Urhobo Community as Unity of Two Worlds

Urhobo Historical Society

Urhobo Community as Unity of Two Worlds

By Ochuko Tonukari

The idea of community and humane living are highly cherished values of Urhobo traditional life. This statement remains true in spite of the apparent disarray in the experience of modern politics and brutal internecine strife in certain parts of Urhoboland. For traditional Urhobo, the community is basically sacred, rather than secular, and surrounded by several religious forms and symbols. A visitor to Urhoboland is soon struck by the frequent use of the first person plural Avware, Orhavware (we, ours) in everyday speech. In modern Urhobo towns, primary community loyalties of one’s extended family and village continue to exert their hold over people who live away from the communities of their home-towns. People generally return to their villages from their residence in the cities from time to time to join members of their village community to celebrate important traditional rituals and cultural events like initiation, title-taking or festival. From their residence in urban cities, they send substantial financial contributions to their rural home communities to support various development projects like provision of electricity and pipe-borne water, building of educational institutions and scholarship awards, funds to send young men and women on further studies in foreign countries or in one’s own country.

Primary communities based on clan equally abound in many modern Urhobo towns. Analysts point out that these are often, for people who are detached from the communities of their home-towns, “surrogate for the extended family or the community of village neighbors.”  Elder Ovedje’s observation  underscores the important belief and sense of the community among traditional Urhobos. In traditional Urhoboland, the individual does not and cannot exist alone except co-corporately. He owes his existence to other people, including those of past generations and his contemporaries. Whatever happens to the individual is believed to happen to the whole group, and whatever happens to the whole group happens to the individual. The individual can only say: “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” This is a cardinal point in the understanding of the Urhobo view of man.

This treatise discusses the religious dimension of community in the traditional Urhobo background. Several myths relate the founding of community as well as shed light on certain symbol objects and forms that feature prominently in the ritual network of Urhobo people. I will try to show how such relevant ritual forms and symbols are employed by the Urhobos to enhance the ideal of community. I shall also be interested in finding out how certain punitive sacred sanctions like ostracisation, help to curb deviance, and indirectly advance the cause of harmonious communal life. I propose to conclude the paper by examining the phenomenon and impact of radical social change on the role of traditional Urhobo Religion in promoting the community ideal in contemporary Urhobo society.

Traditional Urhobo people share the basic instinct of gregariousness with the rest of human-kind. Families and members of kin-groups, from minimal to maximal lineages, generally live together and form a community.  The Urhobo share life intensely in common. There are communal farmland, streams, barns, and markets. There are also communal shrines, squares, masquerades, ritual objects and festivals for recreational activity, social, economic and religious purposes. Members of the same kindred or clan could distinguish themselves by their proficiency in a particular trade, skill or profession. Some traditional Urhobo communities may be experts in rain-making, weaving, wood carving, practice of traditional medicine, hunting or fishing.  These and similar features characterize the communal life of traditional Urhobo society. Closeness to nature, the experience of life in terribly hazardous environment, and the crucial need for security and better performance in means of livelihood are some relevant factors that combine to deepen the natural impulse for gregariousness and sense of community among Urhobo people.

For traditional Urhobo, community is much more than simply a social grouping of people bound together by reasons of natural origin and/or deep common interests and values. It is both a society as well as a unity of the visible and invisible worlds; the world of the physically living on the one hand, and the world of the ancestors, divinities and souls of children yet to be born to individual kin-groups. In a wider sense, Urhobo traditional community comprehends the totality of the world of its experience including the physical environment, as well as all spirit beings acknowledged by a given group.

The network of relationships among human beings are remarkably extended and deep. In fact, the words ‘family’, ‘brother’, or ‘sister’, etc. define far more for Urhobo people than what they mean today for the average European or North American. The family for the traditional Urhobo usually includes one’s direct parents, grand and great grand parents, brothers, sisters, uncles, and aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews. And normally, a child would refer to any of his uncles or aunts as his father or mother, his nephews and nieces as his/her brothers and sisters. People generally do not ask a child his/her personal name. Rather, a child is identified as a child of so-and-so parents. The extended family system is the model. The molecular family pattern is alien and believed to be inimical to the traditional value of community. Actually, it is only in recent times that the latter system began to surface mainly in urban towns as a result of external influences. The extended family structure is held up to people as model, one in which parents, grand-parents, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces live together and are cared for by their children, grand-children and other relatives in mutual love and respect.

