Biography of Onyayi Irikidi
When stories of legends soften with time, they look unbelievable like myths to new generations. It is so with Irikidi, priestess of Ori-Ihima and sister of the popular masquerade, Ozuda (Ura) as people called her.
She was the daughter of Ajinodi and Onyeku, While Ajinodi hailed from Ohionwa clan, Onyeku was the elder sister of Pa Simpa, the late influential and one of the earliest traditional rulers in the land of Emani Clan. Irikidi was the half-sister of the prominent Maikasuwa (Father of the late popular politician and teacher, Alh. Abu Maikasuwa) from Otonyi family of Aisina sub lineage of Ohionwa clan.
Irikidi’s siblings from Onyeku included sister Arivido and Enesi who was the father of HRH. Salihu Enesi (Apaza), the present Ohireba of Ohionwa that has joined the ancestors on 7th March 2021.
Irikidi was born at the time Ebira society still cherished its culture and tradition; and its preservation remained a priority to the people, especially after the coming of colonialism, Christianity and Islam with their disruptive implications on the whole and wholesomeness of the hitherto cohesive cultural and traditional Ebira society.
This time, Irikidi’s Ebira, like many other African nations was governed by traditional cosmogonist and cosmic totality embedded in its people’s ways of life. This include Ihineba, God, gods, mother earth, women and men.
The people have their Creation story as governed by their culture and tradition. This was the Ebira that the colonial men and Islamic scholars from Arab nations met.
While the white men as missionaries brought Western Education and Christianity, the Arab traders brought Islam. What their coming meant was that the Ebira traditional religion which Irikidi and others practiced would now have the strange Christianity and Islam as rivals. Expectedly, the natives would put up resistance to protect the way of life they understood.
Therefore, the role to preserve the people’s culture and tradition in which their worship of Ohomorihi, the supreme God, gods, and goddesses, especially OriIhima, fell on Irikidi and other votaries of divinities.
Irikidi devoted virtually all her life to the worship, preservation and protection of the divine being and their kindred like the ancestors and masquerades. She did everything within her powers including edifying witchcraft as some said, to resist the intruding, in her reckoning, new ways.
The priestess hood and masquerade sisterhood role that Irikidi played was not accidental. It was inborn. Irikidi’s mother, Onyeku as sister to Obobanyi Simpa was seasoned in the culture of the then highly traditional Ihima and she was very supportive of her brother, the monarch.
Onyeku, like men, participated in festival activities like Echori, the yam festival which the people observed to show gratitude to Ori-Ihima as intermediary between them and God among other reasons, for bumper harvest from their farms.
When Onyeku reigned as one of Ori-Ihima votaries, Irikidi was still in her teens. She watched her mother keenly and learned fast and knew the taboos and norms of Ori-Ihima worship and by extension those of her society.
So, when her mother died in her twilights, Irikidi as the chip of the old block became a natural replacement for mother Onyeku. Before long, she became a house hold name as a no nonsense disciple and enforcer of the norms and the general perspectives of the people.
It is good to know at this time, the adherents of Islam and Christianity were seriously gaining confidence to the extent that they openly disparaged the ways of the traditional society.
They said they were certain that Ori-Ihima, other gods and goddesses were figments of the people’s fetishistic and idolatrous imaginations. For the converts, Irikidi and her people were heathens who were just wasting their time worshipping mere stone. Ori-Ihima, they said, was a stone created by God or Allah.
For the people, Ori-Ihima was real. As was reported, was it not Ori-Ihima who helped Ihima people as the amour of Ebira to defeat the Fulani Jihadists that waged Ajinomoh war against them and also befogged the white men with black and thick cloud when they first came to Ebiraland? How can anybody in his right senses now say that that same savior, Ori-Ihima is now a phantom god? they wondered.
This was the impression that Irikidi and her co Ori-Ihima faithfuls were out to correct in her time and she did it to the admiration of the people. No one could convince Irikidi that Islam and Christian adherents were not misled into blaspheming Ori-Ihima.
During Echori festival, Irikidi, dressed in immaculate white wrapper which covered only her chest downwards to her knee portion, her long hair without a head dress and carrying a cane with which she would whip and defeat many challengers in a cane- fighting contest, a contest that was hitherto an exclusive reserve of men, would climb the mountain abode of Ori-Ihima among other worshipers to participate in the annual rites of passage for the Ihima god.
After the commencement at the abode of the god, votaries will come down the mountain and moved round the village in a convivial procession. This was when they would be free to eat enuowowa, the new yam.
