Since 1982 Olokoro community in Umuahia South Local Government of Abia State celebrate a cultural festival known as Opoko Again.
After 38 years, Opoko festival thrills Umuahia residents
All over the world, people have different ways to celebrate their cultural festivals during seasons of the year. The Olokoro community in Umuahia South Local Government of Abia State is no different. They celebrate a cultural festival known as Opoko. This festival is unique as it does not come every year. In fact, the last celebration took place in February 1982, exactly 38 years ago. Daily Trust on Sunday witnessed the festival and now reports. Olokoro community is made up of 15 villages that became autonomous communities between 2000 and 2004. These villages have various art exhibitions in artistic representation of either trees or animals. In Olokoro, Ama Ngwo and Itaja villages, there is an artistic representation of the elephant, called Enyi. Umu Ntu village has an artistic representation of the python, called Eke, while Itu village has an artistic representation of the tall palm tree, called Nkwu. Amuzu and Umuopara Ozara villages are kindred villages; they create an artistic representation of the young palm tree, which is called Opoko, which is the main feature of the Opoko festival, realised within the framework of the Okonko Society in Olokoro.
The Opoko festival is held in a high esteem. The people of Amuzu and Umuopara Ozara villages refer to it as one of the unique festivals in the southeastern part of Nigeria. This is so because it is not a yearly festival like others. It is a festival that many may not be fortunate to see in their lifetime. In fact, those who, by the mercy of God, witnessed the festival this year may not be lucky to see it thrice before they depart this world. Chinedu Okah, a native of Amuzu village, stood outside the gate of a discreet building in his hamlet. Wearing a red t-shirt inscribed “Never Give Up,” he walked down majestically with a gaze on every piece of nature.
The birds sang their melodious songs as the gentle breeze swung the hands of the palm fruit and other trees from the left to the right. The 28-year-old Chinedu had always dreamt of the day he would witness the next Opoko festival. He had heard many amazing stories from old folks in the village, about how rare and intriguing this festival could be. In Chinedu’s small mind, he assumed the position of an event planner, organising his dream Opoko festival. The last event took place 38 years ago when his father, Boniface Okah, was not yet married, and his grandfather, Pa Okah was a septuagenarian. Chinedu was about to take the next step on the footpath he was trailing when he heard the sound from the gong of the town crier, known as Onye Ogene. He could not help but standstill. Stretching his neck, he strained his ears towards the side where Onye Ogene’s voice was coming from. He could not believe what he heard. He ran as fast as his legs could carry him to his friend, Uche, who would also witness Opoko festival for the first time. This year’s festival took the community over one year to prepare. To start, leaders of the Okonko society in the host community paid a courtesy visit to all the surrounding villages of Olokoro to officially inform them that Opoko was going to take place. The visit to the communities is called Urih Opoko. Members of the Okonko society played the role of going into the bush for several rituals to ensure the success of the festival. A week to the festival, there was a presentation of the material that would be used in the construction of the artistic presentation. This is called Egha Unu, which is simply a public display of the fabric to be used in the festival. Egha Unu is normally done on a market day called Afor Ukwu. The number of days between one Afor Ukwu and another is usually eight days. When the exercise of communicating to other villages is completed, the preparation is narrowed down to the artistic representation of the young palm tree, Opoko. Once a date have been agreed upon, the leadership of the community would communicate to their subjects for preparation. These preparations, among other things, include the registration and initiation of young members into the Okonko society after several demands are mentioned by intending members, which must be done. After this, the new members can now eat, drink and participate in activities carried out by the society. Also in preparation for the festival, the community embarks on a massive cleanup of its environs, streets and hamlets swept, grasses cut by the young men, all in anticipation of the arrival of sons and daughters of the community, visitors outside the state, and the Opoko masquerade, whose presence will grace the festival. During the preparation period, young men in their numbers will start playing traditional music to set the tone for the festival in the host villages of Amuzu and Umuopara Ozara. At 7am on the D-day, when most community dwellers were enthusiastic and about going to the village square to commence the long-awaited festival, Opoko masquerade was already staged, awaiting the arrival of its spectators. Youths danced round the community to inform everyone that the roads were in good shape for the biggest masquerade to pass by. The arrival of the Opoko was announced by heavy traditional gunshots as members of the community danced towards his direction to welcome him. In turn, Opoko also displayed his dance steps to the admiration of the community. From there, they moved to the village square. Opoko never sits down; it stands for the whole 72 hours the festival is designed to last. At intervals of 20 to 45 minutes it took majestic steps. At other intervals, it danced to the rhythm of the drummers. Despite the scotching sun, Opoko did not seek shade. A 94-year-old