Sons and daughters of Afa in Okeagbe- Akoko community in Akoko North-West Local Government Area of Ondo State, were recently joined by their friends and associates from far and wide to showcase their rich tradition and culture, writes KAYODE OLANREWAJU
The people of Afa and the entire Okeagbe-Akoko community in Akoko North-West Local Government Area of Ondo State will never forget the 2021 Ibegbe festival in a hurry, as the memories of the unique cultural fiesta will continue to linger in their minds. The Ibegbe festival or Age Grade/graduation ceremony, which is celebrated every nine years, usually ushers in a new dawn of culture and tradition rejuvenation and integration of the people as well as the community, located in the rocky area of Akokoland in South West Nigeria.
It was a day that the sons and daughters of Afa-Okeagbe at home and in the Diaspora, joined by their associates from all walks of life, relatives, friends and colleagues converge on Afa community to celebrate the age grade/graduation ceremony amid pomp. The Ibegbe Festival marks the graduation of one age group (the Oyere Ogbogbomudu (Egbegun/Warriors) to the community elders, referred to by the people as Agbene Igu.
To celebrate this year’s festival, the community, led by the traditional ruler, the Ajana of Afa and his Council of Chiefs, from March 4 to 6, 2021, rolled out the drums to revel the unique cultural festivities. The Ibegbe/age grade festival, according to tradition of the people as passed over to the community by their forefathers, should not be held less than nine years apart. Apart from the elevation or graduation of Oyere to the elders’ status, the celebration also marks the promotion of Origbo age class to Oyere, as the newly inducted community Warriors/Egbegun, who by the tradition, would serve the community and people as the “Warrior/Egbegun” for the next nine years, when the next Ibegbe ceremony will take place for them to graduate in succession as elders.
However, what made this year’s Ibegbe ceremony unique was that it was held 15 years after the last Ibegbe was held. The last one was held in 2006. Although the years of interregnum, according to the traditional institution and elders of the community, which was due to some community engagements and some happenings beyond the control of the community, would not be peculiar to the Oyere Class, as similar cases, although not as long as this, had been witnessed in a few instances when the festival had to be put on hold because of the circumstances of those periods. Meanwhile, the festival would have been held in 2020 before it was abruptly suspended by the Oba-In-Council, led by the Ajana of Afa, Oba Oladunjoye Fajana, a few days to the event due to the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that hit the entire world, and particularly the country in February last year, resulting in the total lockdown of the entire country.
This year’s festival, which has so far been described as the best in the history of the community, attracted numerous dignitaries from all walks of life, including top government functionaries, captains of industry, political stalwarts and party chieftains, traditional rulers from neighbouring towns and villages who converged on the community to celebrate the rich culture and tradition of Afa people.
The history of Ibegbe festival, which, according to the community’s oral and written history, is old as Afa community itself, as it all began from time immemorial by the forefathers and progenitors of the people of Afa from their ancestral home at ‘Apole’ before the people migrated to the present Okeagbe in the early 1920’s. According to the history of the community, what is today regarded as Okeagbe-Akoko was perfected by Reverend Canon (later Archdeacon) Lackland Augustus Lenon, a British Jamaican Anglican Missionary and the District Officer for Akoko/Owo Affairs, who was deployed by the colonial masters to Ikare-Akoko in Akoko North East Local Government Area to oversee the administrative structures of the area.
Going by tradition, the Ibegbe festival usually takes place in the month of March of the particular year that the ceremony is expected to hold during the dry season when there would be no rain, as rain should not fall especially when people are at Ooko for the graduation rites.
Based on the available record, the first Ibegbe festival held at the present day Okeagbe- Akoko community, which today comprises Afa, Oge, Aje and Iddo Quarters, took place in 1939, when the then Oyere Class, named the Egbe Agboyinbogoke undergone the graduation rites as Agbene Igu; the next Ibegbe festival that followed took place in 1952 for Oyere (Egbe Ajimoko); and in that order, the next Ibegbe Festival was held in 1969 for Oyere (Egbe Kole Kole/Idera); in 1981 it was that of Oyere (Egbe Oniyo); and in 1993 for Oyere (Egbe Imole); as well as Oyere (Egbe Akorewolu) in 2006.
