The people of Ogere community assembled at Umogidi village square for the annual alaywa dance contest. The square was very wide, surrounded with mango and iroko trees.
A shack was at one side of the square and images of gods were rooted to the ground under an ogbu tree beside it. Different kinds of drums were put under the sun and children were playing around them. Elders from the four villages, their sons and daughters and in-laws congregated at different spots under trees communicating with one another.
Majority of the people wore cap and headscarf of red and black colours. People from other communities and well-wishers gathered around their supporters under the trees where the people of their villages assembled.
The people of Umogidi assembled under a conglomerate of iroko trees making merry and cheering one another.
The congregation of Umogidi people was more crowded than that of other villages. Their in-laws from different communities and Enugu State gathered around them. Ejike from Elugwu-Ezike in Enugu who was a son-in-law of the Ede-maalu of Umogidi village chanted in Ibo language, praising the ancestors of his father-in-law.
He poured libation on a spot and danced around it with the palm wine cup in his hand. His father-in-law went to meet him and they chanted in Ibo language. ‘Oroburu brine e brine e bokinene, inene bogejigehor. Le eywa bugoywa le eywa charachara,’ they chanted. ‘Odin-ma,’ one of the young men who were approaching them said and turned round himself.
People of Ijitigbo were eating, drinking and chanting praises of their gods and epics of their forefathers who were never defeated in any war. One of the young men beat Agogo rhythmically to the tone of the epics. ‘Otoroche!’ he shouted.
Otoroche was one of the most powerful gods of Ijitigbo people. It was brought by their historical mother who hailed from Ubolo-Eke. She was the second wife of the founder of the community.
‘Otubi lo ohire eno le eyi, Otubi lo ohire eno le eyi,’ one of the Alaywa dancers from Ijitigbo chanted. Otubi was a god given to Oriri, a one time winner of best Alaywa dancer by his maternal grandmother who hailed from Ehu in Ankpa community. Since his heroic victory, many Alaywa dancers adopted Otubi as god of Alaywa dance. ‘Ohehe wa ka yofu,’ one of the Alaywa dancers enchanted. Ohehe was a deity in Ijitigbo.
Ayija people came with masquerades and priests of their gods. Cocks and bells were tied to the waists of the masquerades and the priests wore different regalias, representing the colours associated with each god.
‘Gburohohohohohoo,’ one of the masquerades bawled.
‘Kwaaaaaa horororororo,’ another masquerade yelled.
‘Ekwu pipi!’ One of the elders praised the masquerades.
The people of Ayija were descendants of Oreke, the third wife of the founder of the community. She had supernatural qualities and was believed to be the most powerful woman in her days and her god, Ata was one of the strongest gods in Ayija till date.
Her father was a famous king in Igala community in Kogi State in his days. People from other villages were afraid of Ayija villagers because of Ata. Most elders didn’t give their daughters to them in marriage and forbade their sons from marrying their daughters.
The elders from Echira were singing and drinking while Okela, Ororor, Edugwu, Odudu and Uka were giving last minutes instructions to the dancers.
‘Don’t be intimidated by the performances of our fellow dancers from this village or other villages who may dance before us. No matter how well they performed, believe you can do better than them. We may not be the first to dance,’ Ororor advised. He told them to cultivate the mindset of winning and have self-confidence.
‘I hope you took to correction all that we told you that day? No changing of style before the drummers change the rhythm and always wear a smiling face,’ Ororor emphasized.
‘Don’t entertain tension and never be intimidated by the performance of any village. Also, don’t have over-confidence on yourselves that you will certainly win. This is a contest and if you make a little mistake, it will rob you of victory. Please, make your village proud,’ Okela told the Alaywa dancers.
‘Don’t let your mind go to the audience, let your focus be on your dancing steps and the rhythm of the drums. Don’t let the look or praises from the audience affect you,’ Uka cautioned.
As Uka was talking, an elderly man hit the gong hung at the centre of the square with steel and there were resounding shouts from the gathering of various villages. Two elders from each village went to the foot of the deity in the square. A goat was brought by a young man and it was sacrificed to it.
‘Our fathers, let every judgement here today be according to yours. We forbid every powers, authorities and deities from speaking for any contestant, group or village.
We permit you only, our ancestors to declare the winners. We bring your sons and daughters who are the physical judges under your control. Let not their own feelings, perceptions and prejudices count in this contest. Let everything be done by your spirits,’ one of the elders prayed. ‘Amin,’ others said in unison.
* * * *
The people gathered in circumference with the judges seated on one side. An elderly man went to the centre-stage with a kola nut and broke it into four pieces. He called the four leaders of Alaywa groups from the four villages to choose one of the pieces of the kola nut.
