“One man’s poison is another man’s food.”
This succinctly explains the case of ‘Ogbono’, a Nigerian soup that has become increasingly forbidden to the indigenes of Asaba, the Delta State capital, from time immemorial. Ogbono is a kind of food. It is sweet like honey when ganished with other condiments and it settles into a pot of soup. But lo and behold, it is an abomination for indigenes of Asaba to either secretly cook it or eat it.
History has it that the outward sign of the consequences of disregarding the forbidden food by any indigene, is peeled tongue or the tongue of the person will clip to his or her mouth. Asaba town, which is situated on the terrace of the River Niger, overlooking the point where the Anambra River flows into it, is approximately 60 degree North of the equator and about the same distance East of the prime meridian with an estimated area of 200 square kilometers.
The National Institute of Horticultural and Agricultural Research Training (NIHORT) has it that Ogbono has an edge over other foods. The Head of Research, Review and Planning Committee, Dr Ephraim I. Nwanguma, supported by the Executive Director of the institute, Dr Abayomi Olaniyan, during a value food chain training programme on ‘Ugu’ (Telfairia) a Vegetable crop at Kwale in Ndokwa West Local Government Area of the state, said Ogbono seed contains Vitamin C, low sugar and Fibre content and supplies bile in the body. It facilitates digestion and easy excretion of food. In the capital city, to sell Ogbono seed, cook or eat it as a non-indigene, you must hide.
You must hide even your cooking utensils, bury your face in your kitchen. It is so forbidden in the town that an indigenous landlord would not hesitate to serve a quit notice on any tenant for selling or openly cooking it within his compound. Last year, a non-indigene from Benin in Edo State, Mr Clever Osadolor, played a fast game on his landlord at Umuagu, one of the ancient Quarters in Asaba, but he was unlucky. He had spent over three years in the town. He had lived within Umuonaji Quarters before relocating to Umudaike and Ogboesowe. He cannot claim ignorance of the forbidden food.
To his co-tenants, Osadolor’s appetite for Ogbono is unrestricted, but this was unknown to the landlords of the houses he had stayed. This time, he bought more than enough seeds of the food from Benin City for his wife to cook. While his wife was busy cooking it, the landlord perceived the aroma. He quickly served him quit notice.
It was another tenant in the compound that later told him of how three other tenants were sacked from the compound for cooking Ogbono soup, and they lost their yearly house rent payment to it. He was told to thank God that the landlord did not drag him before the Omu or the traditional heads of the quarters where he would be fined and banished from the quarters, after being compelled to appease the gods of the land. One is therefore tempted to ask, how did the community come about this mythology? History has it that prior to when Ogbono became a forbidden food in Asaba Quorters, namely, Umuagu, Umuanaji, Umudaike etc, there was a man popularly known as Nnebisi in the town.
He is the widely acclaimed ancestor of Asaba people, who was the son of Onojobo, an Igala Prince and trader, whose mother Njom, from Nteje in the present day Anambra State The said Nnebisi lived with his mother in Nteje, where he was being treated as an outcast. He was severally denied his due during the popular Nteje Festivals, owing to the fact that his father did not come from Nteje.
Although, various accounts were attributed to the historical background of Ogbono as it concerns Asaba people, but it was recorded that during the celebration of Nteje festival, whoever that catches the festival cow was entitled to its tail (efi). The brave Nnebisi was able to record the feat on several occasions, but he was denied his entitlement for being a stranger in Nteje.
Out of dejection, he summoned courage, approached his mother (Njom) to ask if he was actually a native of Nteje. Consequently, he got to know that his biological father was an indigene of Ahaba, the present day Asaba, in present day Oshimili South Local Government Area of Delta State.
It did not end at that. History further postulate that when Nnebisi was to meet with his father, Njom prepared a charm for him and the condiments of the charm included Ogbono, a lady and a stone. During Nnebisi’s journey back to Asaba, after crossing the present day River Niger, the stone fell down and he named the place Ahaba (which today was corrupted as Asaba), meaning, ‘I have settled down.’ Few years after, Ogbono tree germinated and started to grow around the area where the stone fell, which today has come to be known as Onishe- Shrine in Asaba.
