The Urhobo is a unique culture of a group of people in the South-Southern part of Nigeria. The bulk of the information so far about their origin are largely through oral literature. Just like many African tradition, they have suffered greatly from lack of documentation and archive. The community was preoccupied by early European settlers in the 14th century. Recall that the Europeans came with economic interests on the coastal communities including Lagos, Port Harcourt etc. However in 1505, it was observed that the Subous or Sobos (later corrected to be Urhobo in 1938) lived in the hinterland beyond the Forcados River.
The history of the Urhobo generally can be traced to their source in the Edo territory supposedly around where the ancient town of Udo and Benin-City are currently located today. At the end of the Ogiso dynasty, many Urhobos and Edo-groups left Udo in different directions; each at its own pace, in search of more peaceful territories. It was natural that in those inevitable circumstances, peace loving and less powerful Edo-groups had to leave the territory to seek fortunes in less populated but more economically resourceful territories.
The Urhobos left under separate leaders in different directions. They headed and settled in different territories operating separate governmental organization. When some of the emigrant left Benin, they found some Edo-speaking settlers in their new found territory. These autonomous people were believed to be Urhobo, with no known history of migration from anywhere else. This claim is without documentary or archaeological evidence though. Bradbury (1957: 129) refers to Hubbard’s 1948 suggestion that ‘the distinctive characteristics of the various Urhobo and Isoko tribes are a result of the super imposition of Ijaw, Ibo and later Edo immigration upon on aboriginal strata already speaking Edo-type dialects’.
The structure of Urhobo ideas and language as well as their culture and other institutional forms imply historical links between them and their neighbours; particularly the Edo-speaking peoples, and other socio-linguistic groups in some yet undefined areas in the Sudan/Egypt.
The Urhobo is the major ethnic group in Delta State, Nigeria. They speak Urhobo, a language in the Niger-Congo group. The Isoko and Urhobo are related in language and culture, leading to the missionaries erroneously labeling both peoples as Sobo. This name has been strongly rejected by both tribes. The Urhobo nation is made up of twenty two sub-groups, including Okpe which is arguably the largest of all Urhobo sub-groups. The Urhobos are noted for having their own unique style of speaking the Nigerian Pidgin English.
Their language (Urhobo) is very demonstrative and it translates into their style of speaking English and Pidgin English. As a result of their unique language style, their names are also unique. According to the 2006 Population Census in Nigeria, the Urhobos are over three million. They are also classified among the first ten major ethnic groups in Nigeria.
The word ‘Urhobo’ refer to a group of people and not geographical territory. The Urhobos have social and cultural affinity to the Edo speaking people of Nigeria. The Urhobo now live in a territory bounded by latitudes 6°and 5°, 15° North and Longitudes 5°, 40° and 6°, 25° East in the Delta State of Nigeria. Their neighbours are the Isoko to the South East, the Itsekiri to the West, the Bini to the North, Ijaw to the South and Ukwani (kwale-Aboh) to the North East. The Urhobo territory consist of evergreen forest with many oil palm trees which provide the lucrative palm produce industry for which the Urhobo have some technological preserve. The territory is covered by a network of streams whose volumes of water and flow are directly concerned with the climatic season; wet season (April–October) and dry season (November–March).
A bulk of the Urhobo people reside in the southern state of Delta and Sagbama area of Bayelsa State in Nigeria. This region is popularly referred to as the Niger Delta. Many live in the Ughelli local government region, Warri and Ethiope, Okpe and Sapele Local Government Areas. Some Urhobo major cities and towns include: Okparabe, Arhavwarien, Warri, Sapele, Abraka, Ughelli, Effurun, Aladja, Ovwian, Orerokpe, Amuekpe, Eku, Oghara, Evwreni, Agbarha-Otor, Agbarho, Okpara Inland, Kokori, Olomu, Kiagbodo, Isiokoro, Jesse, Ogharaefe, Effurun-Otor, Ewu, Jeremi, Emadadja, Okwagbe, Orogun, Owahwa, Otogor, Edjekota-Ogor, Ofone, Otor-Udu, Ekpan, Jeddo, Uwheru and Urhowhorun. The local government areas where Urhobo people traditional homes are located in Delta State include Ethiope East, Ethiope West, Okpe, Sapele, Udu, Ughelli North, Ughelli South, Uwvie and Warri South
Myths, Tradition and Festivals
The Urhobos live very close to and sometimes on the surface of the Niger River. As such, most of their histories, mythologies, and philosophies are water-related. They have an annual fishing festivals that include masquerades, fishing, swimming contests, and dancing. There is also an annual Two-day Ohworhu festival in the southern part of the Urhobo area at which the Ohworhu water spirit and the Eravwe Oganga are displayed.
