By Evelyn Osagie
Nigeria is blessed with many tourist destinations. One of them, Osogbo in Osun State, is a land of beauty, culture and art that houses the famed UNESCO World Heritage Site, Osun Grove. The town has become a place of pilgrimage to many; it is chock full of historical and cultural activities that draw visitors from Nigeria and beyond. The most famous of these is the Osun Osogbo Festival, held every August.
Founded on an ancient covenant entered into circa 1370 AD between the first Osogbo settlers and the Osun river goddess, the festival has become an annual ritual marked by plenty of fanfare. The two-week cultural fiesta begins with Iwopopo, the traditional cleansing of the town. This is followed three days later by the lighting of the 641 year old Atupa Olojumerindinlogun (the 16 point lamp). Iboriade is held four days later. This is the assemblage of the crowns of all past rulers of Osogbo (Ataojas), for blessings.
The ceremonies culminate in the cultural procession of people to the Osun Grove, a spectacle that commands the interest of thousands of tourists every year. The procession begins in the Ataoja’s palace and its star attraction is the votary maid, Arugba. She is the maiden who carries the sacred calabash of prayers and offerings to the grove. Arugba is escorted on the walk by Osun priests and priestesses who begin by leading her round the palace premises and back to a sacred hut.
By this time, the grove and streets leading to the palace are teeming with people awaiting the appearance of the Arugba. Guarded by devotees, she comes out of the hut and stands by its entrance, and the calabash is placed on her head from behind. Immediately the atmosphere is electrified. The tempo increases as people press against one another; cameramen jostle for shots as she exits the palace and heads towards the grove. The crowd increases at every junction and Arugba’s advance is accompanied by chants of “Oore yeye o!” – a lyrical exhortation of blessings to the Osun goddess.
She leads the procession into the grove where the crowd awaiting her is almost the size of her ‘entourage’. The arrival sparks fervent prayers accompanied by the snapping of fingers to cast off curses and ill-luck. The excitement regularly creates a stampede that is kept in check by the large retinue of security officers specially drafted for the occasion. Arugba finally goes to the river with the calabash as the cultural festivities continue.
For the people and their king, the Ataoja of Osogbo, Oba Jimoh Oyetunji Olanipekun (Larooye II), the festival is a period of reunion and rededication. Beyond that, Osun Osogbo brings to the spotlight the town’s hospitality, which has become a money-spinning tourism venture for the state. As Osun faithful, culture lovers and tourists enjoy the revelries, dance and chant, the town’s purse swells.
Osun Osogbo enjoys the support of many local and international brands. They bid to outshine one another with entertaining events that complement the core festival, including concerts, competitions and beauty pageants. Local artisans display their crafts. And tourists pour in in ever increasing numbers. According to Oladipo Soyode, special adviser to the Osun governor on tourism and culture, the 2013 festival doubled the previous year’s visitor numbers.
Next year, foreign tourists will have the choice of flying directly into the ancient town for the celebrations instead of making the road journey from Ibadan or Lagos. The ongoing resuscitation of the old airstrip at Ido-Osun into a runway of 2.4 kilometres with associated airport is expected to be complete by then. When it is, the Osun Grove will be more accessible than ever – and that should make for an even bigger, even more captivating festival.