The invisible members of the extended family, especially ancestors and spiritual beings, are powerful and by far superior to human beings. Their reality and presence in the community are duly acknowledged and honoured among various people in Urhobo traditional society. Neglect could spell disaster for human beings and the community. The invisible beings are represented by different kinds of symbols like carved objects, shrines and sacred altars. They may also be recalled in personal names given to children, especially in cases where particular ancestors or spirit beings are held to have reincarnated in individual children. The presence of the ancestors is particularly felt in traditional Urhobo community. They are believed to be benevolent and powerful representatives of the community in the subterranean world of ‘erivwin‘ (underworld). Their symbols and shrines are common features among most traditional Urhobo people. For example, women within the child-bearing age are bound to observe several prohibitions. Such women run a serious risk of becoming childless if they flout such taboos, since it could result in scaring away of souls of unborn babies that are believed to hover around homesteads and families wanting to incarnate in wombs of potential mothers.

Most traditional African groups, including the traditional Yoruba of Nigeria and the Dogon of Mali, have intriguing sacred stories or myths that tell how the world, human beings and important institutions came into being. Such sacred stories generally also underscore the involvement of ancestors and mythical beings in the life and affairs of the community of the physically living. They also try to explain the significance of different rituals for human beings and their important life-interests.

Members of traditional Urhobo society, like their counterparts in other parts of Nigeria, are acutely aware of the distinction between the physically living (men and women of flesh and blood who constitute the actual visible community), and ancestral spirits and other supersensible beings who belong to the invisible order. It would be wrong, therefore, to conclude from the foregoing explanation of the myth, that the people were incapable of rational thinking, but possessed what Levy Bruhl referred to as ‘primitive mentality’ which was characterised by mystical participation.

The idea and structure of human society for traditional Urhobo are essentially part of a world-view that is fundamentally wholistic, sacred and highly integrated. Human community, therefore, has its full meaning and significance within the transcendental centre of ultimate meaning. Hence, the belief in ancestors and the supernatural order, in addition to its inherent religious import, provides traditional Urhobo society a useful over-arching system that helps people to organize reality and impose divine authority and sanction to their life.

It is an essential article of belief in Urhobo traditional Religion that a fundamental delicate balance and equilibrium exist in the universe, between the visible world and the invisible one. The Creator, Oghene, created everything that exists and set everything in its place. Traditional Urhobo basically view the universe as comprising basically two realms; the visible and the invisible realms. They grasp the cosmos as a three-tiered structure, consisting of the heaven above, the physical world and the world beneath. Each of these is inhabited by different categories of beings. The Creator and a host of spirit beings, including arch- divinities, inhabit the heaven above; other divinities, ancestors, and myriads of unnamed spirits dwell in the world beneath; while human beings occupy the physical earth. Human beings may be less powerful, but their world is the centre and the focus of attention. It belongs to human beings as sensible beings to maintain the delicate balance in the universe. This is what assures the happiness and prosperity of individuals and the community.

Harmonious living is clearly a pivotal value. Urhobo traditional religion, which I would prefer to refer to as the womb of the people’s culture, plays a key role in the realization of this all-important value among traditional Urhobo people. Religion is central in the promotion and realization of harmonious inter-relationship among individuals and the community. In the traditional Urhobo background, religion is a most important aspect of life. It pervades and permeates all aspects of life and infuses the social, economic, and political dimensions with meaning and significance. But there are some more striking avenues through which the traditional religion helps the community to realize the community ideal of harmonious living. They include transmission of certain key religious ideas and beliefs, initiation practices, ritual activities, sacred symbol forms and vital public institutions. I  shall discuss these, one after the other.

i. Belief in Ancestors: The belief in ancestors is an important element of Urhobo traditional religion. This belief occupies an important place in the understanding of the role of traditional religion in inculcating the ideal of harmonious living among Urhobo people. One needs however, to know the content of the belief to be better able to appreciate how it helps the people to realize the community ideal of harmonious living.

The ancestors, or the living-dead, as John Mbiti refers to them, are believed to be disembodied spirits of people who lived upright lives here on earth, died ‘good’ and natural death, that is at ripe old age, and received the acknowledged funeral rites. They could be men or women. But more often than not, male ancestors are prominent since patrilineage is the dominant system of family and social integration in traditional  Urhobo society. With the completion of prescribed funeral rites, a deceased person is believed to transform into an ancestor. The funeral rites in this case, serve as some kind of ‘rites de passage’. The disembodied spirit joins the esteemed ranks of fully achieved ancestors in the spirit world.

