At the Back of the Black Man's Mind, by Richard Edward Dennett, , at sacred-texts.com
Bini Dances.-Making Father.-The Rites.-Women's Dance.-Egugu DanceOvia Dance.
IN the afternoon of February 2nd, 1903, after rather a long march, we entered UREZEN, a town not far from UDO, in the
A mound of clay under a rough seat, studded with pots and an iron ornament, like this, here and there. This is called OSUN.
district of Benin. As we neared the blacksmith's shed we noticed twelve figures, quaintly clad, singing a song in falsetto, and a boy. These twelve people were dressed in a dress (OMIGWI), made of strips of leaves of the palm called OME; their heads and shoulders were covered in a mask and mantle of very rough cloth that looked like the material sacks are made of, their heads were crowned by a head-dress of the feathers of the AWAWA. Their arms and hands were encased in long sleeves of the same rough material a's their mantles, and in their hands they held sticks which they call IKWATA.
The boy simply wore a skirt made of strips of palm leaves, but in his hand he held a staff called ERAN. This was made of the rib of the palm leaf knotched at intervals, and surmounted by a bushy tuft of strips of the petiole.
ERAN, the upper part of the branch, or petiole, of the palm tree, knotched with a fringe of the strips of the petiole at the top.
I watched them as they sang and glided about rather than danced, until at last they rustled away, making a cooing noise like that of the OKKU bird, and vanished in the direction of the grove sacred to OVIA.
From time to time, until long after midnight, these dancers kept rushing past the shed or native rest house under which I was encamped, cooing and singing in falsetto.
At times I heard cries coming from the direction of the grove, and wondered what they were, and felt like getting up to see. But cries in a native town are so common that they may mean almost anything, from the howl of a punished child to the cry of a man in grief.
Early next morning I got ahead of my carriers and slipped into the sacred grove. On the road in front of the entrance to the grove were the twelve dresses arranged on posts in a line, and the boy's little one in the same line, but apart. IKHIMI trees were planted at the entrance, while on both sides of the road were lines of Kola trees. Passing the IKHIMI trees, I entered a kind of lane some fifteen or twenty feet long, and then came to a fence I and second entrance before I found myself in the grove itself.
At the far side of the circle of cleared bush I noticed the OLUKUN tree, against which was resting the ERAN that had been carried by the little boy the night before. In the centre of this circular grove was a "calabash" or gourd, a pot, and the ashes of what had been a small fire and the feathers of a fowl.
[1. These fences are called EGBON or OBA, and are always formed of the sacred plants IKHIMI, UNWETIOTA, and OTWA.]
About the 15th of March, just after crossing the CISSE or CIVIA river, the Conservator of Forests, Mr. H. N. Thompson, and myself arrived at a market place in the ITE creek. The market was in full swing but nearly ending when we got there, and while many of the Jakri women were seated before their wares under the shade of trees, some were just pushing off their canoes from the beach with their cargoes of palm oil and kernels. They were inclined to scamper away on seeing us, but we managed to persuade them to take no notice of us, and purchased food for ourselves and our boys. After we had breakfasted someone began to throw the apple-like fruit of a tree growing there into the river, in the attempt to throw them across. The infection spread, and soon all our carriers were busy competing. It spread further, and the Conservator and I joined in. The Conservator succeeded, and I clapped my, hands. This act seems to have been taken by the boys as a signal for a dance-at any rate, they all set about gathering sticks to serve as IKWATA, and soon formed themselves into a circle and commenced singing, keeping time with their feet and by beating their sticks together. Soon one boy danced into the middle of the circle and commenced spinning himself round; then, still spinning and inclined towards the centre of the circle at an angle of 45º, he seemed to whirl round and round the circle until, losing his balance, he came bumping up against one or the other of the boys forming the circle. Some of the boys were very clever at this dance, and they seemed quite keen on out-dancing one another, and on our part we were much interested in it, hardly expecting so scientific a display. Finally the Ranger Mockpai, a powerfully built man, was so moved that he must have a try, so he doffed his red coat and started spinning, and when he whirled around he shook the earth as he touched it, now with one foot and then with the other. The excitement was immense, the singing boisterous, until this ponderous dancer broke loose and cannoned right and left among the boys, who fell down before him like ninepins; then the dancing came to an end.
We purposed crossing the river OSSEOMO or AWREOMO on the morrow (the 22nd April, 1903), so we sent a boy on ahead to OKOGBO to say that we were coming and would cross the river in the morning.
