He moved the wooden bench in front of the shop to another location where he could have a better view of the vicinity.
It was his first time in Lagos, and based on the many things he had heard about Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial city, Adebayo Abayomi, 19, savoured every moment since his arrival in the country few days earlier.
To satisfy his curiosity and numerous expectations, he made sure he followed his aunt to her shop inside the popular Ipodo market, located at the heart of Ikeja, the capital city of Lagos State.
Time was 10:09 am that Thursday when the weekly environmental sanitation had just ended. From where he sat in front of the shop, he kept admiring the way business activities were gradually coming to life; the exchange of banter; the noise from nowhere increasing very rapidly; conductors in commercial buses few metres away calling passengers and both young and old struggling for space on the busy street. All these fascinated him.
That was one part of Lagos he had heard so much about. He told his aunt, who later told our correspondent, that while coming from home at Isale Eko, around Idumota, the tall buildings, the flashy cars on the road, the many churches that line the roads, the busy nature of the city, the crowd and the experience – different from what he had been used to all his life – amazed him.
While Abayomi kept observing everything around him from where he sat, he suddenly saw a very small (about 1.5 metres above ground level) block work, with semblance of a small house – at a junction in the market, where ‘Ojubo Esu’ (the shrine of a deity called Esu) was boldly written. He soon realised it was a shrine. On the small ‘house’ were different inscriptions, including the drawings of masquerades on it. It was a stone’s throw from his aunt’s shop, while there were people around it carrying out their business activities.
Apparently shocked by what he saw, his sudden exclamation and the way he made a dash for the door of the shop attracted everyone around there. It was obvious to anyone looking at his direction that something just scared him.
Abayomi would later explain that he was shocked to see a shrine not just in Lagos, “with all its civilisation”, but at the heart of Ikeja, which is one of the topmost commercial locations in the state.
He said, “I was shocked and even scared to see a shrine in Lagos. Lagos! Ha-ha!! How did it get there, with the level of civilisation? Lagos is about the centre of civilisation in Nigeria. I thought such things would only be found in remote villages or rural hinterlands, and anyone like me would think that once you enter Lagos, its goodbye to traditional religion.”
But unknown to Abayomi, in spite of its enviable commercial nature, technological advancement, civilisation and urbanisation, Lagos remains a typical Yoruba state, where indigenous religion is still being practised.
Also, unknown to him, around the place where he lived with his aunt, there are shrines scattered across where people still go regularly to worship. “I was shocked to know that these things also happen in Lagos,” he added.
Metropolitan Lagos, a shining example
True to Abayomi’s thoughts, the urbanisation of Lagos could make it easy to assume that the coming of Christianity and Islam had pushed traditional religion into oblivion. Such assumption could even be fuelled by the fact that Lagos is said to have the highest number of churches and denominations, and a sizeable number of mosques, spread across the city. Beyond these, many of the big churches in Nigeria have their headquarters and campgrounds in Lagos and its environs.
Thus, people could assume that with all these – urbanisation and huge presence of the two main religions – things like shrines would no longer exist in Lagos. But that is not the case.
Our correspondent found that in almost all parts of Lagos, including Lagos Island which is the headquarters of many corporate organisations, traditional religion is still as present and being practised as can be imagined, as there were shrines for the worship of Ogun (god of iron), Sango (god of thunder), Esu (a god known as Elegba) and all kinds of masquerades.
When our correspondent visited Ipodo Street in Ikeja, the Ojubo Esu shrine was a centre of attraction, more so that it is located at a junction. But that shrine was just a tip of the iceberg. Tucked somewhere inside the street was a collection of shrines. One of them, a pure white hut, was labelled Ojubo Aje (meaning shrine for the god of huge trade), while there are several others in another location, where they are all being manned by a man, called Olori (the head).
The location was like an enclave, comprising many shrines and the numerous masquerades, all of whose images were neatly engraved on the walls of the premises.
Even though Olori declined talking to Saturday PUNCH about the shrines, as he politely referred our correspondent to the Regent of Ikeja whose permission he would need before he could talk or before our correspondent could be allowed to take photographs, our correspondent made some interesting discoveries from some elders in the community.
Our correspondent gathered that in Ikeja, the capital city of Lagos, there are three festivals, namely Eegun (masquerade), Oro (a patriarchal traditional festival) and Ogboni (an indigenous fraternal institution in Yoruba land) and they have their shrines, images and elements conspicuously displayed at the enclave.
This implies that while the churches and mosques dot almost every street in the state, coupled with the corporate organisations, the high rise buildings and high level commercial activities, the traditional religion remains vibrant and alive in the heart of the city. And according to findings, each of the festivals, when the time comes, costs millions of naira to celebrate because of the preparations and celebrations that go into it.
It seems interesting that in a population of over 20 million people, most of whom believe in Christianity and Islam, coupled with the (prominence) war waged against the indigenous belief by the two dominant religions, it is still very much around and still standing.
Suffice it to say that the traditional religion has been very resilient and has been able to survive the industrialisation, technological advancement, civilisation and urbanisation that have all made Lagos a cosmopolitan and metropolitan city.
