OKWUKWU: FINAL BURIAL TRADITION IN OBOWO
Obowo community elder (Gabriel Uwaeme) renders a traditional burial eulogy during Okwukwu ceremony.
OKWUKWU: FINAL BURIAL TRADITION IN OBOWO
The burial tradition of ‘Okwukwu’ is perhaps the only tradition that is practiced in every village in Obowo possibly because it is an age long tradition that effects both the living and the dead.
What therefore is the meaning of Okwukwu? Who is entitled to it? How it is performed and why is it necessary?
The meaning of ‘Okwukwu’ burial ceremony can be explained from two perspectives.
First, ‘Okwukwu’ is a corruption of the word “Okwa ukwu” – top rank, high rank or esteemed position. At the end of a successful Okwukwu burial ceremony, the deceased is deemed to have been elevated to a lofty position (Okwa ukwu) before or after interment (depending on when the ceremony is performed) in the belief that the deceased would maintain such a position in the land of the dead.
CHIEF C.F. IHEJIRIKA (KSJI)
‘ Okwukwu’ is therefore the final rites of honour bestowed on the dead so as to be make him happy, proud and accepted in the land of the dead.
Second, Okwukwu in Obowo dialect is descriptive of a congested or crowded (okwuru-akwu) gathering. It is derived from the crowded or congested (both for persons and edible items) environment which characterize the household or village square where the final burial ceremony is performed. The name elicits human traffic as well as suggests abundance of all the dignity and lavish wealth for both participants and observers at burial ceremonies.
Essentially, Okwukwu is a unique final funeral rites of passage and festivities in which the presence of kinsmen and extended family members of the deceased are expected as either participant or observers.
In Igbo traditional society to which Obowo is a part, there is nothing like second burial. A diligent research would show that there are two stages in every single death; albeit three categories of death.
The first is ‘ili madu’ – interment, and the second is ‘ikwa madu’ – post interment ceremonies; none of which is done twice or repeated as the word ‘Second burial’ would suggest. It seems to me, and is most likely that the time gap between the two stages in most cases gave rise to the idea of second burial which is misleading. Due to the problems associated with prolonged preservation of corpse in the morgue or other commitments of the deceased children/relations, interment is often carried our immediately while other funeral festivities are put off for weeks, months, or even years after interment.
As a tradition the ‘Okwukwu’ ceremony has come to stay as an important and significant tradition for notable men in all the villages in Obowo.
- Who is entitled to Okwukwu?
It is imperative to highlight at this point, the three categories of death recognized in Obowo and to state at the same time that the type of death in respect of any deceased to a large extent, determines the nature of burial to be accorded and consequent funeral ceremonies.
Traditionally, Obowo recognizes three categories of death: (a) Onwu ojoo’-a sorry death- or (b) ‘Onwu aru’ – death that is not only bad but also an abomination which includes death by hanging, drinking of poison and all forms of suicide.
(c ) Onwu chi – normal or natural death, refers to the quiet and peaceful death not occasioned by questionable forces in contrast to ‘Onwu ike’, ‘Onwu mgbabi’ or ‘Onwu mberede’ – sudden, shocking, untimely or unripe death.
Notwithstanding the category of death, the initial consideration for the ‘Okwukwu’ ceremony entitlement is that the person must be dead, although not all dead people are accorded the rites.
Thus the final funeral ceremonies are for fulfilled adult men who were married with well- off children or those who ought to have married but for the vagaries of life before death.
From available oral facts, ‘Okwukwu’ on Obowo is performed for a person who died at a ripe age, must have been initiated into manhood (Iwa akwa), may have had wife or wives and must have performed the final Funeral ceremonies of his own dead father by the standards set by the village community.
In a case where a person dies after acquiring wealth but without wife and children, the immediate biological brothers, uncles or cousins who would inherit or share the deceased wealth can arrange and perform the funeral rites. No one dares to participate in the ‘Okwukwu’ preparation or eat with the participants if he is yet to perform his own father’s Okwukwu. Similarly, a person who has not performed his own father’s Okwukwu is not free to render any form of support in aid to anyone performing the ‘Okwukwu’ ceremony.
Failure to adhere to these ancient rules results in unforeseen catastrophe.
