Egungun festival in Ogbomoso is a tourist attraction especially in the past years before the institutionalization of Christianity and Islam. Tourists did come from all over the world; from Brazil, Canada, U.S.A., Italy, United Kingdom and from several African countries to witness the enterprising show. Ogbomoso during Egungun festival always tripled in population and was often a veritable avenue to boost economic activities in the town. The trend however is changing, civilization is having its toll and its importance is vastly dwindling.
The Egunguns’ place of rendezvous at Okelerin in those days was always a beehive of activities with lots of gyrations, canings and counter-canings and deadly encounters among rival Egunguns. There are formidable Egungun Eleru (Nla) that were particularly the delight of spectators because of their uniqueness, magical/African traditional powers and other attributes. Some of which are Lembeleri, a powerful Egungun abandoned over 70 years ago because of the unbearable rituals associated with it; Kongba or Oroko that has the unique power to draw a rival Egungun’s followers to its trail and can attack rivals with bees stored in its ear lobes; the energetic Lobanika, the king’s Egungun that brandishes poisoned sword; Danafojura, whose mystery is bathing in fire while shouting of cold; Awodagbese behind whom if one had a wound would not heal until the third year when it comes out again; Ayilere whose attribute is wallowing in any available muddy water; Arenugbongi with a mouth protruding like birds’ beak and so on. To this class belongs also Ajomogbodo, the Egungun that is supernaturally capable of sitting comfortably in air or space without the aid of a stool or chair.
It is reputed to possess strong juju fortifications and it comes out on the last two days of the usually one-and-a-half week festival. Ajomogbodo is a masquerade that intrigues the young and the old, the Blacks and the Whites, the Africans, the Europeans and Americans, who have one time or the other watched the masquerade displaying its prowess with amazement. Unlike many of its ilk this Egungun persists in the yearly celebration, the masquerader has not forsaken the masquerade on the altar of Islam or Christianity. Ajomogbodo has defied extinction and this year, it still came out to entertain its numerous lovers.
Its yearly outing like other Egunguns is always celebrated with festivities; people dine and wine, sacrifices are offered and many preparations made to usher in the coming out of the dreaded but amiable Egungun.
ogbomosoinsightonline.com witnessed its first outing this year (2021). The masquerader (Aruku), son of the immediate past masquerader, (now late) Pa James Balogun, Mr. Bayo Balogun, a carpenter by profession, was spoken briefly to before going under the mask and he confirmed the awe-inspiring tales about the Egungun. The venue was their family house in Okelerin, very close to Aale compound, the monarch of Okelerin. Bayo Balogun took over the mantle before the demise of his father revealing however that certain secrets could not be unveiled. Ajomogbodo, he said, is an Egungun conveyed by his forebears from the warfront. “When our forefathers were returning from a war, they just saw an object on the pathway, they retrieved it, brought home the strange object and, it is what became Ajomogbodo today,” Balogun stated.
Egungun Ajomogbodo, he informed, is an Egungun that has become a source of blessing to people, “It blesses people and it comes to pass, many women struck with childlessness have become mothers, it delivers people who come to it from various problems.”
When asked about the cognomen of the Egungun, this he unveiled in part, “Langbasa, okun lolori omi…omo eni iba joni abayo…” (Langbasa, the ocean is the leader of waters … should one’s child resemble one, one would have been glad …” This, its drummers dish out intermittently.
The name Ajomogbodo is actually an elision of the word – Ajoko – mo – gbe – odo (One who sits without having need for a mortal (stool)). It is said that in those days when Egunguns went to perform for the king of the town, they sat on mortals in rows but that it became usual that this Egungun did not need a stool to sit on and so onlookers started to call it Ajokomogbeodo, elided to Ajomogbodo today.
Since the morning of its outing this year, family members and spectators had started arriving at the family compound, in fact, as early as 7am, the torrential rain that day notwithstanding, a lot of merriments accompanied it and at about 1pm when it finally stepped out the crowd surged forward to catch a glimpse of the “returning heavenly being who has come to offer blessings upon its own.” Before stepping out of its lair, a man squatted in its front who later gave his identity as Kindin – a masquerader of the Egungun bearing that name – to chant some inaudible incantations, the significance of which is to keep danger at bay. The Egungun eventually burst out into the expectant crowds who lunged forward to kneel in its front so it could heap blessings on them. He sat to bless them. He moved round the compound and the neighbourhood offering prayers of blessings to whoever cared, before venturing into the town, where the ritual of blessings continued. As he did this people showed appreciation with gifts of various kinds. It lived up to its billing. It sat without hassle, with all the ease in the world, stretched out its legs and some people even sat on its laps. One of the persons who sat on its laps, Adekunle Ademola, said he felt so at ease that it was like as if he sitting on a sofa. It was a sight to behold. Many magicians have tried the stunt in the past but were unraveled eventually, some using broom to sit and so on but not Ajomogbodo, its, is inexplicable, it is a mystery that cannot be fathomed. Yet, it is emphasized theirs is not magic, perhaps why it can’t be uncovered. It is also said only three persons usually know the mystery, an elderly woman and two others. Meanwhile, it was late in the evening when it returned home that Saturday.
