Agricultural Rituals in Eleme
The people of Eleme have through the centuries lived by farming, fishing, and hunting. These activities are carried out based on their beliefs and perceptions of life. In the course of the people’s existence, many rituals have also evolved to cover all these means of livelihoods, incorporating beliefs and values they attach to these activities and the right procedures or behavior necessary for attainment of abundance and wealth. So many subsections were also added to achieve bumper harvest, success in hunting and fishing among others. These include rain making, ash ritual, growing rituals, harvest festivals, and communal feasts. These activities have also produced reverend priests, notable rainmakers, celebrated farmers and fishermen and women, including notable yam title holders and celebrated wealthy women (Ԑmεrε Owa).
Importance of Agricultural Rituals
Agricultural Rituals are one of the oldest and most celebrated forms of rituals in Eleme. Agricultural rituals are used for the following:
1. To pay gratitude to the deities and ancestors.
2. To solicit for improved crops and animals.
3. To ask for the control of drought and famine.
4. To pray for spiritual and physical blessings and prosperity of family members.
5. To build bridge of unity, brotherly love and trust.
6. To garner favour with deities and ancestral spirits.
7. To communicate with the family deities and ancestral spirits.
Significance of Nsi Eji
Each extended family known as Oˈe owns a hall and maintains a shrine sets aside for these rituals. This shrine or hall or designated place is called Nsi Eji, and it is spread across Eleme. It is a thing of pride that your family owns its Nsi Eji.
Nsi Eji signifies the following:
1. A place of Spiritual Fix.
2. A place for meeting needs.
3. A place of real presence of the gods and ancestral spirits.
4. A center of communication with the deities and spirits.
5. A place for family communion.
6. A rally point or melting pot of the family.
7. Nsi Eji is also a family mustard point in emergency.
The benefits derivable from possession of Nsi Eji are so much that no family wants to be left out. A family without Nsi Eji attaches itself to the one that has so as to have an Altar on which to offer sacrifices to their deities and ancestors. A family without Nsi Eji in Eleme is not only baseless and rootless family, but is also regarded as assembly of mere strangers or aliens. Perhaps, this account for the reason every family in Eleme endeavors to create its own Nsi Eji, irrespective of individual religious belief and social status.
Types of Agricultural Rituals
Agricultural rituals such as Agba Nkiken, Agba Etenchi, Owara Ebibi, Ajija, Agba Esu, Otebe Enu and Ogbo Nja provide the platforms for family to pay gratitude to the gods and ancestral spirits, individuals to make new friends, promote communal feedings and visitations. Agricultural rituals bring together communities and peoples and provide an opportunity for them to gather in order to celebrate the harvest or to prepare for the growing season.
As pointed out earlier, the basic aim of agricultural ritual is to garner favour of the deities and ancestral spirits. This is done by forming of a bond between the person(s) performing the ritual and the deity or spirit; communication with deities and other spirits is an essential part of the rituals.
Animal sacrifice based on ancient myths is usually an integral part of agricultural rituals in Eleme. The people of Eleme believe that sacrifice is part of the cycle of life which contains death and rebirth or sacrifice and renewal. The belief that Nnanīi, the Sun god sacrificed his energy through marriage to Nkikε, the Earth goddess thus ensuring crop growth is wide spread among the people.
The lunar calendar plays a significant role in hunting, fishing and growing seasons. These rituals are cycle rituals linked with the changing of the seasons and times going by agricultural festivals where people gather to plan and chart on the calendar future rituals.
Many agricultural rituals are designed to invoke the deities and the ancestors and are very complex. Agba Nkikε is celebrated annually on Ochu within the second week of March in honour of Nkikε, the Earth goddess to mark the beginning of the growing (planting) season.
Five days thereafter, precisely on the next Ochu another related ceremony called Agba Etenchi is marked to inform the people of the commencement of the year’s farming season.
NOTE: It is only the Oku Nkpͻrͻ and Oku Nyͻa (group of initiated elders) that participate in these two rituals.
The clearing and burning of bush for planting in Eleme is followed by a ritual known as Owara Ebibi (Ash Ritual). This ritual is performed to improve harvest, and to urge the gods and ancestral spirits to bring about a successful farming season. Agbonchia is the only community in Eleme that still observes this activity.