They chose and returned it to him after putting different marks on it with sharp irons. He threw it to the ground and that of the group leader from Ijitigbo came first, followed by that of Ayija, Echira and Umogidi came last. The crowd shouted with glee, waiting keenly for the Alaywa group of Ijitigbo.
‘This is a great day! A day our ancestors have chosen for us to celebrate our heritage. People without culture are people less than domestic animals. I thank all of you; traditionalists, Muslims and Christians for upholding your fathers’ values. We thank our ancestors for the bond of unity among us.
Many communities who engaged in beautiful cultural contests like this have torn apart because of land disputes, religious differences, foreign civilization and other conflicts. I thank our ancestors and all of you for the peace among us,’ the elder said as they were waiting for the Alaywa group from Ijitigbo.
The Alaywa group launched to the stage with cheers from the crowd. ‘Igor igor igor, owiowa chenuno o igor, owiowa chenuno,’ the lead dancer sang and was chorused by all the dancers and the crowd. They mounted the stage and dance energetically, displaying different styles. ‘Oruro!’ some of the people shouted in commendation of their expertise.
They danced-out of the stage and Ayija group stormed the stage with singing and loud ovation from the crowd. They danced vigorously displaying virtuosity and gracefulness. The crowd cheered their prowess with joyous acclamation. ‘Oya adaauwa piipipi!’ one of the old women from Ayija praised them with her hands raised above her head.
It was the turn of the Alaywa group from Echira. The crowd went agog in welcoming them to the stage. ‘Obilekpa mo weni!’ One of the elderly women from Echira shouted and was amplified by the crowd.
Their colourful attire glittered and attracted everyone. Ororor, their coach danced with them to the stage. He was the only one who danced with his group to the stage. The drummers praised him, calling his name with drums and everyone cheered her.
They danced charmingly moving their hands and legs in regular intervals and unison. ‘This is marvellous!’ somebody shouted from the crowd. The crowd applauded their adeptness and they dance out of the stage.
Umogidi group danced to the stage. ‘Egweeeeeji!’ Ejike shouted shaking his head to the rhythm of the drum. His in-law chanted in Ibo language and was praised by the elders. The group danced dynamically, changing styles according to the rhythm of the drum. ‘Great ones of their fathers!’ an old woman praised them and it was echoed by Umogidi youths.
* * * *
The four dance groups from each village had danced. It was now time for the best dancers in to battle for supremacy. This was an exciting moment everyone was eager to watch. Some of the people who were drinking palm wine quaffed it and darted for good vantage point to have full view of the dancers. ‘Today na today. The one I love most is about to start,’ a woman told another woman who sat abreast her.
Osi, Ebamu, Ekpe and Anoyi who were the best Alaywa dancers from the four villages were called to the stage and welcomed with great ovation. They moved round the stage clapping and celebrating their supporters. ‘My one and only Oto-obeje!’
One of the women from Echira praised Ekpe. ‘Ikpere Oko!’a woman from Umogidi hailed Osi. ‘The undefeatable, indefatigable lioness!’ Ijitigbo people showered encomia on Ebamu. ‘Unconquerable frontliner!’ people of Ayija extoled Anoyi. ‘The Sun bearer!’ Ochoyi adulated her friend.
After all the praises, Ekpe and Ebamu left the stage for Osi and Anoyi, and squatted at the edge of the stage. The drum started in a rising crescendo and Osi and Anoyi contended vigorously, displaying professionality.
They danced glamorously with the Okponors in their waists producing another rhythm to that of the drums. ‘Ukwere e!’A young man shouted and the crowd laughed. They left the stage with great applaud of their deftness.
Ekpe and Ebamu launched to the stage moving their legs to the rhythm of the drums. They looked at each other with smiling demeanour and the crowd laughed. ‘They know themselves,’ an elderly woman from Ijitigbo said. They danced with smiles on their faces, each making every effort to defeat the other until the drumming stopped.
This was the first stage (semi-final) of this section. The winner between Osi and Anoyi will compete at the final stage with the winner between Ebamu and Ekpe.
The panel of judges went into the shack at the square and came out with the names of the best dancers who qualified to the final stage after a brief discussion. ‘I greet you all once again my people,’ one of the judges said to the crowd. ‘Our forefathers say that what makes a man to spare his dog and sell his clothes to pay debt is not because of the beauty of the dog but its performances in hunting and night guarding.
All our daughters performed well and two of them made it to the final stage. Ekpe and Osi will battle for Oto-obeje,’ she said. The judgement was applauded by the crowd. However, few were dissatisfied and they mumbled.