The 2021 Ibegbe festival was named Egbe Itesiwaju/Ireayo by the community’s traditional institution in consonance with the customs of the people. According to the Traditional Council, the name given to each graduating Oyere Class is got through Ifa divinity, while the name usually depicts or centres around the activities of that particular Oyere Class in the context of progress achieved by the community in the scheme of development and growth during the nine-year service as that particular Oyere Class. However, it was a bright Saturday morning; the early morning sun had just risen and was allured by a cool breeze with no sign of rainfall.
As early as 5am, the community was already aglow with each household busy cooking varieties of food, especially pounded yam, the main delicacy of the people. The entire Okeagbe-Akoko community, from the entry to exit points of the town, was wearing a new look, radiating with decorations of various colours and banners of different sizes which adorned the town. The magnificent new Palace Gate and fence constructed by the Oyere Ogbogbomodu, as one of the Class’ community projects, ushered in a new ambience as the festival birthed a fresh mood of unity, friendliness and progress.
As early as 6am on that Saturday, March 6, the usual seven gunshots of local guns (Oturu), were fired at the Omode Owa (Oba’s Palace) to declare open the festival and the commencement of the journey to Ooko, the ancestral home (Apole) of the people of Afa community where prayers and supplications are usually offered for the graduating Oyere Class and the transition of Origbo group to Oyere for long life, good health, prosperity, as well as for the peace, harmony, progress and development of the sons and daughters of Afa, the community and the entire Okeagbeland.
As soon as the seven gunshots were fired, all the graduating Oyere trooped to the Oba’s Palace, also called Omode Owa, where they all assembled for a brief prayer session before embarking on the journey to Ooko. The journey to Ooko usually begins a few minutes past 6am in order to avoid making the journey in the scorching sun. All the members of graduating Oyere Class are expected to dress in white Agbada or Buba, which is the traditional attire for the ceremony, with neck and hand beads as well as caps to fit while going to Ooko, where the festival is being performed with prayers and supplications for peace for the graduating Oyere Class.
As part of the rites, before departing the palace for the commencement of the journey to Ooko, the Ajana-In-Council, joined by some the elders of the community (men and women), would hold a prayer session for the Oyeres that they will go in peace and return in peace. Firing of the gunshots is significant as it indicates that the Warriors (Oyere) were getting ready to embark on the journey to and from Ooko for the graduation ceremony, which usually lasts between three and five hours.
The over seven-kilometre journey to Ooko is by trekking through paths which lead to people’s farms. For the journey, which is done with fun, singing and dancing, the graduating Oyeres are usually joined by their wives, natives or non-natives of the community, who must also dress in white native attires as their husbands, as well as other family members and other members of the community.
As the journey progresses with singing and dancing, local gunshots are fired intermittently into the sky by the Origbo as part of the celebration. This is also to show that they are prepared and assure the people of their readiness to take up the new task, challenges and responsibilities of defending and protecting the community as Oyere or Egbegun.
The kabiyesi and his traditional chiefs, joined by some elders in the community, would lead the journey to Ooko, as they are to perform the prayer session and the graduation ceremony. The journey to Ooko, which is initially through one path, at a point is divided into two paths (one to the right and the other to the left). The graduating Oyere Class will take the right path while going to Ooko, while the Origbo group and other people and well-wishers will take the left path.
This is in line with the tradition of the celebration. But on returning from Ooko after the prayer and necessary supplications, the Oyere, now the Agbene Igu (elders), will take the left path, and the Origbo group, who have just transited to the new Oyere Class, will take the right path.
The two groups will meet at the point, called Sasawuru stream, where they had earlier departed while going to Ooko. From there, all the people will join the new Agbene Igu and Oyere in singing, drumming and dancing to the palace, where they would be received by other members of the community, relations, family members and friends for another prayer session that climaxed the ceremony.
In performing the graduation rites and prayer session for the graduating Oyere Class at Ooko, His Royal Highness, the Ajana of Afa, Dr. Fajana, was joined by other traditional high chiefs, led by the Ologotun of Igase-Afa; High Chief Stephen Adewunmi; the Ologotun of Ogotun-Afa, High Chief Adedayo Abe, and the Olori Olode of Afa, High Chief Adekanbi; among others. Addressing the graduating Oyere Class at Ooko, Oba Fajana, who thanked God for His benevolence and mercies on the community and the Oyere Class, recalled that 15 years ago, when this graduating set of Oyeres were enlisted, he had thought they won’t be able to perform, but that he and the community were today pleased that they had so far worked and done so well.