In the past, Okwukwu ceremonies were not accorded to anyone whose death is questionable, dubious and unnatural without consulting a soothsayer who would advise on the necessary rituals and sacrifices to be done before the commencement of ceremony proper. In present day however, what obtains is a general private secret “cleansing of the deceased family” usually by an acclaimed powerful native doctor in the dead of night or early in the day before participants and observers begin to arrive for the commencement of the festivities. Iji ala Okwukwu is the height of this general “cleansing of the deceased family” It is all about asking for the goodwill of the gods and securing the protection of all the invites to the ceremonies. Basically, it is a prelude to the Okwukwu and involves sacrifices to remove any probable obstacles, harm or other impediments likely to affect successful planning and execution the ceremonies.
- How it is performed
The final burial ceremony of ‘Okwukwu’ and accompanying festivities is preceded by two ceremonies that are attended by immediate kinsmen to the deceased.
The two ceremonies called ‘Ihe ekwe oba’ and ‘ihe ntubala’ involve a full grown live goat each and other necessary complimentary items geared towards preparing the spirit of the deceased for a smooth journey to the spirit world.
In Obowo, burial ceremonies could be a joyful occasion if the deceased was of good old age; has wealth in form of children, land and economic trees; maintained noticeable social status with strings of traditional titles and had well placed extended family members.
The burial funeral of such a person is like a grand festival with distant mourners arriving at the deceased compound in batches like pilgrims. Little wonder the Igbo would say: ‘Akwawa Ogaranya, onwu aguwa ogbenye’– when the rich is being mourned, the poor begins to feel likeness to death. It is characteristic of an average Obowo person to conduct the final burial of his dead father with marked extravagance and remarkable display of opulence. Thus the spending is conspicuously lavishing and would also be the subject of discussion in the entire village and beyond for months to come.
The notable venue for the ‘Okwukwu’ ceremonies is the village square, market square or the deceased residence. The choice depends on the family.
The thrills and drills involved in Okwukwu begin with countless shooting of fire arms whether cannon shots (ntu n’ala) or dane gun (egbe ntu) beginning at twelve midnight otherwise referred to as mgbe aka ruru dike ala.
The gun shots or firearms though used in the first place to announce the commencement of the event, is primarily believed to hasten the spirit of the deceased to ‘ala ndi mmuo’ (land of the dead).
The deceased ability to reach the land of the dead on time is the only way of quick reincarnation thereby maintaining the chain of relationship that exists between the living and the dead.
The gun shots, which should not be less than twelve in number, herald the sound of a traditional ‘Ese’ music. The Ese music is of two types– ‘Aghirigha ese’ and ’Ese ike’.
The former is played to mourn an ordinary wealthy man who must not have achieved much before his death but yet deserves a formal burial.
‘Ese ike’ is used to mourn warriors, titled men and other men who must have accomplished some feats by the community standards.
The two types of music could be played simultaneously for the final burial ceremonies and festivities of a deceased as they perform the part played by live music band in Christian organized burials.
Unlike aghirigha ese, Ese ike is played on an elevated temporary platform or native deck known as nkwako which is capable of accommodating all the drummers at a time.
Ese ike music is not danced by every Tom, dick and Harry. It is a privileged traditional music for those who must have performed the final funeral ceremonies (okwukwu) for their own deceased father. It is the music for the offsprings of real men otherwise called ‘Umu Ogaranya’ meaning children or descendants of wealthy men. Every oldest son (Opara) or his representative who must have performed Okwukwu in respect of his deceased father is a compulsory member of Umu Ogaranya. The Umu Ogaranya, therefore, are the principal guest in any given Okwukwu ceremony. One cannot avoid seeing them conspicuously seated at the arena in the ceremonies.
Anybody who is not a member of Umu Ogaranya cannot sit near them or even have a hand shake with any of them at that arena for fear of being struck by the gods.
It is a well-founded traditional belief that drinking and eating at the ceremony when one has not performed the Okwukwu of his own late father attracts the wrath of the gods which can manifest in so many ways like instant death, madness, blindness, stroke or incurable sickness.
After Umu Ogaranya must have taken their seat, the Ese music that had been playing intermittently then goes on break. The Umu Ogaranya are lavishly entertained; frothing fresh palm wine flows freely, meat delicacies from goats, fowls and even cows slaughtered under the supervision of Umu Ogaranya earlier in the day are served amidst commendations on the deceased children and exchange of njakiri (satirical jokes) among members.
After every member of Umu Ogaranya have been fed, the eldest son of the deceased or his representative is invited to the center of arena dressed in his deceased fathers attire and or carrying any insignia with which his deceased father’s status and wealth was known in the community.
There is silence everywhere as the singing of traditional funeral songs takes center stage.
