Aspects of Urhobo Poetry by Chief D. A. Obiomah

Official Logo of Urhobo Historical Society

Fifth Annual Conference

October 29-31, 2004
Niger Delta Cultural Center, Agbarha-Otor, Nigeria

Being a paper presented at the Fifth Annual Conference on “Aspects of Urhobo Poetry” by Chief D. A. Obiomha at Niger Delta Cultural Centre, Agbarha – Otor, Nigeria.

Aspects of Urhobo Poetry

By Chief D. A. Obiomah

First on the Agenda of the preliminary programme of this year’s Conference was Urhobo Poetry, I pondered what this could mean. Now I have the signal honour of treating aspects of Urhobo Poetry as the last item of the Conference. It is my fervent hope that at the end of it all you will rise to go home in a cheerful, joyful mood. Urhobo Poetry, what is it? With this reaction I had forgotten that some nine years ago I made a collection of poems in three parts. Part one was devoted to Urhobo themes. But I had not thought that I was writing Urhobo Poetry, rather than just responding to my own whims even when transliteration was involved. What is Urhobo poetry?

By contrast English poetry has forms – the Ballad, Rondeau, the Ode, the Epic, the Sonnet with 14lines. There are the Couplets, Quatrains. There are specific patterns of rhyme. aa,bb,abab, blank verse etc. There are meters, which give particular rhythms. For instance, there is from Robert Browning the dactylic

‘’I sprang to the stirrup and Jorris and he

We galloped: Dirk galloped, we galloped all three

which is close to the anapestic beat in Lord Byron’s Destruction of Senacherib.

“The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold

And their cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold.” 

There are the distinctive iambic pentameters of Shakespeare:

‘’I come to bury Caesar not to praise him.‘’

‘’This is the noblest Roman of them all‘’

So, talking of Urhobo poetry, it is a different world. What do we mean?  We learn from R.B. Sheridan however that: <>‘’Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.’’  If Alfred Lord Tennyson could not attest to such happiness when he wrote In Memoriam or Break, Break, Break or Crossing the Bar, he could agree with Sheridan’s.

‘’Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.’’  <>It is on this footing that I intend to deal with Urhobo poetry.  The language of poetry is picturesque and captivating.

Western thought developed against the background of the culture of writing. It is recorded, systematized and developed. So we are left with such names as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Julius Caesar, Cicero, Bacon, Spinoza, Butler, Hume, Kant, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Erasmus, Loyola Tom Paine, Voltaire Robespeare, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Marx, Hegel, Rene Descartes, Jean Paul Satre, Bertrand Russell, the list is endless.  By contrast Urhobo thought exists but at random and orally. It may be gannered from folk tales, songs composed annually for festivals, personal names indicating beliefs and values with elements of the transcendent.  They have their own tales, beliefs imagery, resonance and elegance.  An Urhobo name is poetic.  An Urhobo name encapsulates an episode in the life of the giver of the name.  It is history in a word.  So names such as Atayerhinyo, Asamiderhi, Erhinyoja, Oghenetega Ogheneero, Onorioborunutakerhi.  Festivals have patron deities. Songs and dances to them have their particular drumbeats and rhythm.  They may be veiled attacks on unseemly situations and personal conduct like the press does as the fourth estate of the realm.

So for my pick of poems or what constitutes Urhobo poetry I propose to deal with, those that tell Urhobo thought to be found in songs, sayings, folk tales etc.  Urhobo set store by certain beliefs and issues. We believe in the supernatural, as well as an Almighty God as creator invoked for wellbeing, and as final judge.  ’’Only God‘’ ‘God’s case, no appeal’ the Shades of our ancestors, who supervise our lives, punish and reward.  We believe in honest labour represented by Obo, a wood carving representing the man’s right hand acknowledged with simple rituals in the morning as a man sets out to work. We believe in ethereal beings, Okrobogbowo, in goblins, Okuku. Other issues of daily life are:

Marriage and birth, and succession as celebrated with circumcision songs the lsiakene series.

Togetherness- captured in the song Kpe Orere, otu re edia obe oko

Festivals devoted to patron gods. 