A special sacrifice is usually offered to Ajija, a deity in charge of food production to cleanse the land and appease the ancestors whenever an unmarried girl becomes pregnant in the community.
Ajija forbids an unmarried pregnant girl going to farm or any public place in that state. Apart from preventing other maidens in the community getting pregnant and committing abortions, it cleanses the land, guarantees bumper harvests and blesses the people.
Ajija also prohibits sex in the farm. Violation desecrates the farmland with severe consequences including rendering the land barren/unproductive, inflicting the people with poverty, failure, and difficulties in their individual endeavours.
There are two sections to Ajija ritual – Ojuri Ajija and Ͻlͻ Ajija.
The anger of Ajija extends the punishment to the entire community – both male and female. In spite of widespread Christianity, industrialization, and in-depth penetration of Western Civilizations into Eleme Ajija rituals are still observed in all the villages and towns of Eleme.
Agba Esuu is an annual new yam festival. Agba Esu is celebrated in October every year (when it is believed that the gods and ancestors have entered the community from their spiritual abode) to express gratitude to them. The belief that the ancestors should first be presented early harvest before people start eating the yams is rooted in the people’s culture. Apart from the yams, other ingredients of the sacrifice are big dried fish (Ete Njira), fowl or goat and condiments with which the sacrifice is offered to the ancestors.
Because the Agba Esu sacrifice is offered to ancestral spirits, only men whose fathers have died are qualified to sponsor the sacrifice. It is also believed that where a qualified person fails to render the Agba Esu ritual either due neglect or rebellion, his father’s spirit will starve while others enjoy. It is also believed that such a person will sooner or later incur the wrath of the ancestors and will not enjoy their protection and blessings.
Elaborate rituals are also performed with the first harvest. The feast is known as Otεbε Enu and is celebrated annually in October (Ͻˈε Aˈo Esu). The ritual referred to as Otεbε Enu is offered in the belief that the ancestors who have transformed to spirits upon their death are still very much around, seeing everything they are doing and trying on their part to guide and protect them. Another reinforcing belief is that the ancestors who labored to cut the virgin forests and gradually reduced them to farmlands desire the first fruits. The ritual revolves around the goddess of agriculture – Nkikε who doubles as the Earth goddess – to celebrate harvest and appeal for more blessings in the succeeding year.
Otεbε Enu is a concluding aspect of the Agba Esu ritual performed in the family hall before the shrine. It is the actual offering of the sacrifice to the ancestral spirits, before the family shrine.
Usually the family priests or Ekponε, who is the eldest man in the family, oversees the complex process of rituals, which hierarchies are quite rigid. Only the priest or Ekponε guides the elaborate rituals; which information is passed on orally. The benefactor(s) and other family members gather in the family hall (Nsi Eji), which is considered the earthly home of the deities and spirits during the ritual.
Otεbε Enu is normally performed by 12 noon by the family priest or Ekponε, on a specified date in the month of October. The materials for the ritual as stated earlier include one basin of good yams, one goat or fowl (cock), a big dried fish, one jar of palm-wine, a bottle of gin, pepper, salt, and a bottle of palm oil, among others. Men, women, and children participate freely in enjoying the meals with the ancestors. All present, in the hall, before the family shrine, the priest or Ekponε receives the items and presenting them to the ancestors as gifts from their son, calling the name of the benefactor and reciting his incantations, requesting for protection and blessings for the entire family.
The goat or fowl will be killed and its blood spilled into the shrine. After libation, the drinks are shared to those present. Then the food will be cooked and eaten, ponded or sliced. After the food, goat meat and fish have been shared to all those present, men, women, and children, they will return home rejoicing and hoping that the ancestors will continue to bring about a successful harvest.
Any family, community, or groups having difficulty with their crops or fortune blame it on the angry gods or ancestors. Civil servants, businessmen, professionals and technicians having problems with their works are also known to have blamed it on their ancestors. In such cases, divination rituals are undertaken to decide what needs to be done to gain favour from the gods or ancestors and remedy the situation.
There are ceremonies to bring about rains; to stop the rain if there is flooding; ceremonies for droughts; and ceremonies for infestation. The rain doctors in Eleme are known to promote agriculture by appeasing the gods when the Sun is withering crops as a direct plea to them to reverse the inclement weather.
Agba Esu and Otεbε Enu are two sides of the same ritual that is generally practiced in Eleme today. The highlights of this ritual are Egelege music and wrestling competitions among the communities, where they display their best wrestlers to compete for prizes.