The strong belief in ancestors is not restricted to Urhobo people alone. For instance, among the Akan of Ghana, as part of the coronation ceremony of a new king, the candidate carves a traditional stool for himself which he uses as personal stool while he is alive. When he dies, he is placed on the stool and bathed before his burial. The stool is then blackened and kept at the shrine of his ancestral spirit. Each lineage has a chapel of blackened stools which is the shrine of its ancestors. The Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, Thonga, and Shona among other South African peoples have their respective ancestral symbols and shrines. The Igbo of South-east Nigeria have their Okpensi and Ofo as well as sacred altars for the ancestors.

Traditional Urhobos hold the ancestors as the closest link the physically living have with the spirit world. “The living-dead are bilingual; they speak the language of men, with whom they lived until ‘recently’, and they speak the language of the spirits and of God …They are the ‘spirits’ with which Urhobo people are most concerned: it is through the living-dead that the spirit world becomes personal to men. They are still part of their human families, and people have personal memories of them. Urhobo strongly believe that the ancestors are essentially benevolent spirits. They return to their human families from time to time and share meals with them, however, symbolically. They know and have interest in what is going on in their families.

For Urhobo people, there are the belief and ideas about ancestors being able to form an essential part of the effort to inculcate, mobilize and promote the community ideal of harmonious living in the society. As benevolent spiritual guardians of their respective families and communities, ancestors are believed to reincarnate in new-born babies in the community. A child is named after the ancestor that is believed to have reincarnated in the life of that child. Special attention and favours are bestowed to such a child as a mark of respect to the ancestor. Family elders make regular offerings of gifts, food and drinks to the ancestors. The Urhobo male elder does not normally eat or drink without first offering some portion on the ground, or at the shrine or symbol of the ancestors.

Again, this situation is not limited to the Urhobo people alone. The Mende of Sierra Leone avails of the staple food item of rice, and water for their offering to ancestral spirits. Among the Akan, the lineage head offers food and drinks to the ancestors at appropriate times. The Adae rites which take place every twenty-one days and the annual Odwera festival are high points of the Akan worship of ancestral spirits. Furthermore, ancestors are generally held to be the custodians of the land on which their children live. They are guardians of family affairs, customs, traditions and ethical norms. Offence in these matters is ultimately an offence against the forefathers who in that capacity act as invisible police of the families and communities (E.Ikenga-Metuh 1987; 149). Ancestors are thought to mete quick and severe punishment on people who disregard the hallowed traditions of the community, or infringe taboos and norms of acceptable behaviour in society. Urhobo people, therefore, try to strictly observe such taboos and norms, thereby ensuring peace and harmony in their relationship with one another, with ancestors and other supernatural beings.

From early childhood through adolescence to full adulthood, the traditional Urhobo citizen is formed to hold tenaciously to the belief in the ancestors, to reverence them as powerful and benevolent members of the community, although not in a physical but rather mystical sense. Ancestors are held up as models to be copied in the effort to strictly adhere, preserve and transmit the traditions and norms of the community. The average Urhobo man is psychologically fully equipped and motivated to promote the delicate balance and equilibrium that is believed to exist in the universe through ensuring harmony in his relationship with the invisible world and among members of his immediate surrounding.

ii. Libation :A libation quite simply is a form of prayer used in traditional Urhobo life. Unlike Western prayers, where the eyes are closed, libations are done with eyes open to see what gods or ancestors have brought. Performed at significant events, such as the birth of a child, a harvest or a wedding, libation comes from the same cultural wellspring that gave Christians Communion. As a sacred communal ritual, it helps to bind families and communities with everything that lives and everything that ever lived. It is also an act of remembrance to keep families linked to their familial legacy and to prevent them from becoming isolated and adrift in society.

Like the wine in Christian Communion, liquids are often used in libation; some will include water, as a symbol of the continuity of life, and some may use palm wine or oil, a household staple in Urhoboland. Others may use coconut milk, a liquid that many consider a symbol of the mysteries in life. Other communities may use beer, gin, schnapps, or other alcoholic beverages as a symbol of the ancestral spirits.