We also believe in Rulership and modernity. <>Only recently the fact of our having 22 traditional rulers instead of just one was raised as a factor of supposed Urhobo disunity.

Let us now take four samples: from Urhobo poetry and thereafter cover as much ground as possible within the time available.

On our concept of Time and Creation

Oghwoghwo ghwoghwo, damu kere

Oghwoghwo ghwoghwo, damu kere

Urhe ovo re ohe ogo na, damukere

Oto je maa, damukere

Enu je maa, damukere

Me gbe cha me gbe muo, damukere

Me gbe ra me gbe muo, damukere

Oghwoghwo Oghwoghwo, damukere

Oghwoghwo, damukere

Rendered thus:

                Oghwoghwo Oghwoghwo the lengendary,

                Oghwoghwo Oghwoghwo wonder bird:
                In the void a lone tree

                        A magic trapeze,

Earth was not born,

A magic trapeze,

Nor yet the sky,

                One swaying trapeze

I’d soar aloft

                And back to it

I’d roam afar

                And again to it

Oghwoghwo preternatural

Ethereal bird of memory! <> 
The equivalent is the phoenix, “avis saecula saeculorum, the bird of eternal ages, there before creation of the earth and sky.

        This is followed by Kpo – Kpo – Kpo!

                Kpo – Kpo – Kpo

Amono she urhe vwe oboyi

Mevwe Eyayughe – o

Die wo vwe irhe ru?

Urhe me vwo kare odo

Die wo vwe odo ru?
        Odo mi vwo duvwu egu

Die wo vwe egu ru?
        Egu me vwo ghere emo

Die wo vwe emo ru?

Eme me yere akpo.

Die wo vwe akpo ru?

Akpor me vwo je – ghwu – o

Rendered thus:

                Chop chop chop

                Who’s chopping in the forest

                I’m Eyayughe

                What will you with wood?

                To carve a mortar

                What with a mortar?

                To pound my yam in

                Pounded yam for what?
                To feed my kids with

                Kids for what?

                To promote my life

                Life for what?

   To have succession, here and now forever and aye, till the end of time.  <>

This is followed by MAMAKO – a children’s game

Mamako mamako oweiya

Mamako mamako oweiya

                Oghene ‘Ghene djufiefie manijakpo ere

                Ore Mamako

                Te ona te ona ko vwa kere koriko didi <>                Ovwovwa

The actual articulation and meaning are lost in time to baby talk but interpreted by me from the general tenor and rendered thus to reflect a going cycle and innocence:

                Mamako mamako who are you?

                The Maker has said it you’re Eternity

                So mamako

                Be this or this, be that, anything created,

                You and me a ceaseless cycle

                So, so mamako.
The next portrays wrestling and prowess as a game.

                 Ore udu gbare

O se oma gbo


The gauntlet is thrown.  Who dares pick it up?  Ekpurekpuke, does


I’m a stuffed bag of charms

Who cares to challenge me,

I’ll down him in a trice!


                Omokegbe Okegbe

                Ogba igho re abo, Onyenye

                Ogba igho re awo, Onye-nye

                Ke idie wo rhi ru?

                Abo me rhi mu – o

                Mi sheri mi vre – o

Rendered as:

                Young Okegbe, Okegbe

                Cowrie bangles on his wrists

                Cowrie voodoo on his ankles

“What is it you would”?
“I’m a wrestler come

I’ll rise if I fall”.

Kind of defident, eh?  Not as confident as Ekpurekpuke.  Note that charms are a part of the power game and Ekpurekpuke is decked up.
<>We believe also in:

Minor, personal or group gods, Orha;

Witches and wizards; and ghosts,

Ethereal beings like Okrobogbowo, a half man, one leg, one arm

Reincarnation – Akpome re edefa, Eda, Ogbanje in Igbo, Abiku in Youruba.

Predestination – reflected in URHORO Throne of Providence, as depicted in Aga vie Urhobo biko, the plaint of the barren woman for a child. <> 
Since our children speak less and less of Urhobo language and live largely outside the environment of these beliefs, Urhobo Thought as history is dying or fading.  Here is a notion I have tried to express in various ways:

(a) Obaro obuko one cha.

