Art is a mediating factor within religion and culture in Africa. In most cases, sublime carvings, sculptures and paintings are synonymous with the worship of deities. This fact was quite obvious when I visited the Oshogbo Sacred Groove, in Osun State, Nigeria.
The groove is a UNESCO designated cultural heritage that sprawls a magnificent 74 hectares of land. Ironically this historical site is the fruit of the industry of an Austrian lady. Susan Wenger, Iya Adunni (Mother Adunni), first visited the groove in the 50’s and fell in love with the place. Wenger has come to personify “the spirit of the forest” an English translation of Oshogbo. Wenger – the wife the late Ayansola Oniru (the drummer) is also a devotee of Obatala (god of creation) – was given a National Award in December 2008.
Wenger’s carvings adorn the drive way of the groove. The gate is a metal sculpture which depicts the history of the town. According to our guide, Yinka – a staff of the National Commission of Museum and Monuments, Oshogbo – the town was founded about 500 years ago by Oguntimeyin, a great hunter. Larooyegbademolu, the first king of Oshogbo land, was limned in the sculpture, which also shows a woman engaged in dyeing cloth, the major occupation of the people. The gate contains impressions of the 16 lamp stands – which are acclaimed to have healing powers – and the goddess of the Osun River.
From the gate we – (I was accompanied by a group of friends) – glided through the deserted shrine. Tourists, locals and the crowd that throng there during the Osun festival, were absent so we had a field day. The clay cavernous entrance, designated only for maidens, was a sight to behold. Their passage through the cave forms part of the rites of supplication to the Osun Olomo Yoyo (the goddess of fertility). My pleas to be allowed entrance was denied. Yinka was fastidious about preserving the sacredness of the shrine, in line with the guideline enumerated at the entrance billboard. My scientific curiosity was hibernated lest it be interpreted as an attempt at desecration.
Though Yinka, lead us to Aworo Osun (the priest of River Osun) she politely declined entering his inner sanctuary. We did and it was a delight. First I had to remove my shoes and was invited into the shrine, though I was severely warned not to take photographs there. The Osun priest then started a round of incantations; he called on Osun to shower blessings on us. He prayed for our promotion, safe return and prosperity. Run of the mill prayer intentions of the average Nigerian – ostensibly oblivious that hard work is what gets you promoted; public funds, spent not chopped, is what gets roads constructed and being prosperous (heard that before, who does not want to be rich?)
Up till now, we were in the good books of Aworo Osun until he demanded that we drop some money for Osun. Being a hybrid of Igbo and Ijebu; I gave the gods N20. Our host appealed to our generosity. The parsimonious bit of me persisted. Aren’t the gods above the mundane? Aworo Osun morphed from being cordial to testy, truncating my search for justifying why I should give more. He asked us to leave. His initial consent to have his picture taken was withdrawn. My tightfistedness must have appalled the gods.
I also appreciated the splendour of the Osun River which is famed for its fecundity. It’s claimed that barren women who immersed themselves in the river or drank from it usually conceived thereafter. Our guide informed us that people usually flocked there as pilgrims and most times showed their gratitude by offering gifts to the river. In the midst of this groove, is a suspension bridge constructed in 1935 over the river. It links the groove with the farm settlement on the other side.
The silence of Oshogbo Groove was refreshing, nature really meets contemplation there. Unfortunately the place exuded neglect, a near absence of institutional care. Since it was designated a UNESCO site, most people have construed it to mean that dollars and euros are literarily being poured in from jand (abroad). As a result the place bears the scars of a poor orphan with rich benefactors.
My visit to the groove was an attempt to link up with the past. Not merely as an academic exercise or a disjointed endeavour to justify tradition, arts or culture. The world has been divided into the West and the East for ages. What then happened to the others, including Africa? The Oshogbo Shrine shows that Africa was no “blank darkness.” The government can do more to preserve Wenger’s legacies by at least taking proper care of the groove. Or else, at this rate, the groove may recede into “blank darkness.”