And as much as religion has been known to unite people, the traditional religion is also performing this function as the worshippers of these deities always come together to celebrate or worship at the appropriate time.
Interestingly, Ikeja is not alone. Other areas of Lagos, including Ojuelegba, Ojota, Egbeda, Idimu, Lagos Island, Agege, Iyana Ipaja, Ikotun and many other parts of Lagos have shrines in their communities.
In other states of the federation, there are very many shrines – some located in the forest and some in open places – where traditional believers still worship, but in Lagos, the shrines are located in open spaces where people could see them freely.
For example, at Ikotun, a very busy, commercial town in Alimosho Local Government Area, the roundabout at the centre of the town is as popular as the town itself. But right in the middle of the roundabout is a shrine. It’s a small red brick work with a semblance of the deity, covered in black, shooting out of it.
The shrine, which is said to belong to the community, is always locked with a padlock unless the worshippers come there to worship it. As our correspondent gathered, people, including the priests, come there to worship the deity from time to time, even at daytime.
Their coming often aggravates traffic on the ever busy road, which would also show all who care to look that it is indeed a shrine. “It used to be in a mud house until they refurbished it sometime ago,” a shop owner, who had been in the area for about seven years, said.
The shrine is opposite the Area headquarters of the Christ Apostolic Church, and some metres away from the Synagogue Church of All Nations, among other churches around. This shows that the traditional religion has been able to survive civilisation and modernisation.
Also at Ojuelegba, a busy commercial community that connects Lagos Mainland to the Island, one could easily be carried away with the numerous business activities, but close to the junction that leads to the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (on Itire Road) from under the bridge, there is another shrine. The small, white block work (about 1.5 metres high), is located just by the road with Ojubo Esu written on it and different masquerades drawn on it.
Interestingly, people around it, including a restaurant, carried on with their trading activities as if there was nothing to worry about.
The community had yet to have a Baale (community head) but one of the titled chiefs, the Basorun of Surulere, Alhaji Raheem Durowoju, who spoke to our correspondent, explained that the shrine was for Esu and that no matter the civilisation, the shrine would always be there.
He said apart from the fact that the Esu protects them from harm, it is their benefactor and that is why August 20 of every year has been set aside as the Isese Day to go there to worship it and celebrate.
Durowoju, who appeared to be in his 80s, said, “Yes, civilisation has swept off many cultural and traditional practices, especially in a place like Lagos, but there are things that can’t be swept off. As civilised as Lagos is, there are people – across the social class; rich, average and the poor – who would never abandon the religion, and that explains the reason why our traditional religion has not faded out, in spite of the massive attack against it by the other two religions.
“As Christians focus on Jesus Christ, Muslims on Mohammed, traditional worshippers also focus on any of Esu, Orunmila, Sango or Ogun, and we won’t trade our religion for anything. That is why the religion is still alive. So, regardless of civilisation, everybody has their own belief. Esu is our benefactor and that is why people still use it to name their children, like Esubiyi, Olonade, Dosumu, etc.”
In spite of their efforts to keep the religion alive, he, however, admitted that civilisation had affected their population and their activities.
Durowoju, accompanied by his son, Fatai, said, “In the past, we used to go there to worship Esu regularly, like every month, but due to civilisation and the boom in the other religions that has absorbed some of our members, unless there is an emergency, August 20 is the day set aside to go there. The new religion has affected us. Those who should be doing it have accepted new religion. Those who were devoted to it at that time, when they died and their children were supposed to take over, they had rather accepted the new religion. Some have even become Imams or Pastors. So, we have fewer members unlike before.
“And the essence was mainly for protection. That is why it is always at the border (entrance) of the community, so that any evil coming into the town would be repelled by the Esu. But now, things have changed.
“Surulere used to be known as Abule Elegba (Elegba means Esu), but due to civilisation and to avoid calling it Abule Esu, it was named Surulere. Just as Ojota is oju ota. Ota is Esu, so Ojota is Oju ota; where Esu is being worshipped.
“We have our own version of names too. Christians say Michael, Muslims call it Mukalia, while we call it Sango. Esu has many names and people celebrate it every year, because they believe it helps them. So, the religion will always be there.”
In other parts of Lagos visited by our correspondent, the story is the same. Descending the Iyana Ipaja Bridge towards Agege, there is another Ojubo Esu, and on Karimu Street in the neighbourhood, there is a shrine where Ogun is being worshipped.
The worshippers, who gathered that Tuesday evening, revelling in some shindig, told our correspondent that worshiping Esu and Ogun was their own way and no level of urbanisation could make them throw away their native religion.
One of them said, “We have Ogun here (pointing at the shrine) while the one beside the bridge is Esu. Ogun and Esu are friends and they don’t stay far away from each other. Few days earlier, we still celebrated here and many people witnessed it.
“While you Christians and Muslims keep to your own belief, we keep to our own. Some of those who should be among us have accepted the religion brought to us by foreigners, making our own indigenous religion to be like a wicked one, but it is ours and we will continue to promote it.”
