Saturday, 31 January 2009
As well as setting out to find particular Mbaris in the areas that Herbert Cole mentioned, we sometimes came across one or two by chance by the roadside, which was exciting, but we dare not get out and explore without permission and gift exchange, which is reasonable but rather killed the moment.
(Plate 44 in Cole)
AZUONWU EKEH (High Priest)/ATTANASSIUS EKEH (his younger brother and main informant here)
UMUGOT (Village), ORITSHEZE in NGOR-EKPAL LGA.
The goddess of this community that owns the Mbari is Alaochala (this is linked to the goddess Ala).
Azuonwu Ekeh (the High Priest here) clears his throat, which invokes the people to listen and is a signal to the gods that an elder wants to pray. Women must be served Kola nut and not take it themselves from the plate.
The initial stages of Mbari is when you start seeing strange things. When you see a strange animal it is the god and so you must go to the diviner to see what to do. Then after consultation and confirmation from the diviner you need to tell the people to celebrate Mbari to avoid the disasters or illness.
Red earth is pounded with water to get a certain quality, you get this from a cave. This was mixed with a material from the market that no longer exists (sand) – like a gum or glue that binds the earth together. A big termite which is found in a cave and is really poisonous is put in "the bowl of water and boil it until it turns yellow" then it "becomes very sticky and gums faster and gives some spiritual quality and so this is mixed with the mud". This adds durability and strength. You also have to struggle to get the material and that is also why the Mbari takes so long to build.
This man AZUONWU EKEH is a reincarnation of a person before who built the Mbari – therefore he was installed – so he had to follow the rules of being a High priest. He is the husband of the goddess now, but he was married in a church and wears a wedding ring. The other man, ATTANASSIUS EKEH his brother, when carrying out the Kola Nut prayer also ended by saying “through Christ”, so here again is this hybrid concept of the two religions. However he tends to err on the traditional side.
In his past life, Azuonwu was also the High Priest of Ala, so he has to carry on from where he left off. The benefit that Ala gives is protection to the community. This goddess is also the protector of the land.
When the church came here a lot of people died, as they ignored Alaochala. The younger generation no longer observe the customs of the people and the goddess never liked this eg. men going off with women all over the place, interrupting an elder, etc. The spirit will choose his successor as High Priest, and the person will hear a knock on their door and disturbs him until he has to go to the diviner. These two men are senior brothers: ATTANASSIUS EKEH is an older brother of the High Priest here. He likes this religion because it has more answers.
This Mbari was made before the Civil War of 1967, as it was opened in 1960. [To calculate dates, often people here as well as in Kenya, will equate events or natural phenomena such as eclipses with specific times].
The messengers here were the Eagle and the Python. The Python was living there in the shrine. It took one and a half years to build and they had “thousands” of women to make this ! Maybe 500! Most women have left for the city so there would have been more women around then. [Although l think there was a slight exaggeration here, as we will find out later with the person who was supposed to have lived for 180 years! Whoops, rather a rough calculation here!]
Amara said how afraid the High Priest was when we went on to see this Mbari. He said he actually saw a python in the central chamber and that Amara must not go in and was visibly shaking. Amara actually believed him, l was around the back at the time!
Cross roads are also important places for sacrifice as this is believed to be where spirits pass at night, and sacrifice usually happens at night.
It transpired that the High priest from this site also had leprosy! Great! Just what l wanted! - but apparently it is not that catching!!
Gave the other High Priest in the morning stomach tablets and of course he wanted more!!! – however at 105 who could blame him!
It seems as if both Amara (Catholic) and Rev Ngozi (Protestant) in spite of their protestations, still seem a bit confused about the Christian and traditional religions (as Mayo was saying previously!). When Amara was talking to Chidima and her friend tonight (who came from the village we have just been to) she was telling them about believing that the devil can actually conjure up strange beasts eg. a large bird like a knife and that such birds really exist. She also believed the old testament had parallels to the African Igbo traditions. Not being a very religious person myself l left them to argue it all out.
Hairy trip back in the taxi as usual! The taxi man carries the top of a small swing bin on the dash which he is supposed to have ‘by order’ of the government in his car but it does not have the bottom to it…apparently it does not fit in the car. Police can demand money from him if he has not got this in his car!
On the way to the sites today, at a roundabout, we had a young policeman with a riffle squeeze himself into the front seat of the taxi in a threatening manner. He told the driver to drive on and was asking the Rev for money, but miraculously the Rev managed to get rid of him! Scary moment though as they all have guns.
