Urhobo is the majority tribe in Ughelli North of Delta state, Nigeria, occupying the southern part of the Benin lowland and the floodplains swamps of the petroleum-rich Niger Delta. With a population of over 3 million people, the Urhobo people are among the eight largest ethnic groups in Nigeria and constitute the largest single ethnic group in Delta state. Traditionally, the Urhobo nation consists of 22 autonomous republics or kingdoms with a common ancestral origin. The kingdoms are; Agbarha, Agbara-Ame (Agbassa), Agbarho, Agbon, Arhavwarien, Avwraka, Eghwu, Ephron-Oto, Evwreni, Idjerhe, Oghara, Ogor, Okere, Okparabe, Okpe, Olomu, Orogun, Udu, Ughelli, Ughievwen, Ughwerun and Uvwie. Origin of the Urhobo people is rooted in oral tradition. While accounts may vary, one fact proliferate: the belief in the migration from Aka (present day Edo State). Although, all the 22 kingdoms have distinct dialects and tradition that reflect slight variation in origin and migratory patterns, however, the universal language is Urhobo.
The earliest political system in the Urhoboland is a mixture of kingship system and gerontocracy (the rule by elders). Though it is not certain which of the kingship is older among the kingdoms, these kingship development reached their peak in the 1940s and 1950s. Depending on the clan and the system of administration, the king or clan head is called Ovie or Orodje or Osuivie, Okobaro, Okpako or Okpara-Uku, and such title may be hereditary in some clans. While kingship system maintained a highly centralized type of government with the king (Ovie) assisted by a council of chiefs; the Otota (speaker), Ohovworen or Okakoro who are addressed collectively as Ilorogun (singular: Olorogun). Other title holders includes the Ikoikpokpo (executioners) and Ogbu (warriors). The clan head (in the gerontocracy system) is assisted in the day to day administration of the polity by titled officers selected from various age grades recognized in the clan. Due to political expediency and social visibility of the king in modern day Nigeria, the number of Urhobo clans adopting the kingship system has increased.
Today, the traditional political system operates side by side with the Western system. The judicial aspect of government among the Urhobos places a clear distinction between civil and criminal offences which ensures justice to all parties concerned. In those clans where the age grade system is recognized, the men are categorized into four grades namely; Ekpako, Ivwragha, Otuorere and Imitete. Age grades are based on age, life achievements and contributions to the community. The women are also categorized into three age grades namely; Ekwokweya, Evweya (group of housewives) and Emete age grades, based on child bearing status.
The Ekpako and Ekwokweya age grades assist in the day to day administration of the clan and serve as the custodians of the Urhobo culture. The Imitete and Emete age grades clean, sweep the streets, run errands and perform domestic duties. After marriage, the Emete are grouped as Evweya in their husbands’ community but in their native community they are still regarded as Emete and later as Ekwokweya when they become aged. The Otuorere age grade performs heavy duties like bush clearing, building of shrines, construction works, burial and other social services. The working class and warriors belong to the Ivwragha age grade.
The natural terrain of Urhoboland afforded the Urhobo people their traditional occupations of trading, farming, hunting and fishing. During the colonial era, the production of palm oil and palm kernel from the stands of oil palm trees which are native to Urhoboland was highly encouraged by the British colonial government. The British also found the area ideal for the cultivation of rubber and cocoa as cash crops.The territory is covered by a network of streams whose volumes of water and flow are directly concerned with climatic season; wet season (April-October) and dry season (November-March).
Discovery of petroleum in Urhoboland in the 1960s has had its merits and demerits. While the oil has enriched Nigeria at large, it has hardly benefited the Urhoboland and its people. Rather, it has brought about massive ecological devastation which has in turn disturbed the Urhobo traditional occupation of fishing and farming. This has also brought about a neglect of agriculture and massive emigration of the Urhobo people to urban areas, especially in Benin and Yoruba lands of western Nigeria where several Urhobo villages could be found.
Urhobo culture is very unique and distinct from other Nigerian cultures. Since the Urhobos live very close to and in some cases on the surface of the Niger River, most of their histories, mythologies and philosophies are water-related. The beliefs of the Urhobo people are based on spiritual forces which govern the harmony of the universe, and their culture is characterized by strong extended family ties, respect for elders, taboos against stealing, incest, murder, dishonesty and so on.
Traditionally, the Urhobo week is made up of four days which regulates market cycle, marriage, religious worship and other communal activities. The four days of the Urhobo week are; Edewo, Ediruo, Eduhre and Edebi. According to Urhobo mythology, Edewo and Eduhre are sacred days to divinities (spirits) and the ancestors. The divinities are usually believed to be very active in the farmlands and forests on Edewo and Eduhre; hence, farmers in most Urhobo communities rarely go to the farm on these days so as not to disturb the spirits. Most market days are held on the other days except Edewo, when the ancestors are reverenced and Eduhre when most traditional religious rituals are held.
