|Urhobo Historical Society|
|THE LIFE AND WORK OF AGORI IWE|
FIRST BISHOP OF BENIN DIOCESE
Sam U. Erivwo, Ph.D.
|Originally Published in 1998 |
Reproduced in URHOBO WAADO by kind permission of Professor Sam U. Erivwo
AGORI IWE: EARLY LIFE
At the time Agori was born Christianity was just beginning to penetrate Urhoboland. His parents, like the majority of the Urhobo, were ardent adherents of the traditional religion. As it was usual with adherents of traditional religion to consult the oracle (epha) in respect of almost any undertaking, epha was consulted to ascertain how best to preserve the life of Agori and ensure his growth to maturity. Agori, so the oracle declared, must not stay in his father’s compound if he was to grow to mature manhood. Given this warning and directive, the parents removed Agori even in his tender age, from Okuama to Alagbabri to stay with his maternal uncle, Meaghri.
Perhaps the point should be made that in life generally, and among the Urhobo people in particular, the first male child owaran, who if the father were a king, would be the heir apparent, was usually not expected to live in the same compound with the father. In certain cases, he was not even expected to see the father. The idea seemed to be as a result of natural jealousy that may, and did often, arise on the part of the heir apparent, who might desire the death of the father, so that he could ascend the throne. The biblical example of Absalom who plotted against his father, David, and attempted to unseat him is a case in point.
This natural tendency and sociological factor, coupled with the fact that there was a high rate of infant mortality, especially of male children, among Africans at the time, seemed to justify the decision not to allow Agori to stay in the father’s compound. It is against this soci-religious background that the oracle’s declaration that the child be not allowed to stay in his father’s compound, if he must live, should be understood and appreciated.
Agori was therefore taken to Alagbabri to stay with the maternal uncle. His stay at Alagbabri was however short, because it was marred by the ill-treatment given to him by Omata, the uncle wife. Fearing that the child, given the harsh ill-treatment at that tender age, might not still survive, the parents reluctantly brought him back to Okuama: a situation which recalls on people’s saying “obo re adje ra ughe; ohwo mre ughwu dje ne uwevwi, o vwo te obe a da ughwu shokoro herhe:! – where one ran to, na wa o! a person escaped from home (fearing death), only to find death squatting and awaiting him where he ran to.
The boy Agori was still at this time under ten. The parents were between Scylla and Charybdis. It was a predicament for which they could not find an easy solution. The father, had, in desperation, to consult the oracle again. It declared that if Agori must live in Okuama and survive, then his father must not step into Agori’s mother’s house where the boy would stay. For, the moment he did so the boy would die.
As was pointed out earlier on, the parents of Agori were ardent adherents of Urhobo traditional religion. It was obvious then that these restrictions were being imposed by the efjo [divinity, deity, god] whose adherents the parents were. If Iwe was not expected to step into the house where his son, Agori, was, then it meant that any transaction between Emedaka, Agori’s mother, with her husband, has to take place in the husband’s house. This was easy since in the traditional Urhobo set up, a man had his own house separate from the apartments of his wives, who visited him in rotation to sleep whenever it was each wife’s turn to do so.
Iwe resolved to obey the dictates of the oracle, since it was clearly the wish of his tutelary divinity. Such restrictions were in fact characteristic of edjo in Urhoboland, and, as we pointed out in an earlier work, the restrictions or tabu, were largely Urhoboland. There were many items of food prohibited by edjo for their adherents. Also, a woman who was having her menstrual period was not expected to sleep in the house, but was to be outside for the period, hence the expression “O rue otafe” “She went outside”, used to refer to women who were having their periods. As among the Hebrews in Old Testament times, she was regarded as unclean during that period, and so would have nothing to do with her husband. She could not even cook any food for the husband to eat during the period. Since social intercourse between wives and their husbands was kept to the barest minimum, it would not have been too difficult for Agori’s father to obey the dictates of the oracle. Only those who embraced Christianity when it came to Urhoboland, defied the many restrictions and tabu of edjo with impunity.
Thus, in order that Agori might survive, he stayed with his mother, and never stepped into his father’s house, neither did the father visit Agori’s mother, in her apartment. This state of life continued for a while. But just at this time, Christianity came to Okuama as it was spreading to other Urhobo towns. Many adherents of the traditional religion who felt that they were being oppressed by the edjo embraced the new faith, and as many as did so were usually liberated from the shackles of edjo.
When the church came to Okuama, the whole of Iwe’s family, that is, his wives [there were five of them], and their children joined the church. This was the Niger Delta Pastorate Church, a brand of the Anglican Church, which was, in the early years of the twentieth century, spreading like harmattan fire in the Niger Delta region. Significantly, although Iwe’s wives and children embraced the Christian faith, Iwe himself did not; a thing which brought its own repercussion later.
Those who embraced Christianity, were according to the faith, covered by the blood of Jesus: over them divinities and spirits have no power. Indeed, when the latter see the cross of Jesus, they take to their heels, which is part of the meaning of Fr. E.I. Ikengah Metuh’s book: The Gods in Retreat.
But if the divinity in Iwe’s family contemplated retreating when his wives and children embraced Christianity, it staged a come-back, and successfully did so because Iwe himself refused to embrace Christianity.
