FEATURES Uja, hunters festival in which women play leading roles
Once a year the hunters festival known as Uja,takes place in Akure. At this time of the year the hunters gather to remember Uja and his daughter Erelu, and to pray for a better, more fulfilling hunting season, as well as to send a positive volition towards both Ondo State and the country as a whole. It is a festival which also celebrates the place of women in the Akure kingdom, and this may explain the significant number of women present during the festival and the leading role they play during the event. The women are seen to chant, sing and dance from time to time in the course of the festival.
This year’s celebration took place shortly after Sallah and it began with much joyful drumming and dancing at the front of the palace of the Deji of Akure. Towering above the dance and song is the giant intimidating statue of Omoremilekun, the first Oba of Akure who was also a hunter. This shows that there may be much about the hunter and the hunt in the early beginnings or growth of the Akure kingdom.
Chief Mercy Adekanye is the Erelu Iyaloja of Akure Kingdom and she speaks on the origins of the festival “The father of Erelu was Uja, a great hunter, a herbalist and a very strong man who was very influential. At that time he was killing animals, and he asked his daughter Erelu to help sell these in the market. So, when her father brought bushmeat, her wares became enlarged. Her father who was a close friend to the Oba, now sought permission that the other wives of the hunters should join Erelu in the market to trade. In remembrance of Erelu, and the King that gave permission for the hunters wives to join her, it was now said that it should be a yearly ceremony for the Kabiyesi and the Erelu to celebrate. That is why you saw us in front of the Deji’s palace. Erelu was the first woman in Akure’s history that was installed as a chief. She came with the first king in 1150 AD.” The Erelu is the ‘King of the market as well as the Queen of the market,’ the Erelu says,and she hails from the Elemo family which has always retained the title of Erelu from time immemorial, and the Elemo is third in rank to the Deji of Akure. Deep within the festival may be an attempt to capture or chronicle the growth and expansion of market places,as well as the steady involvement of women in commercial activities.
After the performance at the front of the palace,all those present head to the shrine of Uja which is located within a nearby market. After a number of rituals have been done at the spot, broken by chants in praise of Uja and Erelu, Erelu dances, alongside the Deji as well as the hunters. Then this part of the festival comes to an end with the Deji returning to his palace accompanied by Erelu, the women as well as the hunters. There are gun shots at various stages of the festival, as well as when the Deji makes his way back to the palace. Every other year a masquerade emerges during the Uja festival. This means that next year a masquerade will emerge since none was present at this year’s version. Erelu plays many roles according to Erelu Iyaloja “If there is chicken pox in the town, the people will consult Erelu. Anything that has to do with the market, the Erelu will be consulted for she is the administrator of the market. If there are quarreling groups in the market, the matter is reported to Erelu, and if she cannot handle it, the case is taken before the Deji.”
Lere Ijalade Ojo,leader of the hunters in Akure, sheds light on the festival which is celebrated by over 500 hunters in the kingdom “Uja is a festival of the Deji of Akure, and it also celebrates Uja and Ogun, who were born by the same parents. During this festival, we seek more blessing for the town, and we are helped to be more successful as hunters.” Ibitoye Oladele, another hunter, says “Uja festival signifies the day we worship Uja. Ogun and Uja are from the same family. Ogun is the senior, while Uja is the younger brother. We hunters honour both of them.”
He explains other aspects of the festival “The women you see are the ones selling the animals that we kill.” The Uja festival celebrates Uja, a great hunter, as well as Erelu, his daughter who was phenomenal in many ways -she first traded in the market, and she was also made the administrator and is saluted as ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ of the market. A festival which, ironically, has many masculine elements, including the robust firing of guns and the splendid art of hunting, has lying within it an attempt to honour the woman too.
Chief Mercy Adekanye, Erelu of Akure Kingdom (r), dancing with drummers and other women during the festival