resident of Amuzu village, Da Rose, said that even when it rained heavily, it had never been heard that Opoko found shelter. The Opoko masquerade is about 20 feet tall and about 40 metres in breath. It is huge. At the village square, members of the Okonko society danced round the Opoko while members of the community danced from afar. That day, the young ones who had heard so much about the festival witnessed what Opoko looked like. They were fascinated at the sight of what they saw as they watched in admiration. As was seen on their faces, the joy and fulfillment of onlookers knew no bounds. At the village square, those below the age of 30 were many when compared to others. Members of the society, men, women and children who do not necessarily belong to the Okonko society were at liberty to behold the Opoko masquerade. To make the festival more interesting, special delicacies like ukazi soup was prepared with aka’abo, achara, egusi, azungara, anu, opkoroko and ukazi leaf. It was enjoyed with akpu or garri, accompanied by palmwine, beer and other drinks. The youths appeared in different colourful wrappers, armed with cutlasses, not for violence but as part of the symbols of celebration. Also in the spirit of the festival, they were seen in various drinking joints enjoying themselves and savouring every moment. Children also had a great play time, even as they danced to the melodious beats of the drummers. Old men and women sat by the side of the village, also having a nice time out as they wined and dined, nodding their heads and moving their shoulders to the irresistible rhythm from the drummers. Some men who are part of the Okonko society, wore the traditional cap mostly worn during the “New Yam festival, known as Iri Ji in the eastern path of Nigeria. After the weeklong festival, there was another exhibition carried out with lesser masquerades. This was done to announce a successful celebration of the Opoko festival. After this, the festival is deemed to be over for the year. Speaking about the festival, Mr Chiemeka Clement Onyeagulama, 75, a native of Amuzu and former head of the Department of French in Alvan Ikoku Federal College of Education, Owerri, disclosed that Opoko festival had been passed on from generation to generation. He encouraged the younger generation to sustain the culture because, according to him, “If you don’t, you will hang in the air as you would not have a root,” he added. Asked about the spiritual connotation of the festival, Onyeagulama said he would rather refer to it as a social event, where people eat, drink, dance and relax, adding that all work and no play would Jack a dull boy. “This is February, the onset of farming season in Olokoro. When the celebration is concluded, the next thing is the farming season, which continues and ends with the New Yam festival in August,” he said. On whether there are rules and regulations governing the festival, Onyeagulama said, “Three months before the festival, there is normally a ban on all kinds of quarrels and fights in Olokoro clan. Anybody that runs fowl of that ban is heavily penalised, including the payment of a fine of N100,000. Also, on the day of the festival, people are not allowed to come very close to the Opoko masquerade. This is to avoid interference. Speaking on why it takes very long to celebrate Opoko festival, he said, “The festival is cost intensive. That is one of the factors that led to its long spacing. In the past, the economy was not as robust as it is today.” Also, Mr Chris Chibuzo, an indigene of Amuzu, said, “When I was a youth, I was part of the Okonko society and I participated actively in the last Opoko festival in 1982. That same year, I got married and decided to denounce the Okonko society and any festival that has to do with it, in order to embrace Christianity. That was in 1983.’’ He, however, said it was good for children and the youth to learn about their culture. Mr John Uzoryan, who is now 88 years, and his wife, Dorcas, said they were particularly thankful to God for the peaceful and happy atmosphere witnessed in the community from the beginning of the festival to the end. His wife said she was happy that the young ones in the community displayed interest in Opoko festival. “I am happy to be alive to see Opoko again. The most interesting part of the festival is seeing the masquerade dance with the people. I am clamoring that the interval between one Opoko festival and another be reduced to enable people have a great feel of the culture during their lifetime,’’ she said. Furthermore, a 27-year-old Ejigbo Promise said he was happy to witness the Opoko festival this year, adding that he had been hearing elders in the community discuss about it. He said he now fully understood what the festival stands for and believes it would unite the people and revitalise their tradition. Ezinne Okafor, 18, said she was excited to witness the festival for the first time. She said that whenever her parents talked about Opoko, she marvelled at how it would look like. Ezinne said she enjoyed the dance steps of the masquerade. She hopes the festival would bring unity and love to the community. Again, Mrs Alozie Olomachi, who said she was born after the last festival in 1982, said it was very interesting. She was excited to witness this year’s celebration. She said she particularly enjoyed the Opoko’s dance steps, and appealed that the culture be sustained. Also speaking about the festival, Ngozi Ohunlaka, who is now 82 years old, said that between 1982 till date, a lot of people were born while a lot also passed on. She said she was grateful to her creator for keeping her alive and healthy to witness another Opoko festival. She was particularly happy at the high turnout of celebrants, saying it would afford the young ones the privilege to learn their culture