Last year, I made my first visit to the Osun-Osogbo grove, Osun State, Nigeria. Given that visit was made outside the festival period, the grove’s atmosphere was quiet, providing me the opportunity to lose myself in its beautiful landscape. My tour guide walked me through the grove showing me the awesome works that Susanne Wenger had overseen during her lifetime.
I walked on the suspension bridge above River Osun and even made it into the sacred shrine. On the other hand, the timing of my visit also meant I didn’t get to experience the festivity that had just ended, few days to my visit.
However, this year’s Osun-Osogbo festival was different. In the weeks leading up to the event, Genii Games teamed up with Ife Martins, a remarkable and adventurous photographer to cover the festival. Together, we sought:
to capture elements of the festival that portray the human angle of its worshippers, spectators and tourists alike.
Our objective was not in isolation. Rather, it was driven by a continuous drive to further demystify the negative stereotypes surrounding these traditional beliefs by a section of society, which erroneously deems it diabolic.
To achieve that, we adopted a simple approach:
Capture the faces and views of everyday people like us during the festival.
To that end, we took pictures and also ran series of short interviews where we sought their views on pertinent issues relating to the symbolism of their esteemed faith, its promotion, preservation and evolution with time.
Our mission started with the Isese Day (a day set aside for traditional worshippers to parade and showcase their faith to the public) which held on Thursday, August 20th. The view was very colorful showing the glitz of traditional faiths in lights hardly seen by many. It had the very emblems of a red carpet parade except that this one had distinct features of deep-rooted traditions to it.
This was followed by the grand finale on Friday, the 21st of August. We joined the crowd at the Ataoja’s palace in Osogbo. Here, the crowd continued to grow by the hour waiting in anticipation for the emergence of the arugba (maiden who carries the sacred calabash from the Palace to the Osun grove) and afterwards, followed processions to the Osun-Osogbo grove attesting to the hysteria. Prayers and Cries of yeye o rented the air as the arugba emerged and made her way down the slope to the grove.
Our objective was validated by the enthusiasm, passion, will, candor, joy showed by these people. They spoke with pride about their traditional faiths sharing testimonies.
Many dazzled in their traditional white and multi-colored attires. Some even adopted unique styles to mark the day.
The bata drummers and dancers who serenaded the air with beautiful drumming and rhythms thrilled the crowd. You couldn’t help it. Bodies moved to the rhythms. Some got lost in it. I did on several occasions.
As the arugba eventually made it to the grove, hundreds thronged the Osun river scooping from it, drinking, washing. Here, you got a glimpse of their deep-rooted faith.
There was a lot to drink and eat. Families had tables around the grove, live bands played, some sold wares; everything from artifacts to clothes. People posed for pictures. You couldn’t miss the excitement as worshippers consented to my requests for pictures and interviews. For these ones, this was no ordinary day. It meant a lot to them; old, young, male, female, black and white. This was a big one!
There was a unique sense of fashion that caught everyone’s attention. To me, it spoke of royalty. The white regalia of the Osun priests and priestesses stood them out. The distinct bracelets and bells among other characteristic ornaments of the worshippers added to the beauty of the atmosphere. The decorative naturally plaited hairstyles, amazing!
Gunshots from dane guns permeated the noisy grove in ways that thrilled rather than instill fear. Young men cleared the way with canes and shouts to announce the presence of dignitaries. The scene was electrifying to say the least. Outside the grove and across Osogbo, the celebration continued with families gathered eating, drinking and dancing.
A burning question prior to my experience was, ‘what was the succession plan for the traditional faith?’ I wanted to ask the custodians of the faith but in the end, I didn’t need to. I had an answer in the scene I’d just witnessed. The beautiful kids showed me the next generation of folks to take our traditional faiths to the next level. I have no doubt that these kids groomed in their faith together with modern day fads means the evolution of the faith stands to gain from time.
My initial fears now allayed, I joined in the celebration posing for pictures.
For all said and expressed about the declining fate of our indigenous cultures, the Osun-Osogbo festival gives hope. Its continuous embrace by the people — old, young, far and wide, worshippers and spectators alike — centuries on is further testament to its significance.