THE OMONOSE SAGA IN OKPARA FOLK HISTORY
By Peter P. Ekeh
The first time I heard of Ômônôsê was in connection with a dispute over age seniority. Two young people, a boy and a girl, were contesting age seniority, which would confer certain privileges during my youth in Okpara. Their mothers had to intervene. As it turned out, they were quite close in their birthdays. One mother asked the other how old her daughter was at the time of Omonose. She replied that she had her baby during Omonose. The boy's mother said she had her son a day before Omonose. The dispute was settled. That was my corner of Okpara, a vast complex of the main town and its numerous satellite villages and towns. Elsewhere in the Okpara complex of culture, similar references to Omonose were used to settle disputes of age seniority of children who were born probably around 1938.
So, what was this Omonose saga that was so enthralling in Okpara's folk history? It was a true story of an event that traumatized the whole of Okpara for several weeks. Worse, it was an event that challenged the morality of the extended family's claim of rights over an individual's life and possessions. At the time of its occurrence during the dreary late 1930s, men and women debated the morality of what Omonose's family did to him and whether Omonose had overreacted in his methodical revenge that took so many lives from the Okpara community. Well up to the 1950s, when as a youngster I was active in Okpara's cultural affairs, I witnessed grown-up men and women debating the morality of what Omonose's family did to him, some twenty years earlier.
The story was woven around the issues of family, marriage, and manhood. Omonose was deemed to be an ideal young Urhobo man. He was strong and hard working. That meant that he attended to farming matters diligently. Quite importantly, being a hardworking young man implied that he collected palm nut bunches from wild and tall palm trees, with alacrity and great results. All accounts of this story -- and they had grown numerous by the 1950s -- insisted that Omonose was a good family man. That is, he was loyal to the elders and members of the extended family. He would take part in communal events sponsored by the family, including such demanding chores as digging graves for deceased members of the extended family.
When it came to the time of his marriage, Omonose's hard work paid off handsomely. He had no difficulty coming through with the onerous bride price that he had to lay out for enabling his marriage ceremonies. But the transactions of the marriage were not all left to him, alone. The extended family, including the elders of the family, had to be involved in concluding the nuptials that brought to him his new bride.
The events of marriage ceremonies were usually concluded with a night of conviviality. It was on that special night when the family of the bride brought her to the family home of the bridegroom. The Urhobo term esuôvwa -- coined from esuo, escort, and ôvwa, bride -- that is employed to characterize this occasion is ritually nuanced. The ceremonies actually did not involve the bridegroom in any major way. There was the ritual prayer from the family over the bride and bridegroom for as many children as they could bear. May their children be a blessing to the family. The young woman was being married into the family. The bridegroom was the agent for his extended family in transactions that brought together two extended families. That was the ritual sense of marriage in Okpara.
The night of the marriage was special in another important sense. It was the night that the bridegroom was to begin his physical relationships with his young wife. Nosy old women wanted to know whether she was a virgin or whether she came into their family already experienced in sexual encounters. It was all part of living in Urhobo communities in the 1930s. The family was all round you -- to help, but also to interfere with some of your individual liberties. Stories rapidly circulated about the new marriage, as the bridegroom was openly teased about his sexual conquest of his new wife, with questions of when the family should expect a child from the marriage. But the bridegroom and his new wife were treated with great respect
* * *
That was the world in which Omonose entered his new life as a husband. He had played his role perfectly. His extended family had played its role as well. But Omonose’s life story after his marriage did not follow the line of cultural expectations. Within days, it was clear matters had gone wrong. Omonose's mother-in-law received word from her daughter that Omonose was not performing. He was impotent. Embarrassed, he did nothing and pretended that things were normal with his new marriage. Soon, however, word came from his wife's family to his own extended family. Something had to be done to correct this anomaly.
The family's most senior elder then took the first of the great missteps of the Omonose tragedy. He convened a family gathering to discuss the matter. There were sharp divisions in the family on what should be done to resolve this uncommon problem. One version of the story was that Omonose was summoned to this open meeting and asked if it was true that he was impotent and what he was going to do about it. Embarrassed, he pleaded with the family that he would want to release his wife from the marriage.
