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Oji Ezinihitte: The Historical Backgrand Of Kola Nut (Oji) Cultural Festival Of Ezinihitte Mbaise, Imo State

The common saying in Igboland is that every other cultural group in Nigeria eats kola nuts, but it is only in Igboland that kola nut oji is not only eaten but also celebrated.

This position is true of the Igbo who do not cultivate kola nuts in abundance as a commercial venture like the Yoruba but have a deep reverence for the fruits because of its significance in the Igbo worldview.

The Igbo do not eat this fruit like other groups in Nigeria, who essentially eat it for its sedative qualities as well as a hunger therapy, or who use it because of its role as stimulant and aspirin, nicotine and caffeine put together.

The social significance of this fruit has lifted it from a mere unprofitable luxury to a vital necessity in the social and cultural settings of the Igbo, particularly the Ezinihitte Mbaise group in Imo State.

Here kola nut cultural festival is celebrated annually and on rotation amongst the sixteen communities that make up the local government council area. The Oji Ezinihitte Mbaise cultural festival is not only an occasion for the communities to examine their progress and challenges but also one for attracting visitors, friends, and well-wishers from far and near to be part of a cultural fiesta that entertains guests to their souls.

It is also used as a medium to attract government in their developmental projects as well as brainstorm on other possibilities. No doubt, the social relevance of the Oji ceremony now out-weighs the traditional especially with the passage of time and the stripping off of the ritualistic aspects of the ceremony.

The paper will examine the social ramifications of the Oji Ezinihitte cultural festival and its significance to the overall life and culture of the people of the area.

The Ezinihitte People and the Oji Cultural Festival Ezinihitte is the largest of all the other clans that make up Mbaise.

 The area is bounded to the North by the Ahiara and Nguru groups, to the South, by the Ngwa group in present Abia state, and separated by a stretch of river lane; on the East by Obowo in Okigwe zone of the state, and on the West by Oke-Uvuru, (Osuagwu: 2000, 2).

The genealogical line below shows all the clans in order of seniority, and it is in this order that the Oji cultural festival rotates.

They are Oboama-na-Umunama (the firstborn and the first to collect Oji), Ife, Chokoneze, Ihitte, Akpodim, Amumara, Eziudo, Itu, Okpofe, Eziagbogu, Udo, Obizi, and Onicha. Even during the procession, for the collection of the Oji from the Okwa Oji on the day of the festival, it follows the same pattern. This is the normal order for the hosting of the Oji festival.

But the Intelligence Report of 1932 represented the towns in this order: Umunama, Oboama, Ife, Amumara, Umueze, Umuchoko, Akpoku, Umudim, Itu, Eziudo, Obizi, Udo, Okpofe, Ihitte, Eziagbogu and Onicha (Dickenson: 1932, 9-10).

The Report does not seem to reflect the traditional order of seniority as indicated earlier, thereby raising questions as to how the colonial administration elicited their information, neither does it contain any information related to the Oji festival-a vital traditional cultural festival of the people of Ezinihitte.

With regard to the seniority question in the area during traditional festivals, no recourse is made to the order represented in the Intelligence Report of 1932 on the Ezinihitte clan.

At this point, it is necessary to comment on the evolution of the Oji Ezinihitte festival. To the Ezinihitte people, the origin of the Oji festival is linked to the history and migration of the communities that formed Ezinihitte.

 It is commonly believed that the people migrated to their present habitat from Ngwa land. This migration story has it that the people were among the group that traveled in search of settlement along with other groups, and when they became hungry, they stopped to roast yams to eat and quench their hunger, but the Ngwa group continued the journey in their bid to secure a better domain; thereby passing through to their present location before the river closed up and hedged a barrier between the two migrant groups, making the Ezinihitte group to be left out on the other side of the Imo River.

This myth is the most popular and commonly recited in the entire area, and that accounts for why to this day, the Ngwa group refers to them as the Ohuhu people, meaning, those who roast.

Because of the deep dialectical resemblance between the Ngwa dialect and those of the Ezinihitte, there is this belief that they are of the same stock.

Afigbo also observed that Ohuhu (the name with which the Ezinihitte are called), and Ngwa were in the same migrating party until they came to the eastern bank of the Imo 42 Journal of Tourism and Heritage Studies River.

There they sat down to rest awhile, and the Ngwa managed to cross while the “sluggish” Ohuhu could not before the tide became too high for them, (Afigbo: 1981, 11).

