The Ijebu are devotedly attached to their culture and no year passes by without them congregating to celebrate Agemo, one of the enduring legacies of their forebears. ADEBISI ONANUGA examines why the people are in love with this centuries old tradition that remains perhaps the only glue that binds the people of Ijebuland together.
Retired Juju musician Chief Ebenezer Fabiyi otherwise known as Ebenezer Obey in one of his praise songs for an illustrious son of Ijebuland described the Ijebu people as the children of the 16 Alagemos. The popular musician, now an evangelist was in that song rightly referring to the 16 masquerades spread across Ijebuland, devoted to the worship of the Agemo diety.
The deity, derived its name from "Akemo" which is a word used to describe somebody who takes care of the child in ancient Egypt. Agemo is the bond that unifies all Ijebu at home and in the Diaspora and is associated with peace and unity of the land. The deity is worshiped annually during the Agemo festival between June and August.
The stretch of the land covering Ijebu Ode, the then provincial and later divisional headquarters of the Ijebu, comprising Ijebu Igbo, Remo, Sagamu, Ejinrin, Ikorodu down to Epe, Iperu, Ishara, Ago Iwoye, Lekki and up to Ketu in the Republic of Benin among others, in pre-colonial Nigeria used to be known as Ijebu Kingdom under the paramount ruler, the Awujale.
The Agemo festival is considered very important to the Ijebu because it is believed that during this period, any barren woman that prays to the deity for the fruit of the womb always gets pregnant and eventually blessed with children. This is aside from the period being used to pray for peace and prosperity of Ijebu Kingdom. The deity is revered and feared by the women folk because of the myth and mystic powers associated with it. In the olden days, Agemo was the supreme deity in the land and it is so held up till today by its adherents.
How Agemo entered Ijebu Ode:
There are different account on how the deity, Agemo entered Ijebu Ode, the cultural and political capital of the Ijebu people. One account stated that Olu-Iwa, the father of Ijebus brought Agemo to Ijebu as far back as 900 A.D.
According to the history, the first Tami Onire Aladesogun, had journeyed with his senior brother, Olu-Iwa and other priests from Waddai, in Sudan near the upper Egypt. They came with some of their children and many slaves. According to Olowa Iberu and Abore Obirin Ojowu, High Chief Rasaki Oshimodi, the group passed through Ile Ife to greet Oduduwa and before leaving the ancient town, Olu-Iwa gave one of his daughters, Gborowo to Oduduwa as wife. She bore three children for him including Ogborogannida who later became known as Obanta; Lenuwa who later became Oba of Ode Omi and Liken who also later became Oba of Iwopin (Ogun Waterside).
The use of human beings by Tami for rituals for the Agemos caused a serious rift between him and Oduduwa consequent upon which he was asked to leave Ile-Ife by the latter. Before Tami departed the ancient town, along with Olu-Iwa, he was said to have insisted on taking Gborowo and her children along, a request that Oduduwa reluctantly granted. Oduduwa reportedly blessed his three sons and gave each of them a beaded crown so that they might become Obas wherever they might settle. But he blessed Ogborogannida more than he did others. This is said to have accounted for why Ijebu Ode is said to be blessed and is head of Ijebuland till today.
Ogborogannida left Ile-Ife with his mother, Gborowo. In the course of their journey, they got to River Osun, his mother died and that river was renamed Osun-Gborowo, in Itele, Ogun state. That is why every year, till date, the Awujale sends a cow to Itele for sacrifice to the river. While Ogborogannida was coming with Ogunja, they fought many wars until they came across Olugbo. They fought and conquered him and beheaded him before ordering his wife, Aka, to carry his head and follow them. That was how the Oba of Remo came to be called Akarugbo (Akarigbo). It was also at the spot where Ogborogannida fought Olugbo that Ogunja named him 'Amujale' which over time became 'Awujale' today.
The continued use of human beings for rituals caused a rift between Tami and Obanta consequent upon which he was asked to leave the town. But no sooner did he leave Ijebu Ode than disunity, disorder and confusion took over the land. As a result, Tami was summoned back to Ijebu Ode to help find a cure for the then Awujale.
On arrival, Tami gathered all the herbalists from the nooks and crannies of Ijebu inclusive the Agemos, to come and participate in the prayers and traditional rites for peace and prosperity to reign in the town and all over Ijebuland. This marked the beginning of the annual festival of the Agemo till date.
This account was corroborated by the Agbadagbodo of Ijebuland, High Chief Olatunde Awote who noted that the Agemo tradition came into being in Ijebuland some centuries back. "From what I read and what I was told by elders, there was an Oba in Ijebu Ode that time who took ill. Each time the illness came he was healed, but shortly after it came back. So, they then sent for a native doctor who was very good at curing mentally ill person. When he came and was told about the sickness of the Oba, the man suggested that diseases of this nature should not be cured in the township; that they should move him to a hamlet outside the town and it was agreed and the Oba was moved to a place that is today known as Imosan, a few kilomoeters outside Ijebu Ode. Shortly after, the Kabiyesi was cured.