Ogbo Nja is Food Offering and is one of the most popular festivals celebrated across Eleme, irrespective of age, sex, social status, or religious inclination. It is the only agricultural ritual that involves the entire Eleme in which men, women, children and new brides participate and enjoy themselves freely.
Ogbo Nja is celebrated annually on Ͻkͻͻ between 13 and 17 July, depending on the position of the Moon. The feast is celebrated in two phases. Phase one is called Ͻkͻͻ Obibai Etoo and is celebrated by women.
The second phase which is marked by men the next day is known as Mma Agba Okundo.
In Eleme, yams, cocoyam and other foods items are reserved after planting for the Ogbo Nja festival. It is believed that only very good farmers can reserve the quantity and quality of yams, cocoyam, etc. that is required for Ogbo Nja at the time of the year.
The fish used for preparing Ogbo Nja meal are those valued by Eleme people for major entertainment and they include: Obui (Catfish), Nda (Tasty-Shynose), Njijoi (Snapper), Omεε (Barracuda), Ekoko (Stingray), among others.
Ogbo Nja is specifically dedicated to children and new brides. It is celebrated with friends in pair. Children are encouraged to make friends within or without their community and to arrange for their friends to visit them to participate in the annual celebration. New brides also seek for their partners to take active part in the occasion.
The occasion provides an avenue for clearing the house of old yams and cocoyam in anticipation of new ones. It also affords parents and in-laws opportunity to present gifts to children and new brides in appreciation of their assistance during planting and weeding. To be counted a good child and be presented with gifts and blessings, children exercise maximum obedience and discipline in anticipation.
In the morning of day one occasion, children usually wake as early as 4.30am to clear the compounds and town square in readiness for the celebration. The children will also fetched water into all available pots and containers. The atmosphere is charged as evidence Ogbo Nja festive period.
Parents will assemble their children and present them with gifts of clothes and wrapper. Gifts will also be sent to children of extended relations and friends to commemorate the year’s Ogbo Nja.
The recipients of these new clothes would wear them and go visiting friends and relations to display their gifts across Eleme. as the children move from compound to compound and from community to community filled with happiness, they receive words of encouragement and praise for being obedient and hardworking; and promising them of greater gifts next year. The new brides are also presented with new dresses and wrappers by their husbands, father-in-law and mother-in-law.
That evening the women will gather at the townsquare dressed in their best and newest attires to make a feast, singing and dancing to Egbe Mba music till night falls.
By 6p.m. or thereabout, they women will return to their various houses to dish out food to their visiting guests and family members. The food for the day is cocoyam.
The celebration is designed in such a way that children move from compound to compound and from community to community, eating and rejoicing. At the end of the day, they will return home with wrapped fish as proof of participation in Ogbo Nja feast of that day. The new brides will also do the same.
The day two celebration starts with the same preparation. It is the men’s turn to present gifts to children and others who were loyal, obedient and hardworking during the year according to his assessments. The food for the day is yam, which will be cooked and eaten pounded and/or sliced.
The women will continue their music, singing and dancing at the townsquare.
Later in the evening, the men will gather at the townsquare to eat together in groups, thereby bringing the Ogbo Nja festival of that year to an end.
Ogbo Nja is one of the finest agricultural rituals in Eleme that is now history. All attempts to revive it have failed. Several factors have been advanced for this including:
1. Abandonment of agricultural activities in favour of nonexistent white collar jobs by the people. This has increased the level of poverty, hence inability to finance Ogbo Nja.
2. Absence of arable land for farming due to rapid industrialization. The forceful acquisition of lands by national and multinational corporations has not only robbed the people lands for agricultural activities, but triggered laziness among the youths, increased idleness, hence widespread cultism and other violent crimes in Eleme.Christianity, as is being practiced in Eleme undermines Ogbo Nja by branding it heathenish. Regrettably, any culture that has nothing to sustain and nothing to respect has little hope for corporate survival. One of the effects of this is that even the status of traditional rulers is badly affected by the level of cultural affinity among the people. The traditional rulers, chiefs, elders, youth leaders, women leaders, the elites and opinion leaders hide under this empathy to perpetrate all forms atrocities for selfish gains in the name of Christianity without any fear of retribution by the deities and ancestral spirits.