The Ofala Festival; An Age Long Traditional Festival To The Onitsha People In Anambra State

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The Ofala Festival is an annual ceremony practiced by Igbo people, particularly the indigenes of OnitshaUmuoji and other neighboring communities such as AguleriNnewi and Ukpo in Dunukofia Local Government Area. It serves as rites of renewal of the king or Igwe or Obi and it is similar to the Igue festival in Benin and the IneOsi or Ogbanigbe Festival in many mid-West Igbo communities of Nigeria. The term ofala, is derived from two Igbo words – ofo (English: authority) and ala (English: land).[2] The festival is celebrated within two days mostly in October by the Obi (English: king) and is a customary obligation that must be performed every couple of years without fail.

According to some oral history sources, the Ofala Festival can be traced back to the 16th Century when Onitsha people emigrated from Benin to the eastern banks of the River Niger presently known as the city of Onitsha and brought with them among other customs, the tradition of monarchy. The festival is akin to the Igue Festival celebrated annually by the Oba of Benin. Some historians also believe the festival is related to the New Yam Festival in Onitsha and devotion of the king to the safety of his people.

The festival marks the end of a period of retreat sometimes called Inye Ukwu na Nlo when the Obi remains incommunicado and undergoes spiritual purification for the good of the community. At the end of the week long retreat, the Igwe emerges during the Ofala to bless his subjects and say prayers for the community. Ofala is celebrated annually in some places beginning from the coronation of the Obi to his death, the latter of which is called “the last Ofala” while other towns may require it to be celebrated every two to three years.

The festival usually starts with a traditional twenty-one gun salute followed by an all night Ufie (royal gong) drumming, dancing and other cultural activities. In the afternoon, the Obi’s cabinet of chiefs, guests from other communities, age groups, women and youth of the community usually throng the palace grounds or Ime Obi dressed in traditional or ceremonial attires befitting the festival occasion.

 The royal music or Egwu Ota is played during the entrance of the Ndichie or red cap chiefs who arrive after the gathering of the crowd and bringing along a few of their friends and family members their procession to the palace. The highlight of the festival is the emergence of the Obi in his royal regalia to the cheer of the crowd, a cannon shot announces the entrance of the Obi who is usually dressed in ceremonial robe and carries a bronze sword on his hand, he walks to the sides of the arena or a third of the arena acknowledging the cheers of the gathering.

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The Obi then retires and subsequently, the red cap chiefs pays homage to him according to seniority, thereafter both the Obi and the chiefs reappear after the firing of another cannon shot. During the second appearance the Obi dances in the arena, something that is rarely seen and his steps cover more distance than the first appearance. Then the visiting chiefs and guests pay homage to the Obi. The festival is also sometimes an occasion for the Obi to honour individuals with chieftaincy titles.

Onitsha is a popular town located in Anambra State, in the South-Eastern part of Nigeria. Onitsha is known for its popular Main Market, which is said to be the biggest in West Africa (Nigerian Information Guide). The town and its environs also have one of the largest tributaries of the River Niger, thereby allowing fishing and its allied businesses to thrive around there.

Famous schools like the Denis Memorial Grammar School (DMGS), Christ the Kings College (CKC), and Queen of Rosary College (QRC), have produced so many prominent Nigerians, both serving and retired.

Onitsha indigenes are a people, who cherish their heritage and value their culture very much in spite of their early contact with education. This is why they pay attention to the traditional ceremonies that abound. Some of these ceremonies include, the coronation of a new monarch, chieftaincy installation, initiation into the masquerade cult, Ozo title-taking, initiation into the Otu Odu Cultural group, burial rites, and so on.

However, the Ofala festival seems to be the most significant and prestigious of all the ceremonies performed in Onitsha. The festival varies from community to community in Igbo land. In other places, it may be the coronation of a chief, to mark an anniversary, or the coronation of an igwe or eze. 

Onitsha is a popular town located in Anambra State, in the South-Eastern part of Nigeria. Onitsha is known for its popular Main Market, which is said to be the biggest in West Africa (Nigerian Information Guide). The town and its environs also have one of the largest tributaries of the River Niger, thereby allowing fishing and its allied businesses to thrive around there.

