Iwara U. Iwara, Team Lead, www.calitown.com, at the invitation of the Obol Lopon of Ugep and Paramount Ruler of Yakurr LGA, Cross River Central, undertook a historical ten kilometre journey with the monarch. He captures in this piece, what he saw and what this journey represents for the people of the Ugep and Mkpani communities of CRS
The message when the phone call came in was straight and to the point. His Royal Majesty, Obol Ofem Ubana Eteng, the 16th Obol Lopon of Ugep and Paramount Ruler of Yakurr LGA, Cross River State, was summoning me, his subject, to accompany him on a historical sojourn, (with more than historical implications) to Mkpani community in Yakurr LGA, five kilometres away by bush path from Ugep, Central CR, in Nigeria’s South South region.
Deep inside, I was lazily inspired to excuse myself from this journey but somewhat overwhelmed by the residual instincts of a journalist, I accepted to make this journey; mainly out of curiousity, with the subdued ecstatic feeling too that this was going to be a brand new experience… something vintage. In very certain terms, this was an invitation to be part of history because this journey is undertaken once, by every new monarch, when he ascends this throne.
Early on the 25th of January, 2022, I called HRM, to confirm my participation in the journey and make final preparations for it. He assured me that we will depart Ugep at 3pm, local time. At 2pm, I obediently made my way to the Umor Otutu palace and was immediately hit by the overwhelming, even overflowing number of persons who had thronged the palace to accompany the Obol Lopon on this journey. In that charged crowd were several sonorously singing local minstrels, vibing in meaningful exultation to a monarch, about to undertake a historic journey. Inside the palace, the courtyard was filled with charcoal-clad warriors who wore red caps, chewed several tree balks and displayed guns and matchetes that showed they all meant business. I greeted the ones I could greet and ignored the ones I couldn’t greet. These men were warriors by choice, compulsively guarding the life of the monarch with their lives.
Not long after, from the left wing of the palace, a tusk was blown…lazily, piercingly and loud. Footsteps moved back and forth with an urgency that clearly told any onlooker that the monarch was coming out of the palace.
When the monarch appeared, he was decked in a regal, free flowing wrapper, the type adorned by Yakurr royalty. Firmly clutching his royal staff, with his dear wife in tow, a canon blasted off to the applause of the very excited crowd. He was quickly surrounded by his guards as he made his way to where a gourd of water, was waiting, to water his feet and supplicate for safe passage to Mkpani and back. As hordes of motorcycles cranked their engines to life and sporadic gunshots rent the air, a royal line of traditional chiefs walked behind the Obol Lopon, turning left and heading for Mkpani.
The entourage is cheered on as we disappear into the bush, through a rocky, winding road, with an undulating topography that makes trekking difficult. While the harmattan weather makes sweating difficult, the lingering humidity of this same weather tires us easily, but the entourage cannot afford to abandon the expedition; the consequences will be dire…I will explain.
For reasons steeped in Yakurr culture and history, at no time can the Ugep monarch fully function as a monarch without performing this walk and attendant rituals in Mkpani. Should any unforseen circumstance(s) prevent him from performing the rituals when he arrives Mkpani, sadly, he will painfully embrace death on his return to Ugep. If he succeeds at performing the rituals, his functions as the Obol Lopon, will have no limitations and the bond between both communities will be solidified.
As the dry harmattan wind caressed our faces and the air in our lungs thinned out, the slopes we descended and the long stretches of slowly rising footpaths we climbed, finally brought us to the Mkpani/Ugep boundary. Within an instant, as the monarch and his entourage was sighted, a hale of happy gunfire which charged the air rang out. Lots of agile young men, from both communities, decked in war gear, took up positions in the bushes and only came out when they were summoned to join in the prayers of peace and well being, said by the ‘Obol Yaseni’.
It won’t hurt at this point to temporarily digress and address something that appears to be subtly raising eyebrows. Several well intentioned persons have openly argued that in 2022, in a time and clime where advances have been made in science and technology, the Obol Lopon of Ugep, should be driven to Mkpani and not allowed to trek for this assignment . Well, on this expedition to Mkpani, the prayers and incantations invoking the ancestral spirit of love and unity, said by the Obol Loseni, at the natural water boundary, for the Ugep & Mkpani communities, would be impossible to achieve if the Obol Lopon was driven to Mkpani. Taking the inner route is for significant sign posts like this and several others that cannot be conveniently described herein.