Ekpe and Osi were invited to the stage with shouts of ovation. The drummers praised them with drums and they danced with vigour. Alaywa dancers from both villages were clapping and praying for their best dancer to win the title. ‘Our ancestors please grant us this day,’ Oka prayed, opening her hands to the sky.
Both of them started moving their legs to the rhythm of the drums. Ekpe bent low, twisting her hands and legs at intervals. Okela and Ororor were shaking their heads in commendation of her performance. The drummers drummed energetically in ascending crescendo and they danced glamorously, displaying high level of expertise with smiling faces.
The drumming ended and both of them were carried on the shoulder from the stage by their supporters. ‘You’ve won,’ Oka told Ekpe and gave her water to drink. All the Alaywa dancers from both of the contestants’ villages rallied round them, singing their reverence. ‘I thank Jesus for granting you a glorious performance,’ one of the dancers from Umogidi told Osi.
The judges went into the shack to deliberate and the people from both villages were singing songs of victory, praising their gods and dancers. ‘They are too great! They are too great! There are no gods like our gods o. They are too great!’ Youths of Umogidi sang as they run round the square praising their gods. ‘We performed far better than them all!’ A young man from Umogidi shouted. ‘Yes! Yes! You are right,’ Ejike shouted, raising his hands and chanting the praises of his gods.
The judges came out of the shack and walked towards the crowd with smiles on their faces. Silence rent the air and everyone was eager to hear those who would be crowned. ‘Thank you all great people of Ogere community. I specially thank all of you for making these contests a great success.
Without your participations, co-operations and efforts, this glamorous day would have only existed in history as it is now in many communities but your determination to sustain our fathers’ heritage keep this glorious gathering till today.
I thank all the dancers for their spirited effort and the elders for not allowing our cultural values to be abandoned in the name of religion, civilization and modernization. Thanks to you all once again,’ the elder said and the people responded with alacrity.
He moved backward and an elderly woman stepped forward and greeted the crowd. ‘Many thanks to you all for your participations; we are at the peak of all things now.
The two dancers who contested at the final stage did very well,’ she said and the people shouted with glee. Ejike moves from one side to another shouting the name of Umogidi and many people laughed.
‘Please maintain decorum, we are behind schedule. Some of us are still going to forests and far places to tap palm wine this night. Be silent for now, you will celebrate as you wish very soon,’ one of the elders said and tranquillity possessed the square.
‘Our daughters performed very well. I love the way they danced and I enjoin them to keep it up even after marriage.
However, all of them can’t be winner at the same time. Alaywa group from Echira is declared the best Alaywa group of the year and the closest to them is the Alaywa group of Ayija,’ she said.
Applauds and celebration erupted from the crowd. Ekpe ran and hugged her mother. Okela and Ororor hugged the dancers one after another and commended their efforts. ‘Thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus,’ one of the dancers said on her knee while others praised their gods and ancestors. Other Alaywa group members wore sore displeasures with lugubrious faces.
Ejike went and leaned on a tree looking into the air. One of the judges rang a bell and told the celebrant to be silent. ‘Just few minutes, everything will be over and you have all the night to celebrate,’ he shouted.
The noise subsided and the announcer spoke to them in a louder voice. ‘Please be patient, let me announce this to you in few minutes and you are free to celebrate,’ she said and looked at other judges as if seeking their approval of what she said. ‘Ekpe from Echira is Oto-obeje of the year.
Thanks to you all, we pray our ancestors to keep all of us till the next contests,’ she announced and returned to the shack with other judges.
‘Hmm, thanks to gods. I finally made it,’ Ekpe told her mother.
‘My dear, I’m happy for you and your mother. It has not happen in this community before that a mother and her daughter won titles in a year,’ one of the women with them said.
‘This is great! One of the greatest achievement and honour for a good mother is what your daughter got today. It will be a talk of the community for years,’ another woman added.
‘I thank my mother, ancestors and gods for these great achievements in my life. I and my mother won titles at the same time in my father’s community. My mother won Eni-igede and I won Oto-obeje at the same year. It is a heritage from my mother’s bloodline and it has been a talking dream in my mind to repeat the history with my daughter,’ Ekpe’s mother said.
The people of Echira marched to their village square and paid homage to the village deities at the centre of the square. Ekpe and her mother with few others left the square for their homes discussing about the events of the day.
Ugwu Lawrence Enencheis a prolific writer and reputable researcher on African literature and folklore. He has a bachelor degree on English literature from Ahmadu Bello university and master's degree on English literature from Bayero university, Kano. He is the author of Gone With Love, Just After Dawn, and A Talking Dream. You can shoot him an email firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter: Lawrence Enenche/Instagram: Ugwu1.
ALSO READ: 'Shadows of Love' by Ugwu Lawrence Enenche