Led by the extended family's oldest man, and against opposition and advice from other elders, the family took a fatal decision. The bride did not belong to Omonose. She was brought into the family. If Omonose could not consummate the marriage, she must be given to some other young person within the family. Through several surrogates, Omonose pleaded with the family not to give his wife out to another member of the family. But, as several versions of the story affirmed, the oldest man scoffed at Omonose's impotency, saying that the family was propagated by potent men, not by "impotents." One could refer to a man's impotent disabilities indirectly, as Urhobo language tends to avoid direct confrontation with such difficult and humiliating circumstances. But the oldest man applied that dreaded word: ochibê. So it was that Omonose's new wife was given by the family to another young man who was generally regarded as a lazy fellow. Through the fiat of the elders, this man now reaped the rewards of Omonose's hard work.
Omonose was deeply hurt, but unusually calm. He talked to his sister and a few supportive family relatives and loyal friends who consoled him. But he revealed no plans for his future. Then he disappeared from any body's notice. There were gossips all over town about the behaviour of the family. There were the usual jokes about the fate of impotency in a community where marriage was a necessity, not a choice. Omonose's whereabouts were the subject of varied rumours. It was reported that someone saw him at Warri, some twenty miles from Okpara, but a long and dangerous distance by foot, which would be the only means available to him in the late 1930s. Others guessed that Omonose might have left for Okitipupa to which hardworking Urhobo men went to make their fortunes in the 1930s and 1940s. There was also a rumour that he was receiving treatment for his condition in a secret location.
Then, a good number of days later, Omonose appeared in town. It was on Okpara's market day. Market days had their own logic. Few people ventured into the bush on that day. Towards afternoon, men and women, and boys and girls, drifted from their streets to the main street. Elders tended to stay behind in the family hall to deliberate on family's and Okpara's affairs. Omonose chose his return with remarkable insight. He slipped into the house of the man who took his wife from him. There is a debate about how Omonose could have known that the man who dispossessed him of his wife was at home with his former -- now his rival's -- bride. But they were in, in bed. There appeared to have been no struggle. There was no commotion. Both died from cutlass wounds -- perfectly applied.
Omonose closed the door behind him and approached the elder's hall. The elders were all seated. He went straight after the sarcastic old man. It was swift. He also went after another elder who supported the decision to give his wife away to another family member. Then he fled, not touching with his bloody cutlass those elders whom he judged to be innocent.
* * *
News of the tragedy spread fast. Murder was rare in Okpara. During my youth, one could count the number of homicides by the fingers of one hand. Multiple murders of four people were extremely rare. The town market broke up in confusion. There was a version of the story, told to me by an old woman, that Omonose appeared on the same day in a distant village where he shot a family member who had taken part in the decision on the transfer of his wife.
Shot! That was rare and dangerous. Guns and gunshots were not the instruments of violence in Okpara of the 1930s. Cutting down people by cutlass was not unusual. But guns? The unsuspecting townsfolk of Okpara had not imagined that the reported sighting of Omonose in Warri, the new British colonial commercial town, was true. His journey to that distant township had enabled him to acquire a gun, possibly guns, and to amass plenty of ammunition. There was panic. Few people could venture into the bush, in a community that relied on farming and the frequent harvesting of farm products for daily living.
It soon became clear, as the toll of Omonose's revenge killings mounted, that he was not a random murderer. He spared those who empathised with him and gunned down those who bad-mouthed him or made fun of his impotency. There were numerous stories of Omonose's methodical approach to his killings. One of them, repeated over and over again in Okpara of my youth, was his attack on a company of women who were going to market on foot. There was a conversation, inevitably, about Omonose's impact on economic activities. One of these women was said to have blamed Omonose, making fun of what she called his dead sex organs. The others berated her, saying what the elders of the family did was evil. Little did they know that Omonose was listening. He pushed into their midst and killed the woman who was abusing him.
Capturing Omonose became the preoccupation of the town’s authorities. It displaced all other affairs in numerous sessions of Okpara’s open and closed assemblies. Then the British Colonial Provincial Government from Warri got involved, sending a number of policemen to Okpara in the effort to arrest this clever mass murderer. There were many problems in the community's and the Colonial Government's attempt to capture Omonose. First, he knew the bushes thoroughly. He slipped out of difficult areas with ease. Before the large rubber plantations of the 1940s, Okpara was surrounded by a densely forested landscape. Food was not a problem for him. Omonose could cook for himself in deserted farmsteads. The policemen sent into the hunt were of course useless. They demanded that the townspeople should do the arresting.
There were other difficulties. Omonose was armed with a gun that he used quite effectively on his victims from a distance, from time to time. That struck terror in most people. But a larger problem lay with Okpara’s youth, who were expected to arrest Omonose. They were unwilling to show their usual bravery. In other times, in other circumstances, capturing a mass murderer would have provided an opportunity to many a youth for establishing a record of bravery. But not this time! Many of them were angry at the behaviours and arrogance of the elders whom they considered oppressive. There were many instances of young people who openly said they would have behaved like Omonose if they found themselves in the same predicament. It was a moral crisis in Okpara.