There is a hierarchy to pouring libations that is strictly followed in Urhobo communities. The libation closely follows the family lineage and in many cases, it is a recitation of a couple’s links to each family member, living, dead and unborn. Libations can be simple expressions of good wishes, or complicated choreopoems with refrains of call and response. In Urhobo society, every adult is expected to be able to call up the appropriate words at appropriate moments. It may be performed by the eldest family member or by a respected family member or friend. Instruments such as bells, drums, or horns may accompany the officiant. Repetition helps to reinforce sentiments and the mood. This wish is typical: “May the spirits on high, as well as the spirits below, fill you with grace.”

A libation can be one of the most dramatic parts of a marriage celebration. It may be done at the ceremony and again at the reception. It is meaningful and colorful, and offers a moment to pause and reflect on the importance of family. It is an important act of remembrance that helps young people to reclaim their family heritage.

Because it is prayer, it can evoke powerful emotions and feelings of good wishes. It also offers a way to highlight both families’ ties to one another. The libation can be a way of elevating the event and involving guests and family members in a personal way. And for anyone who has lost a parent or other family member, it can be a moment of emotional reconciliation and celebration.

A libation, like a prayer, starts with an invocation to invite everyone to participate. It is followed by an introduction where ancestors, elders and family members may be named. The supplication asks God for good wishes. The conclusion ends the libation by thanking everyone for participating. It also sends the spirits home.

This libation details the importance of immortality. We call upon our own name seven times so one day we may be immortalized in the memory of our children as our ancestors are now. We invite God to look down upon his children as they gather for a day of honor, rejoicing, and remembrance. We ask for your blessing of power and unity. We honor our ancestors and ask that those who have a foot in both worlds carry our blessing to God so that he may hear our entreaties. We lift our voices to all whose bravery, blessings, perseverance, and deeds served to uplift and strengthen these families. We lift our voices to unite these two families. We lift our voices to banish ill will. We lift our voices to bring peace. And when the celebration draws to a close, we wish everyone to leave more blessed than when they came.

iii. Initiation Rituals: Rites marking the transition of individuals and groups from one significant stage of life to another abound in traditional Urhobo societies. Similar rites are also found in several parts of the world outside Africa. But, as Ikenga-Metuh rightly points out, rites of passage tend to reach their maximal expression in small-scale, relatively stable societies like those of Africa, that are cyclically-oriented in their pattern of time-reckoning, societies where change is bound up with biological and meteorological rhythms and reoccurrences rather than with technological innovations (E.Ikenga-Metuh 1987;197). Initiation rites have far-reaching implications for the life of individuals and the community at large. They involve different aspects of life, including the psychological, social, economic and political. The religious dimension is clearly important as traditional Urhobo society relies on the supernatural power and divine authority of ancestors and other spiritual patrons to validate their worthwhile activities and to ensure the lasting success of their initiation events.

Prior to the introduction of Western-type schools, initiation rituals provided a most effective avenue for socialization and transmission of key beliefs, ideas and values of the community to successive generations. Against the background of the oral culture of traditional Urhobo society, people relied on such oral media as speech-forms, dramatic performances, and ritual symbolic forms to communicate their important ideas, beliefs and values to members of the community. The awe and mystery that often characterised the initiation ceremonies prove particularly favourable for the successful communication of the accumulated wisdom of the people, including the ideal of harmonious co-existence in the community.

Masquerades and several ancestral symbols feature prominently in traditional Urhobo initiations. Such is the case also for example, with initiation into the Poro for young men and even Sande for young girls in Liberia, as well as the Ima Muo for young adolescent men among the Igbo. Roy Sieber was able to arrive at the conclusion following his study of the Poro that the masquerades are symbols of the spiritual forces that validate the acts and the precepts of the elders. They serve as the visible expression of a spiritual force or authority that validates the basic beliefs of a society, and reinforce acceptable social modes of conduct and symbolize the spiritual authority that eradicates social evils.

iv. Dominant Ritual Symbols: Traditional Urhobo also preserve and express the ideal of harmonious community-living through their dominant ritual symbols. In an effort to ensure that this, and other important values relating to their survival, are well preserved and successfully transmitted to successive generations, in the absence of developed culture of literacy, traditional Urhobo avail of different kinds of oral means and media to encode and communicate their important cultural values over and over again. Repetition is, no doubt, a typical feature of oral cultures around the world. Traditional Urhobo rely on speech-forms such as myths, proverbs, wise sayings and songs, as well as art-forms like sculpture, dance, ritual objects, etc to preserve and impress their key beliefs, ideas and values in the minds of successive generations of society. Dominant ritual objects are particularly relevant because of their tremendous potential as effective means of communication in the oral cultural background and their prominence in the socio-cultural and religious dynamics of life of traditional Urhobo people. They encapsulate and express for traditional Urhobos vital information relating to their different areas of awareness; the intuitive, physical, aesthetic, social and normative.

