Culture is something that can divide or bind, depending on what you choose to make of it, but something that has always made Nigeria unique – nay, made Nigeria great! – are the festivals that we have. Nigerian festivals dating back hundreds of years, each with rich cultural heritage and folklore behind it.
I will personally always maintain that the advent of external religion is killing a lot of our old ways – and not always for the better – but part of our goal here at Viva Naija is to commit these things: our way of life and the ways of our ancestors to perpetuity, lest we forget. Here are ten of our favourite Nigerian festivals!
1. Eyo Festival
Unique to Lagos and traditionally performed on Lagos Island, the Eyo festival is one of the most well known festivals of the Yoruba people.
The word ‘eyo’ refers to the costumed dancers or masquerades, that perform during the festival. The origin of this event is unknown owing to its clandestine nature, but it was previously believed to be associated with escorting the soul of a dead king to the after life or in the welcoming another king. Today, it is called for whenever tradition and customs demand it, although it is usually held as part of the final burial rites of a highly regarded chief in the king’s court. This is visible in the long-held belief that the white-clad Eyo masquerades represent the spirits of the dead and are referred to in Yoruba as “agogoro eyo” (literally: “tall eyo”).
On the Eyo day, the main highway in the heart of the city (from the end of Carter Bridge to Tinubu Square) is closed to traffic, allowing for a procession from Idumota to the Iga ldungaran Palace. The first known date of an Eyo Festival was the 20th of February 1854, to commemorate the life of Oba Akintoye.
2. Sango Festival
Another Yoruba display of strength and gods, the Sango Festival is held in honour of Sango, Omoekun (“son of a tiger”), from whom the present day Alaafin of Oyo Oba derives the title. Sango was the second son of Oranyan, the first alaafin (ruler), and the seventh grandchild of Oduduwa in Ile Ife. Upon the death of Oduduwa, the grandchildren dispersed from Ile Ife, forming the different Yoruba kingdoms in the western part of Nigeria.
Sango is considered powerful and mighty, a symbol of power and truth. A warrior so invincible that he amassed a formidable empire in Africa and transported Oyo culture beyond the Oyo Empire.
During the festival, the Sango faithful are decorated in beautifully, all dressed in fiery red while the Ifa priests are clothed in white regalia – the two strongest colours of the Yoruba kingdom. Masquerades, drummers and hundreds of traditional dancers still give this festival the feel of one of the most respected attractions in the country.
3. Okere Juju
One of the most powerful events of the year for the Itsekiri people, Okere Juju (or the Awan’kere Festival) is an annual festival celebrated by the Itsekiri people of Okere which is in Warri South Local Government Area of Delta State. It is a fertility festival, which date back to the 15th Century when the community was confounded by a Benin warlord called Ekpenede (Ekpen), but most Itsekiri people see it as the welcoming of the rainy season as it is of utmost importance that the final day ends in torrential rainfall.
Given that the the festival is a plea for fertility and plenty, scenes from the ensuing days depict rites with mimes of sexual acts, phallic symbols and lewd songs replete with fertility images. Explicitly expressive dance and movements take place between the spectators and performers.
(i) Otsogwu-Umale – this is the father masquerade. He is always attired in resplendent white.
(ii) Okpoye – This is the mother masquerade. She is always dressed in sack cloth.
(iii) Children – Numerous and wear costumes of varied colours.
All the masquerades apart from the Okpye, carry two specially designed whips called “Ukpatsan”, which produces gunshot-like sounds when the masquerades whip the floor with it.
The festival takes place during the rainy season to ensure a conducive environment for the deity, Okioro, who lives in the waters. During the festival masquerades and other performers splash about in the rains in a symbolic washing away of evil spells and diseases from peoples’ bodies.
The festival lasts for five weeks with one performance each week on succeeding days. The festival combines both the sacred, in its numerous rituals, and the profane in its orgiastic dance and lewd songs. Underlying it all, is the expectation and yearning for a life more abundant.
4. Leboku New Yam Festival
The New Yam festival is popular all over Nigeria, particularly in the southern parts of the country. The Igbos have their festivals known as Iri ji ohu, Iwa ji or Ike ji while the Yorubas call theirs “Ijesu”.
If you want to experience a New Yam festival that would involve the celebration of the ancestral spirits and the earth goddess though, you should visit Yakurr in Cross River State where the Leboku New Yam Festival takes place. This annual festival packs so many symbols and activities within three weeks. This includes parading engaged maidens, exchanging visits to families, appeasing the ancestors, and ensuring that no one does any intense farming during this period.