This view tallies with the commonly held view on the origin and migration of the people, and it is also supported by related cultural practices of the two groups, like burial rites, Eze Ji title taking, Okonko secret society, Mgba, (wrestling), bearing of Njoku and Mmaji names, etc.

This same strand of thought on the origin appears to be supported by Njoku, who conjectured that Ezinihitte people were part of the Ngwa sub-tribe, the remainder of who live on the other side of the Imo River in the south of Bende Division, (Njoku: 1979, 21).

The story goes on to say that the people after settling down at Orie Ukwu, founded a god or deity for themselves known as Chileke Oha (the god of all). The idea of a Chileke Oha was a universal god, governing all the people, and under whose guide everyone operated.

It was their common belief that this Chileke Oha protected them during the long duration of their journey in search of a permanent abode; and to it, all the people submitted.  At the time of their settlement, the people of Ezinihitte lived together and worshipped the Chileke Oha, but with the passage of time, they began to increase in population and there arose the need for dispersal of the group to other areas of Ezinihitte to settle.

This dispersal continued till the time it was only the Oboama and Umunama people that were left to inhabit the present area close to the confines of the Orie Ukwu; thus becoming the custodians of the shrine of Orie Ukwu and incidentally the priest of Chileke Oha.

The movement to other areas did not stop the groups from worshipping the Chileke Oha, as they continued to gather yearly for the worship of the deity for his protection all through the year.

The worship of this deity called Chileke Oha by the people of Ezinihitte continued till the 1970s; though before this time, Christianity had started taking deep root in the society and people no longer reverenced Chileke Oha as the supreme force in life. The first assault to the veneration of Chileke Oha was its encounter with the ferocious powers of the British.

As pointed out earlier, the pounding of the communities in the present Mbaise area because of the death of Dr. Stewart, and the subsequent attack on the Ifanim Eke Amumara, another oracle in Amumara, for the persistent killing of twins and every male child born by the courtiers of the chief priest of the oracle was a direct result of colonialism, which sought to attack and destroy deities known to have had gripping influence on the people in an apparent attempt to subjugate the indigenous groups.

Also the progressive evangelization of traditional societies, which came in the wake of colonialism, somewhat affected the worship of Chileke Oha, with the resultant effect that its worshippers began to abandon it in preference to Christianity and baptism. The hitherto mega image of the Chileke Oha soon became history.

Surprisingly, a church group destroyed the shrine of Chileke Oha a few years ago with the assistance of the youths of Oboama and Umunama where the deity is situated. The worship of Chileke Oha was always on Orie market dayKola Nut (Oji) Cultural Festival in Ezinihitte Mbaise 43 the big Orie.

The Igbo have a four-day market structure- that is Eke, Orie, Afor, and Nkwo. During the worship, the people gathered at the Orie Ukwu with yams, Oji (Kola Nut), Nzu or Ufara (native chalk), goats, sheep, fowls, and other sacrificial items to supplicate to Chileke Oha, ironically called Iro Mmuo (the delighting of the gods). The priests of other lesser deities participated in the exercise before the chief priest and the Chileke Oha, thanking the god for its protection and preservation all through the preceding years.

The ceremony was done yearly and involved all the towns in Ezinihitte, whose leaders and elders came in turn in order of seniority to present their offerings and sacrifices before Chileke Oha and partake in the associated rituals.

This yearly offering was used to rededicate the communities to Chileke Oha and to reaffirm the bond of unity among them, and ultimately between the people and Chileke Oha, After the sacrifice, the remains would be prepared for the feast that follows.

Kola nuts Oji Igbo and Nzu (white clay chalk) used in the ritual would be broken into pieces and put into the Okwa Oji (wooden receptacle) and shared among the villages, which came in turn in order of seniority to take them.

This marked the high point of the Iro Mmuo ritual and served as a symbolic roll call for all the communities; absentees were instantly noted and the reasons for the absence promptly addressed. This was a yearly communion to identify with brothers and to demonstrate a bond of unity, oneness and love (Okpofe: 1984, 3).

Over time, this practice formed part of the people’s culture and came to be known as Ichi Oji ndi Ezinihitte (the taking of kola nuts by Ezinihitte groups). This practice has continued to be modified in tune with the overbearing influence of Christianity in the area.