v. Important Traditional Institutions: Traditional Urhobo people also possess important sacred institutions with significant religious dimension that equally further the community ideal. They include sacred kingship institution, public shrines and sacred groves, divination and masquerades. Each one of them generally implies important religious beliefs, supernatural power and authority, and serves as a vital channel for inculcating and promoting the ideal of harmonious living in society by the people. For traditional groups that have sacred kings, such kings are not simply political heads, they are more importantly sacred personages. They posess spiritual and mystical powers which enable them to confer benefits on their people. In most cases, they are regarded as descendants or incarnations of divine beings, a mythical ancestor, or divinity.

Public shrines and masquerades are some other important sacred institutions which contribute significantly in promoting the sense of community. Shrines are often located in large public squares. They serve multi purposes for traditional Urhobos. The shrines are specifically for religious worship. The adjoining open space is for meetings, economic transaction, for staging of festivals and other public performances. Symbolically, shrines and adjoining public squares signify for traditional Urhobo the mystical meeting-point or communion of the invisible world of spiritual beings and the visible world of human members of the community. People usually take turns in keeping them clean. Such places are surrounded by all kinds of prohibitions and taboos. As sacred place, they inspire awe and elicit reverence because of what they stand for.

Masquerades are highly symbolic public institution and performance among traditional Urhobo people. There are mainly two types; a class belonging to youths and adolescent children that serve largely for purposes of entertainment, and the serious masks belonging to different senior age grades. Urhobo masquerades are generally public performance troupes that evoke a wide variety of significant ideas and values concerning the social, occupational, political and religious aspects of life of the people.

Masquerades are rich in their meaning-content. Udi refers to them as “the Dead among the Living”, while Okereka suggests the title of “Gods As Police Men”. Masquerades, no doubt relate to several important areas of life of the people of Urhobo. Masks usually identify and represent the respective social units; villages or age sets in the community. They were associated closely with the occupational pursuits of the people, as well as their socio-political structure. Primarily, masquerades are thought of by Urhobo as powerful sacred symbols. They represent lineage ancestors and serve as the visible expression of the spiritual force and authority believed to validate the basic beliefs and values of society. They also serve to reinforce social modes of conduct and symbolize the spiritual authority that eradicates social evils. As a sacred symbol with a rich religious significance, they contribute considerably to bind people together, to sustain and foster the people’s sense of interdependence.

IV. Other Ways Of Enhancing The Community Ideal : The afore-mentioned media do not exhaust the many and varied oral means through which traditional Urhobo people try to communicate and enhance the important value of harmonious community-living. As already stated, repetition is a characteristic feature of oral cultures, including those of other traditional Nigeria groups. People encode and communicate their cherished value of peaceful interrelationship in prayer, personal and titular names, wise sayings, as well as in the code of conduct.

i. Direct Speech-forms; Recorded oral materials, including prayers, personal and titular names of traditional Urhobo culture contain a lot of references to the theme of social harmony. Naming ceremonies are important events among traditional Urhobo people. In many places in Urhoboland, it is the prerogative of lineage elders to give personal names to the children born to the different families in the kindred. The elders usually try to convey significant life-experiences of parents, or community as well as their important aspirations in the names they give to babies during the naming ceremony. Similarly at initiation into important title positions, candidates take title and praise names which refer to important values in the community, or attributes for which the candidate has become distinguished in society.

Apparently the names may seem not to have much to do with religion. But, they certainly do. The context in which the names are given is clearly religious. Naming ceremony and initiation always take place within the context of ritual performances. The giving of a name is usually the climax and conclusion of the ritual event. Religious beliefs and ideas are implied in peoples’ names among traditional Urhobo people. Most traditional Urhobo names are meaningful and symbolic. Many of them imply values that relate to and enhance community consciousness in traditional Urhobo society.