Few years ago, The Insight/ogbomosoinsightonline.com also spoke with the immediate past Ajomogbodo mask bearer, Pa James Balogun, the encounter of which was facilitated by the Aale, Oba Samuel Babatunde Amao.
On the day of the encounter, The Insight had met Pa Balogun at his storey-building compound at Okelerin and was warmly ushered into his expansive living room. The first thing that stared ogbomosoinsightonline.com in the face was the numerous herbal containers huddled closely together taking a quarter of the room. Aside this, there were no other indications of one sitting in the abode of a powerful Egungun. Calmness and peace pervaded the room and environment but one is conscious that he is in the home of one of the most formidable Egunguns in Ogbomoso that had captivated everyone including foreigners.
After settling down, Pa Balogun demanded, “Are you with kolanut?” “No!” was the quick response with a promise to provide it later. And the journey to unravel the mystery of the Egungun began.
Swiftly, the conversation started, with the question, “Baba, please introduce yourself.”
He enthusiastically reacted, “My name is James Balogun Ajomogbodo from Okelerin. We used to live at Isale Laka but we are originally from Aale compound.”
“Baba, what is the meaning of Ajomogbodo?”
“It is Ajoko mon fi n kan joko (to sit without using any object) is the meaning of Ajomogbodo.”
Pa Balogun proceeded to talk on the origin of the masquerade. He disclosed, “It was brought from the war front.”
But The Insight wanting more clarifications fired, “How is it possible to retrieve an Egungun from the war front, did they fight wars with Egunguns in those days?”
Pa Balogun’s response was in the affirmative. “Yes, they used Egungun to fight wars.”
But how were Egunguns brought from the warfronts? He was further asked. “The ones they used to bring, how were they brought?” The Insight demanded.
“They used to bring the ones that fell in battle and abandoned by their people, or if their people were nowhere to be found. Such Egunguns were the ones brought home by the powerful.”
“So, your forefathers were warriors?”
“Yes they were.”
What name the compound bore before the advent of this Egungun pricked The Insight and hence asked, “Baba, do you know the name the compound used to bear?”
“It is Aselari compound.”
“When did you personally start to bear Ajomogbodo lappet?” He was further asked.
His answer, “I came under the garment about 40 years ago. It is over 40years ago that I became Ajomogbodo’s masquerader.”
“How were you selected?”
“When it was my lineage’s turn, they asked me to come home from where I was living then, at Rijeo near Kontagora, Niger state.”
He was a baker before his Egungun adventure and was doing fine.
“I was a baker and I had money.”
On whether there was a prophecy at his birth that he would one day become the Ajomogbodo’s mask bearer, he averred that whoever was born in the compound was in line to become the masquerader.
“Whoever was born at Ajomogbodo compound is a potential bearer of the Egungun. Whose lineage’s turn it is will present a candidate.”
Pa Balogun is a Christian attending a church; he was thus asked how he found it easy to continue to bear the lappet?
“It is our heritage; one cannot run away from it, I have no difficulty doing it.”
“But can one be a masquerader and still be a Christian?” He was thereafter asked.
But Pa Balogun said matter-of-factly, “There is no sin in it.”
Egungun festival is a festival filled with enormous dangers, rival masquerades contend using wicked charms when they run into one another and one is not willing to submit. Many masqueraders thus have had many bitter experiences. Therefore, Pa Balogun was asked if he had any unforgettable encounter with a rival Egungun.
“Hmmm,” he began, “every time we go out, I never encountered any problem, God protects us every time.”
He however added, “Before we set forth from home any time, we do undergo various preparations, to fortify ourselves against any eventuality, there could be violent encounters or squaring up with a formidable opponent.
“As an instance, two days ago here, at Okelerin they started to attack one another with cutlasses, axes and other weapons. So, one makes sure to fortify oneself. Or if one comes up against another masquerade and a duel ensues.”
Ajomogbodo never kowtows to any other masquerade, he boasted.
“None! There is none. In my years as a masquerader, I never bowed to any other Egungun.”
“Even against Kongba?” He was asked.
“Never! Both of us will only offer salutations and go our separate ways.”
“But sir, did you ever fight any Egungun?”
“Hmmm, on a few occasion, against Kongba. Rivalry of course caused it.”
“And what was the outcome?”
“We separated (laughter).”
On several occasions rumours filtered in that some foreigners wanted to unearth the secret of Ajomogbodo’s sitting with no visible object…
But Pa Balogun quickly interrupted in the build up to the question.
“Not that they wanted, they did. Several findings were conducted, we went to the seminary (The Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary, Ogbomoso), they came, but we entertained them. They found out nothing.”