The king in an Urhobo clan or kingdom is called the Ovie. His wife; the Queen is called Ovieya and his children; Ọmọ Ovie (child of the king also known as prince and princess). However, these names have been declassified and are now given to children of common men too nowadays. A number of Urhobo sub-groups have other unique titles for their kings other than the ‘Ovie’. The Okpe, for example, refer to their traditional ruler as Orogie while The Olomu and Okere-Urhobo called theirs Ohworode and Orosuen respectively.
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Urhobo have always strived to maintain good relations with her neighbors from the North-East is Ndokwa, to the South-East is Isoko, to the North is Bini, the West is Itsekiri and the South is Ijaw’s. All of them share a common origin according to tradition. The following is a list of Kingdoms in Urhobo.
Kingdom Headquarters L. G. A
Agbarrha-Ame Otovwodo-Agbarha Warri South
Agbarha-Otor Agbarha-Otor Ughelli North
Agbarho Orho-Agbarho Ughelli North
Agbon Isiokoro Ethiope East
Arhavwarien Arhavwarien Ughelli South
Avwaraka Otorho-Avwaraka Etthiope East
Effuruntor Effuruntor Ughelli South
Evwreni Evwreni Ughelli North
Eghwu Otorho-Eghwu Ughelli South
Idjerhe Idjerhe Ethiope West
Oghara Ogharefe Ethiope West
Ogor Otogor Ughelli North
Okere-Urhobo Okere Warri South
Okparabe Okparabe Ughelli South
Okpe Orerekpo Okpe & Sapele
Okpe Otorere-Olomu Ughelli South
Orogun Orogun Ughelli North
Udu Otor-Udu Udu
Oghele Otovwodo UghelliNorth
Ughievwien Otughievwien UghlliSouth
Ughwerun Otughweru UghelliNorth
Uvwie Effurun Uvwie
Before a man and a woman can be joined in marriage in Urhobo culture, prayers must be offered to the ancestors (Erivwin) and God (Oghene). The marriage rituals, known as Udi Arhovwaje, takes place in the ancestral home of the girl or a patrilineal relation of the girl as agreed by the family. On an agreed day, the fiancé goes with his relatives and friends to the lady’s father’s home carrying things required from him for the marriage ceremony. It is on that day that the girl’s parents give their formal approval to the marriage and pour the gin brought by the fiancé as a libation to the father’s ancestors to bless them with health, children and wealth.
It is only after this marriage rite that the husband can claim a refund of money (bride price) if the marriage breaks down. It is believed that the ancestors were a witness to the marriage. It is believed that only the physical body of the lady is being sent to her husband’s place. Her Erhi (spirit double) remains in her family home. This explains why she must be brought back to her family home when she dies.
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In the ancestral home of the man, the wife is welcomed into the family by the eldest member of the family. Here she is expected to confess all her love affairs during and after her betrothal to her husband (if any) and she can now be absolved from all her wrongdoings. Henceforth, she becomes a full member of her husband’s family and is now protected by the supernatural (Erivwin). This rite symbolizes an agreement between the wife and the Erivwin. If the wife later proves unfaithful she will be punished by the Erivwin and this is believed to be the reason why married Urhobo women are very faithful to their husbands.
Unlike the Gregorian calendar week, Urhobo’s Okpo (week) is made up of four days. These include one day each for market cycles, religious worship, marriages and other community activities. The four days of the Urhobo week are Edewo, Ediruo, Eduhre, and Edebi. In Urhobo mythology, Edewo and Eduhre are sacred days devoted to divinities, spirits, and the ancestors. Most markets are held on these days. Ancestors are venerated on Edewo. Most traditional religious rituals are held on Eduhre.