Traditional prayers equally play an important role in the promotion of the sense of community. Most traditional prayers are intensely communitarian in content and orientation. Whether offered by the individual elder in front of his family shrine, or by a priest or other ritual experts in public shrines, Urhobo prayers contain a lot of references to the community. The elder in most traditional Urhobo communities begins the day by offering prayers and supplications for himself, members of the kindred and the entire community. He would pray to the ancestors, divinities and other spiritual beings for his health, that of his family, for progress of members of the lineage, both the young and the old, for peace and harmony, for protection from the attack of evil forces, sorcerers and witches, and finally for the elimination of his enemies and evil doers in the community.

The transliterated text of a prayer from the late Elder Ekeke of Isiokolo recounted by Popor, his son, makes a good illustration:

 O my ancestors, A wild dog can never lie near a wolf’s den;
You have now finished eating. I offer you an imported drink;
It is gin. Please receive it for all members of the lineage,
Here is the drink we have brewed ourselves; It is corn beer. Receive this one also.
May you be as a powerful medicine to protect the entire lineage. May we all be in good health always, All our children too.
All our customs which are going to the Europeans,
May they understand them well.
They should take good care of the black people….
Look! Prayers offered for one’s in-laws should not become ineffective.
No ! Never!
Here is gin; Here also is water.
Help us to succeed when we use your nets;
Your coconut plantation too must be fruitful,
To provide a means of livelihood for us;
May trouble be far from us. May poverty be far from us;
May sickness be far from us; May death be far from us.
Give us plenty of wealth; Give us plenty of children;
Just as we have also given you,
May you too give us even more abundantly.

As typical oral (rather than formalized) texts, Urhobo traditional prayers are very contextual. They fiercely reflect the concrete needs, aspirations, values and relevant life-situation of people making the intercession. The above prayer of the late elder Ekeke is a good example of Urhobo people’s keen interest and concern for both the needs of individual and the general well-being of the entire community. The individual’s need for protection, good health and material wealth has its full meaning within the context of the need of the entire community for overall well-being. Hence, the above elder does not focus simply on the individual as such. He asks for the health of the entire lineage (which in this case includes the kindred of his relations through marriage, his in-laws), for the well-being of the black people, for prosperity in the means of livelihood (coconut plantation, success in fishing) and for a large community with an abundance of children.

ii. Normative Standards of Behaviour: The area of morality is yet another relevant avenue through which traditional Urhobo try to socialise people and reinforce in them the important idea and value of harmonious community-living. Every social group evolves its distinct ethical code. Every society has its norms of acceptable behaviour, taboos and prohibitions. Many traditional Urhobo people have in addition, motivational features and incentives through which compliance to the norms of approved behaviour and social ideals are encouraged. There are equally rituals of purification, as well as punitive measures that try to deter and curb the tendency to deviate.

Religion may be distinct and separate from morality, as many scholars have rightly argued. For traditional Urhobo, however, the line dividing the two is very thin indeed. Urhobo traditional religion plays a crucial role in the ethical dynamics of the different levels. In the traditional Urhobo background, ‘gods serve as police men’. Urhobo traditional world-views invariably outline a vision of reality that is, at once ethical in content and orientation. Human beings and their world are the focal centre of a highly integrated universe. Hence, traditional Urhobo world-views have been described by some people, as heavily anthropocentric. Human conduct is seen as a key in upholding the delicate balance believed to exist between the visible world and the invisible one.

There are norms and taboos that try to address the need of the individual human person for security of life and property. For example, most traditional Urhobo communities have stiff penalties for willful murder of a person, not an enemy at war, including bringing about the death of a foetus. Any one guilty of murder, would be required to repair the crime usually by providing another human being to the family of the person killed, a person relatively close in age to the deceased. The offender would then be bound to take his/her own life through public hanging. There are also severe penalties for willfully damaging people’s crops, economic trees, and animals.

The vast majority of norms, taboos and prohibitions are directed towards protecting the community and promoting peace and harmony. Communal farmland, economic interests like the market-place, stream, or shrine are generally surrounded with taboos, including who may or may not enter, and when and under what circumstances people are permitted or not to enter such places. Stealing is abhorred. It is in fact, an abomination to steal things relating to people’s vital life-interests and occupation, like cassava crop or stealing fish held in a trap laid by someone in a stream or river. There are also special restrictions and norms regulating the behaviour of people towards public functionaries like lineage heads, the king or queen, traditional priests, diviners and medicine-practitioners. Such persons are generally regarded as specially sacred, and representative of the community. Their residence is equally sacred.

