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Ekpo Culture In Benin Kingdom

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By Ambrose Ekhosuehi (Last update 25/09/2017)

Ekpo culture is a festival of false appearance of spirits in persons as representative of alternative values within culture and traditional source of opposition to combating diseases and epidemics and emphasises the ritual importance of the people in a society where age and seniority determine status because Ekpo celebrates the young and the healthy.

The founder of Ekpo culture was Agboghidi of Ugo a famous warrior from his Dukeshire in Ugo in the present Orhionmwon Local Government Area of Edo State.

The culture was introduced by Emokpaogbe, the Agboghidi, the Enogie, who lived in the time of Oba Akengbuda, in the middle of the eighteenth century. Emokpaogbe as a warrior left his shire for many years to go on war expeditions. On his return, he found infectious disease troubled in his dukedom. He became grieved over the situation and fell asleep.

In a dream he saw the Ekpo spirit in the shape of his late grandmother. The Ekpo told the Agboghidi what to do to prevent the epidemics. When the Agboghidi woke up, he told his wife Emokpolo, all that he had seen in his dream.

On Emnokpolo’s advice, the Enogie stopped waging war and concentrated on doing all that he was told by the Ekpo. He carved and installed an Ekpo shrine, a sacred place at Ugo and some of his warrior associates installed shrines in other villages with pieces from Ugo shrine as their relics.

The Ekpo culture stresses the importance of the young and the powerful. It is controlled by the Ighele the age - grade of men between thirty and fifty years of age who perform the heavier and more skilled communial tasks and who constituted the fighting force of the Benin arm forces in pre-colonial times.

The Ekpo culture organisation and age grade system overlap in that the head of the Ighele is the chief of the society. The Culture can be seen as a representative of alternative value within Benin culture and in society which focuses on the powerful, Ekpo represents a traditional source of opposition. Where all paths to prestige and political power converge, Ekpo emphasize the important rites of the peasants, and in a society where age and seniority determine status, Ekpo celebrates the young and healthy.

The purpose of Ekpo culture is to combat disease and keep the community clean or in a state of purity when the elders feel that the community is threatened or polluted, Ekpo culture is called upon to make sacrifices, perform purification rites, and stage masked dances. The odour from the palm fronds drive evil forces and frightening spirit.

In addition, there is a yearly festival to don Ekpo with palm fronds -omen which is performed to ensure the protection of the village, town, city and appease the Ekpo spirit against any possible offence. At Ugo, the annual Ekpo festival is usually in January and at Avbiama and some other places the festival is performed during the dry season.

The first day is usually devoted to preparations. These take place in a sacred place hidden in a grove. Women are not allowed to enter the place at any time. The first day is also a time of great religious importance. The priest “Ohen Ekpo” performs various rites to Ekpo, to keep away disease and frightening spirits.

In the evening, the members of the Ekpo association present a dance which lasts through the night. The start is in the open space before the sacred place in the grove. The dancers then move to the courtyard of the Enogie house. All the young men join in the dance without regard to relative age or status.

On the second day, various groups within the community gather for separate feasts. The elders assemble in the home of the Enogie, the widows in the home of the oldest of them, the other women in the home of the oldest women, and the Ekpo dancers at the sacred grove.

The main activities of the day are the saying of prayers for the success of the festival and the singing of praise songs. Some of these songs praise various groups within the community. Others are proverbial and warn people about incorrect behaviour; still others are historical, praising important deed of the past and their performers;- “Ihe ne udin here abo ewanmwe o yee” that is the loads a palm tree bears are on the palm leaves”.

The’ third day marks a turning point in the festival from the symbolic isolation of the rites to their units incorporation. On that day, the Ekpo dancers go out into the community, village or town wearing masks and the women are allowed to approach them. The chief priest Ogiobo, shakes an ukhure stick rattle which is the symbol of the Ekpo spirit, and the dancers proceed down the main street, stopping at every house to receive gifts in return of prayers. Since the dancers must visit every house, this part of the festival may take up to seven days.

On the last day a special dance is held. The whole community gathers in a clearing. The elders sit in a row at the head, the Ighele on one side with goblet drums of the agban type and the young women stand on the other side with Ukoise gourd rattles; drumming and singing the appraising melody. After the Chief physician - obo has danced in the centre to announce the opening of the performance, Iyekpo-mother of Ekpo,’ appears at the entrance represents Agboghidi Emokpaogbe’s grand mother, who appeared to him in the dream and told him about Ekpo. She is greeted with a song by the women. Iyekpo moves slowly and majestically, accompanied by two other masks - obo and Agboghidi obo is second in rank to Iyekpo, represents a traditional doctor who besides healing, had to make predictions for the Oba and prepare him for war. Agboghidi represents the legendary founder of the Ekpo culture, his prowess at war and his powers of magic.

The obo and Agbohidi masks move into the centre of the encircling community, and dance one at a time. There are also other masks participating in the dance, such as Akharo, ovbiolokun, Azigho, Ovbioha, Igbaghon and other deities. After the dancing, Iyekpo stands at the entrance to receive those who come to offer thanks or come to make wishes.

Finally, Iyekpo enters the sacred grove, the last sacrifice to Ekpo is made “Ogbe u ghi vbe ree” Ekpo “At this time again you will come, Ekpo. The Ekpo culture turns the county inward upon itself and reinforces’ its solidarity against forces that threaten it. The very qualities of power and fertility which distinguish the young men and women which make them strong are channeled by the manner of the rites into the purification of the Ekpo culture.

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