So when the native doctor was about to leave Ijebu Ode, the elders asked him whether there was anything they should be doing annually to ward off such illness or any other ones from their land. The man said no, but advised that local doctors should assemble every year in that same place and show their prowess in their various callings. So, this was how the native doctors formed themselves into an association of Olojas which today turned out to be Agemo. The word Imosan as pronounced was to indicate that the Oba had been cured and ever since we have been celebrating Agemo festival at Imosan where the Oba was cured.
Besides, it was believed that the festival unites all the member communities of Ijebuland. That is why we have many of them (Agemo). Some said 16, some said they are more. So this people would come into Ijebu Ode once a year, and pray for peace, progress and unity of the town, longevity of the Awujale and for themselves. They would dance and make rituals for atonements. This is what is today known as Agemo festival which comes up between July and August every year", related Agbadagbodo of Ijebuland.
Another account however has it that the deity used to be worshipped in Egypt several thousands of years ago. It was said that the Bilikisu Sugbo, who later became Queen of Sheba after her marriage to the biblical King Solomon, had travelled to Jerusalem and saw the Agemo priests and developed a likeness towards them, such that when she was returning to Ijebu, she pleaded with the Agemo priests to follow her back to Ijebu. Because of the need to perform some rites, the Agemos reportedly told Queen Bilikisu that she should leave and that they would join her later.
However, Bilikisu on her return journey to Ijebu, encountered Islam and became a Muslim. As a result of this development, when the Agemo cultists arrived Oke-Eri , near Ijebu-Ode, Bilikisu she refused to receive them because of her new religion. She advised them to move on to Ijebu Ode where she assured them that the Awujale, would receive them and take care of them. Earlier on their way to Oke-Eri, they passed through Ijebu Mushin and upon being told that women must not see their regalia, the then Oloko of Ijebu Mushin, became afraid of them and quickly dispatched them out of the town. The Awujale, having heard that they were sent by Bilikisu Sugbo, settled them in the town. There and then, the Agemo priests started performing their rituals and sacrifices for Awujale, who was on sick bed when they entered the town, in order for him to get well. At that time, the Olojas (Agemo priests) were using human beings for sacrifice. So when the people started complaining about the use of human beings for sacrifice, the Awujale had no choice than to ask them to leave the town. They thereafter moved to various locations on the outskirt of the town, which today represented the different locations from which Agemos come from to Ijebu Ode to partake in the annual Agemo festival.
Nobody has been able to say how many Agemos existed in the olden days. Some said they numbered close top 50. For instance, there used to be Agemo from Sagamu and Ikorodu. But what is certain today is that there are 17 Agemos and their Olojas but only 16 Agemos come to Ijebu Ode for their annual festival. The 17th Agemo, which is Moki that settled in Ijebu Igbo, has for several centuries ceased coming to Ijebu Ode having lost his load of charms/power to a river around Iperin.
Most of these Agemos are also Kings (Obas) in their various domains and their names were derived from Egyptian language and they include the Head of the Agemos of Ijebuland, Tami Oba Onire of Odogbolu; Oloja Petu (Aramasa) from Isiwo; Oloja Bajelu from Ijebu-Imuku; Oloja Magodo from Aiyepe; Oloja Nopa from Odonopa (Ijebu Imusin); Oloja Olumoko from Okun-Owa and Oloja Edelumoro from Ijebu-Imoro; Oloja Serefusi from Igbile Ijebu.
They also include Oloja Lasen Ajagaloru from Oru; Oloja Posa of Imosan; Oloja Onugbo of Okennugbo Ago-Iwoye; Oloja Idebi Olumoruwa Isamoro of Ago-Iwoye; Oloja Ija from Imosan; Oloja Ogegbo of Ibonwon and Oloja Alofe of Ijebu-Ijesha.
What Agemo meant to Ijebu people:
Agemo is the only festival that binds all the Ijebus together. Aside from the fact that the festival is used to purify Ijebuland, it brings all Ijebu outside Ijebuland and in the Diaspora back home.
The appointment of an Agemo:
The appointment of an Agemo is hereditary and is very similar to how an Oba is selected. Like it is in Yoruba land, just as there are special ruling families that can aspire to become a Kabiyesi, there are special families that can become an Oloja Agemo . But most importantly, the Ifa oracle must be consulted to determine who ultimately becomes an Oloja Agemo and the person cannot reject his appointment as there are dire consequences for such a person.