Traditional Urhobo people believe that spiritual beings, especially ancestral spirits, guarantee and legitimate the ethical code. Urhobo traditional elders visibly demonstrate this by striking their powerful lineage ritual symbol on the ground to mark the promulgation of a law or a taboo. And they invoke severe divine sanction on any one who would try to oppose or disobey a promulgated law or norm of morality. People, no doubt, acknowledge the social basis of ethical norms. Fines may be imposed or material reparation demanded. But they seriously reinforce the norms with the supernatural authority and sanction of invisible beings. As such, agents of divinities, including traditional priests, and more frequently special masks representing individual deities or ancestral spirits, participate actively in the execution of communal law and morality in many traditional Urhobo communities; they impose sanctions and take active part in the recovery of fines imposed on defaulters. Serious criminals are not simply regarded as anti-social persons; they are sorcerers, witches and wizards. People protect themselves against their nefarious activities through different kinds of ritual practices including offering ritual sacrifice, making and wearing of charms and amulets.

For most Urhobo people, ostracizing an individual or group that has fragrantly disobeyed the community is thought to be the most severe punishment that could be meted out to any body. It feels like death for any one so punished since such a person is regarded as an outcast. He (or she) would not be allowed to share in the life of the community. There would be no visits to the family, no exchange of greetings, no one would sell or buy from members of the affected family. So severe is the punishment of ostracisation, that every member of the community highly dreads it, and would do every thing possible to avoid it. It does, on the other hand, show the kind of tremendous power of the community in traditional Urhobo background.

In cases of abomination, grave offence or defilement against the community like murder, incest, etc., the moral pollution has to be cleansed or expiated by special ritual experts in order to appease spiritual beings and ancestors who are believed to have been also offended. Until the expiation is done, the entire community (and not only the individuals directly involved), stood a real and imminent danger of suffering a disaster. The serious moral breach has destabilized the fundamental peace, balance and harmony that should prevail between the visible world of humans and invisible world of spiritual beings and forces. The affected community could, therefore, expect severe punishment from the supernatural custodians and guarantors of morality. Urhobo traditional religion clearly plays a distinctive role as the ultimate source of supernatural power and authority that sanction and reinforce public morality. It is pressed into full service to maintain social order, peace and harmony. Traditional Urhobo society believes that success in life; including the gift of off-spring, wealth and prosperity, are all blessings from the gods and ancestors. They accrue to people who work hard, and who strictly adhere to the customs, and traditional norms of morality of the community, people who strictly uphold the community ideal of harmonious living. Only such people could entertain a real hope of achieving the highly esteemed status of ancestorhood in the hereafter.

V. Conclusion; The Factor Of Radical Change In Urhobo Society: Prior to the advent and spread of external forces of change engendered by colonialism, commerce and Christian missionary campaigns, most Urhobo people lived in stable, largely small-scale and homogeneous communities. The traditional religion was ‘a typical religion of structure’. It was the sole world-view with which Urhobo people explained, predicted and controlled space-time events. It underpinned every facet of life of the people. It was particularly significant in inculcating and promoting the sense of community-living and certain key values associated with that. Urhobo traditional religion suffused and gave meaning to life, pervaded and permeated all its aspects.

What one of the pioneer colonial officials, who lived and worked in the Niger Delta from 1895 to 1905 witnessed, is typical of the situation that prevailed throughout Urhoboland:

“…They are, in the strict and natural sense of the word, a truly and a deeply religious people, of whom it can be said, as it has been said of the Hindus, that “they eat religiously, drink religiously, bathe religiously, dress religiously, and sin religiously”.In a few words, the religion of these natives, as I have endeavoured to point out, is their existence, and their existence is their religion”. (A.G. Leonard 1968; 409)

The situation has changed radically nowadays. The experience of colonialism and Christian missionary activity have given rise to a radically different socio-political and religious background in Urhoboland. Colonialism created a new social and political order. It created modern beliefs and value systems by pulling together traditional groups with diverse language and cultural identities. A lot of things hitherto unknown came into existence as a result of the colonial enterprise. Most communities are no longer homogeneous. They are heterogeneous and plural in virtually every aspect of their life. A wedge has been driven between the sacred and the so-called secular aspects of life.