Trying to get the research a bit more consistent without offending anyone!
Termites are an important element of the Mbari building as the earth, which is manipulated by the termite and it secretions, is supposed to be spiritual, as well as being more malleable - here in the field l heard a story about how they had to dig deep into the nest to get the queen termite and it was here that the earth was the most spiritual and easily moulded.
In Kenya it was also believed that the termite mounds were where the ancestors lived. Also one of the artists at the National Museum of Kenya (Peter, who helped me construct my panels for the 'Crossing Boundaries' exhibition) said that termite earth was more pliable because the termites mixed their saliva with the earth.
I am also fascinated by the patterns that termites make in wood and would like to experiment with some in my work. It is also amazing how much destruction they cause structurally which makes me think of the fragile element of some of my work, which often for me symbolises the fragility of life, which l depict as precarious balance, disintegration, holes, cracks, mould, and surface erosion.
This is where any sacrifice that needs to be made is done, note the three pots which are significant likewise the selection of trees. The piece of wood balanced between the trees above the pots is also a barrier that cannot be crossed or taken down except by someone in authority to do so...usually the High Priest.
The central chamber of the Mbaris is most potent and where the god is supposed to linger. Only the High Priest is allowed to enter here.
Site 3 (Plate 48 in Cole)
CLEMENT OPARA (Informant)
Umunan, in Imerienwe
The goddess of this Mbari is Uramarukwa who is a river goddess. She protects people from evil in this village. Built before 1947 might be late 30’s. Between 1929 when the women rioted and before 1941 before the second World War.
He inherited the Mbari from his father, OPARABCHA EKEODA.
Materials: The red earth has come from far and is symbolic, in that its importance is really that it is a natural material and that cement is an invention not nature - so that even if they had cement it would still be made of earth. It symbolises the Igbo’s relationship to the earth. It shows an identity.
Kola nut is given to us in exchange for our gift (schnapps and money). He blessed the Kola nut by saying a prayer over it in Igbo as ‘the Kola nut does not hear English’ – so he will only speak Igbo. The Kola nut is then split into the lobes and handed around. The Kola nut tastes very bitter which makes your tongue curl up and dry, but not objectionable. In fact it is supposed to contain caffeine - coals to Newcastle for me!! The blessing finished with and 'through Christ our Lord”, so although an Igbo traditional prayer, here there seems to be some confusion between the two religions or hybridisation of beliefs.
The photo on the wall behind Clement is a picture of his father who built the Mbari. Clement is the High Priest, and his father before him, and this is his identity. If asked to choose between the religions he would choose Mbari. His first son would inherit it this responsibility. If he did not want to do it, then the next son would do it.
The caretaker(s) can only do what they are told by the High Priest – three caretakers here – who help do the sacrifices (he takes snuff on his tongue at this point). The High Priest is the richest man in the community and this is why the church does not want Mbari to exist – which would mean otherwise that the church would get rich instead! The community still consults the shrine because it still protects them. Cannot tell us some of the secrets eg. when asked about regalia worn during this process – perhaps to keep some mystique - although he dressed up for us on our return from the Mbari. As a High Priest he cannot marry any woman that is not of royal blood.
His walking stick shows his standing in the community – however the stick has several crosses on it and the rosary aluminium pendants also stuck to it. He saw it in the market, liked it and bought it but did not have it commissioned – this explains the Christian symbolism on it!!!
The High Priest commissions the Mbari. The High priest goes to the diviner to ask for an Mbari and then he informs the community to build it. He is the oldest man in this community over 100 years of age. He was born in 1903 (105 years old now). He was married to his first wife when this Mbari was built. He had three wives.
Every god has sub-gods so these have to be represented. The artist is chosen for his skill in the community. A group of artists can be commissioned from another place to build an Mbari if their 'talents' are considered worthy.
Amarachi said the shrine is called “where the ‘face’ of Ala is” therefore where the god actually is. [Often this is in the central chamber]
If there is a resemblance to someone in the figure of the god nothing would happen to that person (unlike at the other sites who said the opposite). The shrine where there are sacrifices is near this Mbari, it must be in the same place or near.
Before we went out into the field to visit the various Mbari houses we had to stock up on alcohol as a gift for the informants which was a schnapps called Seaman's, the number one prayer drink....we also had to give them an 'Envelope' ....which contained money on the whole 2000 naire the equivalent of £10, but this varied and was sometimes more if it was felt necessary. Here l was guided by the Reverend (especially when we visited his parish) and Amara. When you think about it is is a bit weird some stranger turning up to your house to ask you questions from our point of view!!!