According to an account, there was a particular Agemo, (names with held) who declined his selection by the Ifa oracle. It was said that a lot of calamities fell on his family, including loss of lives of some family members. Thereafter, he accepted his appointment, consequent upon which it was said that all the negative incidences stopped.
How the annual Agemo festival is celebrated
The annual Agemo festival usually takes place between July and August every year in Ijebu Ode.
According to the Agbadagbodo of Ijebuland, Chief Awote, the festival is usually preceded by "Ireku" which marks the opening of the gate for the Agemos to come into Imosan.
The ceremony is usually held one month before the commencement of the festival which is majorly a public affair.
"Ireku" is performed by the Oloja Agemos with sacrifices and on the second day, they would pass a message to the Awujale about its success.
After this comes "Idojo" through which the number of days the festival would last is determined, whether it is going to be seven or nine days, in any particular year, after consultation with Ifa oracle. After this, the Agemos return to their various domains to prepare for the big festival. However, their coming to Ijebu Ode is usually preceded by a seven day "Oro" festival, which is performed by members of the "Oro" cult to ward off evil spirits and other negative things from Ijebuland. On the seventh day of the "Oro" festival, the traditional "Gbedu" drum would be beaten by the Obaruwa family, the only family traditionally empowered to do so. The beating of the "Gbedu" signals that the Agemos can enter Ijebu Ode to commence the festival.
The coming of the Agemos into Imosan through Ijebu Ode is called "Iworo". No woman is allowed to look at the Agemo when it is coming into Ijebu Ode or going out of the ancient town at the end of its annual festival.
The journey of an Agemo from his town of abode to his arrival into Ijebu Ode and departure from the ancient town after all rites must have been concluded, is always preceded with the traditional shout of "eke eee!!! Obirin mai wo ooo!!! We wo fere, wo'ku fere!!! Iku aiye eee, ojiji firi firi". The meaning of all this is that the Agemo is on his way, so give the right of way to Orisa, the spirit that can commune with the dead; women, don't look at it (in reference to his load of paraphernalia and charms); a surreptious glance by any woman is instant death; a glance from any hidden place is instant death; you must not wear cap when an Alagemo is around", among others.
This movement of an Agemo from his town to Ijebu Ode is called "Ilo". One remarkable feature of the journey of an Agemo to Ijebu Ode is the traditional harvesting of corn. The practice is that every year, the youth of Ijebuland would go out to welcome the Agemos along the different routes they usually take into the town. Any farmer that planted corn and failed to wait for the Agemo by his farm with kegs of palm wine, his corns would be harvested by the youths. But where a farmer waited with palm wine, the Agemo would pray for such a farmer. The annual celebration of Agemo festival is for seven days, depending on the directive of the oracle.
All the Agemo would move from their respective town, through Ijebu Ode to Imosan, where they would stay for a number of days and during which they would perform all traditional rites at designated "Oju Osi".
It is the responsibility of the Awujale, on behalf of the people of Ijebuland, to fund these sacrifices.
On the third day of they stay in Imosan, the Agemos perform their traditional dance and is witnessed by the women and male folks alike. The Agemos spend the remaining four days in Ijebu-Ode to fulfill all other traditional rites at a place in the town called "Agbala" . It is during their stay in Ijebu-Ode that those who need assistance from them or prayers would visit them.
On the fourth day, which is the last day of the seven day festival, the Awujale of Ijebuland would dance with Tami, the Onire of Odogbolu and the leader of Agemos in his regalia at Ojofa, near Itoro town hall, Ijebu-Ode. The dance between Tami and Onire is usually attended with showers of rain and the dance is not complete or considered a success without the rain. This incidence gave rise to the popular saying in Ijebuland that "ojo to ba pa Onire, gbogbo Agemo lo ma pa". This is so because while Tami and the Awujale are performing the traditional dance, other Agemo are also performing the traditional dance at Agbala. As a result, they are also showered by the rain.
Awujale is blessed by Tami Onire during the traditional dance, likewise the people of Ijebuland. After the dance with Awujale, Tami would go back to join his colleagues who have been taking turns to dance at Agbala. Like the males, women are permitted to watch the dance but must leave Agbala much earlier before the last of the Agemo performs his traditional dance. At the end of the dance in the evening, all the Agemos would move to their various quarters within the town to pass the night. Before the dawn of the next day, they would leave the town and travel back to their domain. It is only on conclusion of the annual Agemo festival in Ijebu ode that the individual Agemo would then celebrate in his domain.
Source of Agemo's power:
Nobody has been able to say or ascertain where the Agemos derived their powers. The efficacy of the powers exude by the Agemo is so strong that people often wonder the source of such powers.
But the Agbadagbodo and the Orere of Agemo, High Chief Awote and Olowa Iberu, the priest of Obirin Ojowu, High Chief Oshimodi, believed that the power of an Agemo is God given.