While it is true that traditional religion still has considerable influence in the life and culture of many Urhobo people, it no longer enjoys exclusive dominance and control over the life of the vast majority of the population. Civil society now prevails. There are civil governments, civil law, agencies of government responsible for law and order, Western-type schools for formal education and socialization. Above all, the belief in one and only God is now the existing order in Urhobo nation, Christianity having emerged as the dominant faith. The law of diminishing returns has since befallen UrhoboTraditional Religion. Roles in society are now much more specialized and differentiated unlike what is obtained in the traditional background. Life is parcelled out into specific departments and different needs are catered for by distinct units in the civil society.

The prevailing radical social change has far-reaching implications for the ideal of community-living in contemporary Urhobo society. On the one hand, the world-view with which people explain and control reality is no longer the traditional one which is religion-dominated. Certain traditional Urhobo beliefs, customs and practices associated with the idea and promotion of community-living have been outlawed. They were considered either too cruel, or simply opposed to the aims of colonial administration and/or Christian missionaries. For example, polygamy, which has as its major objective to produce many children and thereby increase the size of the community as much as possible, is in serious decline in many parts of modern Urhoboland. This is as a result of the combination of several factors, including Christian missionary preaching against it, better health-care services, and changing economic circumstances. The traditional belief in ancestors and other spiritual patrons, as well as the vital role they were believed to play in fostering community-living, have been seriously relativised in most contemporary Urhobo communities. Masquerades are not part of the apparatus of modern state administration. And schools have largely displaced traditional initiations as the main channel for formal education and socialization of youths.

Community-living on the other hand, remains a cherished value among traditional Urhobo people. The dramatic changes in the socio-political and religious aspects of life bring considerable pressure on the people’s sense of community. With the progressive relativisation of the traditional religion, the traditional role of the latter in inculcating and promoting harmony and peaceful co-existence become more and more diminished. The profound sense of the sacred and feeling of awe which the traditional religion brought to life in general and different institutions in traditional communities have become greatly circumscribed. The ability of Urhobo Traditional Religion to promote the community ideal of peaceful and harmonious co-existence in contemporary Urhobo communities is in a state of progressive decline. The trend is much more noticeable in the urban areas like Warri, Ughelli and Sapele than in rural towns and villages. The rate of displacement of the traditional religion by the forces of radical social change in Urhoboland is generally slower in rural areas than in urban cities.

Urhobo communities are visibly in a state of transition, a stage of betwixt and between, with the attendant anxiety, tension and confusion being felt at virtually every facet of life of the people.  The destabilization of Traditional Religion has clearly left wide gaps in the social structure, particularly in the bonds of interpersonal and inter-group relationships.  Fortunately, the forces that precipitate and sustain radical change in the Urhobo nation, including Western culture and socio-political systems, now largely provide new framework and elements for community-living and harmony in most communities in Urhoboland.


·       Interview with elder Ejegedivo Udi, a local historian, aged 88 years at Isiokolo. 18th June, 2005.

·       Interview with Elder Ekuke, aged 80 years at Isiokolo. 20 May, 2003.

·       Interview with Pa Ovedje, a hunter, aged 80 years at Isiokolo. 12th January, 2006.

·       Interview with Anthony Ujaw, a herbalist, aged 87 years at Erhon Abraka. 14th April, 2000.

Selected References

1.    N.S. Booth (ed.) African Religion, A Symposium (New York; NOK Publishers, 1977)

2. C.I. Ejizu, OFO, Igbo Ritual Symbol (Enugu; Fourth Dimension Publishers Ltd. 1986)

3. A. Ekwunife, Consecration In Igbo Traditional Religion (Enugu; SNAAP Press, 1990)

4. E.Ikenga-Metuh, God And Man In African Religion (London; Geoffrey Chapman, 1981)

5 —- Comparative Studies Of African Traditional Religion (Onitsha; Imico Publishers, 1987)

6. J.S. Mbiti, African Religion And Philosophy (London; Heinemann, 1990 ed.)

7. C. Gaba, Scriptures Of An African People; The Sacred Utterances Of The Anlo (New York; NOK Publishers, 1973)

8. A.G. Leonard, The Lower Niger And Its Tribes (London; 1905, Frank Cass, 1968 edition)

9. B. Ray, African Religion, Symbol, Ritual And Community (New Jersey; Prentice-Hall, 1976)

10. A. Shorter, African Christian Theology (London; Geoffrey Chapman, 1975).


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