Pilgrimage to Osun-Osogbo Festival 2021

An amazing experience by Peter Ekutt

African Traditional beliefs involving animist spirits are still widely held in many African societies despite the arrival of Christianity. In some places it is restricted and private. For the Yoruba people of Osogbo land, it’s a civic traditional religion. The concept of religion is not exclusive. In each family one can have many deities and divinities while belonging to any other religion like Christianity, Islam.

Every year in August, during the long vacation, an annual processional festival occurs in “Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove” to re-establish the mystic bonds between the goddess and the people of the town and thus sustains the living cultural traditions of the Yoruba people. The 75 hectares and dense virgin forest located on the outskirts of the city of Osogbo town, the capital of Osun State, was founded some 500 years ago in southwest Nigeria, at a distance of 250 km from Lagos. The Osun Sacred Grove is the largest and perhaps the only remaining example of a once widespread phenomenon that used to characterize every Yoruba settlement. It now represents Yoruba sacred Groves and their reflection of Yoruba cosmology. It is the largest sacred grove to have survived and one that is still revered today. The secret Grove inscribed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2005 is amazing and full of excitements.

The festival of Osun-Osgobo, which takes place every year in Osogbo, Nigeria, celebrates the Yoruba goddess of fertility, Osun. The festival renews the contract between humans and the divine: Osun offers grace to the community; in return, it vows to honor her Sacred Grove.

After a private visit to the grove three months ago, I had a chance to participate at this year’s festival (13/08/2021) amids sounds, talking drums, cultural and religious manifestations. The “Osun-Osogbo festival” is the biggest annual religious festival among the Yoruba people and serves as a strong unifying factor for indigenes of Osogbo land during which irrespective of the different social, economic, religious and political convictions of the people, they all come together annually to celebrate the festival and to witness the sacrificial offering by “ Arugba” a virgin maiden who is a link between the community and deity. The Arugba, also known as the calabash carrier, comes out with a large calabash on her head underneath a colorful veil accompanied to deliver the message of the year’s festival sent by Osun to his people gather around the grove. The calabash contains the sacrifices of the entire community and those offered by the people in attendance. Information gathered at the scene reveals that every Arugba has to remain a virgin during her time in the role. Before all this happens, the worshippers offer a special prayer in the shrine of a priestess which I had the opportunity to visit during the festival though with lots of challenges.

Experts on traditional religion met at the scene say the festival was started by the founders of the town of Osogbo around 600 years ago. They had planned to build their houses by the river bank, but as they began felling trees, it is said the spirit of the river-god Osun called out to them, ordering them away. Was this action related to any respect and preservation for nature? Yes, I can say. The grove has been a sacred area of worship for the spirit’s devotees. The goddess promised to protect the entire group and bring them prosperity in return for an annual sacrifice to her. The group accepted the proposition. Today the annual sacrifice to the Osun River Goddess is what is celebrated as the Osun-Osogbo Festival. This is why August is a month of celebration, traditional cleansing of the city and cultural reunion of the people with their ancestors and founders of the Osogbo Kingdom.

Osun is a goddess of all things feminine; fertility, spirituality, emotions, sensuality, nurture and love.

My experience

Once I step into the place, I had some feelings, seems like all the African gods inhabit this place, decorated with very creative artwork, the grove is a place to be, get close to nature, experience healing and meditation. Discovering for the first time, the landscape of the grove dotted with sanctuaries and shrines, sculptures and art works, its meandering river and vegetation in honor of “Osun” and other deities made me stand in owe and splendor. I witnessed the beauty and natural conservation of species and animals. The grove is a natural herbal pharmacy containing over 400 species of plants, some endemic, of which more than 200 species are known for their medicinal uses. Birds, reptiles, and animals are well preserved and protected. As I walked around the, I discovered signs and indications that reads: “it is forbidden, to destroy or kill any animal for food”. There are traditional activities that have been used to protect the site from any form of threats such as traditional laws, myths, taboos and customs that forbid people from fishing, hunting, poaching, felling of trees and farming inside the grove. The traditional worshippers and devotees maintain the intangible heritage through spiritualism, worship and symbolism. It is amazing how things are connected. Natures is not meant only to serve man’s economic needs.

This year’s festival attracted local, international worshipers, devotees, spectators and tourists drawn by what I see as a religious and cultural interaction. This was what pushed me as Missionary of Africa to participate at this year’s festival. These cultural and religious interaction reveals to me how interconnected we are in terms of religion, culture and nature. During the festival I felt that Traditions, religions and Nature become a mix of colors, religion, culture and sounds. The authenticity of the Grove is related to its value as a sacred place. The sacred nature of places can only be continually reinforced if that sacredness is widely respected. And this was displayed in the festival.

Over the past forty years the new sculptures in the Grove have had the effect of reinforcing the special qualities of the Grove and giving it back its spiritual qualities that imbue it with high cultural value. Devotees at the Osun-Osogbo festival believe that the sacred grove forest, situated on the outskirts of the city of Osogbo, is one of the last remaining places that the spirits, or “Orishas” reveal themselves to bless them. this actually makes me understand why such a large crowd present and active at the festival. Many fetched some water from the Osun river to drink, to wash their faces and to take it home for other uses. I met many on the way going back home with buckets and buckets of water with high esteem and trust in such a colorful water. It reminded me of the Christians coming out from NAMUGONGO’s shrine carrying also colorful holy water in bucket and bottles. I stood in awe to see such expressions of trust and faith in a cultural fiesta. Christians, Muslims, and even non-believers were present at the festival offer sacrifices around the water. Some had crosses on their neck, others came with different religious symbols. I got the chance of meeting one IFA PRIEST who allowed me to be at the scene of sacrifice and ceremony. Colas, hard traditional drinks, animals, birds like pigeons were offered by many at the riverside. The religiosity was incurable- there was something more to it as people felt into trance and were taken over by the spirit of Osun. The adoration for Osun, the deity of fertility is undeniable for the Yoruba people. It was an amazing pilgrimage.

I will say, the festival’s popularity has been growing in part because of the activism of Austrian-born artist and activist, Susanne Wenger, who rebuilt the shrines and worked to get the grove protected. Ms Wenger arrived in Nigeria in 1950s, she later divorced her husband and resolved to stay in Osogbo for the rest of her life. She was also known as Adunni Olorisha. She really entered into interaction and encounter with the culture of the Yoruba people of Osogbo.

If you love the African tradition and culture, here is your goto destination. Expect to see monkeys jumping around, and reserve some tips for the praying women at the entrance of the shrine. Feel free to pray to the river goddess, and experience walking through the first ever suspension bridge in Nigeria. You will enjoy an art village with tye and dye, paintings, wood carvings, drums and other arts and craft, amazing architecture, fantastic landscape and nature and its totally worth a visit. Above all something will take you into dialogue between religion and culture. I hope this site’s maintenance remains top-notch! Greetings from the Osun-River.

Peter Ekutt

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