“Do you know the secret or you are not prepared to disclose it?”
He was not prepared to disclose the secret, rather he declared, “Don’t you listen to Asabi Oje’s song? She sang, ‘Omo kekere t’abi si oje nbe l’abe aso, ogberi o mo.’ (The child born into an Egungun’s groove is wrapped under the cloth, the uninitiated is ignorant).
“Can you still sit if you do not have the lappet on?”
“Ah, I was not given such authority,” was his response.
“Who issues the authority?”
“The family, the Egungun belongs to the family.”
A baker becoming a strong medicine man is intriguing, he was therefore asked if the magical powers associated with the Egungun came with his assumption of the Egungun lappet or he was strong from time.
He said, “By the time one goes under the apparel, the power comes.”
Asked to classify Ajomogbodo whether it is Eegun alare or what? He only noted, “Hmmm, we can classify it anyhow except that it is not magic.”
He assured his Egungun would still venture out this year which they did. The Insight wanted to know what time they normally go out.
“It could be around 12pm after the morning festivities at home.”
“What kind of preparations do you make before setting forth?”
“If someone wants to organize a party, won’t he prepare? So, it is like that.”
The Egungun had been in existence for many years, and its apparel vulnerable to tear and wear, so the masquerader was asked, “Is it the same lappet from the beginning that is still being used or you do change it?”
“We do replace some parts, even this year we are going to.”
He was also asked, “Which one is the Egungun, the lappet or the person under the lappet?”
“The man is not the Egungun, the apparel is called Egungun.”
“What then do we call the bearer?”
“Aruku Eegun (the bearer of the lappet).”
The next question thrown at him is, “In Yorubaland today, we are forsaking our tradition on the ground of religion, won’t this have an adverse effect?”
His response, “Both Christianity and Islam came after traditional religion. So, my advice is that we should not deceive ourselves. However, Egungun can never go into extinction…”
“You think so?”
But he insisted, “Egungun cannot go into extinction.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“As an instance, since I became an adult I have seen those who passed it down to their children, they are about three now that I know of.
“So, you plan on doing the same, may you live long.”
“Ah, I did that already.”
“So, you are not the one putting it on again? Since when?”
“Three years ago.”
His son is now the Ajomogbodo’s masquerader and it was the son who bore the lappet again this year.
Now, he was asked if he was a herbalist and whether he received the inspiration after his Ajomogbodo adventure started.
He briskly answered, “Yes.”
“What is the difference between an herbalist, an Ifa priest and a medicine man?” He was asked.
“The point is that the Ifa priest (Babalawo) encompasses all, he makes divination. The herbalist (Onisegun) can only administer herbal treatment, he has no power to divine, like myself, I can’t, unless I go out to consult. But by the power of God, there is no sickness brought to me that I would not cure, all praises to God.”
“Including diabetes and HIV?”
“Everything, I will cure it completely (as he points to concoction in a bottle which he says cures HIV.”
He consequently urged governments at various levels and the people to support traditional medicine practitioners noting they had the knowledge to cure all diseases.
“My advice is that government should support us on traditional medicine. We can heal all sicknesses.”
Furthermore, he was asked, “Since you became a masquerade, you have stopped bakery profession, so how do you now fend for yourself?”
His answer, “Yes, I had stopped working as a baker, I have nothing other than this (herbal practice).”
“Violence now trails Egungun festival, was it like this before?”
“Never, it was never like this, Egungun is for entertainment. Except when two Egunguns contend with each other?”
“Aside Kongba, which other Egungun have you contended with?”
“Only Kongba, I never squared up to any other Egungun.”
“What of Egunguns like Lembe, Lobanika etc?”
“Lembe and I never met. But I once ran into Lobanika at Oja-gbo.”
“And what happened on that day?”
“What will happen? We only paid homage to each other and we went our separate ways, after all it is the king’s masquerade.”
“Assuming a lesser Egungun refuses to pay obeisance to you, what happens?”
“I will ask him to show deference, and he will.”
“What if he is strong-headed?”
“Yio j’egba (He would be dealt with).”
“I once was told that Egungun sprang from poverty and Oro from destitution (Ise l’obi Eegun, o si l’obi oro). Do you subscribe to this?”
“I can’t say anything about that at all. Because before I came under the mask I was rich, I had money, I was not driven into it because of poverty.”
“Did you know your immediate predecessor?”
“I know my predecessors but I can’t mention them all.”
“You have been a masquerade for forty years and you have no regrets.”
“Not at all.”
“Which church do you attend?”
“Laka Baptist Church.”
“Does the congregation show you any repugnant attitude?”
Not at all.
That is the encounter ogbomosoinsightonline.com had with the mask bearer (aruku) Egungun Ajomogbodo, the one that sits in air. It is hoped you enjoyed reading it. If so, share and comment.