Ritual Aesthetics of Mbaise – Igbo Funeral through Eshe Performance art
By MCPHILIPS NWACHUKWU
Death among the Mbaise-Igbo of Nigeria like in other culture areas of Nigeria is a phenomenon that has deep symbolic implication between the living and the dead. Among Mbaise-Igbo, the occasion of death like the occasion of birth is celebrated with deep emotional attachment.
However, the celebration of death, as a rite of passage to the metaphysical world, is more fundamentally accorded a heightened ritual elevation, especially to that deceased parent, who apart from having lived to a good old age, had also, lived a fruitful and well accomplished life, such that the impact of his spent life is felt not only by his family, but also, by the larger members of his community.
Having lived such a fulfilled life, coupled with the people's belief in ancestral power relation between the dead and living and, their fate in re-incarnation, the Mbaise- Igbo
consider it absolutely important to accord such a dead parent a proper burial, that is manifest in the elaborate burial rites culturally defined for such passages.
Among Mbaise-Igbo, a person is not yet buried in the proper burial sense until this elaborate burial ceremony popularly known as Okwukwu or ifu onu is carried out for him. Okwukwu as a final rite of passage for the dead Mbaise-Igbo aged parent involves an elaborate feasting and ritual processes.
Deriving from the peoples belief that an accomplished parent, whose children do not bury properly by carrying out the elaborate Okwukwu ceremony will not be accorded a place of honor among other ancestral parents in the here after, and consequently may turn violent against his family members; and especially against the eldest son of the family, who on the death of his father automatically becomes the ofo title holder of his family, the family of such deceased parent continues to live on the edge of life on daily basis, out of fear that some enemies of the deceased family may capitalize of this non performance of the proper burial rites for their father to invoking the spirit of dead parent to come and demand of such sacrificial rite, without which his children will be visited with unexplainable afflictions in the form of death, undiagonisable ailments and all forms of troubles as the case may be.
Okwukwu ceremony in Mbaise
Okwukwu, as a ritual feast is a very elaborate ceremony. It is a ceremony that smacks of showing off wealth. Death being a ritual journey that connects the families of the living and the dead; Okwukwu, therefore, involves the participation of all the family lineages of the deceased person, in whose honor the ritual ceremony takes place: It is a ceremony that involves the kinsmen of the dead person, his maternal home kinsmen, the umuda (family daughters married outside) and umu okele (children whose maternal homes are identified as the village of the deceased person.)
As one ceremony, which affords the Mbaise-Igbo a meaningful opportunity to dramatize all the mythical and superstitious belief systems that shape their world and spiritual imagination, okwukwu ceremony is steeped in a lot of religious rituals.
Among some of these beliefs is that a man must have lived to achieve all that he achieved in life or not, because of the strength of his mind and his hand (hard work) or lack of these, as the case may be. Based on this thinking, on the occasion of death and during the okwukwu ceremony, a deceased person, in whose honor, the ritual feast is called, is taken through a ritual ceremony of physical and spiritual empowerment.
Among the people, the ritual killing of dog popularly called iwa nkita anya or empowering of the eye, is carried out on an Eke market day preceding the Afo market day of the okwukwu ceremony. The ritual of iwa nkita anya is carried out by an appointed person through divination. This ritual executioner of this ritual rite must also be a man of strong will and bold personality. At the appointed day of the ritual, he is expected to go on a procession with other kinsmen of the deceased( umu nna) led by a convoy of other Okwukwu honorees with the dog tied to a rope trailing behind as they walk round the market square amidst fast paced masculine song of egwu awuru a kind of solidarity song accompanying that occasions such a ritual procession. After going round the square, the divined ritual killer of the dog of iwa nkita anya is expected to slash off the head of the dog at one cut of the knife amidst high tempo egwu awuru song rendered in this manner:
Owe ghe e
Aya ghe he e
Owe ghe e
Aye ghe e.
This song, though onomatopoeic in nature, is structured to rhyme with the heroic action of the moment. The symbolic implication of iwa nkita anya ritual is that on re- incarnation, the deceased shall be reborn into the world of the living as a bold, hardworking and fearless character.
It is important to state here that fear is seen as a weakness on the part of the man among the Mbaise people. The case of Unoka, Okonkwo's father in Things Fall Apart represents a classical attitude of the Mbaise-Igbo fears about fear and weakness on the part of man. And the only explanation that can be made about such a tragic personality would be that he was denied proper ritual rites of burial in his previous incarnation; and especially the right of iwa Nkita anya.
After the Nkita anya ritual, the next stage would be the rite of evule obi literarily meaning, killing of ram for the heart. This particular ceremony is not done for every body no matter what age the person may have attained. It is rather, a ritual of respect preserved for the deceased, who lived through a lot of pains and survived them all. The symbolism of this ritual is also buried in the animal used in the ritual, the ram, which on its own, is a very stubborn animal. A never say die, kind of animal.
A day before the burial, the oldest of the okele ( external grandson) to the family of deceased shall lead a procession of all the other okeles of the village in a carnival kind of procession round the village with their den guns slung on their shoulders amidst heroic songs of egwu awuru. As they go from one family to the other round the village singing egwu awuru, they are given presents in the form of money, drinks and agricultural products. In each of the family they are presented with gifts, the Okeles as a way of appreciation,congregate to pray for their host for his recognition and hospitality.
Among Mbaise-Igbo, the prayers of Ndi Okele are believed to have a very strong intercessionary power in the hands of the ancestors at the other plane of existence. Also, on the final day of the Okwukwu ceremony, Ndi okele also go on procession round the market. As they go round the market, they shoot their loaded den guns and through such actions, add glamour to the whole ritual feasting.
Before the Eshe musical performance, which embodies the entire poetics and dramatic essence of the ceremony, the Opara or first son of the deceased, on the day of Okwukwu, which usually takes place on the market day of the community of the deceased, will dress in his best: usually in the typical Igbo dress pattern, comprising of a George wrapper tied around the waist with a fitting isi agu, (Lion head spotting) jumper top and a red cap to match. He is accompanied in this task by other members of the Opara clime, (other first sons from other families, who have done the same burial rites for their fathers), on the market round ceremony. This movement to the market is very symbolic: apart from the fact that a cow, which is the high point of sacrificial object used for the ceremony is equally costumed with different feathers of birds of symbolic beauty and strength, the essence of the market round is to announce to the whole community, that so and so children of the late deceased person are burying their father properly. As the children go round the market in the company of other ndi opara, they are hailed and praised. Often, one would hear one elderly persons or other shout at the top of his voice: Opara mara mma (A son, who is handsome) and another will add: onye nwa liri bara uba (He, who is buried by his children is a wealthy man.) And soon, the whole remark would submerge into a song, usually taken over by the excited carnival patrons and supporters:
"Onye nwa liri bara aba" He, who is buried by children, is a wealthy man.
"Onye nwa liri bara eze" He, who is buried by children is a king.
"Onye nwa liri bara aba" He, who is buried by his children, is a wealthy man.
Having gone the market round with the costumed cow, amidst greetings, praises and canon gun shots; they return back to the house, where the traditional poetic-drama of traditional oration takes place.