By Sunny Awhefeada
An enduring flavor of Urhobo language is the tendency to deploy idioms during communication. The language and its users have been astonishingly inventive over the centuries. Warehoused in the Urhobo language repertoire is a barn brimful with words and expressions which reflect the people’s socio-cultural and historical experiences. Innuendos, proverbs, wise cracks and a wide range of sayings which derive from indirectness number among such idioms. This storehouse of words threw up songs, stories, parables, satires, eulogies, prayers and other manifestations of the infinite possibilities inherent in the spoken word. Our ancestors invented their own metaphor, irony, pun, paradox and other rhetorical devices long before the advent of the West that labeled such verbal art forms as poetry. Among our ancestors, male and female, were orators, negotiators, singers, raconteurs and healers who deployed the most dainty of expressions in titillating their audience. This tradition of verbal dexterity subsists onto this day. Every second or minute spent with elders and chiefs who are the custodians of this age long cultural marker is usually a voyage in the sea of words and wisdom. So it was for me at a recent outing.
I led a team of the Urhobo Historical Society (UHS) to the palace of the Okobaro of Ughievwen Kingdom. It was while waiting for the majestic entrance of His Royal Majesty Matthew Egbi, that Chief Ukoko of Effurun-Otor walked in and we had a warm hug and exchanged pleasantries. Other chiefs were also in attendance to join the Okobaro in receiving the UHS team. Sensing that I was the one to address the Monarch, Chief Ukoko reached out to me once again in handshake. I reminded him that we greeted earlier. He said yes, but that greetings can never be in excess. As we shook hands again, his palm thrust coral beads into mine and he whispered in Urhobo “wo ban vwiyo” which in English means “you are naked”. He went on to tell me that as a chief I should always endeavor to wear the beads on my right wrist so that I can take my rightful place in such gatherings. Without that I was naked. I got the message, smiled and nodded my gratitude. I wore the beads on my right wrist and was thus clothed. That act symbolically affirmed my “chiefhood”!
The first time I heard the expression “wo ban vwiyo” was at an event some twenty years ago. It was a gathering of Urhobo men and women at the Petroleum Training Institute (PTI) Conference Centre, Effurun. A retired Army General sauntered into the venue with all the confidence and swag at the disposal of a generalissimo. What greeted him was the chorus of “wo ban vwiyo, wo ban vwiyo….”, the General smiled and muttered his excuses. A few meters away, a group of elderly men, older than him, took him to task on why a man of his status would attend an Urhobo event without donning the Urhobo traditional dress for men. The General became sober, his gait hobbled and he apologized. Those of us younger folks heaved and took in the message; it is unacceptable for an Urhobo man to attend a traditional event without wearing the Urhobo national attires of wrapper, shirt, hat, beads, shoes and walking stick!
I have, over the years, heard the expression “wo ban vwiyo” again and again. Those of us in the academia have been at the receiving end of being “naked” at such gatherings. A more telling dimension is the role played by certain insignia at traditional gatherings. Chief among these are the “aghighon” the special paraphernalia which is worn around the neck by only chiefs and the “ivie” worn on the right wrist also only by chiefs. Wearing these two items or just one of them confers privileges irrespective of age. One is entitled to pray over kola nuts and drinks by virtue of wearing them symbolizing your status as a chief. One is also entitled to receiving a token for breaking the kola nuts and taken the elephant share of the money used in supporting them. For those who do not know, the Urhobo have the most elaborate reception rites for visitors anywhere in the world. A plate of kola nuts, assorted drinks with money are among the items used in welcoming visitors. This reception rite has taken on the symbolic nomenclature of “isiagware” and it is practiced by Urhobo wherever they live in the world. This is in addition to the steaming bowl of ukodo or owhoevwri and usi that will be served the visitor(s) as the minutes roll by.
Despite the assault of modernity on indigenous cultures, the Urhobo people take pride in their rich cultural heritage and have deliberately striven to preserve it. The concept of “wo ban vwiyo” remains a significant means of preserving that heritage. The embarrassment of being told “wo ban vwiyo” has compelled many an Urhobo man to dress appropriately for occasions. In Lagos as in faraway London, in Ibadan as in Aberdeen, the Urhobo people usually stand out when they congregate for a ceremony. They usually steal the show at such occasions owing to the regal and resplendent nature of their attires. The Urhobo dress has become a heritage symbol which not only stands out, but has taken on a modern hew evolving with time and suiting the needs of generations.
Public oratory is another cultural item that is thriving in Urhobo indigenous practice. Every ceremony is bound to have a skilled otota whose oratory would make Marcus Tulius Cicero or Mark Anthony grow green with envy.
The creativity, the innovation and comic effect the etotas (plural of otota) bring to bear on their performance remains nonpareil. What is more striking is that no otota repeats an expression twice even if he were to speak for five hours! And no otota can ever be accused of “wo ban vwiyo” as they always dressed appropriately.
Here is to thank Chief Ukoko who clothed me. But for him, I would not have had the privilege of breaking kola nuts in a palace and receiving the attendant token, but more significantly praying for His Royal Majesty, the Okobaro of Ughievwen and the array of chiefs that graced the court. Do I forget the King who conferred chieftaincies on me and my wife in 2015, thus making Chief Ukoko my brother chief?
Certainly not! Here then too is saying “Ajuwe…wo suton to Ogbimi…Orovworere, the Ovie of Effurun-Otor Kingdom, His Royal Majesty Johnson Duku II, one of Nigeria’s most enlightened monarchs. I promise will not “ban vwiyo” again!