The deaths had climbed to fourteen -- the figure varied in different accounts. The town was desperate to do something that would work. The matter was now beyond some erring elders in a single extended family out of Okpara's multiplex social structure. It was now the town's responsibility. The youth were cajoled with apologies and with frank admissions of injustice to Omonose. But he had to be caught. The hunt for Omonose intensified. Many times he slipped out of areas where he was sighted. There were fears that he might ensnare his hunters.
* * *
The end of the hunt was culturally intriguing. It ended up in a scene that literary accounts would love to paint up as an anticlimax. But Okpara’s folkloric renditions of the capture of Omonose have consistently featured the end as dramatic, at least from their cultural perspective. There was a credible report that Omonose was in a well-known area. Plans were being made on how best to flush him out and possibly capture him. Then stepped forward a man. He said he would do it all alone. It should be left to him. How? He was Omonose’s friend. More importantly, he and Omonose were namesakes. Namesakes! Ôkpô was ritually important in Okpara, right up to the days of my youth and well beyond. Namesakes don't hurt each other, cannot kill each other. They are soul mates. You entrust your life in the hands of your namesake. There was implicit mutual trust between namesakes.
The strategists of the hunt for Omonose thought it might work. Then, all alone, plainly clad to rule out any appearance of deceit, Omonose's namesake pushed into the area where the elusive multiple murderer was believed to be hiding. He shouted out:
Ôkpô, it is I. It is enough. Everybody knows it was an injustice. But it is enough. If this is how you want it, you may kill me. But spare our town from further torment.The story, at least in one version that I was told, said Omonose was already quite close to his friend and namesake -- close enough to kill him outright if he chose to. Omonose asked his namesake, "Why are you doing this to me?" He pointed his gun at his namesake who said, "Go ahead, but spare Okpara." It was an empty threat from Omonose. He could not kill his namesake. Meekly, he handed over his gun to his friend and namesake who took him to his hunters who were waiting for the outcome of the encounter between namesakes. A point of joke in Okpara was that the colonial policemen immediately sprang into action and handcuffed the man they ran away from all along.
That was not the end of the story, at least in the narration of the Omonose saga in Okpara. Omonose requested a meal from his sister. A mature cock, not like modern mass-bred chicken, was chased and caught, prepared, and used for a good meal for Omonose. And he said goodbye to his beloved sister. As he sat in the vehicle especially brought to Okpara to take him to Warri, sympathisers came to greet him. Then occurred one of the most narrated portions of the Omonose saga.
Omonose turned to one of those who had come to see him and said,
Friend, you are a lucky man, a very lucky man. You could have lost your two wives. But your good tongue saved them.The individual to whom Omonose addressed those words lived to be an influential man in the affairs of Okpara. He knew what Omonose was saying. One afternoon, his two wives, frustrated that they could not go to farm, were abusing Omonose's behaviour in a loud conversation in the open compound. He came from inside the house quite angry at them. He shouted at his wives, saying,
Women, you have no right to be insulting a man to whom such great wrong was done. Are you saying that if I became impotent, you would agree to be given to another man in this family while I am still alive?What he did not know was that Omonose was listening to his garrulous wives and that his anger at them saved their lives.
Omonose was taken to Warri. News came months later that he had been hanged. But his shades remained in Okpara's collective consciousness. The authority of the elders had been singed, albeit in a costly campaign of revenge murders. Right up to the years of my youth in Okpara, Omonose was not simply a demarcation date for telling age seniority. It was a matter whose morality continued to haunt Okpara's kinship culture. Omonose was an Okpara tragedy. But it was a human story.
The first time I visited Warri was in 1951. A team of us, youngsters from Catholic School at Okpara Inland, had under-taken the tough trek of more than twenty miles in order to take an entrance examination for admission to a secondary school. Our leader had lived in Warri and knew the township quite well. He showed us the landmarks: European Quarters, Cemetery, European Burial Grounds, Tennis Court, etc. But the most haunting experience we had was a trip to the neighbourhood of Okere Prisons. There our leader pensively told us, "That was where they killed Omonose."
I believe I said Hail Mary. I probably said, silently, "May His Soul Rest in Peace." I probably empathized with Omonose. But I am no longer sure. It was a story that tormented every Okpara youth of my generation.
Buffalo, New York
March 17, 2001