The Urhobos are people of southern Nigeria, near the northwestern Niger delta. The Urhobo is the major ethnic group in Delta State. The Urhobos speak the Urhobo language. The Urhobo culture is related to several cultures in the Niger-Delta. Isoko is closely related in language and culture, leading to the missionaries erroneously labelling the Urhobo and Isoko cultural groups as Sobo. There are those of the opinion that Isoko is a dialect of Urhobo as opined by earlier colonial sources. This name was strongly rejected by both tribes. The Urhobo nation is made up of twenty three sub-groups, including Okpe the largest of all Urhobo sub-groups.
There are about four million Urhobos. The word Urhobo refer to a group of people and not geographical territory. The Urhobos have social and cultural affinity to the Edo speaking people of Nigeria (Northcote Thomas, 1910). The Urhobo now live in a territory bounded by latitudes 6°and 5°, 15° North and Longitudes 5°, 40° and 6°, 25° East in the Delta State of Nigeria. Their neighbours are the Isoko to the South East, the Itsekiri to the West, the Bini to the North, Ijaw to the South and Ukwuani people to the North East. The Urhobo territory consist of evergreen forest with many oil palm trees which provide the lucrative palm produce industry for which the Urhobo have some technological preserve. The territory is covered by a network of streams whose volumes of water and flow are directly concerned with the climatic season; wet season (April–October) and dry season (November–March).
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. However, in 1505, Pereira observed that in the hinterland beyond the Forcados River lived the Subou or Sobo a name that was corrected to Urhobo in 1938. The traditions of origin of the various Urhobo groups do not contain any specific reference to their ancestor other than that ‘we are or we know are Urhobo’.[dubious ]
The history of the Urhobo generally began from an Edo territory supposedly around where the ancient town of Udo and Benin City are currently located. At the end of the Ogiso dynasty, many Urhobo and Edo-groups left Udo in different directions, each at its own pace, in search of more peaceful territories. It was natural that in those compelling circumstances, peace-loving and less powerful Edo-groups had to leave the territory to seek fortunes in less populated but more economically resourceful territories.
The Urhobo left under separate leaders in different directions to found separate governmental organization. When some of these emigrants left Benin, they found in their destinations of Urhobo territory, some Edo-speaking settlers. Each of the 22 socio-political units was called a “clan” by earlier writers, especially by British Colonial Officers in their various intelligence/assessment reports. The word “Urhobo” is used to describe the Urhobo group.
Traditions among the Urhobos are replete with assertions of original dwellers and owners of their territory. These autonomous people were believed to be Urhobo, with no known history of migration from anywhere else. These traditions are without documentary or archaeological evidence. R.E. Bradbury refers to Hubbard’s 1948 suggestion that ‘the distinctive characteristics of the various Urhobo and Isoko tribes are a result of the super imposition of Ijaw, Ibo and later Edo immigration upon on aboriginal strata already speaking Edo-type dialects’.
While allowing for the absorption of immigrants and their language, as well as for the impact of routes and group sojourns on the history of the Urhobo, linguistic evidence provides a strong principle for integrating and validating other traditions of the Urhobo origin (Thomas, 1910), (Thalbot,1926 vol IV:80). The absence of archaeological prehistoric evidence give credibility to the above traditions of Urhobo origin. The structure of Urhobo ideas and language as well as their culture and other institutional forms imply historical links between them and their neighbours, particularly the Edo-speaking peoples, and other socio-linguistic groups in some yet undefined areas in the Sudan/Egypt
The Urhobos are currently organized as political kingdoms, gerontocracy and plutocracies. Gerontocracy is the government by elders based on the age grade-system in the community while plutocracies is government by the rich and wealthy, an evolutionary state but retaining the elements of gerontocracy. Although it is not clear which kingship is older among the kingdoms, these kingship development reached their climax in the 1940s and 1950s.
