I love dates. Dates for the fact that they are a reminder of time, of moments - history-breaking moments, quiet moments, ugly moments, fun moments and a host of other prefixes that can go with describing moments.
8th May, 2018 : On this day, I logged on Twitter, browsing its streets as part of my daily routine of being aware and conscious of societal happenings. There I was, spending my semester break scrambling for the next funny tweet, the next empowering tweet, the next feel-good tweet when I happened upon an array of tweets, justifying the misogynistic Yoruba “Oro” celebrations under the guise of culture.
Appalled as I was, I got on the phone, and had a conversation with my mum in order to understand the context behind the “Oro” Festival and if it still serves any relevance in today’s society. Similarly, I got on the internet in order to get a better understanding from the perspective of others.
So, why was the Oro Festival started?
Interestingly, I could not find a context surrounding why the “Oro” Festival was started as a need in society. However, I found out that in ancient Yoruba societies, the “Oro” was a cult of the high and mighty. In order to be considered influential and eventually, take up a leadership position in society, you had to be a part of the “Oro” cult.
As women were not considered fit for leadership positions and decision making, they were not allowed to be a part of the cult. Consequently, anyone who was not a part of the cult (male and all females) was banned from seeing the Oro during its festival. The influence of the cult weakened upon colonialism and post-colonialism and the only relic left of the cult is the “Oro” festival.
And, what is the Oro Festival today?
As seen in the Nigerian Guardian, “Oro festival in present-day Yorubaland is usually held by traditionalists to appease the gods to ward off evil and usher in an era of prosperity.” It is celebrated by having women and children stay indoors. It could be a passing rite for a king who has kicked the bucket, held by groups (e.g masquerade), it could also happen during festivals (e.g yam festivals). It is adopted and celebrated differently in different Yoruba societies but, a common trend across board is the excommunication of women and children from the outside world whilst its being celebrated.
Fear of cultural heritage extinction?
Nigeria has a history shaped by colonialism. A constant identity crisis the populace battles with is whether or not we are culturally grounded enough. This identity crisis has resulted in a situation where we fear to interrogate our pre-colonial culture. As evident as the “Oro” Festival is a culture rooted in patriarchy, there is a seeming difficulty in questioning its essence even amongst “progressive” Nigerians. Also questionable is the fact that loss of lives and violence have been credited to the festival yet, interrogating it seems like an unattainable feat.
This offers an understanding of the fact that a good number of Nigerians (educated or not) still do not understand the dynamism of culture.
Culture in Nigeria today is still perceived as an “endangered specie” of some sort, beliefs are worshiped for the sake of it being an aged culture as opposed to having beliefs as a strong reflection of the values we hold dear in present-day-society.
It is pertinent that we examine the “Oro” cultural celebration with a regard for human life and here are seven questions that could guide our thinking:
How does a woman get to work on such a day?
What if a woman has a medical emergency?
Why should a said cultural celebration make others unsafe while going on with their daily routines?
Why will a cultural celebration that claims to be peaceful pose a threat to the lives of others?
Should the Festival be declared a public holiday for all?
Are public holidays not a time to move around and enjoy the beauty of a city especially, in the ever-so-busy Lagos?
A Way Forward?
In February 2018, a court in Ogun State ruled that the festival be celebrated between midnight and 4 a.m upon approval by the authorities. Also required is for participants to sign an undertaking to maintain peace during the festival.
This is a great start by the Ogun State government. I hope that this is emulated across states which have cultural practices promoting violence and are unsafe for women and said practices are thoroughly examined.
In the words of Prof. Sophie Oluwole, a renowned retired Professor of African Philosophy, “if you condemn the whole of your culture, you are a stupid idiot. If you praise everything, you are a compound fool.“
Hearty cheers to knowing that being culturally grounded is not mutually exclusive to interrogating culture!
P.S: In case your mind wanders to the question of whether or not I am qualified to write on this, do know that I am Yoruba as well as Ibibio. I was raised by a Yoruba mother. As a non-conformist to patriarchal standards, I do believe I can not be boxed up into owning only my father’s ancestral identity. My mother’s is mine to have as well.
Words by Elizabeth Akpan
Elizabeth Akpan is a third year Computing student at the African Leadership University. She loves reading about how women's life experiences can get better and she loves writing as well. She has been featured on her school's Medium publication.
Photo: Eliot Elisofon, 1970.