The story has been told of Leonard Okolido, a Christian businessman who was forced to become a chief priest at a village shrine. Not in his wildest imagination did Mr Leonard Okolido foresaw he would forsake his auto spare parts trade to become the chief priest of a local shrine. From his childhood, through adulthood, Okolido had aspired to be a successful auto spare parts dealer. However, fate has destined him to be the leader of the dreaded deity in his village.Okolido’s auto spare parts shop was gaining enough patronage in the Lawanson market, at Surulere, Lagos State, when he suddenly learnt that he has been ordered to come down to his village to coordinate activities of the dreaded powerful deity – Ogwugwu Umuhu Ukpor.
According to Okolido, the information from the shrine frightened him, but he tried to ignore the messages. “I specialized in sales of Volkswagen motor spare parts in Lawanson when I heard that I’ve been summoned at the shrine in my village,” he told Sunday Sun.
From Christianity and to deity worship
“I thought it was some sick joke. I was born in a Christian home. Plus, I’ve spent most of my adult life in Lagos city; I speak Yoruba fluently. So, it was very difficult to imagine how I could switch from the Christian faith, and the glitz of city lifestyle, to become chief priest in a local shrine in the village.
“So, I ignored the news and continued in my trading. But, my business became shaky and fruitless. Although, my trading company was very popular all over Lawanson, every trader there knew me, and nicknamed me 50:50; they all believed that I was a rich man because influential customers troop to buy spare parts from my shop.
But I noticed that all my efforts and focus were becoming futile. I would make much money from sales of goods yet I can’t discern how and where all the monies are. I struggled to feed my family. All kinds of strange things began to happen to me. But I refused to answer the deity.
“Rather, I went to different prayer houses in my bid to wade off the call from Ogwugwu, and the strange things happening to me. All was to no avail. Even my family raised huge money to see if they could bail me from the call. But Ogwugwu was adamant.”
Terrified Okolido chose to stay far away from the shrine, until something mysterious happened to him.
“I kept running until in September 2016, when I suddenly found myself inside the Ogwugwu shrine in my village. I can’t explain how I came or who brought me into the shrine. The last thing I remembered was coming down for an event in my village. Then suddenly, I looked around and found myself inside the Ogwugwu. Till now, I still don’t know how I came here. It is a mystery to me.”
At that point he gave in, saying “when I realized that I couldn’t run away from Ogwugwu. I made up my mind to embrace the call. I appealed to be given sometime to go back to Lagos to say my good bye, organize myself and then pack my belongings. And I was given only seven days to do that. I made up my mind to embrace my fate, and take up the role of the chief priest. That same September, I was formally ordained chief priest of the Ogwugwu Umuhu Ukpor deity.”
Ogwugwu is about truth, justice, blessing
The Obi Ogwugwu Umuhu Ukpor is also known as ‘Obi Eziokwu bu Ndu, Asi bu Onwu’ which literally means – “the place where you say the truth and live, but you tell lies, you die”. And it is one of the most feared deities in the Southeastern part of Nigeria and beyond. The shrine, which is located in Umuhu community, Ukpor town, Nnewi-South Local Government Area of Anambra State, is situated merely a stone throw away from the Nnewi-South Local Government Secretariat.
According to myths, no one knows exactly the origin of the deity, though it is traced to have existed since over a century ago.
Also the deity is said to be a goddess, and wife to the god – Urasi – another deity. The goddess, reputed to abhor lies and any form of injustice, is dreaded and renowned for her swiftness in discerning, and striking to death any guilty party in any matter brought before her.
It is because of this believed powers, plus credibility and accessibility of the Ogwugwu Umuhu Ukpor, that make the shrine, not just a hub where people come to seek the goddess’ favour, but also a favorite place where individuals from different regions and even religions, come for oath taking, and to lay complaints over any kind of civil disputes.
When Sunday Sun visited the shrine recently, about 15 adherents and complainants gathered around, and seated quietly inside the dingy shrine.
On the walls hung numerous pictures of different persons – men and women, old and young – said to have been struck dead after coming short, and sparking the wrath of Ogwugwu.
Inside the shrine, there are two main parts divided with plain white clothes that hang loosely on a rope. Coming from outside, the first section is where visitors and worshippers stay. Two rows of seats are molded on each side of the wall to make members sit and facing each other. While the other part of the shrine is the sanctuary from where the chief sits to listen to supplications from visitors, and then offer prayers and sacrifices to the goddess.
Sunday Sun observed that some of the adherents came from neighbouring towns and villages, while others came from farther locations like Abia and Imo states.