We arrived at the crossing a little before 7 a.m. and met our boy there, who informed us that the ferryman had left early in the morning to bring up canoes large enough to carry our party across. As we waited a woman came down the hill from the village above, bringing some food for our boys. She had innocently taken off her cloth and made a pad of it to carry the load on her head the more easily, so that there appeared to be something wanting about her toilet that amused our boys from the city. More women followed her, some-of whom appeared very angry. We made inquiries, and found that some scamps among our boys, fearing that there would not be enough food to go round, had determined to forestall matters, and had run along the road and waylaid the ladies, and taken what they considered their share of the food. The Ranger Mockpai and the rest of the boys were annoyed at this, and so the scamps were turned over and given a dozen with a cane. This and the payment for the food taken pacified the good women, and so time went on until nearly 9 o'clock. We now became impatient and started shouting for the canoes, and getting no reply, we fired off a gun-still no reply. At last we prepared a raft and placed the interpreter and a forest guard upon it and told them to cross the river and hurry up the ferryman with the canoes. As they had never crossed the river at this place, and knew nothing of its dangers, they set off quite gaily. It now being nearly eleven, we decided to breakfast. When half way through our meal the canoes turned up, and we relieved our pent-up feelings by expressing them as strongly as we knew how, and would probably have proceeded to further and more strenuous arguments had not our attention been arrested by the woebegone appearance of our interpreter and forest guard: they were shivering, and looked half drowned. It appeared that while trying to negotiate a turning the raft had upset and left them clinging to the bushes which were growing out of deep swamp, and water where a foothold was an impossibility. The ferryman's canoes had luckily picked them up. No large canoes had been obtainable, so that we had to make our way across in the wretchedly small ones that the ferryman had brought, and as we rushed down with the fierce current, and were cleverly steered into different branches of a perfect maze of streams, and kept on ducking our heads to avoid overhanging trees, we began to realise what a foolhardy thing we had done in sending the two boys off on a clumsy raft, and by the time we reached our destination we fully believed the people when they told us that they had not heard us shout or even fire off our guns.
The old Jakri in charge of the market town of Ugo told us that he and his people had been invited by OGUGU to his town, as he was "making father."
We started together, but came to a place where a dispute arose between one of our boys, who professed to know the road, and the old Jakri. We thought that it was just possible that the old man wished to put us off the scent, so that we should not be at Ugo in time for the festivities, so we trusted to our own boy, and after three hours and twenty minutes' walk arrived at the outskirts of the town, only to be met by the old Jakri, who from all appearances had been there some time.
Soon after our arrival, OG'UGU, accompanied by one or two Benin City chiefs and their followers, came to welcome us. He told us that he had intended "making father" that evening, but that as we had come, and the festivities might annoy us, he would put the feast off until we had gone. We thanked him for his welcome, and assured him that we should very much like to be present while he was making father, and prayed him to proceed with his festival just as if we were not present. He seemed pleased to be honoured by our presence, and ordered his people to bring us wood, fire, and water, and food for ourselves and our boys.
Shortly after dark crowds of people bearing lamps and torches came together in front of OG'UGU'S residence. The cloistered wall through which one had to pass to obtain an entrance into his house contained several altars, and as we lay on our camp beds in the rest-house opposite we gazed through the door and window at what was going on before us.
There stood OG'UGU before one of the altars, dressed in what appeared to be a red hat and gown-a glowing figure, the lurid light of many torches falling on him. Then a goat was held up so that he might sever its head from its body and sprinkle its blood upon the altar. Six goats were killed, and all the altars within and without the house sprinkled with their blood, and all this was done in comparative quiet. Then OG'UGU, a NABORI holding up one of his arms, and followed by his courtiers, danced before his people. Then followed the three great dances called UKELE, UGULU or SAKWADI, and OHOGO, which I will describe later on. We saw but little of these dances that night, but from the noise that took place the natives appeared to have appreciated them; and then for a time all was quiet. Soon, however, bands of people singing and bearing lamps and torches wended their way in Indian file round about and into OG'UGU's residence; no sooner had one emerged than another seemed to take its place, and their songs as they approached and wandered about the place and finally departed were weird and beautiful. Some sang softly in falsetto, and some sang songs that reminded us of old Gregorian chants. This went on all night. In the early morning OG'UGU, preceded by a band of drummers and players on beaded gourds, came out of his house, followed by many hundreds of people. Immediately in front of him was a man bearing a dish of cowries (IGO), and just behind him was his umbrella bearer and his courtiers. Under the shade of this umbrella OG'UGU crushed the cones of chalk (ORHUE) and sprinkled the dust upon the cowries. Thus the procession passed us on its way down the grassy glade which led to the Benin City road. The band waited for the procession just where the glade is divided by KOLA trees from the village, while it proceeded to the "juju" place to salute the great father, who in the spirit is still in Benin City, but who, as OVERAMI, the late OBA of Benin, is in reality a prisoner in Old Calabar. On the return of the procession the band joined it, and OG'UGU scattered the cowries right and left to the boys and girls who scrambled for them.
