The month of August comes with the euphoria of the traditional gathering of indigenes of Osogbo, Yoruba nation (home and diaspora) and tourists from within and outside of Nigeria to celebrate African cultural heritage in style.
It is a gathering devoid of political coloration, but sustained by ancient practice of cultural exhibitions and spiritual pilgrimage of the adherents of the sacred abode of the host deity. The ancient town comes alive and the economy of Osogbo witnesses a massive boost.
Tagged Osun-Osogbo Festival, the fusion of “Osun”, the goddess of “water of life” and “Osogbo” the capital city of Osun State, in the nomenclature of the festival is the linguistic representation of the ancient bond between the town and the river goddess. The festival which lasts for twelve days attracts hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life to be part of the annual procession led by the “Votary Maid” (Arugba) to the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove which is the annual traditional and spiritual convergence of all the pilgrims.
The relationship from time immemorial of the triad—Osun deity, Osogbo and the Grove—is strengthened annually in form of the festival which has been enjoying wide coverage across the globe. The sacred grove houses the Osun river where the goddess is believed to be permanently resident and the shrines of other Yoruba deities such as Ogun, Obatala, Oya, Sango among others. The Grove is the foundation of Osogbo town during the reign of the pioneer king of the community, Laaroye. It is the covenant made by Laaroye that he would be worshiping the goddess and offer sacrifice in exchange for protection of his people that beget the annual festival.
Inside the Grove, where Osogbo community began, are antiquities such as the first palace, the first market, art works of deities, the sacred river and many more. There are also about 200 species of plants which have therapeutic values as well as conservation of animals which are also forbidden to be killed. With the immense contributions of Austrian artist, Susanne Wenger (later known as Adunni Olorisa) through her art works, Osun Sacred Grove was designated UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005. With the sacredness of the Grove, many devotees anxiously await August to embark on a pilgrimage to Osun river and tender their requests to the “mother of children” with the belief that she hearkens their calls. It is pertinent to note that the devotees of the goddess of fertility are not restricted to Nigerians, they are found in Latin America, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti Cuba, Canada, Jamaica and many others. People come from different parts of the world to celebrate and worship one of the important deities in the Yoruba mythology.
The twelve days of the festival which traditionally begin with “Iwopopo”—the physical and ritual cleaning of the pilgrimage route from the palace in the centre of the town to the grove by the royal priestess (Iya Osun) and the priest (Aworo) accompanying the household of the king with traditional chiefs, High Chiefs and other notables with dancing and singing—are significant to every Osogbo indigene. It is a period of excitement that overshadows whatever socioeconomic and political challenges the community or individuals might have been inflicted with. The sixth day witnesses the occasion a 600 year old sixteen-point lamp is lit using palm oil soaked in cotton wicks. Also significant is the laying out the crowns of the past and present kings for a rededication to Osun on the tenth day of the festival; the king (Ataoja), chiefs, priests and priestesses will prostrate before the crowns as a salute to the royal ancestors with the view of invoking the ancestral spirits for blessings on Osogbo people. Basically, the period to the people of Osogbo is for spiritual rededication to the Osun deity; while to the Yoruba nation, it is time to celebrate cultural identity; and to tourists, it’s a period to revel in experiencing best of art and cultural aesthetics of the Yoruba race.
The grand finale of this year’s edition was held on the 16th of August with the Ataoja leading thousands of people including the chiefs, priest and priestesses to the sacred grove with the “Arugba” (Votary Maid), a virgin standing as the intermediary between the people and the mother deity by carrying the annual sacrifice of the community to Osun river. It is the belief that the barren would be given children and every request made on this day would be granted by the river goddess.
Speaking at the festival, Governor Gboyega Oyetola, who was represented by the Supervisor Of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Dr Babawale Adebisi, said he was seeking partnership with the Federal Government to tap into the tourism benefits the festival provides. He said; “The Osun-Osogbo festival is important to the government and people of Osun as it is a common cultural heritage and our window and voice to the world. We are aware of the power of tourism to market our culture to the world, foster cultural communication and harmony and engender national and international peace and cooperation.” He added “It is our intention to develop, promote and project the Osun-Osogbo festival to global prominence to compete with other world renowned cultural festivals. We shall transform the festival to a foreign exchange earner and a major driver of our economy through tourism.” The economic importance of the festival in the August period cannot be relegated to the background as people make brisk businesses for the duration of the festival with the presence of thousands of people from around the world. Tourism alone contributes £70bn to the United Kingdom economy every year and it employs 1.6m people. It has been projected that by 2025 tourism industry in UK will worth over £257bn and will support 3.8million jobs. The governor’s statement must be taken above the level of rhetorics to expand the festival to have a direct impact on the economy of the state and the country at large. Despite the ‘demonization’ of such festivals by the prevalent alien religions, government has the duty to promote the correct perspective of the culture and prevent those dishing out narrative of falsehood.
The promotion of the Osun Osogbo Sacred Grove to the whole world is also necessary to attract many tourists to the site on a daily basis which is also good for correcting the wrong image of the country in the comity of nations. Re-branding and projecting most of the festivals such as Sango Festival in Oyo, Ojude Oba Festival in Ijebu, Oke’badan in Ibadan and others across tribes, will enhance the diversification of the economy and make it independent of the black oil.