By Tolu Ogunlesi
(first appeared in The Lagos Review in August 2009)
It’s not every day a convoy of 18-seater buses massed on the outskirts of Lagos – leaving the city – makes you pause and wonder. But when the buses are all carrying banners reading “Oodua Peoples’ Congress”, you become wary and ask questions. A fellow passenger in the Ibadan-bound cab suggests they might be thugs interested in the Senatorial elections scheduled for the coming Saturday in Ekiti State. Then someone else says, in Yoruba – “They might be going to Osun. That’s where the source of their power lies.” The second person is right. About the destination, at least.
I arrive Oshogbo about 8am on Friday 14th August (2009). The cab driver drops me off where I can get a motorbike to the festival. “Tell them you’re going to ojubo,” he says. “It can’t be more than fifty naira!” It turns out to be more than fifty naira. Twice that, actually. Perhaps the okada rider has seen through my hurriedly assumed air of knowledge; my backpack and camera case have convinced him I am an ‘outsider.’
A policeman stops us at a gate. I disembark, and join the throng of people walking, unhurried. My mind is working furiously, mapping the landscape, wondering at what point I can start to take photos. No one else seems to be clutching a camera, and I can’t seem to spot any of the white tourists who are supposed to be a major feature of the Festival. I’m wondering if taking photos is permitted. So, my camera stays in my bag. My eyes have to do the job until further notice.
It’s some distance to the river bank. An untarred road, lined in parts on both sides by stone images. It is dimly lit in places, the sunlight filtered by rich green foliage overhead. People are rushing up to a woman clad in white, to be blessed by her. She is praying for them, this time next year they will come to the festival in their own cars. Osun is the Yoruba goddess of Wealth and Fertility. Elsewhere another woman is asking people to “donate to Ogun.” “Ogun will not use your blood to take his bath,” she prays. It is my first lesson in the tolerant nature of traditional religion – Ogun devotees enjoying free rein at a festival in honour of Osun. Down by the river bank there is a mass of devotees; filling plastic containers with water, having their fortune told, washing their heads and faces in the river, or just loitering around.
And then there are the business-persons – a sizeable number of hawkers offering everything from kolanuts to ice-cream, from bottles of miniature-sized gin to empty plastic bottles. Like most religious festivals it is as much about commerce as it is about religion. For every gathering of people beneath open heavens, there are those who show up with open hearts, and those content to show up with nothing more than open pockets. The fortune-tellers bite and spit or throw kolanuts onto the ground, and then speak into the outstretched hands of curious, eager supplicants. I busy myself taking photos. The policemen look bored, there is not much for them to do.
By the time the Governor of Osun State, Olagunsoye Oyinlola arrives at about half past ten, there is not much free ground left. The jostling starts to get more insistent, I can no longer enjoy the access I had to the riverside two hours ago. Things get worse very soon. Gani Adams, National Coordinator of the O.P.C arrives with an intimidating posse of bodyguards, who form an oversized human chain around him. He goes first to the river to pay homage.
We are all awaiting her. The votary maiden, Arugba Osun, virgin Bearer of Osun’s Calabash. A descendant of the first Ataoja of Oshogbo (tradition insists she has to be), she has been specially chosen to carry the “ritual Calabash” from the Ataoja’s Palace to the Sacred Grove. It is a lengthy procession, preceding her are a number of maidens carrying carved images (idols), and behind her, at the tail of the procession, is the Ataoja himself, flanked by his wives. The crowd goes into a frenzy. I take photos blindly, shooting away in the hope that I will capture something memorable.
Every day is for the Thief
I suddenly decide I have seen enough. It is time to return to Lagos. I’m grateful that the contents of my pockets are still intact – my money, my phones…
I should be grateful. On my return journey, to where I will get a bike to the Mr. Biggs outlet in town, I come across a mob, trying to lynch two men accused of stealing mobile phones. The men scream their innocence.
At last there is work for the policemen to do.
See photos of this 2009 trip here
See an account (with photos) of my second trip, on Saturday January 5, 2013, here