In the wine shop where we got the schnapps I saw these bottles shaped like riffles! I wonder who these were popular with....fancy turning up to a party holding one of these!!!
Towards the end of the day we went to the market. I was told by Amara to stay in the car whilst she and Chidima went to get the things, including bottled water (tons of it!), yam, cassava, beans, dried fish, spinach-like (tasting) leaves, tomatoes, onions, plantains, rice, OMO and other cleaning materials, tea (mainly for my benefit!!!), etc. The taxi acted like a 'hide' from which it was relatively easy to take photos with the small digital camera.
Everywhere there were signs daubed onto house walls saying 'This house is not for sale' which seemed weird to me. Apparently it was to stop scams whereby someone could come up and show someone a house, sell it to them and then they would find that it had already been sold to someone else! Bizarre....I still could not quite get my head round it.
Tonight Amara eat this clay ball which apparently has lead in it. She said it was slightly addictive and it smelt slightly of menthol or herbal. She did not say what effect it had on her other than it was pleasant to take. Maybe relaxing?? It was the size of a walnut and had white clay inside a rather brown exterior. She later told me that it could become a bit addictive!!!
SITE TWO (Plate 50 in Skip Cole’s book on ‘Mbari’)
INNOCENT CHIAGOROM (Informant)
Ulakwo, Obube, Owerri, North LGA, Imo State
OGAZI CHIAGOROM (brother or uncle) was the last keeper of this Mbari but nobody in charge of this Mbari at present, after Christmas the community will appoint another High Priest/keeper. Father built it to the god of Thunder Amodioha who is god of the village, in Ulakwo. There were barren women here so consulted the god to bring them children – the god Amodioha) granted this and therefore an Mbari was built to celebrate. This Mbari was built in 1920.
The plates incorporated into the walls of the Mbari were for decoration but also offerings to the gods, but because of the church they do not practice this. However they still revere the python but secretly. Catholic church recommended that they just use the Mbari for relaxing but people use it at night for rituals still and visit it.
ANTONY ONYEACHUGBULAM OGAZI (who is supposed to inherit it) is a traditionalist and will not go to church. The god will pick the person to be the High Priest (or keeper). Although MICHAEL UCHE OGAZI (his brother also in the photograph) said that his father said he should be the keeper of this Mbari.
The father (CYPRIEL OGAZI to sons Antony and Michael above) died two years ago and the god is supposed to choose the successor - this was repeated several times! Michael currently ‘feeds’ the god and there is a shrine near this Mbari. Every year the AJU Festival or New Yam Festival is celebrated on the 1st.October – giving thanks for the harvest and the good harvests to come – this is still practiced.
It does not harm anyone to rejuvenate or conserve the Mbari, as the god of Thunder is benevolent. The community built this one. In reference to using either cement or earth, they said it did not matter which it is made of, although (according to Innocent, the first informant here who was Cypriel Ogazi’s brother’s son) there was a preference for earth because of the look but they cannot get the termite mud anymore, or as easily. Shape and decoration is more important than the material. Colonial policeman and white colonial magistrates were part of this Mbari at one time but no longer in existence. The sun (sky) and moon were depicted here too as were day and night (the binary elements). The symbols are just gods creation – clock (time), fabric, two gongs. The ram, sheep or cow are sacrifices used here.
They would not replace the figures with contemporary people if it were to be restored, they want to preserve it with the original figures. [This would not in past times have been in keeping with the Mbari philosophy though!] The separate shrine is used for sacrifice and the elders have to dress up and play the flute. This shrine is adjacent to the Mbari house – the smaller hut (now collapsed) is used to make the sacrifices in.
The Rev.Ngozi confessed in the car that he knows more about the Mbari than he has at first admitted to – he seems to have gained confidence as his interest has grown in this – he knew about the dog killing. He re-confirmed that he thought this system of ‘cause and effect’ was much more just, as punishment was inevitable if you were a criminal or bad in some way – you would be visited by a messenger (eg. lioness, python behaving in an odd manner and then you would have to go to the diviner who would advise you to do certain things (sacrifice) in order to appease the god.
Rev. said that a lot more people were getting killed these days in spite of talking about God all the time – he still maintains it is because Christianity resolves the ‘sin’ without any penalty or recompense.
Amarachi, Chidima and I went to get the groceries from the market in Owerri for the household - one way of saying thank you to your guest. Chidima was Father Okere's niece who stayed with him and looked after the domestic duties of the house.