When Njom visited her son in Asaba, she warned that because the charm she prepared for his journey contained Ogbono and a lady, his descendants must not eat or sell the food (seed). This, according to a traditional title holder in the town, who identified himself as Ogbueshi Obiajulu, was in appreciation to the fact that Ogbono brought the true son of Nnebisi back home, hale and hearty, even as it made him strong throughout his sojourn in Nteje, while the lady in the charm, that has come to be known as Onishe – is highly revered till date as the Asaba River goddess. The production, consumption and income value chain would have increased tremendously in the state, if not for the age-long restriction that was placed on it by the custom and tradition.
Before the demise of the Olikeze of Asaba, the former Palace Secretary to the Asagba-in-Council, Chief John Iloba, he expressed a contrary history about the forbidden food in Asaba. His account was borne out of the disgrace Ogbono soup brought upon the Onishe – the distinguished River goddess of Asaba at a ceremony where she was billed to receive an excellent award. According to him, Onishe, who later became the river goddess of Asaba was invited to a dance party where she was served with Ogbono soup, which she hurriedly consumed. “While eating, the soup stained her white traditional garment. She did not see it until the people started mimicking her with song.
She later saw the stain and became worried and left the scene unceremoniously without waiting to get the award she danced beautifully to receive. “On getting home again, her children drew her attention to the stain. Out of provocation, she removed the dress and headed for the forest and burnt it. She placed a curse on anyone, especially indigenes of Asaba that would eat Ogbono soup and threatened grave consequences upon the land before she disappeared. “The spot where she disappeared has come to be known as Onishe- Shrine till date in Asaba, even as her spirit is being worshipped there,” he narrated.
Despite the dissimilarities in the historical accounts, the Shrine stands out. It remains the only nexus between the two accounts. Today, the Shrine is believed to have granted protection, guidance and provision to the people of Asaba during the Biafran War. Also, history postulated the efficacy of the Shrine as it prevented the Nigerian soldiers from crossing the River Niger from both sides.
The Onishe allegedly seized their boats and other war weapons, a retired soldier, who did not want his name in the print, confirmed. The rite of activities at the shrine have turned it to a Mecca of a sort, as tourists centre where those in dare need of spiritual healing and help take solace on daily basis. People throng the Shrine, irrespective of their religious affiliation. Special appeals and appeasement for cleansing are offered for barren women, businessmen and women, the sick, job seekers, government officials, politicians and others, at the Shrine.
Besides that, it is boldly written on the wall of the entrance to the Shrine that worshippers are expected to adhere to some protocols, one, that all intending worshippers must be in a state of grace, especially must not engage in sexual intercourse for seven days prior to the visit, should not have taken palm wine, must be 65 years and above, should not be preparing for burial, while non-natives are restricted, it is forbidden to beg for the death of other persons there. And importantly, promises made before the Shrine must likewise be fulfilled, once request is granted. All these rules and regulations are strictly adhered to before any audience could be granted at the Shrine.
The New Telegraph gathered that there were several people who had come there to beg for one thing or the other, mostly the fruit of the womb; job slots, political appointments or elective positions, and they got their requests granted. Interestingly, there is no permanent custodian at the entrance to the Shrine, except the visible but undying Ogbono tree, which is believed, harbours the Onishe spirit formed from the charm, and about 12 pots (jars) of water. Anybody coming there must be fully dressed in white robe, and must drop white cloth and native chalks into the pots while disclosing his or her intention with the assistance of a Chief Priest.
The water, it was further learnt, is supposed to be flowing and stable. During the rite of worship, worshippers must eat with themselves. It is not a case of ‘anything goes’ for the Onishe. She has a way of rejecting an unpleasant offering, especially if the worshipper is unclean. “After the worship, normally a messenger vulture would appear for inspection before others could fly out to eat the remnants.