The Church antagonized all those aspects of the Iro Mmuo deemed to be a fetish and unchristian; thus making the festival to change both in colour and outlook. From the Iro Mmuo leading to the Ichi Oji, it was changed to Ichi Oji na Nzu (the nzu here signifies peace, and as people take the oji, they also rub the nzu, the removal or iro mmuo meant removing the fetish aspects of the festival) and other entertaining activities.

Also, people no longer gather at Orie Ukwu for the festival; it now rotates amongst the communities in Ezinihitte, starting from the most senior. The Oji festival has been looked upon, not only as a symbol of love, unity, brotherhood, and oneness but also as a medium through which the people rededicate themselves to the cherished values of Onye Aghala Nwanneya (let nobody leave behind his brother).

While the Oji is a symbol of life, friendship, trust, hospitality and cooperation amongst the people, the Ufara (white clay chalk), represents love, peace, and transparency.

In the past, and even in some places today, the Ufara was and is still used as a cosmetic for nursing a newborn baby, because it is believed to have medicinal attributes that enhance and strengthen the bones. Pregnant women use it to soothe their bodies and calm their nerves; while nursing mothers lick it and rub the same on their neck as they rejoice with a new mother and welcome a newborn baby into the world.

Thus the combination of Oji and Ufara was a 44 Journal of Tourism and Heritage Studies sacred communion for the people and was meant to serve as a unifying bond (Obizi: 2002, 12). The Social Significance of the Oji Cultural Festival As we noted earlier in this paper, it is the Igbo among all other groups in Nigeria that see kola nut not just as a mere stimulant when eaten, but also as a symbol of friendship.

 And a show of hospitality and welcome to a visitor. Ironically, the production of this fruit is not done in commercial quantity among the Igbo, but rather its production is concentrated mainly in Yorubaland (Njoku: 2001, 164); but the Igbo have come to celebrate it most. Among all the Igbo communities, it is only the Ezinihitte Mbaise group that has a ceremony solely dedicated to kola nut, Oji.

To them, therefore, the Oji cultural festival signifies a bond of primordial unity among the constituent, as well as pointers to their common origin and connection with Chileke Oha at Orie Ukwu. It is also a forum at which their cultural heritage is showcased to the entire public, through the presentation and exhibition of various dance groups of the participating communities.

This occasion affords the opportunity for the wearing and tying of wrapper of assorted design and makes and a stylish procession for the collection of the Oji (kola nut) and Nzu by each community. The best dressed and danced community in this colorful and pomp procession, takes home a prize.

The Oji festival presents a medium through which the people of Ezinihitte Mbaise interact with one another, introduce suitors to respective brides or bridegrooms. The various maiden groups came in their best dresses to mark the occasion. The Ezinihitte people use the occasion to organize themselves politically and developmentally.

For instance, each year it is celebrated, the invited guests will always include the governor of the state as well as other political big wigs from within and outside the state. During the occasion, the host community in collaboration with the Ezinihitte Eze-in council usually makes demands from the governor on any pressing issue that needs the attention of the government in the area.

This includes roads, electricity, water; education, scholarship, healthcare and any other project that is of public interest. The ceremony is used as a platform for identifying social and economic challenges faced by the people of Ezinihitte. Each community that has any social challenge such as youth anti-social behavior is free to present it for the larger body to look into and find a way forward. It also serves as a medium through which communal disagreements are resolved; in the spirit of onye aghala nwa nne ya, wealthy sons and daughters of Ezinihitte are enjoined at the occasion to assist those in need, through scholarships, employment, and empowerment.

 The people also use the occasion to identify with the government and in turn benefit from the location of projects in the area. An example of this was in 2002 when the then governor of Imo state attended the Oji ceremony at Obizi, the people made some requests before him which included the rehabilitation of the bridge linking Obizi to Umu Nwawa in Kola Nut (Oji) Cultural Festival in Ezinihitte Mbaise 45 Umuahia Abia State.

In the previous Oji festival, the people demanded the rehabilitation of the road linking Achi Ngali in Obowo, to Obizi from the government, and thereafter the project was executed. Thus the Ezinihitte people use the Oji festival as an instrument to read out to the government of the day the needs of the communities in Ezinihitte and Mbaise in general.

The occasion is also used as a medium to assess the successes recorded in Ezinihitte by its political leadership. The politicians also use it as a means to extend their contacts with the electorates and grassroots. The Oji festival also serves as an avenue through which oratory and the art of breaking and sharing kola nut in public functions amongst the people are mastered.