Thus did OG'UGU celebrate the anniversary of the death of his father.
Then he came to greet us as we sat in front of the rest house, and asked us if we would like to see the dances more distinctly, as he was afraid that we had seen very little of them the night before. We thanked him, and said yes.
The first dance, called UGULU or SAKWADI, was danced by one man only. He turned circles, keeping perfect time to the band of beaded calabashes and drums. The second, OKELE, was rather more interesting, as it was danced by two men; one had a fan in his hand, and the other had his hands clasped in front of him. The man with the fan went through certain steps, which the man with the hands clasped had to copy exactly; when he failed another took his place. The third dance was called OHOGO, and was most remarkable. Fifteen men, three with native bells and the rest with beaded calabashes, took part in it. They were scantily dressed, and had bells and rattling seeds round their arms and ankles. A man with a bell (evidently their conductor), with one with a beaded calabash, were surrounded by the other thirteen in a perfect circle. At a signal from their conductor the thirteen, singing in parts, ran round in a circle, while all beat their calabashes and bells; suddenly they stopped, turned towards each other in couples, and saluted each other; at a signal they then started off again, changing their step as it pleased their conductor, who seemed to have perfect control over their movements. Then at a signal all danced inwards towards the centre of the circle, and crowded themselves over their now crouching conductor and his companion. At a beat of his bell all withdrew and continued dancing in a circle. The many and complicated steps, all perfectly accomplished, placed this dance a long way above the general average native dance, and we were more than astonished to find how perfectly trained these dancers were. We were told that in the olden days the slightest error in public in such a dance was punished by death.
On the 2nd August, 1903, the Chief OBASEKI gave a dance, to which he invited the officers then present in Benin City. This dance was given in one of the rooms in the Chiefs house. The room was square in shape, the roof sloping inwards towards the centre, which was open, forming something between a Roman pluvium and a Spanish patio, some 15 or 20 feet square. On two sides were recesses, in one of which the Chief's wives were crowded, and it was on the mud platform in front of this recess where the dancing took place.
Some of the wives played the drums, while others beat the beaded calabashes and sang the choruses to the songs of the different ladies, who from time to time got up and danced and sang. Each lady was evidently famous for some particular song and step, but we preferred one that reminded us rather of one of our own round dances, danced to a song full of her husband's praise
We had been travelling up hill for some time, and began to wonder when we should, arrive at the town of OTWAW, which we were told was just at the top of the hill. At last we reached the outskirts, passing a wall of loose stones, and found that the town, like many of those in this KUKURUKU country, was built in little plateaux at different levels. OTWAW lies nestled in a hollow, just at the top of a very high hill, the grey-coloured thatch and red mud walls of the houses looking well against the dark green woods dotted about with palm trees as a background.
Coming up through a regularly built street, we ascended a kind of platform where the "rest-house" has been built. A stone wall rising up from the street below keeps the earth in this plateau from being washed away by the rains. An old fig tree and an IKHIMI tree grow nearly opposite to the resthouse, and a pole between two other small trees bears a netlike "juju," which the people call OSUMEGBI.
It was on this plateau that the Conservator and I witnessed a very curious dance, called EGUGU (Pl. XIX), which the BINI boys with us said was the same as their OVIA dance. The old Chief informed us that they were about to commence their EGUGU dance (this was on the 19th January, 1904); that it would continue for three days, and recommence for three days in about three months from date.
Just before dark we were amused and astonished by the appearance of a man on the plateau. He was dressed in a huge orange-coloured hat beautifully made of the dyed strips of the palm leaves; in the front running to the centre of the crown of the hat was a hair-like fringe of the same material, while a similar kind of fringe stood out like a brim all around it. He wore a mask and mantle of network, which in front was white, but dyed black over the face and shoulders. From the mask near the nose and mouth the network protruded like the trunk of an elephant with a bunch of strips of palm leaves. Hanging from the mantle were numerous strips of palm leaves dyed orange, completely covering the body. His legs and arms were enveloped in black network similar to that of the mask. Round his ankles orange and white fringes of strips of palm leaves covered some negro bells. In his hand he held a whip of plaited palm leaves, some 15 feet long, curled like a hoop.
This curiously draped figure rushed on the plateau in front of us and cracked his whip. The people who were crowding the streets surrounding the plateau howled. Then they followed the masked man down the town, and "horns" were blown.