To make a plea to Ogwugwu, you stand in front of the sanctuary and in the centre of the shrine with kola nuts, a bottle of hot drink and some money. Some of the adherents came to seek Ogwugwu’s protection, blessings, the fruit of the womb, help to find a missing relation, good luck. Others pointedly came to report civil matters, mentioning the names of their oppressors, and calling the Ogwugwu to go and avenge for them.
Asked how Ogwugwu operates, Okolido retorted:
“We don’t perform rituals here. All you need is to stand in front of Ogwugwu and pray to her. That’s all. Ogwugwu is very kind and generous with her blessings. And that attracts people from different areas to come and pray to her. When someone offends or intimidates you, and you want Ogwugwu to intervene in the matter, all you need is just to stand with your kolanuts and call on Ogwugwu to be the judge. Simple! Ogwugwu knows the hearts of men and would rise to answer your pleas for justice. People come from all the world to this shrine to pray for success, safe journey, good health, fruit of the womb. Anything you want, once you cry to Ogwugwu, she would do it for you”.
Pastors come for blessings, healing powers too
When Sunday Sun asked Okolido whether overzealous Christians have ever made moves to come the shrine to win him back to Christianity, he and some of his adherents simultaneously burst into laughter, saying “that can’t happen; the lands where these churches are built belong to the deity, Ani. It was Ani that gave the lands.
“Christians come here to pray to Ogwugwu. Even pastors come here to seek blessings of Ogwugwu for their churches to flourish. I pray for many of them and they use Ogwugwu to work and perform healings in their churches. Ogwugwu has a water she blessed, pastors from different regions come to fetch this water for their own tasks at their churches. They pray with the water and get results.
When Ogwugwu strikes
How exactly can one know who the deity has struck? Okolido answered:
“When Ogwugwu strikes in a family the signs are there; strange occurrences and deaths will continue to plague the person’s family until they begin to make inquiries about their situation. And once it’s confirmed that Ogwugwu is involved in the family’s problems, the deity would list out conditions for appeasement. Once that is done peace and normalcy would return to the family.”
Being the Chief Priest
For Okolido being the chief priest has opened his eyes to a lot of things. And one of them is being able to now recognize why Ogwugwu chose him to lead her shrine.
“My father died when I was a child. But as I became chief priest, and my eyes opened and I realized that my father must have made a pledge to Ogwugwu that one of his sons would serve in her shrine if she solved his problems. I learnt my father needed sons. His first wife had only a son. He went on to marry a second wife, which is my mother. So, it must have been at that point that he came to pray
for children, with a vow that one of the children would come back to serve her.
“Also, all through my life, even before I came to be priest, I strive to be straight forward in all I do. That is probably why Ogwugwu chose me. Because she would have struck me dead if I was radical. Many craved to be chief priest but Ogwugwu rejected, and cancelled their ordinations.
“I am very comfortable and happy being chief priest. I don’t nurse any iota of regret at all, because I’ve gained back all that I’ve lost. I only regret not answering the call sooner. Because when I was younger, I got hints that my father made a vow to Ogwugwu, but I felt I could escape it because of my Christian background. I lived my life and gave money to my elderly uncles to go and do whatever for the deity to leave me alone. Also my family was even trying to know what it would take to bail me out of the call but all to no avail. That’s how Ogwugwu acts. Once you’re called, you must answer no matter who or wherever you are, whether in Lagos or London, you must come to her,”
Even with his delight being chief priest, Okolido was quick to point out that the role is no tea party because one must deny oneself a lot of things, be well comported and careful not to abuse the office and attract the anger of the deity.
“As the chief priest, I must respect women and not sleep around with them. I’m allowed to marry as many wives as I desire and bound to remain faithful to my wife. I must never leave my wife to sleep with other women or another man’s wife. Also I don’t shake hands, or eat and drink with people. I don’t eat fufu or any food made with cassava. I can eat pounded yam,” he said.
Changing the negative narratives
The Christian and Muslim faiths are two religions that overshadow, and often marginalize adherents of traditional religions. Hence not all Nigerians accept that freedom of religion extends to indigenous religious sects as well.
In Nollywood movies, for example, traditional worshippers are often depicted as satanic and diabolical. But Okolido, as the chief priest of a deity is out to keep the old gods, and even change that impression.
“There’s a lot of ignorance surrounding the deity. Many erroneously think that it’s where people, human sacrifices take place. But that’s not true. I want the world to know and understand that Ogwugwu Umuhu Ukpor deity represents justice and fairness.
“It is the only deity that opens everyday to receive peoples’ supplications, unlike most deities that are opened only on special periods or particular market days. Ogwugwu is for justice and truth, and that is why people from different places like Lagos, Jos, Maiduguri, Ijebu Ode and oversea countries come to pray to her. When you come to this shrine you must be prepared to say the truth. Because you would be digging your own grave to stand before the deity and tell a lie.
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