The monarch lauded the graduating Oyere for the new Palace Gate project, which he described as a modern architectural design, constructed by members of the set as their community project to elevate the palace. “I want to thank you on behalf of the Afa community for your strong determination, resilience and will to promote peace, stability and development of our community and the entire Okeagbe, as well as your tenacity to uphold the tradition of our people,” he said.
The monarch, who sued for peaceful co-existence in the community, however, offered prayers to God that the community will continue to witness and experience peace, unity and exponential and rapid development, and that nothing bad or evil will befall Afa and Okeagbe community in general. He added: “You (Egbe Ireayo/Itesiwaju) have really done well.
We salute your courage for making the community proud. I also thank the good people of Afa for making this year’s Ibegbe festival a reality.” Oba Fajana, who pointed out that Oyere Class is the community warrior (Ologun Ilu or Egbegun Ilu), went down the memory lane. “In the olden days, two male children of the same family were not allowed to go to war at the same time, so that the family would not lose the two of them in the war at the same time. That is why one male child is selected from each family to go to war to defend the community,” he said.
But, according to him, now that the community no longer fights or goes to war and members of Oyere Class no longer go to war, they now help in the development of the community by embarking in various infrastructural projects that will enhance the socio-economic and livelihood of the people. According to the monarch, with the eradication of tribal wars over the years, the role of Oyere has morphed from warriors of battles to architects of development. On his part, High Chief Adewunmi, a communication expert, lauded the kabiyesi for his royal steadfastness and prayed that God will continue to give him sound health and grant him more years on the throne of his forefathers to pilot the affairs of the community.
He, however, thanked the Oyere Class for bringing development to the town, saying the community, through the Oyere, produced member of House of Representatives, Speaker of the state House of Assembly, lawyers, medical doctors, chairman of the local government and respectable professionals, while a lot of good things happened during their years of service as Oyere. Meanwhile, High Chief Abe, the Ologuntu of Oguntun Afa who is a chartered accountant, also thanked the people and Oyere Class for their commitment to the development of the community, even as he challenged them to continue to foster the peace, love and unity of the community at every level which, according to him, are very criti-cal to the growth of the town and its people. “Everyone should be ready to work for the progress of Afa and Okeagbe town in general in unity, love and friendship,” Abe noted.
In his remarks, the Olori Olode of Afa, High Chief Sunday Adekanmbi, a retired head-teacher, charged the new Oyere Class and Origbo group to be ready and prepared to work for the community, even as he lauded the graduating Oyere Class for their commitment towards the development of Afa in particular. Responding, the Olori Egbe Itesiwaju/ Ireayo, Ojo Akinniyi, thanked that Almighty God, the kabiyesi, the Council of Chiefs, and the entire people of Afa, as well as members of Oyere Class for the long journey, and congratulated them on being alive to witness their graduation which, “the long journey to graduation/freedom,” according to him, started in 2006.
However, the ceremony was climaxed by a reception organised by the graduating Oyere Class at the palace, where the guests were entertained with sumptuous meals and music from the Fuji Maestro, Dr. Saidi Osupa, who was on stage to entertain the people as part of hospitality nature of Afa and Okeagbe community. Welcoming the kabiyesi, chiefs, guests and the people to the reception, the Chairman of the Steering Committee for Ibegbe Festival 2021, Dr. Foluso Arewa (now the High Chief Rawa of Afa, Okeagbe), said the Ibegbe festival graduates the Oyere Class into the highest level in the scheme of things in the community. According to him, the festival also confers on the graduating Oyere Class all the legitimate rights and privileges as elders of Afa community in Okeagbe. Tracing the history of the Ibegbe festival, Arewa, who said that the ceremony was bequeathed to the people of Afa by their progenitors, explained that they participated and laid the solid foundation which had been built upon through successful generations.
He recalled that the Oyere Ogbogbomudu went to the task in 2006 with the zeal, love for Afa and determination to serve the community without minding the challenges. “I am, indeed, motivated and fascinated by the uncommon commitment and loyalty of the entire Oyere as they gave their best to the Afa cause…. “Without mincing words, this group of Oyere would appear to be the longest serving troops in the history of Afa-Okeagbe. We served Afa to the best of our abilities and to the admiration of all Afa citizens.”