This is because a similar procedure is used in sharing kola nut in public functions; the seniority of the communities is generally recognized in the process. This refreshes the people’s knowledge on this strand of social etiquette, for kola nut is at all times to be respected in Igboland.

This aside, it affords the people as well as the ordinary visitor the opportunity to move around and appreciate the age-long cultural materials Okwa Oji used for the sharing of the kola nut, and other landmarks in Ezinihitte. Through this yearly festival, the communities assess their growth and development on the one hand, and on the other, reflect on their being as a people and how they have fared the past years.

The festival aided the establishment, development and the growth of Ezinihitte Development Association (EDA) an umbrella body whose responsibility among other things is to champion the development of Ezinihitte in all its ramifications, thus deepening the culture of Onye Aghala Nwanneya among the people.

The Association has been at the forefront of the struggle to obtain the rightful position of the Ezinihitte in Imo State political terrain. For instance, it effectively presented the case of Ezinihitte at the Ukairo Panel on New Government Reforms in Imo State in 1976 for the creation of Ezinihitte into a separate division.

In the past too, it presented the case of Ezinihitte to the Local Government Panel on Reconstruction of Local Government in November 1976, for the creation of Ezinihitte Local Government-this was realized years after this presentation was done. Apart from these, (EDA), has also made a case to the State Government on the need to recognize the autonomous communities in Ezinihitte, including the creation of new ones. In achieving all these, the Association has collaborated with all town unions in Ezinihitte as well as monitored their rate of development and progress. (Osuagwu: 2000). By-and- large, the Oji Ezinihitte cultural festival, has succeeded in uniting and consolidating the peace and harmony enjoyed by the Ezinihitte people over the years and has continued to grow to date.

In Conclusion, the Oji Ezinihitte cultural festival is as historic as the origin of the people of Ezinihitte. Right from the earliest days till today, this festival has continued to be a singular and the most potential source of unity within the 46 Journal of Tourism and Heritage Studies Ezinihitte group.

The festival has continually been challenged by modernity especially with the Christianization of the area and the consequent criticisms of the rituals associated with the festival. These aspects have been modified and in its place, other features added to enliven the festival.

Oji as a show of welcome and love is not eaten because of its nutritional values, but because of its social and cultural significance to a people. We have clearly noted the saying that while others eat kola nuts, the Igbo celebrate it; thus the Oji Ezinihitte festival is a clear vindication of this saying. We have also pointed out that the Ezinihitte is the only group that has a festival associated with kola nut in Igboland.

There is, therefore, every need to recognize it as one of Nigeria’s significant cultural heritage, and to give it both national and international publicity as in the case with Arugungu fishing and Osun Oshogbo festivals in Kebbi and Osun States of Nigeria, respectively.

The festival has not received the desired recognition and attention from both our State and National governments. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism ought to take interest in this festival and help make it attractive to visitors from far and wide. This will generate revenue not only to the host community and Ezinihitte but also to the government.

 References Agulanna, E. (1998), The Mbaiseness of Mbaise, Owerri: I. O. Publishers. Afigbo A. E., (1981), “The Age of Innocence: The Igbo and their Neighbours in the Pre-colonial Times, Owerri: Government Printer. Douglas H. M., (1905), Report of the District Commissioner, London: British Archives. Dickinson, L. (1932), Intelligence Report on Ezinihitte Clan, Enugu: National Archives. Njoku, L. E., “The Economic Life of the People”, in T. U. Nwala, (1978), (ed.) Mbaise in Contemporary Nigeria, New York: Gold and Maestro. Nwabara, S. N., (1977), Igboland: A Century of Contact with Britain 1860-1960, London: Hodder and Stoughton. Nwala, T. U., (1978), “An Era of Self-Awareness”, in Nwala, T. U. (ed.), Mbaise in Contemporary Nigeria, New York: Gold and Maestro. Nzekwu Onuora, (1961), “Kola Nut”, Nigerian Magazine, No. 68. Njoku, G. (1978) “Mbaise in Pre-colonial and Colonial Nigeria”, in Nwala, T. U. (ed.), Mbaise in Contemporary Nigeria, New York: Gold and Maestro. Njoku, O. N. (2001), Economic History of Nigeria, 19th and 20th Centuries, Enugu: Magnet Business Enterprises. Osuagwu, P., (2000), The Oji Ezinihitte Cultural Festival, Owerri: Achiugo Publishers. Okpofe Community Report on Oji Festival (1984).

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