Tribal Series: The Urhobo Tribe

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A traditional Urhobo Wedding. Photo Credit: sugarweddings.com

Migwo, “I am on my knees/I am kneeling”- a respectful hello from the Urhobo youth to a Urhobo elder.

The Federal Republic of Nigeria, commonly referred to as Nigeria, is a federal constitutional republic in West Africa, bordering Benin to the west, Chad and Cameroon to the east, and Niger to the north. Its coast in the south lies on the Gulf of Guinea in the Atlantic Ocean. It comprises 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory, where the capital, Abuja is located. Nigeria is officially a democratic secular country.

Predominantly the most talked about tribes in Nigeria are the Fulani, Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba tribes. However, Nigeria has more than 500 ethnic groups, with varying languages and customs, creating a country of rich ethnic diversity.

In this tribal series Nigerian Reporter will cover the lesser known but equally important and different ethnic groups that make up the beautiful mosaic in which we call Nigeria.

The Urhobo

The Urhobo people have birthed some notable talent in the field of health, science, and sports.

According  to a Urhobo report,  “a bulk of the Urhobo people reside in Delta Central State exclusively”. However, they are also present in the Delta south and west as well as Bayelsa State in Nigeria also referred to as the Niger Delta.

The tribe shares a cultural heritage with the Edo and Isoko people of the same region, they are also connected to other socio-linguistic groups in some yet undefined areas in Sudan, Egypt, Senegal and Angola.

There are an estimated 1 to 2 million Urhobos.

Prominent members of the once powerful Benin Empire the Urhobos were a vital part of “the unwieldy but fluid empire which was made up of a loose conglomeration of various people” as described by Dr. Phillip Igbafe.

It remains amazing that certain areas of cultural influence within the old Benin empire remain so strong until present day as various ethnic nationalities still talk about them with nostalgic pride:this is the symbolism of that which constitutes the Urhobo tribe.

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Photo Credit: Urhobo Center for Language and Culture

The Urhobos belong to the group of people whose written history was largely undocumented. There is almost an absence of European records on the Urhobo as early European arrivals were preoccupied with economic interests on the coastal communities. The traditions of origin of the various Urhobo groups do not contain any specific reference to their ancestor other than that “we are Urhobo”.

Urhobo politics and government structure occur at two levels:

  • kingdom level
  • town level

Urhobo heritage is based on an age-grade gerontological system and a rich and wealthy plutocratic system.

An outline of the indigenous government and politics have the titles, the Ovie (king) which is the highest political figure in the kingdom. He is the symbol of his kingdoms’ culture and also of his royal predecessors. Oloroguns (Chiefs) and Ohovwores (Female Chiefs).

Professor Peter Palmer Ekeh, Founder of Urhobo Historical Society, later wrote in his book: Studies in Urhobo Culture, that “Urhobo is physically embedded in the Atlantic forest belt that stretches from Senegal in West Africa to Angola in central Africa. Historically, this region was the most pristine in all of Africa. Until the Portuguese burst into its territories in the late fifteenth century, its forest peoples cultivated their own forms of civilization, untouched by outside influences”.

An Urhobo Festival Assemblage depicting the Eravwe Oganga or Huge Beast. Photo Credit: Perkins Foss and Susan Moore September 1972

The Urhobos live very close to and sometimes on the surface of the Niger River. Thus most of their histories, mythologies, and philosophies are water-related. Annual fishing festivals that include masquerades, fishing, swimming contests, and dancing, are part of their heritage.

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Banga Soup with Starch. Photo Credit: africanbites.com

Several foods are considered to be Urhobo in nature, which include ukhodo a yam and unripe plantain dish prepared with either beef, poultry, or fish and spiced with lemon grass and oghwevwri an emulsified palm oil soup. Oghwevwri is composed of smoked or dried fish, unique spices, potash and oil palm juice. Other delicacies from the tribe are palm nut oil soup called amiedi or banga soup often eaten with a starch like garri.

The Urhobo people usually greet by saying Mee-gwooo /mi:gwɔ:/ which means “I am kneeling” and the response is Vreen-Do /vrɜ:dÖ/ which means “Stand up. Thank you.” Whereas Mavor? /ma:vɔ:/ means “How far?”.