Urhobo politics and government structure occur at two levels (a) kingdom level (b) town level. Men and women of Urhobo heritage are organized either by elders based on the age-grade system (gerontocracy) and or based on rich and wealthy (plutocracies). An outline of Urhobo indigenous government and politics have the titles: 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. His Councillors are called Otota (Speaker), Ohoveworen or Okakoro, addressed collectively as Ilorogun (singular: Olorogun). Other title holders are the executioners (Ikoikpokpo) and warriors called Ogbu. Although there are other political titles peculiar to the different kingdoms, the judicial aspect of government among the Urhobo places a clear distinction between civil and criminal offences which ensure justice to the parties concerned.
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. This forest belt of western Africa was reached neither by ancient Christian influences, which had a large foothold in North Africa, nor by Islamic forces that came as far south as Hausaland by the eleventh century. While East Africa and even Central Africa were touched by Asian and Arab influences from across the Indian Ocean, as the amalgam of Swahili language bears out, no similar trans-Atlantic influences breached the forest belt until the Portuguese arrival in the late fifteenth century.”
A bulk of the Urhobo people reside in the South Western states of Delta and Bayelsa State in Nigeria also referred to as the Niger Delta. Many live in small and major cities in regions or local government areas in Ughelli, Warri, Ethiope, Okpe and Sapele. Some Urhobo major cities and towns include: Okparabe, Arhavwarien, Warri, Sapele, Abraka, Ughelli, Effurun, Aladja, Ovwian, Orerokpe, Amuekpe, Eku, Oghara, Evwreni, Agbarha-Otor, Agbarho, Okpara Inland, Egini, Kokori, Olomu, Kiagbodo, Isiokoro, Mosogar, Akpobome, Orhokpokpor, Jesse, Ogharaefe, Effurun-Otor, Ewu, Jeremi, Emadadja, Okwagbe, Ovu, Orogun, Owahwa, Otogor, Edjekota-Ogor, Ofone, Otor-Udu, Ekpan, Jeddo, Uwheru, Urhowhorun, etc.
The following are local government areas where Urhobo traditional homes are located in Delta State
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 includes masquerades, fishing, swimming contests, and dancing, are part of the Urhobo heritage. There is an annual, two-day, Ohworu festival in Evwreni, the southern part of the Urhobo area when the Ohworhu water spirit and the Eravwe Oganga are displayed. The king in an Urhobo clan or kingdom is called the Ovie. His wife of the queen is called Ovieya and his children Ọmọ Ovie (child of the king also known as prince and princes). Precently, these names are also given to children without royal heritage. A number of Urhobo cultural divisions, have other titles other than Ovie: the Okpe call their traditional ruler “Orodje” and the Unrobos in Olomu Kingdom, call their King “Ohworode” while the urhobos in Okere-Urhobo call theirs “Orosuen”.
Before marriage in Urhobo culture is said to be properly contracted, prayers must be offered to the ancestors(Erivwin) and God(Oghene). The marriage ritual known as Udi Arhovwaje takes place in the ancestral home of the bride or a patrilineal relation of the bride as agreed by the family.
On an agreed day, the fiance goes with his relatives and friends to the fiancee’s father’s home bringing gifts of drinks, salt, kola nut and sometimes food as requested of him by the bride’s family for the marriage ceremony. Formal approval for marriage is given by the bride’s parents or who ever is representing the bride’s family and traditional rites of pouring the gin brought by the fiance as a libation to the father’s ancestors to bless them with health, children and wealth. It is only after this marriage rite that the husband can claim a refund of money (bride price) if the marriage breaks down. It is believed that the ancestors were a witness to the marriage. It is only the physical body that is sent to her husband in the marriage, her Erhi (spirit double) remains in the family home. This explains why in Urhobo culture, a woman is brought back to be buried in her family home when she dies.
In the ancestral home of the man, the wife is welcomed into the family by the eldest member of the family. Where she is expected to confess all her love affairs during and after her betrothal to her husband (if any) and she can now be absolved from all her wrongdoings. She becomes a full member of her husband’s family after this rites and is assumed to be protected by the supernatural (Erivwin). This rite symbolizes an agreement between the wife and the Erivwin.
If the wife later becomes unfaithful, it is believed that she will be punished by the Erivwin – this is believed to be the reason why married Urhobo women are very faithful to their husbands.
