Wearing pristine white gowns and cowry shells, red feathers in their hair, a group of Nigerian priestesses sang as they slaughtered chickens for the river goddess, asking for good fortune in these turbulent times.
Thousands of Nigerians came out to Osogbo, a three-hour drive from Lagos, on Friday to celebrate the river goddess Osun and put their hardships behind them as people turn to traditional gods for hope in the face of a likely recession and with no end in sight to the country’s economic woes.
“I thank God we still have Osun,” priestess Oyelola Elebuibon told AFP during the procession from the king’s palace to a sacred forest grove studded with moss-coated concrete sculptures of Yoruba dieties.
The annual festival sees an “arugba” — or virgin — carrying a sacred gourd through the streets and down to the water to give a sacrifice to the river goddess. Around her, dizzyingly fast drummers beat the crowd into a frenzy, while the royal entourage follows in the air-conditioned comfort of high-end SUVs.
“Water always cools,” said Elebuibon, explaining that praying to the “orishas” — or deities — solves problems in a way that Christianity or Islam cannot.
Perhaps Nigeria is in particular need of some soothing. The country is smarting from a plunge in oil prices that has sapped its government revenues and helped stoke inflation to 16.5 percent in June.
The economic crisis has been a long time coming. Endemic inequity in the country’s oil-producing region has stoked discontent that has erupted with a new wave of militants attacking oil infrastructure.
Other industries are strangled by the lack of electricity, a result of poor infrastructure development during the boom times.
In Lagos, the country’s commercial hub, elites can cocoon themselves in luxury by powering their apartments with gas-guzzling generators and shopping at grocery stores with imported food.
That’s not the case in Osogbo, where the streets are dark at night and potholes pock the roads.
As the ceremonial procession walked from the palace to the sacred forest grove, gangs of young unemployed men prowled the streets and got into fistfights, scaring women and children away from the festivities.
– ‘Miracle water’ –
Nigeria is about evenly split between a Muslim north and a Christian south, but many people still practise traditional religion which features a pantheon of animist gods worshipped at shrines.
This week, Osun State — the home of the festival — declared Monday, August 22, a public holiday for traditional worshippers.
It’s a move welcomed by tourists who came to Osogbo for the festival which is held in one of Yorubaland’s last remaining sacred groves.
“All my problems this year will go away,” said Tope Lagluko, a 40-year-old businessman selling moringa seed in the sacred grove by the river.
Lagluko said the water is a cure-all that could be added to a bath to “solve any problem”, and he insists on visitors taking some home.
“I’ve seen the miracles,” he said.
Yet even the promise of holy water couldn’t change the fact that this year, there just wasn’t as much money to spend on travel.
Despite sponsorships from a major mobile network and Seaman’s Schnapps — “the original number one prayer drink”, according to a banner — turnout was low, a staff member at the king’s palace said.
Still, for the devoted, the river goddess is worth the trek.
“I love this place, it brings people together,” said Fumi Nife, a 28-year-old woman wearing a white gown standing by the water.
“See you next year.”