(b) Amre obuko asa mre obaro – o.

(c) O
baro oye avwo vavwa asa re ugbo sheri te i.e. being ahead presumes a starting point behind.

Today was founded on yesterday, so yesterday is our foundation, which makes our appreciation and projection of ourselves inaccurate and incomplete if we do not know what yesterday was.  Much of Urhobo life was expressed in poetry and song as tradition.  Poetry is the index of the mind, the inner man.

That culture without poetry must be oppressively barren and stiff.  Poetry is like woman, the grace and pulp of things.  Our thoughts and ideals are embedded therein with economy.  Poetry concerns the subtle and dainty expression of life.  In form and comportment, it is refinement and it is pleasurable.  I first heard the music of Sam Cook in Kingston Jamaica.  His sonorous microphone voice coming from the distance sounded like a typical Urhobo man in 1950 who had sold his four kerosene tins of palm oil impaled on one only bicycle, riding home happily with money in his pocket, singing to the road.  Sam Cook must have been originally Urhobo to be such a musical embodiment of poetry, a lost poet to Urhobo-land.

TOGETHERNESS: Let us obtain relief from togetherness indicated in the old song mentioned earlier as well as Festivals when guests arrive from far and near, neighbours who have confined themselves to farm villages are teased to come to town.  Guests from neighbouring towns and villages are welcomed with the banter, ‘Vwana!

Omo oko ye na re wo ghwarhe na

Ke oye te we re besie we vwo kpo?

and the atmosphere is captured in my poem on Agbarha, Warri’ “Mothers” Day Festival.

For marriage let us take a tease and a serious joke:

                Ogomugoro, ogomugoro odia

                Omote te ose ane oye je re

                Ke ogomugoro odia <> 
We all know the tall ostrich.  The quip is that a maiden could be an ostrich in height and in the antomy dressed at circumcision if she fails to take the plunge and marry when she is due, hence suitors will cavil at her:

        Tall as an ostrich, Ogomugoro

        A tall old maiden grow;

        If a maiden ripens

        Will none of suitors

        She will an ostrich grow

                Grow an old maiden, grow and old maiden,

                A tall old maiden grow,

                If a maiden ripens,

Wooden to wooing,

She will an ostrich grow.

It will an ostrich, it will an ostrich,

It will an ostrich grow

If a maiden ripens

Wooden wooing

At circumcision

‘T will be an ostrich long.

Tall as an ostrich, tall as an ostrich

Will such a maiden grow,

Puberty reaches,

Motherhood passes

A cockerel she will grow.

My title for this poem is: Go Get Married.

Still for marriage let us take a serious joke: Imerime!

        Gbe roro gbe roro

        Imerime sodje

        Gbe roro, imerime sodje

        Mevwe ovo Ibaba vwie re

        Mevwe ovo Inene vwiere

        Baba vwe ovwe ke owho re Aka

        Owho re Aka nyo Urhobo – o

        Mevwe dede mi nyo Aka – a

        Ke mavo erue obori te ne

Imerime sodje

Rendered as:

                Here’s a tale, here’s a tale,

                An intriguing tale

                Here’s a tale

                An intriguing tale

                I’m my father’s only child

                I’m my mother’s only child

Father married me to an Edo

Edo man does not speak Urhobo

Neither do I any Edo

I am in for a dumb show!

Here’s a tale, here’s is a tale

An intriguing tale! <>In our peculiar circumstance today in which fewer and fewer of our children speak Urhobo as already noted, there is latent argument here for exogamy.

Next, His Royal Highness, what is the position of Traditional Rulers?