Irikidi was always accompanied by her sister Arivido while the Echori procession held. With long canes held in their hands, they will taunt, threaten, invite men for cane contest and even wrestling, the two sisters, Irikidi and Arivido would sing and dance to the rhythm of Echori music:
” Banyi due was ka ri banyi 2x ( sieve or winnow the chaffs from the beniseeds or the chaffs from the grains for you to eat or chew stone- filled grains)
Irema amo Onyi onyoro nyaine was so inori kanyo
Onyi onyoro nyoro nyaine was so inori kanyo
( Here is my smooth back, who will dare touch it with cane
To challenge me to cane duel, who will touch it with the cane?
After this, Onutu ori, the priest of Ori-Ihima, will go round the village to deliver the god’s message of hope for rain and friendly weather for bumper agricultural produce for the coming year. Irikidi again is prominent in this. She will guide the onutu ori as a priestess. She new onutu ori would on behalf of the god bless the new babies.
As they moved round to give messages and bless the communities, the priestess Irikidi knew all the abominations and norms of the festival. She would punish whoever fell foul of the laws governing the procession. When they moved, it was a taboo for them to set their eyes on clothes spread outside or spread on the wash lines. Irikidi would fold the clothes until a fine was paid for their collections.
In the cultural Ihima, no one was allowed to rear black dogs in Ihima. At that time also henna, called ukokori in Ebira was not allowed to be used. Today, henna is used in Ihima by women and girls as embellishment in marriages while black dogs are kept in many homes as pets and no squawk is raised. Who would have dared to commit this abominable act when the priestess of Ori-Ihima, Irikidi was here?
Looking at her erstwhile Ihima from the grave, Irikidi would gnash her teeth and brood: ” How I wish the dead could return to earth, I would have gone and asked Ori-Ihima adayi Idu to visit his wrath on outcasts who have planted and watered the tree of taboos, turning Ihima upside down. ”
The ubiquitous Irikidi, though a woman, for women were not normally allowed into the esoteric world of masquerades, was allowed to participate in the activities leading to the outing of the most deadly, feared and vengeful Ebira masquerade, Ozuda which most Ebira known as Ura.
She was the weaver of achi( maker of the cloth ) of Ozuda. Not many women have the spiritual requirements to weave the cloth for masquerade. Irikidi had and she wove the cloth till she was old and found successor in Awawu Eneze who weaves the costume till today. It was also Irikidi who use uru, the thick, reddish, watery and decorative powder for the Orphic mask Ura.
There was this great story between Ozuda and a colonial master, the police, a District officer and Atta Onoruoiza Chogudo, the first Ohinoyi of Ebiraland. Irikidi was also involved in the important story.
Ozuda had existed for centuries before the coming of white men and its strange government into Ebiraland. In all of those years, Ozuda, being the most ancestral masquerade would visit the land of the living once a year in Echeane festival, except in funeral ceremonies of dead old men and kings, did not need any encumbrance like Permit for its outing.
Now, the white man had come with its law and as Achebe said in his great book: Things Fall Apart, ” He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart” The white man had introduced Permit fee for any masquerade outing. And the fee did not exclude Ura.
This was resisted and Ura was out without permit. Irikidi and many other natives did not think that they were breaking the law. They saw it a taboo for Ozuda to pay Permit money to government before the peerless masquerade could come out from the ancestral realm.
But the white District Officer who Sergeant Omole from Ogori- Magongo assisted as his interpreter that day saw Ura’s behavior as an affront on the authority of the white rulership which must be punished or enforced. Police men were deployed to Ihima to collect the outing fee from the historic Ozuda.
They did come to enforce the law. But Ozuda who never spared any one except perhaps the oldest man in a compound beat the white man’s police, inflicting injuries on them. For the authorities, Ura had robed salt on the injury; it refused to collect Permit; and it had beaten the police, nay, the government, black and blue.
The police beating was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. To the white man’s police station in Okene, Ura must be forced to go. Irikidi and others were remorseless. Irikidi was quoted as saying that ” A real Ebira man does not fear a call from even his enemy. He who invites a man to his house is older than the man he has invited, Ura shall go.” And indeed Ura visited the white man in his police station house, Okene.
Few metres from the station, Ozuda stopped. Why? Irikidi spoke for Ozuda as she disclosed that unlike lesser masquerades Ozuda would not talk as it was abominable for the king masquerade to do so “Okene, here we come. Ozuda would only enter the station if the white man would sacrifice a ram for it to step on its blood to go inside the station.
Sergeant Omole interpreted the District Officer’s message as saying that he would not believe in pagan sacrifice and that Ura should know it was talking to government of the Queen of England who he the white man merely represented in Nigeria.
How did Ura answer the white man’s threat? It turned its back to the police station as if it wanted to go but puzzlingly, spectators saw the station suddenly and miraculously catch fire. It was a big confusion as the white man, his police men and interested audience ran for their dear lives.
Stories had it that, escaping on his motorbike to Lokoja which was the then Headquarters of Colonial Government, the white man died somewhere in Osara following a sudden and mysterious diarrhea attack. He was said to have warned that no one should ever trifle with Ura before he left Okene that day. Maybe the colonial master had a premonition of his death.