Shortly four men dressed as above, and five in black masks of much less size, with red and white plaited fringe hanging at the back, rushed up the street, followed by the crowd, and came on to the plateau. They ran away; then they came back, all singing a jerky march, and passed to the upper part of the town. Then they returned, the people crowing like cocks, and some blowing horns. The EGUGU cracked their whips and retired one by one. The crack of the whip was greeted softly or loudly, according to its loudness. The EGUGU came back in pairs, and cracked their whips and retired. The people in the crowd crowed like cocks. At last a differently clad EGUGU came on. This man's mask looked like a huge crown made of laths joined together by strips of palm leaves; each lath carried a tuft of cotton at its extremity, and a long streamer of white fibre. The mask was of black network like those of the others, but the whole mantle was covered with the quills of the porcupine. The fringe-like dress was white and not orange.
This figure made three entrances on to the plateau, and then all the dancers, followed by the crowd, crowing and blowing horns, ran off to their sacred grove, to keep on cracking their whips all night.
I had crossed over from the valley of the OGBA river to the GILLY-GILLY road, and having passed through IPAKU and EGBA, had arrived at EGWAHAMI, when my attention was arrested by the sounds of singing and drumming, which I was told were caused by some dancers who had come from UGBENI to give this village health and good luck. So I walked to where they were dancing, and found that the dancers were dressed very much like the EGUGU we had noticed at OTWAW. But the whole band were to dance that evening at UGBENI, and, as we were bound for that place, I left these five strolling players to do what good they could for the people of EGWAHAMI, and proceeded to UGBENI.
UGBENI or EGBENI is a place between Benin City on the road to UGWATON or GWATT'O and Gilly-Gilly, and is not far from the place where Consul Philips and his party were so mercilessly massacred by the people of Benin City in 1897.
One of my boys now told me that I should see the OVIA dance, which the boys had played in dancing at ITE, danced as it should be.
UKHURE sticks found on nearly all altars throughout the country. Great chiefs have as many but generally found in couples or threes.
lt was late in the afternoon on the 27th May, 1904, when the boys placed my chair in the shady side of a square in the town of UGBENI, so that I might witness the OVIA dance. Three men carried UKHURE sticks and placed them near to me against a wall. A boy carried one decorated with a tuft of strips of palm leaves. A crowd of women were to my left, a crowd of men just opposite to me, while children were as six, seated on the far side of the women.
Certain masters of the ceremonies pushed back the crowd until there was room enough for the dancers in the middle. There were ten dancers, five dressed in one fashion and five in another, and they formed themselves into a circle. Though these dancers were not dressed as extravagantly as those at OTWAW, yet they were picturesque and curious enough to be worth describing. Five were dressed as follows:-
A huge head-dress, attached to a kind of crown. A triangular wooden framework, covered with red cotton cloth, in the centre of which was a small mirror, while feathers of the hornbill ran up two sides of the triangle and around the top of the crown. A couple of the tail feathers of the parrot were attached to each of the feathers around the crown. The crown itself was of wood, surrounded by bands of gold or silver braid. Two square pieces of glass inserted into the crown gave it the appearance of having eyes. Below this was a mask of network, and over this was hung a small piece of a consular uniform rich in silver braiding. Then from the crown long streamers of red cotton cloth were suspended. The cape, or mantle, was of strips of palm leaves, and they had a garment of similar make tied round their waists. Instead of the black, neatly-netted work underwear of the EGUGU, these dancers wore ordinary cotton pants and shirts with long sleeves. Around their legs just below the knee they wore a string of negro bells, while around their ankles they had anklets of dried seeds that rattled.
The five others were dressed like the five just mentioned, save for their head-dress. They had the netted mask and crown and red streamers flowing from it, but the upper part was of light branched woodwork, from the branches of which hung many red parrot feathers in couples.
The dance commenced by the masked men beating their sticks while the women sang, and the men behind the circle walked backwards and forwards, with their shoulders pushed upwards, cooing like birds. Suddenly a couple of the masked figures rushed into the centre of the circle, and stamped the ground violently in front of each other. Then the others ran round in a circle, all their movements in perfect accord to the time they kept beating with their sticks. Then one of these clumsy-looking figures came into the centre of the circle, and commenced that spinning and roundabout motion already described in the dance at ITE, but instead of cannoning against one of the circle, the dancer in this case righted himself in time, and started stamping before one in the circle, who had to stamp back at him.
Many of their songs were sung in parts and were very effective, while the dancing was excellent. No one is supposed to know who these masked people are, and for a whole month they live in the grove sacred to OVIA, and are fed by the public. Any village in the district can send for them to dance there by paying for them, and they say that the dancing brings health to the people.
OTON is the name of the burial dance and song. Those who have lost one of their own house carry an empty box, covered with cloth, mirrors, and beads. They sing OMAWRARIYOYO, and parade the streets. Sometimes it is some years before this is done: it is then a sign that so-and-so's father has at last been buried, and that the son has now amassed sufficient wealth to succeed to his father's honours.