The chief host (deceased eldest son or his representative) begins to dance stylishly to the tune of the traditional funeral songs to the admiration of all and sundry.
The important feature after this preliminary dance is the cutting off the head of a goat at one stroke of the knife. Significantly, the knife used in the cutting must have been sharpened days back and safely kept away.
Inability of the celebrant to hack off the head of the goat called ‘eghu Okwukwu’ in a swoop attracts a fine. A successful killing of the goat is confirmed by thunderous sound of countless ntu n’ala – cannon shots, followed by a momentous dancing to traditional funeral songs most of which eulogizesd the deceased.
He that is buried by his child (twice)
He that is buried by his child is a wealthy man’
Songs like this evoke feelings of satisfaction and commitment on the part of the deceased children. The song portray the children as worthy to bear their father’s name and to represent him in the land of the living. After the successful killing of eghu okwukwu and the frenzy display of traditional dancing steps, is the itu aka ese, which literally means, pointing of hand before the Ese music stand. This ‘Itu aka ese’ involves boasting of the feats and acts of gallantry of the deceased during his life time. It is also the celebration of the deceased known or unknown heroic deeds before his death.
Though not compulsory for every situation, this is the most interesting, and perhaps the highlights of every ‘Okwukwu’ ceremony. During the ‘Itu aka ese’ the host boasts on four (4) of his father’s litany of heroic feats and acts of gallantry.
This is done by the host dancing proudly from where Umu Ogaranya are seated to the location of the Ese music drummers some steps away from where Umu Ogaranya. On getting in front of the Ese drummers, the celebrant pins his ‘mma akpara’(sheathed long sword/knife) firmly on the ground before them. Then the Ese music abrumptly stops. With the talking drums, the celebrant is asked to name his late father’s deeds.
Boastfully, he begins to narrate his late father’s heroic deeds and feats. After each narration, he would dance back to Umu Ogaranya who would then receive him with delight and standing ovation.
This procedure is repeated four times and each narration is greeted with deafening sound of multiple ntu n’ala gun shots. At the end of the fourth narration, the host is carried shoulder high back to Umu Ogaranya. At this point, the Ese traditional funeral music comes back live. Everybody joins the celebrant to dance to the rhythmic tune of the Ese music.
The Okwukwu ceremony comes to an end with the sharing of take-away items like yam tubers, meat and other edibles by the Umu Ogaranya.
Why is it necessary?
It is often asked by little known villagers whether Okwukwu is necessary.
The dead who have not received these final burial ceremonies are believed not to be able to enter the spirit land and as such they neither belong to the community of the dead nor to that of the living.
They are believed to be in a state of unrest and suffering, wandering and often tormenting the living.
The nobility of a man depends on the nature of his final burial ceremonies which is intended to grant his soul a final resting place. It is to this situation that Onuora Nzekwu writes:
‘There are the funeral rituals in our relatives to be performed.
People are talking. These relatives of ours have not yet taken their right places in the spirit world. They are still sleeping and hiding under the Okazi shrub.
It is our duty to liberate and sent them home (Wand of Noble Wood, p.161).
Okwukwu is like a send forth ceremony for the departing soul just as it’s done in
our places of work for a retiring officer. Death is a retirement of the living.’
In the same vein, Okwukwu is believed to place the soul of the deceased in its proper place and cements the chain of relationship that exists between the living and the dead.
Even where the Okwukwu ceremonies are not properly carried out, the soul of the deceased could return to make life unpleasant for his children and relatives.
There are confirmed cases where dead people sent messages in the dream asking their family members why the okwukwu ceremonies had not been performed for them. In some instances, some individuals keep standing instructions before their death on how they should be buried.
Chinua Achebe vividly captures this development when the dying Amulu calls on his son Aneto and instructs for his burial feast thus:
“I would have said: Do it a day or two after I have been put into the earth.
But this is Ugani (famine); I cannot ask you to arrange my burial feast with your saliva.
I must wait until there are yams again.
But you must not delay it beyond four moons upon my death. And do not forget, I want you to slaughter a bull” (Arrow of God, P.216-212).
Viewed critically from migration perspective, death is like travelling from the
country of birth to the country of the host (land of the dead).
Like a traveler in need of a Residential Visa or permit to enable him arrive the host country (land of the dead) so as to reside and be able to walk around freely, the Okwukwu ceremony frees the dead to the abode of the dead.
The Okwukwu ceremony as relevant aspect of burial ceremony in Obowo cannot be over emphasized. It has been with the people and it works for them.
It will remain a strong tradition that connects the living and the dead.