Divinities (spirits) are believed to be very active in the farmlands and forests on Edewo and Eduhre. Therefore, farmers in most Urhobo communities rarely go to work on those days so as not to disturb the spirits. Urhobo months are called Emeravwe and are made up of 28 days each. Most of the annual festivals are held during the months of Asa, Eghwre, Orianre and Urhiori. Those are the months of harvest and farming activity are at its lowest, so most farmers are free to partake in festivities. These are also months to honour the gods of the land and spiritual forces that brought a good harvest.
As with most tribes in Nigeria, a certain food is considered to belong to or originate from a particular tribe. Just as pounded yam and egusi soup is unique to the Igbos, there are two foods considered to be special for the Urhobo. They are Ukhodo (a yam and unripe plantain dish sometimes cooked with lemon grass and potash) and ‘Starch’ with Oghwevwri (emulsified palm oil soup). The starch is made from cassava plant. It is heated and stirred into a thick mound with palm oil added to give the starch its unique orange-yellow colour. Oghwevwri is composed of smoked or dried fish, bush meat, unique spices, potash and oil palm juice. Other palm nut oil soups include amiedi and banga soup, often eaten with usi (food) (“starch”) and or garri. Banga is made from palm kernel. Other culinary delicacies include: Iriboto, Iriberhare, and Okpariku.
The main focus of Urhobo traditional religion are the adoration of “Ọghẹnẹ” (Almighty God) the Supreme Deity and recognition of Edjo and Erhan (divinities). Some of these divinities could be regarded as personified attributes of “Ọghẹnẹ”. The Urhobo also worship god with Orhen (white chalk). If an Urhobo feels oppressed by someone, he appeals to Ọghẹnẹ, who he believes to be an impartial judge, to adjudicate between him and his opponent. Urhobo divinities can be classified into four main categories, which probably coincide with the historical development of the people.
- guardian divinities,
- war divinities,
- prosperity divinities and
- fertility and ethical divinities.
It should be noted that the fundamental factor and manifestation of all divinities in Urhobo religion is “Ọghẹnẹ”. Erivwin which is the cult of ancestors and predecessors (Esemo and Iniemo) is another important element in Urhobo belief system. The dead are believed to be living and are looked upon as active members of the family and watch over the affair of the living members of their family. Urhobos believe in the duality of man, i.e. that man consists of two beings: Physical body – Ugboma and Spiritual body – Erhi.
It is the Erhi (spirit man) that declares man’s destiny and controls the self-realization of man’s destiny before he incarnate into this world. Erhi also controls the total wellbeing (Ufuoma) of the man. Ọghẹnẹ (God) is like a constitutional Monarch who set his seal on the path of destiny set by a man’s spirit (Erhi). In the spirit world (Erivwin) man’s destiny is ratified and sealed. In the final journey of the spirit man (Erhi) after transition, the Urhobo believe the physical body (Ugboma) decays while the spirit man (Erhi) is indestructible and goes back to join the ancestors in the spirit realm. The elaborate and symbolic burial rites are meant to prepare the departed Erhi for happy re-union with the ancestors in the spirit world. Epha divination is also another. This is similar to the Yoruba’s Ifá and practiced by many West African ethnic groups practiced with strings of cowries
However, the influence of western civilization and Christianity is fast becoming an acceptable reality in most of the Urhobo communities. Urhobos also practice Christianity, with many belonging to Catholic and new evangelical denominations. Historically, Urhobo people’s origin is rooted in their oral tradition. They believe in migration from Aka -present day Edo territory. Although all 22 kingdoms have distinct dialects and traditions that reflect slight variation in origin and migratory patterns, there is a universal Urhobo language.
The discovery of petroleum in Urhoboland in the 1960s have been a mixed blessing. While the oil has enriched the modern Nigeria nation state, it has hardly benefited Urhoboland and people. It has also brought about massive ecological devastation which has, in turn, hampered the Urhobo traditional occupations of farming and fishing. This has resulted in the neglect of agriculture and mass emigration of the natives to urban areas and other rural areas; especially the neighboring Benin and Yorubalands of western Nigeria where hundreds of Urhobo village settlements could be found. Today, the Urhobo migrant farmers in these villages form the backbone of the food production in those areas.