                Ovie me vwaare

                E – e – e me vwaare

                Ose re omo ghwu je omo vwo

                Oni re omo ghwu je omo vwo

                Arhove ughwu ehe obo we

                Ovie me vware owe

Rendered as:

                O king we venerate

                Take our reverence

                Father dies and orphans make

                Mother dies and orphans make

                Life you command we know

                Death you command we know

                O, King, we venerate

The King was almighty with power of life and death whereby orphans might be made.  This was the Traditional Ruler, although we agree with Acton power corrupts, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.  Like Louis XIV of France he could say, “cest moi le etat”, I am the State But today he contends with several levels of parallel authorities, Federal, State and even Local Government, his home ground.  This is modernity.  Things have changed, Still, both the Government and the general public accord him the prestine image of the highest and mightiest.  Officially, he is His Royal Highness, adulated by linguistic usage as His Royal Majesty, making him higher, as it were, than the Governor or Parliament as a constitutional monarch.

As style is the man (Buffon) so for the surrealist thought is the society.  It defines in aggregate the intrinsic quality of the society.  The Greeks and the Romans made sports part of their religious and secular lives and left the world the Latin quote “mens sana in corpore sano “ a healthy mind in a healthy body following which they also left us the Olympic Games. <>What much of Urhobo poetry recognises is that there is order and intimacy, labour and respect for life with transcendence in divinity.

But this order is at present in a flux.  As religion it is sneered at and despised through prejudice of foreign religions.  When we are in supposedly native attire the items are imported or products of foreign technology.  This Conference on Urhobo History and Culture has been and is being conducted and recorded in English.  Our dances and drumbeats were stigmatised as fetish or pagan with us consenting.  These have now been assimilated into the service of the new Faiths as panegerics to the same God said to have abhorred them.  The supreme irony is that those same Faithfuls dance with abandon to these rhythms, with the zeal and frenzy of King Solomon whose clothes dropped from him and he went on notwithstanding.  All in all the dilemma of Dilibe Oyeama’s book “Niger from Eton” is with us as elite yet only “developing”, as superior yet inferior.

Since the nationalities including Urhobo of necessity flow into the National mainstream to be carried along into citizenship and globalisation the initiative to play the role of the melting pot rests with Abuja.  How much re-orientation is coming from there?  It is the duty of the nationalities to put heat on our active minister Chikelu, no less than is importantly done, for instance, concerning Resource Control.  Urhobo have the opportunity to take the lead.  “Show the light,” as great Zik urged many years ago “and the people will find the way”.

Such is the paradox in which we are trapped and is in nowhere more typified than in the area of identity. <>Rudyard Kipling wrote the novel KIM set in colonial India.  Kim, a boy, was of mixed race, Irish father and Indian mother.  He was able to stall with the British (who were the colonial masters) and with Indians/Pakistanis, but was often caught in the race relations and complexities existing in the colony.  He was neither here nor there.  In the result he found himself asking, “Kim, Kim, Kim, who is Kim?”  Was he British among whom he was sort of accepted?  Still, was he, Kimbal Ohara, Irish, under British colonial rule, white, or was he Indian, therefore of lower class?  Such a mixed grill are we.  We need to consciously rise above it.  Can we?  How long  may it take and who should “show the light” for “the people to find the way?”

In looking backwards, it is useful to realise that we are swimming against this tide of multiple currents – the conflict of order and authority, the conflict of religion, the conflict of manners.

State rule is edging out prestine domestic rule under the Traditional Ruler.  The erstwhile devotee of traditional religion now shares his trust between the power of the voodoo herbalist and all – powerful blood of Jesus loud on the microphone till the early hours of the morning.

The BBC discomfits by harping not on female circumcision but opprobrious genital mutilation.  Once primitive and idolatrous drumbeats and worship now make enchanting, all – possessing holy gospel music for us.  Folk tales are out.  Television dominates, where the world is seen from our sitting rooms without flight tickets.

The cultural Osmosis is weighed against us.  Urhobo are the weaker element in the national cultural osmosis.  Go to any public function.  You will find Urhobo young men dressed like the Northerner, generally called Hausa, or the Southwesterner, the Yoruba.  What is more, no non-Urhobo man will be found in Urhobo attire.  Do we need to do anything to change the trends to cultivate our identity or let it slide purely by default?  The parts make the whole.  Can we afford to lose ourselves as a functional part of the whole?  Our thanks must go to the Founding Fathers of the Urhobo Historical Society for their vision.  We must show through knowledge and wit that we exist, that we are worthy, channeled into but not lost in the maze of the Nigerian mainstream referred to cynically as the mistake of 1914.  In every aspect of our lives subjected to the norms of the western world there is always an undercurrent of the conflict, of fusion, of leadership, elitism and identity.  An Uvwie song captures this mood in:

                This is the Whiteman’s era,

                If family bonds must break,

                So may they, keep away.

