The story of a kingdom whose birth was divinely orchestrated by the unseen hand of fate.
Let us in solemn adoration, concern ourselves for a while with the history and culture of a people so elevated and graceful.
History of Itsekiri People
Once upon a time in the fifteenth century, there lived a hot blooded and self-willed young man known as Prince Iginuwa (Ginuwa), he was the eldest son of Oba Olua- the fourteenth Oba of Bini (Benin) kingdom. Prince Iginuwa who was well loved by his father the king but disliked by the chiefs was impatient of the taboos and traditional conventions of the times.
And not willing to wait for his time as an Oba to come before doing away with those which he considered as wrong, he paraded gangs of fellow hot heads and began a frequent terrorization of the chiefs and their supporters.
As a result of this, the provoked chiefs who already harboured a dislike for him converged secretly and the meeting was presided by the chief minister (Iyase). A consensus would be reached; the young Prince Iginuwa and his associates would be terminated.
Traditionally, it is the custom of the Bini kingdom for the son who was chosen Edaiken (crowned prince) to live outside the capital among the hereditary chiefs to whose ranks he belonged. This was the reason that made it possible for the young Prince to carry out his crusade without the curtailment of his father- Oba Olua. And likewise, the decision of the chiefs.
However, upon hearing the secret conclusion of what was likely to happen to his soon, Oba Olua consulted his chief priest ( Ogiefa ) as to what must be done to save the life of his boy. "An innovative way of smuggling the prince out of the kingdom as soon as possible," was the counsel the priest gave the king after consulting the oracle.
And without further hesitation, Oba Olua ordered an ‘ark of iroko wood’ to be hastily constructed. An ark big enough to convey not only the prince but also the eldest sons of the seventy chiefs of Bini.
With this intention, a meeting of the central council was summoned when the ark was completed. Oba Olua informed the chiefs that he was sending his son Prince Iginuwa to perform desirable rites to the river goddess- Olokun. And to accompany him, he demanded from them their first sons.
The king has spoken, and from the council, no objection was made.
So, it happened that when the appointed day came, except for the Oba, the chief priest, and the palace attendant who birthed the escape plan, every other person including the chiefs didn't know that Prince Iginuwa and his entourage- their sons were embarking on a voyage they would never again return.
And, In their ignorance, they joined the Oba in wishing the prince safety and good luck on his journey in Edo language by saying "OKHIENWERE O..."
Thereupon, the ark was carried by slaves through the dense forest which spans across the present route of Sapele for days. And upon arrival at the banks of river Ethiope, the iroko ark was lowered; there prince Iginuwa came out, adorned himself with the regalia of kingship, and assumed the role of one.
The rugged Prince has made himself a king without a kingdom.
However, after a long wait, the Bini chiefs got to realize that they've been deluded by their king. And their next line of action was to dispatch soldiers to bring Prince Iginuwa and their sons back to the Kingdom. Somehow information would reach the prince that an onslaught for him was on; upon hearing this he ordered a quick evacuation as he instructed them to board the ark.
And from Ugharegin where it is believed the Prince and his retinue had first settled, they sailed to Efurokpe. But not being satisfied with the safety of the new place of settlement, the prince king launched another voyage.
But, this time, the voyage would be long; tedious, and difficult.
History has refused to tell us, precisely, how long it took the prince and his royal entourage to sail through the high waves of the Forcados River. And we in return are in no position to question why. However, it came to be that their sail led them to the small settlement of Amatu, where they squatted for a prolonged while.
It is said that Amatu was a place of beauty and wonder. Its glittering white sand was bed to crocodiles and alligators. The sun beam was soothing to the skin, and the air a pleasure to exhale. But these sojourners were not tourists.
Food to them was far more important than the splendor of Nature. Amatu with all its wonders was unproductive.
There were, however, more fertile headlands inhabited by the Ijohs (Ijaws). Oruselemo was one of them. The accommodating spirits of the Ijohs birthed a cordial relationship with the royal entourage. And with time, Oruselemo did not only become their home, Prince Iginuwa also married an Ijoh woman named Derumo.
Incidentally, after several years at Oruselemo, a dispute arose between the migrants and the Ijaws of Gulani (Ogulagha) on the account of the woman Derumo. The hot-tempered prince had killed her. No doubt that cordiality would be replaced with coldness, as variance would have taken the place of togetherness. It is as a result of this that the prince king in his wisdom thought it more reasonable to move again.
Hence, another voyage was embarked as the ark was launched. They sailed passed the present site of Forcados and Burutu, as the Ark steered north into the Warri River. It is said that the days of this particular quest were not only filled with strain and misery, depression and gloominess also thought it fit to take comfort in their souls.
