osun inside small individual compartments.
By this time, Arugba, who is deemed to be oblivious of ongoing events while she bears the calabash, is in deep sleep. This is also the time when a flurry of activities hold concurrently at the riverside. There are those who say their prayers, while some wash their faces; others — the majority — scoop water into jerry cans of different sizes: 25 litres, 20 litres, 4 litres. These kegs travel as far as Lagos, Ogun, Oyo and even beyond the south western region of the country.
Semiu, a native of Osun who now resides in Lagos, says people like him will continue to travel long distances to attend the festival, because they grew up knowing it. “Yes, modernism has brought Christianity and Islam. But it doesn’t change the fact that we grew up knowing this festival. The Osun goddess answers prayers still.”
But it is not only Semiu who believes in the continued relevance of the festival. According to David Storer, a Spanish tourist, “the Osun-Osogbo festival is an ancient event that goes back 700 years or more, and it is a chance to see how Africa used to be.”
Of his overall impression, he says: “The festival is very fine and some of the sculptures in the shrine are very beautiful. Next year, I’d come back again, and I’d know more about this festival.” More Davids may be attending the festival in 2012. There is no mistaking the fact that Osun-Osogbo will always pull the crowds, thereby swelling the ranks of the angels-in-white who worship the goddess of the river.