Famous schools like the Denis Memorial Grammar School (DMGS), Christ the Kings College (CKC), and Queen of Rosary College (QRC), have produced so many prominent Nigerians, both serving and retired.

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Onitsha indigenes are a people, who cherish their heritage and value their culture very much in spite of their early contact with education. This is why they pay attention to the traditional ceremonies that abound. Some of these ceremonies include, the coronation of a new monarch, chieftaincy installation, initiation into the masquerade cult, Ozo title-taking, initiation into the Otu Odu Cultural group, burial rites, and so on.

However, the Ofala festival seems to be the most significant and prestigious of all the ceremonies performed in Onitsha. The festival varies from community to community in Igbo land. In other places, it may be the coronation of a chief, to mark an anniversary, or the coronation of an igwe or eze. 

The Ofala Festival 

The Onitsha Ofala festival dates back to about 700 years ago, at the time of Eze Chima, the first monarch, who migrated to the area, now known as Onitsha (Henderson 42-46). In those early days, the King of Onitsha, referred to as, Igwe-Onitsha, was always confined to the palace. He did not have any business going anywhere because the responsibilities of administering the community was assigned to his lieutenants, who are the elders, known as the Ndi-Ichie, and other rank and file of the community. The Igwe, also known as the Obi-Onitsha, only made public appearances during the Ofala festival.   It is pertinent to note here that the Ofala festival is celebrated only once a year, precisely in the month of October, the period that is the climax of the celebration of the new yam. Four days before the festival, the Igwe goes into seclusion. He retreats to commune with his ancestors, and to thank them for protecting him and his subjects for the past one year as well as pray for peace and prosperity in the year to come.

On the day of the festival, the Obi makes three appearances. After the early morning rituals, the trumpeters announce his entry before he shows up, fully dressed in his royal regalia, highlighted with the royal crown (okpu ododo), acknowledging the crowd that would have gathered by waving at all the directions to the people and then returns inside.

During the second outing, the trumpets are blown again and the Obi comes out and seats on his throne. This is followed by the entrance of the red-capped chiefs (ndi-Ichie) also well-dressed in their traditional attires in batches, according to their village music and in order of seniority, proceed to pay homage to the Obi by kneeling down to bow before him and sing his praises, after which he now performs the function of Iwa-ji (celebration of the first yam) to mark the official declaration of harvest season. After this, the Igwe (Obi) returns into the inner chambers before he finally comes out the third time.

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At the third entry, the royal music plays and sets, the rhythm for Obi’s dancing (egwu ota) as he makes his appearance, amid cheers and praises from the crowd, he steps into the arena and dances to the tune of the drummers. He dances in turns with his first wife, his first son and first daughter and returns to his throne giving way to a parade of dances by different groups such as titled men, the Otu Odu Association, age-grade groups, friends and well-wishers all dressed in colourful traditional apparels.

The significance of the festival includes that: The Ofala festival is a means by which the ‘Onitsha people strive to keep their cultural heritage alive. It is a cultural avenue through which the king socializes with both his subjects and other well wishers, this is because it attracts friends from far and wide, for instance the 2011 celebration attracted dignitaries included “members of the world famous Jackson five musical family including Tito, Marlon and Fred, others were the Mayor of Inkster, Michigan, Mayor Hill Hampton, historian Bruce Bridge and Hollywood actor, Walter Jr.” The festival gives room for deep reflections, stock taking, and setting goals for the future, it is in order words, a forum for community development.

The festival is a means by which the Onitsha people strive to keep their cultural heritage alive. It is an avenue through which the king socializes with both his subjects and other well-wishers. The festival gives room for deep reflections, stock-taking, and setting goals for the future. In other words, it is a forum for community development.

The religious implication is that it is a season for thanksgiving to the ancestors, for sparing the lives of the people and allowing a successful planting season. The social significance is that the festival brings home indigenes from far and near, as well as foreigners.           

The Ofala festival has survived all these years among the Onitsha people, in spite of the impact of Westernization. The festival attracts corporate organizations who offer to sponsor it and use that as an avenue to market their products. It attracts potential investors and business entrepreneurs like the telecommunication companies such as MTN and GLO to contribute in the sponsorship and eventual development in the community.


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