                Akpo ne ke akpoyibo

                Koro koro ateren ome ne

                Imirien fane efa o – e – e. <> 
As already noted, in looking backwards, it is imperative to be conscious that we are swimming against this tide of multiple, mutually parasitical currents – the conflict of order and authority, the conflict of religion, the conflict of manners.  Let us indicate our dilemma with Royal Exile.

Se me dje se me yan  (twice)

        Se me vwa Oba  vwe Usenu

        Ane oyibo mue Oba re Aka

        Echabo roye ivwerhe Oma

        Alegbe, se me dje, se me yan

Se vwa vwe Usenu.

Shall I run, shall I walk

I yet may spy him at Uselu

Shall I run shall I walk?

Will I glimpse him at Uselu?

                        The whiteman’s seized the Oba

                        On exile to Calabar

                        His forlorn court

                        Bemoan themselves

                        Shall I run, shall I walk

                        A nightmare, noonday dream of a tale. <> 
It is the unthinkable heralding the new day.

His majesty does not lay down the rule, cannot take the praise for its success nor justifiable rebuke and flack for its failure. Indeed what power or authority does he have other than respect drawn from primeval memory? What is his job description carrying requisite authority but a paradox of being and non-being, the totem of a dying age. We have changed but seem to have refused to accept the fact. Young men of the age range of 40 and 50 are state Governors, Local Government Council chairmen and corporate chief executives. What elbowroom is left for the Traditional Ruler to wield authority in step with these parallel authorities without coming into conflict with officialdom with modernity?  How much is he paid to reflect majesty? His lot is oto udo, leftovers.  He is the lone yeoman on the social scene Will the Traditional Ruler be able to perform his job, whatever that is, without losing his halo? Can he go into commerce without disdain? For the Traditional Ruler of the day it is as if the play is over; the dressing rooms are locked up and the cast cannot leave the stage for want of where to go. Should the Royal Fathers contemplate mass action who will be the arbitrator in the vexation of the crown of things?  It is as if the Supreme Court should go on strike.

The paradox is that more and more men of competence sign on to these rulership – with – no – rule positions.  Their only link to acientry is the parody of their distinctive dress form.  The plague is our unconsciousness of the forces contending for our being to be faced as a problem.  This plague is the acretion of incongruous and mutually parasitical cultures in conflict in our day to day life.  It is a problem of African societies, Urhobo not excepted.  We were Urhobo, become part Urhobo, part Nigerian, part citizens of globalisation, and truly neither of each of these formations at all.  We want to be ourselves as Urhobo.  We are Nigerian citizens enmeshed in constitutional modalities.  Nigeria is globalising, which means more admixture dictated from outside.

In the first place, who is a Nigerian?  He is a queer being who is a citizen but not an indigene. 

We are living in a virtual void like Oghwoghwo. Unity in a void? It is a contradiction in terms. We are faced by a dilemma of definition of identity and purpose. For Britain despite the tragedy of Charles I who was executed the focus and breath of life of the common weal is Royalty. For America needing to bind together the disparate nationalities of religious Pilgrim Fathers and thirteen colonies it was the democratic Every-man in the constitutional “All men are created equal.” For France despite Louis XIV guillotined it was again the democratic individual in liberte, egalite and fraternite. How do Urhobo answer to the UPU motto of Unity is strength?  The composite parts, down to the individual must be healthy.

The big question is if we have in this paper diagnosed a material ailment what is the cure? What scope exists to turn the tables when similar nationalities constituting Nigeria bear the same burden? What is the core, the essence of our being to absorb distracting modernity? The problems of Afenifere, Ohaneze, Arewa, stem from the truncation of traditional polities.  Can we blend old time tradition with modernity?  Let UHS take the lead on how to do this hand in glove with  Abuja.