Yet, after days of hardship, Prince Iginuwa and his entourage finally landed at a virgin land that would be later known as Ijala. And as at now, he had become the father of two fine boys. Prince Ijijen (Ijiyem) and Prince Irame.
They would raise a mini town and settle here.
But, not long have they dwelt before news of their whereabouts reached Bini; and as expected, an Army was sent to bring back the running prince.
It should be emphasized here that this was the era when men were more spiritually inclined; and due to this, messages will always find ways to deliver themselves.
The information had come to them at Ijala, and without hesitation, the mobile kingdom started making preparations for another evacuation. But then exertion has made weary the soul of their commander. King Iginuwa would not make it out of Ijala. He joined his ancestors amidst the preparations. And there, he was buried.
It is for this reason that Ijala had become the only burial place of Olus (Itsekiri kings) since 1500 AD till date.
Certainly, there was no time for exaggerated mourning. Danger was fast approaching. Primogeniture would help pave the way for Prince Ijijen to take up the royal command. And without objection, the honour of a king was duly accorded him.
Thus, the planned movement from Ijala was, therefore, executed by Prince Ijijen with the aid of an Idibie (medicine man or a diviner) who threw a magical spear (Egan or Etsoro) that was believed to have landed at a location called Okotomu, now Ode-itsekiri (Big Warri).
The tracing of that spear by Prince Ijijen and his people, with the help of the Idibie piloting, finally brought them to the spear’s location.
Historically, the Itsekiris are painted as a collection of people with diverse origin. A people with a complex mixture, different ethnicities, and many races.
According to Jackson Omasanjuwa Ireyefoju and Florence Ejuogharanmakelesan Ireyefoju in their seminal work "Ife Oracle in Itsekiri Social System of Nigeria," Itsekiri people came from Egypt after the battle of Actium in 31 B.C. The Mahim arrived and settled in the present Warri Kingdom in about 28 B.C in Gborodo, Ureju and Ode Itsekiri.
The leaders of the teams were Iset, Iweret and Ipi. This part of Itsekiri history is one that cannot be dropped with ease as there are more similarity in Itsekiri language and custom with those of the ancient Egyptians than any other civilization in the world.
Tribes of Itsekiri People
The people, Iset, Ipi Seikiri and Iweret came with some religions. Most of the gods were of the water. In a book titled "HISTORY OF THE ITSEKIRI" written by a renowned Itsekiri historian, William A. Moore, gave more revelations. He wrote, "Prior to the advent of the Benin Prince Iginuwa, the territory now known as the Kingdom of ITSEKIRI or IWERE, was inhabited by three tribes, namely, Ijaws, Sobos(Urhobos) and the Mahims."
Also, according to another school of thought, during the time when the struggle for kingdom carving was at its peak, various communities in the Yoruba kingdom were engaged in inter-communal war. As a result of this, streams of migration flowed in from Ijebu-Ode, Akure, and Owo.
They found their way into the kingdom, which then was not a kingdom, to settle in various parts; including Ureji and Ugborodo. This should explain the mystic affinity between the Itsekiri language and Ijebu. It is also said that groups from Igala in Nupe country, came in through the creek.
It was during the days this exodus, that one Fifan Wandobo and his brother- Itsekiri migrated along others from Kerenmu to Ijalosan. They would later move from Ijalosan to Okoyitemi (Okolomu). Itsekiri was the one who led that migration.
He was thus head of the settlement when Prince Ijijen's led ark arrived. Several of Itsekiri’s compatriots fled at the sight of the iroko ark, but Itsekiri with the other inhabitants of Okorotom quarter remained. They submitted to the superiority of royalty, and dwelt with Prince Ijijen as his subjects.
This was the beginning of a kingdom whose birth was divinely orchestrated by the unseen hand of fate.
Undoubtedly, the rich traditional and cultural heritage of the Itsekiris is as a result of an evolution brought about by a hybrid of cultures. The Itsekiri people practice a gerontocratic system of governance where elders are chosen as leaders. The priests are also highly revered. They still confer with their deities through the Ife oracle. Still, they believe in an overall God known as ‘Oritse’
Itsekiri People's dressing
Traditionally, Itsekiri men wear long-sleeved shirts with George wrapper and coral beads. The women, wear George wrapper, and depending on the occasion, either have the wrapper tied on their chest or it is worn with a blouse.
Marriage among Itsekiri People
In the days of old, marriage took place through the family arrangement. The groom never met with the bride before the wedding day. (But then, change they say is constant) The bride is dressed in George and elaborate ornaments of coral beads, gold, and silver. The men are dressed in an attire called ‘Kimeje’
Additionally, their women are known as good cooks and stories have it that they cook so well that a man can hardly resist. And the soups peculiar to the Itsekiris include Banga Soup, made from oil palm, and Owo soup both eaten with starch.