The Olori Oyere, Ojo Akinniyi, who steered the leadership of the graduating Oyere Set for 15 years, recalled that Okeagbe community is known for being the most peaceful and united despite its diversity as a town with four communities/quarters. He listed some of the projects executed by the Oyere Ireayo/Itesiwaju to include, but not limited, to the modern gate and perimeter fencing of the Ajana Palace; grading of Ooko Road; while the time of the graduating Oyere Class between 2006 and 2021 witnessed the elevation of some sons and daughters of Afa and the entire Okeagbe community, including Dr. Olufowobi Bakita Bello as the speaker of Ondo State House of Assembly; election of Hon. Bunmi Tunji-Ojo (BTO) as member of House of Representatives and Chairman of House Committee on NDDC, representing Akoko North-East/Akoko North-West Federal Constituency; election of Hon. Ayodele Akande as Executive Chairman of Akoko North- West Local Government Area; among other numerous achievements of the community.
Akinniyi commended the Ajana and the Chiefs-In-Council for their uncommon determination for the unity and development of the town. “Let me use this medium to implore all sons and daughters of Afa Okeagbe to rise up for the development of our community, while the younger ones should respect and emulate the elders in the community to enhance the progress and foster the unity of our community,” he said.
Welcoming guests to the palace after returning from Ooko, in his royal message to the people of the community and the Oyeres in particular, the Ajana of Afa, Oba Fajana, urged the new Agbene Igu (graduating Oyere) to continue to work for the love, unity, progress and development of the entire Okeagbe community. He, however, challenged them on the need to bring rapid development to the town by joining other sons and daughters of Afa and the entire Okeagbe-Akoko to invest in order to promote socio-economic growth and forge peace among the people. Paying homage to his forbearers and former royal highnesses of Afa, Oba Fajana recalled that Oba Ajana Amanaooko founded and established the Oyere Cadre in Afa during his reign.
The monarch also recalled that this Oyere Ireayo/Itesiwaju would be the third set he would have the awesome privilege to graduate during his reign, and congratulated the Ojo Akinniyi-Oyeres. Oba Fajana, who was with his wife, Olori Fadekemi Fajana, said: “It is custom for Oyere Class to return to the palace for royal prayer after their final pilgrimage to Ooko as completion of their rites of passage. I want to congratulate this graduating class for their perseverance and commitment to seeing their task to a glorious end.
“While there were several obstacles for this class to graduate, they rose to the occasion. As we all know, this event was scheduled to take place this time last year, but due to COVID-19 pandemic we were required to postpone the ceremony until now.
I want to thank all our community leaders and Afa people for their patience and understanding.” Reliving a short history of the festival and relishing the (festival) ceremony, the kabiyesi explained: “For those who are not from Okeagbe and Akoko generally, you may not truly understand the significance of this ceremony. In the olden days, Yorubaland was rife with wars and skirmishes. These conflicts pitted communities against one another. The only way to ensure survival was to have a military force to protect the community and to answer to the kabiyesi.
“The Oyere Ogbogbomudu are ablebodied men responsible for warding off external aggressions, protecting the oba and chiefs, and serving as guards who provide protection and security for the entire community and its people. “For instance, if there were external aggressions from neighbouring villages or towns, the Oyere group would rise to the challenge.
The configuration of Afa today, clearly shows us as a monarchy, a kingdom built on our tripod structure – Ogunna, Ogosi and Ogotun. All the various component parts produce or enlist their sons to serve in the Egbegun (military force); one male child per family. “For the categories, a male child must be 40 years or above to qualify as Oyere; Origbo (25 years); Ilekure (15 years), who are regarded as teenagers, while the Oluode Afa is the head of all the groups, who and his cohorts answer only to the Ajana.”
The monarch recalled that several years ago, during the transition period, not only did the Oyeres sing as they are doing today, the Oyere Afa Class also put down and buried all their war armaments along Omi Funfun Road on their way home from Ooko. “The remnants are still there for the sighting as a source of our pride and collective history,” he added. According to the kabiyesi, with the change in times came a new call to action, and the Oyere Class has since been responsible for championing various developmental projects and concerns of the community and leading the way for a better Okeagbe.