Well, I noticed that before the ‘Obol Loseni’ began the prayers, there was a strict instruction that members of both communities must be on either side of the boundary; Ugep members on the Ugep side of the boundary and our Mkpani brothers on their side of the boundary. A gourd of water was then expressly provided and the man mouthed prayers and incantations that we tapped anointing from. Water, as a sign of blessing, was poured on the feet and ordered steps of the Obol Lopon, his wife and traditional chiefs before we set foot on Mkpani soil.
Joy overflowed, on the faces and actions of the people, when we finally arrived our destination. The traditional chiefs, dexterously dressed, came out in their numbers and welcomed us to Mkpani. The rythmn of songs from traditional dances eager to outmanoeuvre each other, gave up a compellingly infectious atmosphere that easily showed even the blind that a celebration was in the air. Faces caked with dust, embellished with streaks of virulent sweat became visible, here, there, everywhere, as the evening elements pulled the veil of reluctant darkness over the community. The traditional rites, away from prying eyes, took on a bold vehemence not many of us could confront. I had to join a willing band of men, taking turns at kegs of palmwine, to whet my appetite and relax tired muscles.
Dawn came with a freshness, littered with expectations and an eagerness to see more and it didn’t fall short of my expectations. First, the palace warriors, viciously clad in red, half yard pieces of cloth, tied around their waists, were all over the place. The traditional dance group, ‘Okpoh’ who compliment them was blazing this morning. They churned out songs, in lethal praise of exploits on the battle field, extolling too the virtues of the monarch and his chiefs in tow.
I got to one particular shrine, close to the town square and was let in by a willing contingent of familiar chiefs. My monarch, comfortably seated with his wife, warmly welcomed me too as I was permitted to do a bird’s eye coverage of an aspect of proceedings for that day.
The shrine bore the signs of age and religious use. Several rows of zinc sheets were hemmed into a fence and sheltered objects I have no permission to describe. On one part of the shrine lay a healthy black cock, tied and submissively resting. Dried fish was split into pieces and shared according to traditional rank. I noticed that my monarch collected his wife’s share of the fish and gave it out…yet nobody offered me any fish or morsel of food; hey, who am I?
After a while, my monarch stood up and walked five steps to the mouth of the shrine. He adjusted his rafia robe, tied firmly around his waist and bent at the door, to let himself inside the shrine. He emerged from the shrine shortly after, with a wry smile on his face and the firmness of royalty. Slowly, he picked up the cock, mouthed a few inaudible words and took measured steps towards the little courtyard inches away from the mouth of the shrine. An excessively jubilant crowd waited outside as he emerged with cock in hand, chanted and got a response from the crowd. In minutes, he had circled his head, thrice with the cock before throwing it into the expectant crowd. A stampede followed as men, women and children, fell over each other, hoping to be the one person luck smiles on to catch and own the sacred cock. The cock, a symbol of elevated worship, brings good luck to whoever is lucky to pick it.
Done with this aspect of our engagement, we retire to traditional dances, food, drinks and other communal engagements. I retire to my favourite spot in Mkpani, the large, more than 300years old tree at the village square. Naturally architectured for sitting and relaxation, the tree’s shade ‘houses’ naturally cool breeze that wafts through your face and can lull you to sleep. I do not resist the urge to take a nap, with earphones crooning soft Luther Vandross tunes into my tired body…I am among my people.
An hour later, a heavily decked Obol Lopon of Ugep and an equally elegantly dressed wife, emerge, chiefs and drummers in tow, ready to take a traditional tour of Mkpani. This is a significant aspect of his sojourn as he is presented to large crowds of natives, gathered in clusters. The crowd at each turn is asked, “Obol imin odéh bäh ké o?” (Do you like this Obol?). The ecstatic crowd chorus her yes answer. It is this ‘yes’ answer that authenticates the traditional authority of our local monarch, validates his position and earns him the reverence he enjoys among the people as the custodian of our culture.
On the third and final day, the Mkpani community gathers and Obol Ofem Ubana Eteng, the Obol Lopon of Ugep, thanks them exuberantly for hosting him and then leaves them with a thoughtful and incisive address, one which addresses the community’s internal leadership challenges. Thereafter, in pomp and glamour, we embark on another endurance trek back home to Ugep.
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