If they do not fly out and the river continues to turn round instead of flowing, it means the sacrifice was rejected,” the Chief Priest said. He further explained the efficacy of the Shrine when he said, “the Onishe (Ogbono) tree grew around the river, the branches of the tree spread across the river, but none of the leaves would ever fall into the river despite that the branches spread on top of it.
It is a mystery. This further established the spiritual presence of the lady.” He attested to the fact that the Onishe always appear to worshippers who are in distress. A woman, who simply identified herself as Madam Chineye in Asaba confirmed the spiritual prowess of the Onishe.
She narrated how she has been visiting the Shrine until she got pregnant and gave birth to a bouncing baby girl over 18 years ago. She said: “It has been miraculous. We have been visiting the Shrine for sometime now and it has been answering our prayers. It was there God gave me my only baby girl. She gained admission into the Delta State Polytechnic, Ogwashi-Uku, last year.”
A businessman at the popular Ogbeogonogo market in Asaba, a dealer in provisions who declined his name and the nature of the sickness he was healed of, said “things have changed positively in my life and that is the reason I could not stop going to Onishe.”
The testimony of Chukwuwieke Obiazor, a public servant in the state, who said he was introduced to the Shrine by his mother, claimed he has been counting numerous blessings since he has been consistent at the Onishe Shrine and in turn, the Onishe has not rejected his request but kept to her promises.
He said: “The spiritual power of the Shrine cannot be underestimated. If anyone attempts to cover up for evil doing and he or she is brought to the Shrine, the truth would be made known except the person wants to take a deadly risk.” At Ogbeoghonogo Market in Asaba, Madam Felicia Obieze, a chieftain of the Market Women Association maintained that Ogbono remain a forbidden food in Asaba, notwithstanding its richness and nutritional values. She said: “It is a serious offence here to shade or sell Ogbono. If anybody is caught with it, we have the Omu Children Task Force to deal with it. Offenders have to buy goat, fowl, yam, oil and others and equally dance round the market for cleansing as custom and tradition demand. Also, any bad thing can happen to the offender if she goes near a river.
Whoever doubt the curse and eat it will have his tongue peeled thereby making it difficult for the offender to eat any other food, until he or she confesses to the crime.” But a lady from Nmiata in Anam axis of Anambra State distanced herself from the myth surrounding Ogbono in Asaba. She said she has been selling Ogbono seed for the past eight years within the town and she was never arrested by any Omu Task Force. “Though, I display other goods, but I always hide the Ogbono inside my desk. Customers enter inside the store or come to my house to buy. I know the implication of displaying it for sale hence I took caution in the risky business.
The forbid only applies to Asaba indigenes, not visitors to the town.” She said many residents in Asaba, those from other parts of the state – Urhobo, Ukwuani, Ndokwa, Irshekiri, Isoko, Ijaw and others from Edo, Kogi and South Eastern and Western states, all eat Ogbono soup on daily basis.
“They patronise me. They are the biggest customers I have,” she said. The question agitating the minds of people remains that despite that people continue to throng the Shrine on a daily basis to seek solution to their problems and they are getting results, residents are still awaiting when the forbidden curse that was placed on the juicy food in Asaba will be lifted, especially as no evidence abound or news trend that tongue peeled or clipped to anyone’s mouth for eating Ogbono in the town for over a decade.
But a member of the Farmers’ Association in the state, an indigene of Asaba, who pleaded anonymity, said that since Asaba is a state capital and harbours different people from different backgrounds, the market strategy for Ogbono must change, as it is still a fashionable soup. He said members of their association are not discouraged from marketing Ogbono. He said: “There are other towns and villages in the state. There is a ready market for it. Who says you cannot take the sale to other parts of the state.
The ban only concerns Asaba and that is why people hide it for sale, even within the town. “Hiding it means you know the implication and you are obeying the restriction. But that does not stop people from exploring the richness and profitability of the seed. As long as people continues to besiege the Shrine on daily basis to seek solution to their perceived spiritual problems and they are getting results, the ban on Ogbono is not likely to be lifted soon.”