Urhobo Okpo (week) is made up of four days based on regulated market cycles, religious worship, marriages and other community life. The four days of the Urhobo week are Edewo, Ediruo, Eduhre, and Edebi. In Urhobo mythology, Edewo and Eduhre are sacred days to divinities, spirits, and ancestors. Most markets are held on these days. Ancestors are venerated on Edewo. Most traditional religious rituals are held on Eduhre.
Divinities (spirits) are believed to be very active in the farmlands and forests on Edewo and Eduhre. Therefore, farmers in most Urhobo communities rarely go to work on those days so as not to disturb the spirits.
Urhobo months are called Emeravwe and are made up of 28 days. Most of the annual festivals are held during the months of Asa,Eghwre,Orianre and Urhiori. Those are the months of harvest and farming activity is at its lowest, so most farmers are free to partake in festivities. These are also months to honour the gods of the land and spiritual forces that brought a good harvest.
As with most tribes in Nigeria, a certain food is considered to belong to or originate from a particular tribe, for example, pounded yam and egusi soup from the Igbos, Eba; and Ogbono soup (made from Irvingia gabonensis and sometimes referred to as Ogbolo soup by people of Esan or Etsakor descent). For the Urhobos there are two foods considered Urhobo in nature. They are: Ukhodo (a yam and unripe plantain dish prepared with either Beef, Poultry or fish and spiced with lemon grass and potash and “Oghwevwri (emulsified palm oil soup)” (oghwo) and Starch (usi)(the actual name of this staple is not often used). The starch is made from cassava plant. It is heated and stirred into a thick mound with palm oil added to give the starch its unique orange-yellow colour. Oghwevwri is composed of smoked or dried fish, bush meat, unique spices, potash and oil palm juice. Other delicacies of the Urhobo tribe are palm nut oil soup amiedi or banga soup, often eaten with usi (“starch”) and or garri. Banga is made from palm kernel. Other culinary delicacies include Iriboto, Iriberhare, and Okpariku.
The main focus of Urhobo traditional religion are the adoration of “Ọghẹnẹ” (Almighty God) the supreme deity and recognition of Edjo and Erhan (divinities). Some of these divinities could be regarded as personified attributes of “Ọghẹnẹ”. The Urhobo also worship god with Orhen (white chalk). If an Urhobo feels oppressed by someone, he appeals to Ọghẹnẹ, who he believes to be an impartial judge, to adjudicate between him and his opponent. Urhobo divinities can be classified into four main categories, which probably coincide with the historical development of the people. These are Guardian divinities, War divinities, Prosperity divinities and Fertility and Ethical divinities. It should be noted that the fundamental factor and manifestation of all divinities in Urhobo religion is “Ọghẹnẹ”.
Erivwin which is the cult of ancestors and predecessors (Esemo and Iniemo) is another important element in the Urhobo belief system. The dead is believed to be living and are looked upon as active members of the family who watch over the affair of the living members of their family. Urhobos believe in the duality of man, i.e. that man consists of two beings:
It is the Erhi (spirit man) that declares man’s destiny and controls the self-realization of man’s destiny before he incarnate into this world. Erhi also controls the total well being (Ufuoma) of the man. Ọghẹnẹ (God) is like a constitutional Monarch who set his seal on the path of destiny set by a man’s spirit (Erhi).
In the spirit world (Erivwin) man’s destiny is ratified and sealed. In the final journey of the spirit man (Erhi) after transition, the Urhobo believe the physical body (Ugboma) decays while the spirit man (Erhi) is indestructible and goes back to join the ancestors in the spirit realm. The elaborate and symbolic burial rites are meant to prepare the departed Erhi for happy re-union with the ancestors in the spirit world.
However, the influence of western civilization and Christianity is fast becoming an acceptable religion in most Urhobo communities.
Epha divination, similar to the Yoruba Ifá and practiced by many West African ethnic groups, is practised with strings of cowries. Urhobos also practice Christianity, with many belonging to Catholic and new evangelical denominations. There are 1,261 ejo (deities), including the one-handed, one-legged mirror-holding whirlwind-god Aziza.