The Urhobo month is called Emeravwe and it is made up of 28days. The following are the months in Urhobo calendar; Emeravwe R’esosuo (January), Emeravwe R’iveh (February), Emeravwe R’erha (March), Emeravwe R’eneh (April), Emeravwe R’iyhori (May), Emeravwe R’esan (June), Emeravwe R’eghwre (July), Emeravwe R’erhenre (August), Emeravwe R’irhinri (September), Emeravwe R’ehwe (October), Emeravwe R’ehwe-Ovo (November) and Emeravwe R’ehwe-Ive (December).
Many Urhobo customs have influenced other ethnic groups around them just as it has been influenced by them also through cultural interaction and inter-marriages. These ethnic groups around Urhoboland are; Ijaw, Itsekiri, Isoko and Kwale.
Religion controls lifestyle in traditional communities in Urhoboland. The major focus of Urhobo traditional religion are the worship of Oghene (Almighty God), the supreme deity as well as the recognition of divinities. The Urhobo divinities can be classified into four categories which probably coincides with the historical development of the people. They are; the guardian divinities, war divinities, prosperity divinities and fertility and ethical divinities. However, the fundamental factor and manifestation of all divinities in Urhobo religion is Oghene.
Erivwin which is the cult of ancestors and predecessors (Esemo and Iniemo) is another important aspect of the Urhobo belief system. The dead are believed to be living among the people and are looked upon as active members of the family who watch over the affairs of the living members of the family. The Urhobos believe in the duality of man; that is, man consists of two beings—the physical body (Ugboma) and the spiritual body (Ehri). The Ehri (spirit man) is the one that declares man’s destiny and controls self-realization of his destiny before he incarnates into this world. It is Ehri that controls the total well-being of the man. In the spirit world (Erivwin), man’s destiny is decided and sealed; and in the final journey of the Ehri after transition (death), it is believed that the Ugboma (physical body) decays while the Ehri is indestructible and returns to the spirit realm to join the ancestors. The burial rites in Urhoboland are usually elaborate and symbolic, and are meant to prepare the departed Ehri for a joyful reunion with the ancestors in the spirit world.
Western civilization and Christianity are however gaining momentum in most Urhobo communities. In recent times, the Urhobos now practise Christianity with many belonging to Catholic, Anglican and new Evangelical denominations.
The Urhobos have an annual fishing festival that includes 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.
In the Urhobo culture, before marriage is said to have been properly contracted, prayers must be offered to the ancestors (Erivwin) and Oghene (God). Usually, the traditional marriage ceremony is to be held a day before Edewo or the day after Edewo. The marriage ceremony (known as Udi Arhovwaye), takes place in the ancestral home of the bride-to-be or at the house of a patrilineal relation as agreed by the family.
On an agreed day, the groom-to-be goes with his relatives and friends to the house of his bride’s father bearing kolanuts, drinks, salt and other things required from him by the bride’s family for the marriage ceremony. It is on this day that the bride’s family give their formal approval to the marriage and pour gin brought by the groom as libation to the father’s ancestors to bless the couple with good health, children and wealth. It is only after this marriage rite has been performed that the husband can claim a refund of the bride price if the marriage collapses. It is also believed that the ancestors were witnesses to the marriage and it is only her physical body that is sent to her husband in the marriage, her Ehri (spirit double) remains in the family home. This is the reason why she is brought back home to her family home for burial when she dies. In the ancestral home of the man, the wife is welcomed into the family by the eldest member of the family. From then on, she becomes a full member of her husband’s family and is now protected by the supernatural (Erivwin). This particular rite symbolizes an agreement between the wife and the Erivwin. However, if the wife later proves to be 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.
In Nigeria, certain kinds of food are considered to belong to or originate from a particular tribe. For the Urhobos, foods that are considered to be Urhobo in origin are Ukodo (a dish made out of yam and unripe plantain, sometimes cooked with goat meat, potash and lemon grass with a lot of pepper), Oghwevwri (emulsified palm oil soup) and Usi (starch). The starch is made from the cassava plant; it is heated and stirred into a thick mould with palm oil added to give the starch its unique orange-yellow colour. The Oghwevwri soup consists of smoked or dried fish, bush meat, special spices, potash and palm oil. Amiedi (or Banga) is another palm nut oil soup which is either eaten with garri (eba) or Usi. Amiedi soup is a delicacy made from palm kernel. Other special Urhobo delicacy includes; Oghwevwri’sha, Okpariku, Iribo-oto, Ophopho, Iribo-erhare, etc.