On an occasion Mr. Iwe felled a tree and was carving a canoe out of it. In the process of his arduous task a piece of the wood flew and hit his eye. What appeared to fist to be a minor injury, became very serious later. They eye was sore and badly swollen. The oracle had again to be consulted to find out what the matter was. The oracle declared that Iwe’s tutelary divinity [edjo] was responsible for the injury. The divinity was no longer finding it convenient to continue to dwell in the compound because all the members of Iwe’s family had embraced Christianity. Iwe was directed by the edjo to either withdraw his wives and children from the Church or be read to go blind. He therefore decided to withdraw his family members from membership of the Church. Thereafter, his eye was immediately healed.
There were however some members of the family who, having been enlightened and having tasted the heavenly gift and become partakers of the Holy Spirit and having tasted the goodness of the word of God, refused to desert the Church and commit apostasy. Agori was in this category. He and his half Brother, Osiobe, and his first cousin, Ebrimoni, refused to return to the traditional religion with all its limitations. That refusal also meant that they could not continue to live in Iwe’s compound. The three of them went to Warri to meet an Uncle, Mr. Okoro Emephron, an Okuama man who had been working at Warri.
The three – Agori, Osiobe and Ebrimoni – lived with Okoro at Warri and attended a free pre-primary school. At the end of the free pre-primary school course, Mr. Okoro arranged for them to attend the primary school which was fee-paying. This arrangement was necessary because all the three boys did very well at the preparatory school. At this stage Mr. Okoro had to contact the parents of Agori for their consent and for the necessary financial support; which the parents readily gave.
However, Onojiroroeji [Onojeje for short], the wife of Mr. Okoro, like Omata at Alagbabri, maltreated the three boys. In order that the boys might not be frustrated from their studies, Mr. Okoro took a necessary step to circumvent the maltreatment,. He rented a house for the boys in Warri, and bought cutlasses and axes for them so that they could stay on their own, do a few odd jobs like fetching of firewood for sales etc., to eke out a living while pursuing their studies at the St. Andrew’s Primary School [now Omowoe Primary School] Warri. Of the three boys, Osiobe who could not endure all the hardship involved in the arrangement, deserted the group and returned to Okuama. But Agori and Ebrimoni stayed and successfully completed their primary school education at Warri at the end of 1922. The saying is indeed true:
|The heights that great men reached and kept Were not attained by a sudden flight But they while their companions slept Kept toiling all the night.|
Agori’s road to greatness was far from smooth. There may be men who were born great, as William Shakespeare observed, and others who had greatness thrust upon them. But the vast majority of great men in history were those who through dint of hard labour achieved greatness themselves. Agori is to be numbered among those who achieved greatness.
Agori completed his primary school at St. Andrew’s C.M.S. School, Warri, in 1922, and was appointed a pupil teacher in the same school in 1923. In 1924, Agori had the rare privilege of being selected by the Church for training at St. Andrew’s college, Oya. The Church wanted to send a bright candidate for training, one who on completion of the course, would return to congregations, planted allover Urhoboland. In the inteview that was conducted, Agori proved to be the brightest, doing better even than some those who had taught him at the primary school in Warri. He was then sent to Oyo where he studied from 1924 till December 1927. At Oyo, he did a double course and qualified, both as a Grade II Teacher and as a Catechist.
The experience of travelling from Warri to Oyo in the 1920’s was of course vastly different from our experience today. there were no major roads such as we have now, but tracks. Thus, having travelled from Warri to Oyo for his studies, chances of Agori coming home for holidays were non existent. For the four years he pursued his studies at Oyo, he never came home, because he could not. Since he could not come home, Agoir had a very tough time at Oyo. He had little or no means of livelihood there. His uncle, Mr. Okoro, was also uable to send him money from Warri. Agori’s only choice was to depend on friends and live on charity; and he had good and reliable friends in Mr. S.O. Akinluyi, and Mr. S.P. Oloyede, his classmates at Oyo. They both usually gave Agori part of the food and provisions sent to them by their people from Ora land.
Since Agori had no money sent to him from home, each time they had chapel services and the collection plate was passed on to his place he simply nodded, and the plate was passed on from him. In course of time staff of the college who became aware of Agori’s pathetic position contacted Mrs. Bowel in England, to arrange for financial help for him at Oyo.
A number of Agori’s classmates and school mates resented doing menial jobs, like washing plates: some were in fact dismissed from the college because of refusal to do menial jobs. But Agori was glad to do all sorts of menial jobs, provided he was able to complete his course at Oyo. On one occasion when the students of the college rioted on account of bad food, Agori refused to participate in the riot, saying that he was not sent all the way from Urhoboland to Oyo in Yorubaland to eat food, but to be trained as a Church worker. There were even those who wanted to lure him to take up secular jobs, like accepting, a Government appointment after training at Oyo, but in vain. He knew and resolved ab initio that his whole life was to be devoted to the service of the master, and refused to be enticed from that path by allurements and offer of better paid jobs in the Government. In taking this resolution, Agori acted in line with the mind of his uncle, Mr. Okoro who desired from the beginning that Agori should be trained as a Church worker. Having accepted the call, Agori never set his mind on any other goal all his life, but remained constant as the Northern star: he was faithful unto death, knowing the seriousness of our Lord’s logion:
|“No one who puts his hands to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” Lk 9:62.|