5. Argungu Fishing Festival
The popular Argungu Fishing Festival is one of the most famous and exciting traditional festivals in Nigeria. The four-day annual festival dates back to 1934 and has continued with the alluring dynamics growing each passing year. The festival is an all-men affair; women can be present purely as spectators.
The fishing festival is a competition among the fishermen of the area to determine who catches the biggest fish and proves his skill once and for all. The festival takes place at the Matan Fada River in Argungu, Kebbi State.
The sound of a gunshot signals the commencement of the competition, with the anxious and excited competitors jumping into the river to begin the search for the ‘big’ catch. This lasts for an hour, at the end of which each competitor presents his catch for weighing, to determine which fish is the biggest. It is awesome, if smelly, stuff!
6. The Durbars of Hausaland
The durbars have been a part of Hausaland for over five hundred years and their majesty, pomp and splendour is undeniable. The annual festival celebrated in several cities of Nigeria. It is celebrated at the culmination of Muslim festivals Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. It begins with prayers, followed by a parade of the Emir and his entourage on horses, accompanied by music players, and ending at the Emir’s palace.
Durbar festivals are organised in cities such as Kano, Katsina and Bida with the Katsina durbar possibly being the most colourful. Introduced by Sarki Muhammadu Rumfa of Kano in the late 14th century as a way of demonstrating military power and skills before going to war, the durbar has now become quite a tourist attraction. The festival is also an opportunity for local leaders to pay homage to emir throughout the jahi cheering.
7. Sharo/Shadi Festival of the Fulanis
If you have heard of coming of age festivals where young men show off virility and strength, they were probably based on the Sharo or Shadi festival of the Fulanis! In this rite of passage, young men are escorted by maidens to the event venue and led into a ring formed by spectators, their chests exposed. The frenzied drumming, singing and cheers of the crowd combine to create an atmosphere of excitement!
Each participant is flogged by another and they are expected to endure the pain for as long as the exercise lasts, to demonstrate and prove their manhood. Although not all the young men are able to endure the excruciating pain; which at times leaves permanent scars on their bodies, those who do endure to the end are certified mature and free to choose a girl to marry.
8. Igue Festival
The most important festival in the calendar of the Benin kingdom, the Igue festival takes place annually towards the end of the year as Bini chiefs headed by the Oba celebrate the lives and deaths of the obas that have gone before. This celebration is done to invoke their blessing on the reigning monarch, his family and subjects.
The Igue festival, which is a period of offering thanks to the gods for sparing lives and asking for blessings, is also used for offering sacrifices to some deities in the palace. During this period, chieftaincy title holders display their Eben emblem in the Ugie dance as they appear in their attire, according to the type of dress the Oba bestowed on individual chiefs during the conferment of title, while the Oba sits majestically in the royal chamber (Ogi-Ukpo). The Igue festival is also a period given to the driving away of evil spirits (Ubi), and bringing blessings (Ewere) to every home in the kingdom.
9. Onitsha Ivory Festival
While most festivals in Nigeria revolve around men (with some even explicitly banning women from the scene), the Onitsha ivory festival is a celebration of womanhood, beauty and adornment.
Celebrated by the Igbos, the Onitsha Ivory Festival involves wives of prominent and wealthy men gather ivory and coral beads as they prepare for the celebrations. On the day of the festival, the Onitsha woman who has acquired enough ivory and coral to kit herself out in the ivory costume can claim the title of odu or ‘ivory holder’. To qualify as an ivory holder, a woman is expected to have two large pieces of ivory, one to be worn on each leg. Each piece of ivory usually weighs about 56 pounds or 25 kilos so this is no mean feat. Also, the woman has to wear two other pieces of ivory on her wrists. In addition to these are coral and gold necklaces, with which she adorns her herself.
10. Osun Festival
And now, we return to the west as we mention perhaps one of the most iportant festivals in the Yoruba calendar: the Osun festival. At the end of the rains in July/August, the Osun festival is held at the sacred Osogbo forest for seven days where devotees of the river goddess Osun pay homage to her.
At the shrine of this goddess of fertility and protection, the Osun priests not only celebrate their deity but also conduct rituals for the protection of her followers. Followers believe in the potency of the goddess to hear their requests and provide solutions to their problems, as even barren women are believed to be blessed with children when they attend this festival.
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