The choice of going to Opobo wasn’t solely on the ground of adventure. A long standing friend had dared if I could pay a surprise visit all the way from Lagos. As a known pleasure seeker, coupled with my penchant for new experience, I decided taking up the challenge to pay the long due visit to a town whose qualities for the many years of our friendship had been couched in all sorts of superlative adjectives. A fellow kindred spirit came along. We weren’t daunted by the fact that we hadn’t been to any Island outside of Lagos’s business hub- Victoria Island. When we finally caught up with the friend at the jetty located at the tail end of Bori town, the new riverine ambiance seemed to have emphasized the risk involved in taking a trip on a dead-silent , cold sea to a fresher. I swim quite well and with some superstitious belief that my tribe cannot be drowned in the ocean, my morale peaked to high heavens.
As the boat sailed on with its noisy engine sputtering waters behind, there were mixed feelings alternating in my mind, looking at my friend, I could tacitly perceive he had same thought of possible danger and the emotional thrill running through his. Eventually, we arrived at the shore safely. It was as if we were finally off the hook of unavoidable peril. It was one great delight as much as it was terror. The endless stretch of fresh waters, the occasional turbulence that wobbled the unreliable stability of the boat gave my friend goose-bumps. Anything could have happened within a short space. One moment you are lively and the next you wear a somber look possibly muttering your last prayers. Despite all these, it was sheer fun.
The population of the town was what jolted me at first sight. When I heard it is an Island, the picture of a scantily populated city flew across my imagination. I still don’t know how come about this impression that Islands must be sparely populated. Opobo in its compact nature has a considerable large number of inhabitants numbering hundreds. While we strode down the narrow, cemented roads that meander in-between high rising buildings, I kept asking myself how such edifices were built given there was neither vehicle in sight nor motorable roads across the city from whence such goods may be transported. How do these people transport their building materials? At the Two-Sisters’ Hotel were we lodged, we had a panorama of the small but mighty city; of people moving up and down along the so many intersecting tiny roads. Another obvious fact is that the town has a large number of youths.
A culturally endowed people amidst diversities, the Opobians irrespective of the language they now speak are aware of their Ijaw heritage. The community lost its original language to Igbo traders during the slave trade era and this in effect was heightened in the time of palm oil boom that followed, says an elderly woman who I would describe as friendly and chatty. According to her, the reason the new generation of Opobians finds it hard to speak their native tongue is due to the massive influx of traders of Igbo stock that ‘invaded’ the land in the past. There was trade boom. A prosperous brother went home to bring in his wife, children and relatives. That was how the foreigners’ population grew out of proportion. To worsen matters, our forefathers in the search to keep their Izon language safe away from the rampaging Igbo traders, vowed not to teach the foreigners the language. Instead, they opted for the tongue of their guests as the language of trade and commerce. This was where they missed the mark. The new generation inherited the abhorred language and this to their chagrin, definitely, has become the means of communication even among us, the indigenous people of the island. She rounded off.
There was no element of surprise the Island enjoys absolute peace, a situation in agreement with the saying that “those that have experienced war, cherish peace”. Going by history, the people had fought so many wars both with local and international foes, even with the most equipped and dreaded army of Her Majesty. Locally, the presence of an outstandingly wealthy Jaja who through his international allies assembled a comparatively large arsenal was a trump card for the community to romping over any local opponent. The story was told of how the little Island held on so strong for days, repelling and thwarting the foreign forces until when they caved in to a more sophisticated fire power. As a result of this historical fact, every household in the town boasts of at least, two – three cannons positioned strategically for self-defense.
My tested “long-throat” for new delicacies over the years was another reason for considering the trip anyways. I must confess I was a tad disappointed when I couldn’t discover any new cuisine. The delicacies in Opobo consist of a fine mix of regular Niger Deltan style and Ikwa Ibom as the former is just 5 minutes away by boat. In terms of tradition, I was taken aback by the undented Ijaw customs and ways of life that endured trying times in the middle of abrasive culture conflicts.
The Egiribite and Bibite initiation rite into womanhood occasioned this feeling of surprise with its distinct features and peculiarity. Having lived in Bayelsa State, an entirely Ijaw State for a good period of time and never heard of such grand rite of passage, I was made to question my sense of observation as a culture keen individual. The woman due for Egiribite and Bibite honour must have attained a certain age of about 50 years and above with grown-up children. Most importantly, as a thing of status, the financial demands for such an elaborate flaunt is also key to qualifications.
As the initiate is carried shoulder-high and paraded through the streets in a party mood consisting mainly of family members and well-wishers, before then, she is housed for days where nobody is permitted to see her face-to-face save a relative or close friend who has undergone same rituals. The ceremonies might be deemed intricate in the eyes of a non-native like me. The last phase of the rites is marked by a more elaborate celebration. With retinue of friends, the celebrant takes the merriment to the church where the pastor prays profusely for her blessings. This was where the question arose about the strange romance between a Pentecostal church and an African religious rite.
With regards to the origin of the Opobo people , while calling them strangers ( Igbos) in the state, a non-native indigene of the state offered a differing view different from the generally held belief by the natives of Opobo land. In an exclusive interview at the famous Opobo hotel, he offered to clarify what he called “shady areas” surrounding the true origin of the people. Narrating the story of how Jaja was banished from Bonny ( a core Ijaw town) because his prosperity and subsequent effrontery had threatened and angered the natives, he claims the average Opobian is a foreigner in the oil-rich state. Jaja settled down at Opobo when he was driven by his Ijaw hosts at Bonny. Nevertheless, an indigene of the community wants you to believe another episode weighted in lending credence to their false indegeneship.
No matter the version you hold credible, the Opobo-Igbo affiliation is incontrovertible and represents the true spirit of a nation mottled by multifarious ethnic groups. One major message this union preaches is the essential need for cultural hybridization as a means of inseparable peaceful co-existence. Whether they are of Igbo extraction or of Ijaw lineage, the undeniable truth is that they are Nigerians in one of the states that make up the federation.
While walking towards the waterfront to board an awaiting boat that afternoon, there was the pervasive yearning to have a change of mind and stay behind for yet another day, at least. The desire to extend our stay hinged entirely on the hospitality of the people. This was however notwithstanding the hazard to access drinkable water in the water-surrounded town. One big concern I always have about visiting riverine cities in Nigeria is in this irony. The oxymoron in the expression “waters everywhere and no water to drink”. I am sure my friend will live to remember this aspect of the trip, the fun nevertheless.