Daring the odds to survive
Also at Orile Agege, there are many shrines spread across the community. From the popular Agbotikuyo junction to Old Ota Road, to Aiyepe Street and Olabua area, different shrines dot the entire area, and findings showed that there are more in different homes.
At Okunola Road in Egbeda, Alimosho Local Government Area, there is also a shrine for Ogun on one of the streets off the main road.
On entering the street, one would see a tree on the left, with palm leaves tied round it. It stood like an ordinary tree, but it is beyond being ordinary. The tree symbolises the Ogun that is being worshipped, and according to the Baale of Okunola, High Chief Tajudeen Adeyemi Fasinro, people come from far and near to worship the deity.
“The deities are like channels through which worshippers talk to their god,” he added, noting that the items used to worship the deity could include goat, dog, ram, etc., as specified by the Ifa divination.
He added, “We do Ogun, Eegun and Osu festivals on August 20 of every year. People come from far and near. We invite musicians. If you ever witnessed it, you would understand that our native religion is still as popular as before. People come from outside the country to witness it. Those who couldn’t come, including pastors, could send money. Everywhere would be filled up. It’s usually a memorable moment.”
He admitted that they had lost some of their members to Christianity and Islam, but that it would not be sufficient to send the religion into extinction.
He added, “Ogun (the deity) helps us to prevent evil occurrences – like kidnapping and illnesses – and protect the community against danger. In the past, our forefathers used this same religion to deliver women of their babies with ease. There was nothing like Caesarean Section.
“But these days, people no longer eat concoction, yet it works. By consulting the oracle, our forefathers could tell the gender of a baby in the womb. Yoruba has a rich culture but we have thrown them away because of imported religion. The President (Muhammadu Buhari) has been urging us as a nation to embrace things made in Nigeria. Our traditional religion is also made in Nigeria and we should embrace it.”
Fasinro, who said he is an Alhaji who had been to Mecca, stressed that if Oro (a traditional festival) was still being celebrated till date, many societal ills would be non-existent. He said Islam, his religion, only forbids that a faithful bows to an idol, which he said he would not do.
He said there are people who have become pastors or imams who still recognise the role of traditional religion, and during the festivals, they send money to them as their contributions.
He added, “China and India are big economies but they have their traditional beliefs and they promote them. Are they not successful? Civilisation and local culture development should be at par. We won’t throw away our own religion because of civilisation. I’m proud of Ogun and my root. It is true that there is God but it is the deity that we send to God because we can’t see God himself.
A native religion and its survival instinct
No doubt, Nigeria has rich and enviable cultural and traditional heritage. It was also for this reason that the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture was held in Lagos, Nigeria in 1977. FESTAC ’77, which afterwards became a household name in Nigeria, witnessed people coming from all over the world to celebrate the African culture in Nigeria.
The event, which lasted one month, was the largest pan-African gathering at that time, and it was an avenue to display everything African, including music, art and religion, to the world and promote black unity through cultural festivals.
It is noteworthy that at the opening ceremony of the festival on January 15, 1977, it was a Sango (god of thunder) priest that set the festival bowl ablaze, which symbolised the commencement of the programme and the freedom and unity of the blacks.
But years after the festival and with the growth of Christianity and Islam, it was as if there was a massive attack on the traditional religion to the point that anything indigenous was tainted as evil.
For as many that believe in the indigenous tradition, they are doing everything possible to make sure the religion stays alive. Interestingly, there seems to be a resurgence of the religion and gradually, people no longer feel ashamed about it, as they now meet regularly and have gathering points for worship.
In fact, some believers of the native religion now sponsor programmes on the radio to reach out to a large audience, with the aim of educating the public on the need to embrace their indigenous religion.
Meanwhile, an Ifa priest and social commentator, Dr. Aderemi Ifaoleepin, said till the end of time, Ifa would always be alive. He said even though people have shifted their attention to the religion introduced by foreigners, the native religion would always stand, regardless of civilisation.
He said, “Just as Christians have the Bible and Muslims have the Quran, the Ifa is the unwritten language of God about life. It is something you learn. Also, people need to distinguish between native religion and black magic. They are not the same.”
He said it was misconception and misinformation that makes people to see the native religion as black magic. He added, “You hear people calling Ogun the god of Iron and Sango the god of thunder, but those deities do not have English names. As long as there is life, our native religion will continue to be.”
On what the Lagos State government feels about the continued existence of the shrines, the Head of Public Affairs Unit, Lagos State Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture, Mr. Ganiu Lawal, said the government recognises and respects the shrines that are indigenous and have traditional value, noting, however, that some are not genuine and are not registered with the government.
He added, “Some communities decided to institutionalise a deity or have a shrine, so, you find that sometimes, when the state government is doing a project, they could bypass them to show respect and sensitivity to their existence and their owners.
“Infrastructural development, like roads, met some of those shrines where they are, so they have traditional and historical values and the state government respects that. If you go to some places, you would see that the road would have to bend because of them (shrines) because of their traditional value. I mean the real, indigenous ones and they are registered with the government.”
He said since they are recognised, they are required to notify the government when they are to have any of their festivals, so as to have police protection and have their activities regulated, more so that some of them are crucial to tourism in the state. (Punchng.com)