We continue our Igbo Culture Knowledge Series today by discussing Obu, one of the cultures and traditions bequeathed to Ndigbo by their forefathers. This is the practice of keeping and maintaining an Obu or Obi in a man’s compound. It is the outpost or ‘small hut’ that normally stands in a vantage position in the compound. It could be positioned in the middle of the compound, surrounded by other houses just like the olden days when our fathers married several wives. The surrounding houses or ‘huts’ usually belonged to the many wives of the man.
Obu could also be located in any other convenient place in the compound. What matters is that a befitting building has been erected and called Obu by the man of the house, after all Ndigbo say that ‘Afa onye baalu nkita ya ka oga aza’.
There is no standard or universal form and shape an Obu must take, however it has to be functional. Depending on space availability, Obu could be a one-room structure, large enough to accommodate a gathering of umunna or other visitors, about 20 people at a time or more. It could contain both the open room and an adjoining storage space for drinks, jars of palm wine and other items. Obu could have an adjoining room where certain kinds of guests could spend the night, or where even the owner of the house could overnight sometimes, usually on the days his deliberations with kinsmen and other visiting guests lasts well into the night.
Modern day Obu come with adjoining kitchenette where kola nuts, garden eggs and food could be easily accessed. Some Obu now also have adjoining conveniences and toilettes etc. It is not uncommon these days to find in some places one-storey building Obu.
In the olden days, the owner of the compound, usually the first born male child in a lineage transfers ‘ownership’ of the Obu to his direct first male child, this continues in that order from generation to generation. However, due to changing family dynamics and land-locked nature of several Igbo communities, the practice now differ from community to community, and from family to family.
It is as a result of the intra-migration nature of Ndigbo, that you may hear some people say, ‘Ka’ m pụọ Obi’, meaning that the individual (not being the first male child) migrates or leaves his father’s compound and purchases or inherits another piece of land where he erects his own house and Obu. The new place becomes the person’s ‘Ana Obi’, especially in cases where the land is inherited and not purchased from a third party.
For a titled man in Igboland, Obu is probably the most important building in the compound for that is where he hosts and entertains guests, holds family meetings and relaxes in the evenings and weekends. This is also where he displays his various traditional paraphernalia such as Nze, Ọzọ and Chieftaincy title staff (ngwu agiriga), ikenga, okpesi, arobunagu, red caps and other tradional hats including okpu nkata etc. You will also find skins and skulls of animals hanging on the walls of the Obu to show victorious bush adventures, or other evidence of earthly material conquest. You may also find the man’s ‘oche ndi ichie’, framed pictures of his forefathers, gourds for drinking palm wine, wooden boards used in dismembering and sharing slaughtered animals such as deers, goats and cow etc, shoulder sling bag that he uses to bring home his portions of meat and other items shared at Umunna meetings or other ceremonies. Other cherished items and artefacts will also be on display.
Although the times are now different due to the advent of Christianity, however, in the olden days, and even in some present day Obu, like earlier mentioned, you will also find residues of animal blood and feathers on the Obu owner’s ikenga being evidence of countless pouring of libation, and sacrificing of offerings to the gods or the person’s chi.
Many still observe this ancient tradition and erect Obu in their compounds. Some don’t. However, Ndigbo are encouraged to still consider erecting Obu alongside their magnificent houses in the villages.
There are some who have notably taken this aspect of Igbo culture and tradition to foreign lands and have erected Obu in their compounds in Lagos, Abuja and in some other lands where they sojourn. This is encouraging. Many term such Obu in foreign lands gazebo.
Obu occupies a big place in Igbo culture and tradition and the Obu space, even if small is thus deeply respected. Women don’t have much role in the Obu. It is not a place they are expected to lounge. Obu essentially is a place for men. Perhaps the womenfolk may not like hearing this but that is the way it is, and the way it has always been. We don’t know if that is the way it will continue to be. Women are however expected to attend to the needs of visitors and the man of the house in the Obu providing food, drinks and other necessities.
The importance of Obu in Igboland is seen in certain Igbo expressions for example, ‘Nze ako na Obu’, translated, this means that a titled man will never not be found in an Obu. ‘Obu du ulu’, a firm belief in the fertility, effectiveness and efficacy of an Obu. ‘Obu zo ba onwe ya’ meaning, let the Obu fight for or protect itself, especially in cases where certain individuals have performed sacrilegious acts against the Obu. There is also an underlying assumption that the Obu will always protect from harm all those directly connected with the Obu.
There are certain rites and rituals that must be regularly observed to keep an Obu ‘alive’. It is not a mere building one locks up and not ‘warm up’ occasionally. By ‘warm up’, it means that on a regular basis, there should be activity in the Obu, eating, drinking, feasting and hosting even on a small scale especially during Easter, Christmas, New year, New Yam and other celebrations including local community festivals. This is the reason why Ndigbo say that ‘Ana emedo Obu emedo’, meaning that we must always hold certain functions, perform certain rites and rituals in the Obu. ‘Obu ama nchi’, meaning that we will not hear the last of the Obu, ‘Obu ga adi’, the Obu will ‘live’ forever. Where the owner of an Obu does not dwell in the village, the expectation is that he must always send money across to those ‘on ground’ to feast ndi Umunna during the mentioned feast and ceremonial periods. This will be done in his name and on his behalf and is generally considered acceptable to the ancestors.
For large families where the male children have all migrated and erected their own buildings and Obu, leaving the ancestral Obu for the first born male, this Obu becomes the ‘Nnukwu Obu’, the big Obu where everyone still congregates for important family events and feasts. For example, when the children born by women in the compound return to perform the traditional ‘Igbu ewu nwadiana’, ‘killing of goat’, such rites are observed in the ‘Nnukwu Obu’. Also, though they may have erected their own Obu and migrated, the other male children are also encouraged to find opportunities to return to their ancestral Obu and sponsor some feasts. These help to keep the family stronger. Many recommend this practice and term it as
‘ije gụ ta ọfọ’.
Finally, Obu is a sacred place in the compound of an Igboman. There are great ones (Oke Obu) that have survived many generations and have been used by many paternal heads. It is believed that their spirits are still hovering and protecting the Obu and it’s present inhabitants.
Never ever steal or tamper with family treasures and artefacts deposited in the Obu. Many who have attempted such have been visited with misfortune. After-all, the Obu is capable of looking after itself, ‘Obu di ulu’, and ‘Obu na azo kwa onwe ya’.
Chief Nworah is an Igbo culture aficionado.(firstname.lastname@example.org)