Osokia'a: A Rare Glimpse into Ejiyan-Ekiti’s Festival of Fire and Prayer
It’s the second Friday in July and Ejiyan-Ekiti (SW Nigeria) is preparing for the annual Osokia’a Festival. The festival is a big deal among the indigenes but is hardly known to many outside the immediate vicinity of the town. As has been the tradition in this part of the country for many years, the Osokia’a marks the end of the current year and the start of a new one.
“It is a period when we pray for the wellbeing of our children,” says HRM Oba Olukayode Kupolokun, the Obalaaye of Ejiyan. “Even when they are sick, on hearing the drumbeats during the celebration they spring up to their feet, healed.”
The festival lasts four days—one night and three afternoons—beginning with an early morning ritual on Day One: the king’s messengers (Ajise) take a cloth (Aso Egun, concealed in a wide-rimmed bowl) to the river to be washed and dried. It is a short walk from the palace and a purely symbolic activity as the messengers return from the river in a matter of minutes, the town’s youths behind them; as the Ajises march back through the main road, the elderly among the onlookers chant praises in their honour.
“After this, then we all prepare for the main event at night, which is the fire-lighting (Ale Itana) ceremony,” says Pa Ajibade Ogundele, an elder in the community, after the messengers walk past in a single file, headed to the palace. “It is a glittering display, one not to be missed.”
Alive and alight
For a better part of the day, Ejinyan-Ekiti feels like a ghost town; except for a few motorists and passersby, the roads are deserted. The early morning downpour which lasted till past noon must have kept most of the people indoors. And the market that should be busy on a ‘market day’ such as this is all but full, so buying and selling is minimal. But by 6 pm, the scenery changes: teenagers, youngsters and the older members of the town pour onto the streets and troop to Isiro, the stony, rugged arena located on a hilly side street reserved for the anticipated fire-night.
The king and his chiefs, dressed in the most colourful of ceremonial attires, lead a jubilant procession, dancing and paying homage to traditional landmarks on their way, one of which is a bungalow that once served as palace for five previous kings, whose collective reign totals more than 100 years. The throne of Oba Kupolokun, installed in June 2006, is in a different building, a walking distance away (The old palace now serves as a town hall).
Soon the entourage reaches the head of the high street and the royal entourage takes their respective positions. And as darkness descends everyone begins to light up their sticks (Sugudu), running up and down the street countless times. By nightfall what was a crowded—though mellow—street moments ago is transformed into a vista of multiple moving fires, big and small, under the dark sky, the setting appearing almost like a scene from Jesus of Nazareth movie.
“It is fun and interesting,” says a thrilled 17-year-old Tosin, an indigene who has witnessed the festival for three consecutive years and is attending this time with a friend, a male corps member. “I feel nothing but joy being here tonight.”
At this point, the Osokia’a masquerade, the centre of attraction for the evening, is already circling the arena—the highlight of the festival— with dozens of youths in tow. Standing at about 5ft, his white dress is given a golden sheen by the balls of fire that trail him.
“You have not even seen anything yet,” Tosin says, just before she disappears into the crowd. “Wait till you see what happens tomorrow. The masquerade will wear a different costume and he is going to display even more than what you have seen here tonight.”
At about 5 pm the following day, the Osokia’s masquerade emerges from its traditional home across the road from the old palace, covered up in a flamboyant dress with tassels all over it. The king and his chiefs are also brilliantly dressed. Residents crowd the vicinity as the procession, like yesterday, heads to Isiro with a long bout dancing and drumming. Everyone is evidently merry, from the young ones to the elderly.
“Culture transcends age,” says home boy Niyi Ogundele, between clicks of his camera shutter. “Just look at the sheer number of youths here. I can tell you that our culture is not in danger of dying. The torch bearers in the future are already very much involved.”
I smile and nod in agreement. Everyone is trying to stay in a vantage position to be able to catch the displays, with their eyes and with their smart phones. I scan the field and see countless smiling faces and my eyes rest, for the umpteenth time, on High Chief Olufunke Adeyemi (JP), the Eyejumu of Ejiyan, who I notice has been dancing non-stop. By virtue of her title, she is the ‘mother’ of the king and, by extension, the mother of all sons and daughters of the land.
“Honestly, I lack the words to describe my happiness today,” she says, horse-whip in hand. “I am so excited. My heart is full of joy and I’m sure you can see it on my face. This is the time for the barren to pray for children, a time for all of us to pray for blessing, for progress and for our respective families. When we do this, we look forward to our prayers being answered before the festival comes again next year.”
As the festival winds down few hours later, the Osokia’a masquerade retires to its abode, the royal entourage and the people marching with him. This time around, the songs on everyone’s lips are of praises and thanksgiving.
“Osokia’a has led his children to this year’s outing and is returning home with all of them in one piece,” goes the lyric of one.
A second one goes: “Everything we have seen with our eyes today, we shall gladly report them to our household when we get back home. May the almighty preserve us till the next one.” By Pelu Awofeso