Recounting this story two weeks before she died, Irikidi’s niece, Onobo, the daughter of Ohinoyi Ikuehi, Pa Ikarema and Atta Ibrahim Onoruoiza friend remembered the story she was told about this event vividly.
Hear her: ” As the police station was being razed, Ozuda refused to live. Ohinoyi Atta Ibrahim had to send his messengers to appeal to the king masquerade to go, saying he did not know Ozuda was such a mysterious and powerful masquerade. He sent the ram Ura had requested earlier. The animal was slaughtered and Ura stepped on its blood and returned to Ihima.
To placate the great masquerade further, the Ebira first Paramount ruler decreed that the magical Ozuda would never pay Permit fee in any of its outings and it has been so till date.
For Irikidi, the clever monarch, said that upon her death, instead of the normal funeral ceremony of few months, she should be honoured with three years of funeral rites. Irikidi is on record as the only one whose funerals lasted that long in Ebira funeral history.
Ura returned to Ihima, gaining more fame, more reverence and awesomeness throughout Ebiraland and even beyond. For Omole, Ura prescribed some sacrifices for him to perform at home for escaping its anger in conniving with the white stranger.
The niece of Irikidi, added that: “At that time, clannishness was not known to Ihima. Solidarity reigned supreme. Evako, a big masquerade from Emani clan led other masquerades to solarize with Ura upon its triumphant return from Okene. Akoko, an emerging superpower masquerade of spectacles at that time was also part of the welcoming team.
In fact, Ajindivi masquerade that went late to welcome the returning Ozuda paid a fine of kolanut and wine to Ura. Ihima was one and the same people at that time, Ihima was so feared by the other Ebira that they swore by Ihima to prove their innocence and sincerity on matters of doubt.
They would swear: ” Me Chechen ma ji ahu ngwu Ihima( If I am telling lies, may I set foot in Ihima) Ihima was synonymous with sacredness. See how clannish sentiment has sadly now divided and ruined us,” Onobo lamented.
In Irikidi compound were three mystical pools of water. Knowing that the time to join her ancestors was near, she called her children together and instructed:
” When I die, as you hold my funeral feast, the water you will use for the cooking must be from the water in the compound. Use neither well nor stream water. After the first day, the water will dry, it will come back on the third day for the continuation of the ceremony and dry again.
On the seventh day, it will return, go and come back for my ninth month funeral socials and this mystery will continue till my last funeral rites on the third year.” Everything Irikidi said came to pass; the water never returned after Irikidi’s three year long funeral festival. Who says our ancient people were not closer to God than the modern people of religious zealotry?
Many people had said that Irikidi was the head of Ihima witches. As they reasoned, it was only a woman of great witchcraft that could have done what she did in the Ebira male dominated cultural firmament without hindrances or challenges. She ate with the gods.
She was given a space in the cryptic world of masquerades and the witches who were ubiquitous and feared at that time were never known to have for one day questioned her acclaimed primacy as a woman that could do what men also did and did it better in many domains.
Was Irikidi really the head of witches? ” I don’t think so.” Onobo discountenanced. I know she was very courageous, kind and generous. She could pack children’s defecations with her hand and they didn’t necessarily have to be her children from her compounds, any child at all.
My great aunt would never allow us to hide inside to eat our meals. Even her soup would not be kept on the kitchen rack. She made it open to all and sundry in the need of it. Very kind and generous. You know, she was a herbalist and a diviner. And she did this to help the people.
I think this is why people who were puzzled by her cultural and traditional life said she was the head of witches. But whatever you think, our mother lived for her society. ”
The quintessential Irikidi was really a foremost Ebira woman of culture and tradition. She is the equivalent of a character like Chielo, the priestess of Agbala hills in Chinua Achebe’s” Things Fall Apart” or Iyaloja in Soyinka’s “Death and the King’s Horseman,” who challenged the floundering Elesin for not upholding the ways of his people and Mr Pilkings the white man who saw the Yoruba culture and tradition he did not understand as primitive, barbaric and pagan. Such people exist in every society. Irikidi was our own.
For her role in the preservation of her people’s way of life, Irikidi’s Ohionwa clan during the reign of HRH, Jeremiah Akava, had honoured her as the greatest woman preserver of Ebira culture of her time. Doing this piece in her sweet memory is good. She deserves remembering and always.
It is sad to say that Onobo died two weeks after she told this writer the great Irikidi story. Onobo must have met her great aunt. And she would say, ” I waited to share some of your story with the people of earth before coming.” May the land of the dead be such a blissful place for Onobo and her legendary aunt, Irikidi.
Credits: Mr Gabriel Onimisi Okehi, Chairman, ILF Face of Ihima Program.