Now for some banter with the teetotaler Palm Wine maker and thence to the festival.

Obregoro, mo ada udi -o–e-e 2ce

Ota re idono rho no

Obregore mo ada udi –o-e-e   <>
Rendered thus:

        Palmwine tapper, come,

        Have a drink

        O, wine – tapper, come

        Let’s drink

        Penury is a bane,

        Wine maker will you come have a drink

        Palmwine tapper, come

        Let’s drink

        A teetotaler you?

        Come on let’s drink <> 
We shall round off this portion with the festival piece captured in my own words to the mood at festivals, and captioned Mother’s Day.

        E-yoweyo je efe rhi tevwe

        Vwe emo rhe ovworho,

        Vwe igho je rhe ovworho

        E-yoweyo je efe rhi tevwe

<>Incidentally, social taboos are usually against women. This is one case in a million where the reverse is the case. It is men who must remain indoors on pain of sanctions by the Shades. The shades oversee our own world. But it is the women who invite them to the feast and dismiss them. Mothers’ Day goes like this:

1. It’s crack of dawn,
The owl has quit,
The men folk stay within their doors
But women out
The elderly lot,
Unseen and covered by the dark of dawn.
2. They place the rope – bound wraps,
of smouldered plantain leaf
From door to door in all the Town
You’ll discover when you wake
3. From end of Town
From street to street
To the other end
They invite the shades to Town
For the feast
4. The feast is ready
Now for care in the past one year
Dutiful thanks and offerings bring
To guardian dead
To all the gods
And to God the Lord
5. By noon they’ll sing
They’ll sing to the shades
They’ll sing to the gods
Hear them sing
“So be it, Fate of fortune upon us all
invoking blessings on the people
6. Fecund women
Harvest rich of men folks labours
Happy children,
Health to all,
Joy to all the land!!
7. Can you hear them sing?
Hear them sing!
Song of abundance
Amen, amen fate of fortune to all the land
8. The air is frisky
Children caper
Guests arriving
Jovial faces
Gay apparel
The breeze is spiced,
Seductive cuisine
Abundant fare
And jars of wine
9. Kigum, kigum
Keekoto keekoto
Call the drums
Grone-grone ganigan-digan
Flourish of ringing bells
From the waists of maidens!
10. Kigum, kigum,
Keekoto keekoto ken
Joyful people
Frenzied dancing
Happy people
Amen, amen fate of fortune upon the land

We of Agbarha, Warri are calling out to the visiting, international members of U.H.S.

Ovwa na

Ememu yena wo ghwa na

Koye te we re besie wo owo kpo?

Udio mo ada

Amo da udi, mo a da udi

Udio mo ada!

Vwa na omo oko yena wo ghwa re na

Koye te we owo dia besie wo owo kpo

Ho-o-o- udi o mo ada

 Udi – o mo ada

 Amo rhe da udi (2ce)

 Udi – o ovwa da

 Udio mo a daudi

 Udi o mo a da

        Here are the drinks,come drink

        Come on and drink, come on and drink

        Here is your booze come drink

        O help yourself, help yourself

        Here the drinks, come drink

        Here the drinks, come drink

        Udi o mo a da

        Udi o mo a da!

Radio cassette of Agbarha Idjui drum. You know that; don’t you? The grand spectacle known as Agbassa Juju. We have the best Idju in the World.

Your Excellency, my Lords Spiritual and temporal, your Royal highnesses, Chiefs, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I hope that true to sheridan’s dictum I have endeavored to show that Urhobo Poet, like any others, does lift the veil from the hidden beauty of the (Urhobo) world making familiar objects be as if they were not familiar. I further hope that I have put you in a cheerful mood as you rise to go home, and to think that the effort of Urhobo Historical Society is as well worth the trouble you have taken to come here.

From me copious thanks. This is the Fifth Annual Conference of UHS. There will be yet another day. Join us, be our guest, support the cause.

Thank you, and good night.


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