Saturday, April 30, 2005

Meeting Oshun

One commenter in my blog gives herself the nick “Oshun”. I ask her if she knows that it’s the name of a Yoruba goddess. She does. I tell her that once I visited the shrine of Oshun in Nigeria. She wants the story.

So here it is.

I was working as a volunteer teacher in a government girl’s school in Plateau State in the north of Nigeria in the early ‘80’s. Every opportunity I got, I travelled as far as my limited budget would take me, taking cheap local transport and often putting up at the houses of other VSO’s teaching in other parts of the country.

One trip took me to a very special town, Oshogbo, a town of great religious significance to the Yoruba people in the south of the country (towards Lagos) and two days travel away by public transport. I broke my journey in Ilorin to meet up with my friend Denise who wanted to come with me. (Denise was so beautiful that men flocked round her like bees round a honey-pot, but hey, that's another story.)

We’d read a little about Oshogbo and wanted to visit the sacred groves and the shrine of the orisha (goddess) Oshun. First though, it was necessary to visit the house of Suzanne Wenger. Wenger was an Austrian artist who came to Nigeria in the 1950's. She married into the polygamous household of an illiterate Yoruba drummer and became one of the priestesses for the Oshun cult of the Yoruba people. The sacred shrines of the Yoruba gods had fallen into decay as increasing numbers of the Yoruba became Christians and Moslems, and as missionary education and modern technology changed the mindset of the people. Wenger (called Adunni or Adored One by the locals) set about the task of rebuilding the traditional shrines, and trained local crafts people to help her. She encouraged them to produce work which was of the highest artistic standards, yet African rather than pseudo-European.

Wenger's influence spread, until the town which had never heard the word "art" before, became the most important centre for artisitic creation in the country.

Dancing carvings of Yoruba deities adorned the front of Wenger's dark house. Denise and I were a little scared to enter. The artist herself came down from her studio to meet us, a thin elderly woman with cropped grey hair and a thick Austrian accent who did not exactly make us feel at ease. She showed us some of the work in her shop (batiks, carvings) by local artists.

Then Denise and I decided to walk to the shrines following Wenger's directions, but soon got lost, and unable to speak Yoruba, we were at a loss as to what to do next. Suddenly there was an elegant young woman at our side.

Are you artists? she asked.

We told her that we were volunteer teachers. If she was a little disappointed, she didn't show it, but introduced herself as Nike Olanayi and offered to give us a lift to the shrines herself. She left us in the company of an old man who served as guide and offered to come back for us in a couple of hours so that she could accompany us to the most sacred shrine of all - that of the orisha Oshun herself.

Our guide spoke no English, but it didn't matter as he led us from one amazing sculpture to the next. The Sacred grove was part modern art gallery, part open air cathedral and Wenger's sculptures were amazing! Scattered within an area of pristine rainforest, surreal elongated figures of gods danced, and stretched their arms to the sky, twisting in and out of the trees, growing organically from the ground. The god of creativity Obatala, sprang from the head of the elephant who dreamed him. (Now that's inspiration! Let no creature be so humble as to think that they cannor conjure a god.) A ‘market’ place was inhabited by all manner of fantastic creatures. We wandered by the side of the sacred river coming across even more figures of spirits hidden in the grass.

Nike clearly made a habit of picking up all the waifs and strays who arrived in Oshogbo and shepherding them to the shrines. She came back for us a while later with two Canadian volunteers and an African-American man in tow, and we all followed her down a tree-lined path to the part of the river where Oshun's shrine was situated. The priestess (small and plump was dressed in a bright checkered sundress) was sitting among the rocks on mats. She wore a beadwork necklace (made by Nike) with the emblem of a fish which represented the goddess.

She wanted money.

Nike explained to her that we wanted to see the shrine but could not afford to pay since we were volunteer teachers and earned very little.

The priestess spat on the ground. Whites without money? All of us carrying cameras too.

Reluctantly she relented and led us to the shrine which was housed in a building of Wenger’s design.

There was an effigy of the goddess painted red. Offerings of kola nuts and other types of food were laid before it and there was a space to kneel and say prayers. Oshun is the most beautiful one, the flirtacious owner of the river, wearer of beautiful clothes and jewellery, the sensual one, the bringer of children to the wombs of the barren, the seductive dancer who lured out Ogun the creator when he had withdrawn from the world. Nike told us that the goddess brought fertility for many women. One woman was in her fifties, she said, and had conceived and gave birth to a healthy child after sacrifices to the goddess.

(Image of Oshun by the sacred river).

The American guy was the most moved by the proximity of the goddess. His was a pilgrimage of love, the journey of a life-time, back to Africa to discover his roots. He was almost weeping as he pleaded with the priestess to let him buy some cassette recordings of sacred chants for Oshun. The priestess was one tough cookie, not given to sentiment. What did it matter to her if he'd come thousands of miles in search of his identity? He was American and therefore had money. The price she asked was astronomical. (Equivalent to a good portion of my teacher's salary). Yet he was prepared to pay it only too willingly.

(Next installment - Who is Nike?).