History however has it that in the olden days, the Agemo, aside from the one given by God also acquired powers from the river goddess, Yemoja. These powers are transferred through many generations of Agemo to the present day Agemo. It was said that Yemoja had invited all creatures of the earth to a party under the sea but only the Agemos honoured the invitation.
Yemoja was said to have prayed for the Agemos for honouring her and pronounced that henceforth, all wishes and requests made by the Agemo would be answered by God and would come to pass.
Efficacy of the curse of an Agemo:
Generally every Ijebuman belives in the efficacy of the charms and curses of Ageme. Hence, it is very difficult to see an ijebu person daring an Agemo. The Agbadagbodo recalled that in the olden days, the efficacy was high. He explained that this was so because "the Olojas themselves go into fasting for almost six months before the d-day. In other words, they would not sleep with their women. They do not even take food prepared by their women for six months before the Agemo festival. So, they are devoted. So if they curse anything that it would like this, it would be like that. Honestly, they sacrifice a lot in order to perform the Agemo festival. We heard that they cursed a church in those days and it went down.That church is located along Folagbade road in Ijebu Ode.
"One of them cursed his mother, who happened to be out and met his son on his way out. He said, "ah ah…mother, go home and sleep and by the time he came back, the woman was dead. Yes, if you are talking about efficacy, it was very effective at that time. For anything to be effective in those days, you need total submission to it. I dare say that is difficult in the present day", he said.
Few of the taboos:
As for taboos, nobody is allowed to wear shoes or caps and head ties before entering the Agbala to meet with the Agemo; women are forbidden from seeing the Agemo when they are coming into or going out of Ijebu Ode. They are expected to cover their heads and kneel down if it is on the road. Women are also not expected to see the paraphernalia of the Agemos and some certain aspects of the rituals they perform. The only exception among the priests is Oliwo Agbadagbodo from Ijebu Ode who can be seen by women when on his way to Imosan.
Why Agemo Moki no longer participate in the annual festival:
The story of Agemo Moki of Ijebu Igbo is a sorry one. Agemo Moki of Ijebu Igbo used to be an active participant in the annual Agemo festival in Ijebu Ode until a tragic incident befell him more than 100 years ago.
History has it that sometime in 1897, Agemo Moki was on his way to Ijebu Ode to partake in the annual festival. According to the account which was corroborated by the Agbadagbodo of Ijebuland and Orere Agemo, High Chief Awote, there was a river somewhere between Oru and Iperin which Moki and his entourage had to cross using logs of wood before they could continue their journey to Ijebu Ode. However as the person carrying his load, including his traditional paraphernalia made to cross the river, he slipped and the load of Agemo Moki on his head fell inside the river and was carried away. Like every Agemo, Moki was coming from the rear of the crowd following him. So on getting to the river and was told of what happened, he was said to have gotten terribly annoyed. He was confused and worried. Moki was said to have cursed the river that it would not flow again nor rise above anybody's ankle. Hours after, it was observed that the river stopped flowing and has never risen above anybody's ankle again and lost its tide as cursed by the Agemo.
According to history, the river gradually ceased to flow hours after it was cursed and has remained stagnant since that day. However, for Moki, things were no longer the same as he could not participate in the festival without his paraphernalia. Agbadagbodo acknowledged that the present day family of Agemo Moki has since been making effort to re-join their colleagues at the annual festival once again.
Agbadadogbo said"if indeed Agemo Moki wants to come back, they have to present their case before the Olojas and the Awujale. If the Olojas believe they should come back, they will. But they have not done this to the best of my knowledge".
The future of Agemo in Ijebuland:
Chief Awote believed that Agemo has a very bright future in Ijebuland but that certain things must change to bring it in the realities of modern time. "I have said this many times that the Agemo festival be modernised and turned into a tourist attraction. The place they use for dancing in both Ijebu Ode and Imosan would be turned into a small stadium where people can sit comfortably, and watch these Agemos dance. Whatever they can make out of it, part of it would go to the community in that area, another part would go to the performers, that is the Olojas themselves, and to the maintenance of that place. I have no doubt in my mind that the Agemo festival would attract a lot of attention. People would definitely pay to see them dance. Also, life is not stagnant, so also, tradition cannot be stagnant. It would be modernised with time. The issue with the Agemos now, is that women should not see the load they carry. As such, women are denied the freedom of movement on occasions that they are out. But to save that situation, the Agemos should find a way to carry their load without denying women their freedom of movement as enshrined in the constitution. If you say somebody must not see something, you can as well hide it. The freedom of movement of the individual, male or female is enshrined in the constitution. So where culture and constitution clashes, the Constitution supersedes. So that is another aspect of re-organisation that I am recommending for the celebration of Agemo", he stated.
•Culled from www.thenationonline.com