Republished by Theophilus Izobofolo
HISTORY: ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE ESAN PEOPLE OF EDO STATE, NIGERIA
The Esan people (Esan: Ẹ̀bhò Ẹ̀sán) are an ethnic group of south-south Nigeria who speak the Esan language. The Esan are traditionally agriculturalists and hunters. They cultivate palm trees, Irvingia gabonensis (erhonhiele), Cherry (Otien), bell pepper (akoh) coconut, betel nut, kola nut, black pear, avocado pear, yams, cocoyam, cassava, maize, rice, beans, groundnut, bananas, oranges, plantains, sugar cane, tomato, potato, okra, pineapple, paw paw, and various vegetables.
The modern Esan nation is believed to have been organized during the 15th century, when citizens, mostly nobles and princes, left the neighbouring Benin Empire for the northeast. They formed communities and kingdoms called Eguares among the aboriginal peoples whom they met there.
There are on the whole 35 established kingdoms in Esanland, including Ebelle, Ewohimi, Ekpoma, Ubiaja, Uromi, Uzea, Igueben, Ewatto, Irrua, Opoji, Ugboha and Ewu.
The Esan people primarily speak the Esan language, an Edoid language related to Edo, Urhobo, Owan language, Isoko, and Etsako. It is considered a regionally important language in Nigeria, and it is taught in primary schools in addition to being broadcast on radio and television. The Esan language is also recognized in the Census of the United Kingdom.
It is estimated that the Esan people who reside in Esanland number about one million to 2.5 million citizens in Nigeria and there is a strong Esan diaspora. Esan-speaking communities exist in the United States, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Canada, Spain, and Italy. Pan-Esan groups such as the Esan World Congress have kept the Esan community tight-knit.
ORIGIN OF ESAN
The biggest influence on Esanland came from Edo, founders of Benin Empire.
In 1460, Oba Ewuare passed laws of mourning that prohibited sexual intercourse, bathing, drumming, dancing, and cooking. These laws proved too restrictive for many citizens, and these citizens fled the kingdom to Esanland. This exodus shaped Esanland’s modern cultural identity and gave rise to the term “Esan,” or “refugee.” Oral tradition has heavily supported this theory. Prominent Esan and Edo historians have collected stories about this migration.
The term Esan has been applied to the Esan people for thousands of years and was used before contact with Europeans. It is believed by many historians that the name ‘Esan’ (originally, ‘E san fia’) owes its origin to Bini (meaning, ‘they have fled’ or ‘they jumped away’ from an uncomfortable system).
‘Ishan’ is an Anglicized form of ‘Esan’, the result of colonial Britain’s inability to properly pronounce the name of this ethnic group. It is believed that similar corruption has affected such Esan names as ubhẹkhẹ (now ‘obeche’ tree), uloko (now ‘iroko’ tree), Abhuluimẹn (now ‘Aburime’), etc.
During the 16th century, the Uzea War occurred. This war was between the Uromi Kingdom and the Benin Kingdom. The war lasted from 1502 to 1503, and resulted from a refusal of friendship from Oba Ozolua of Benin by Onojie Agba of Uromi. The war ended at the town of Uzea, when both leaders were killed. However, in peaceful times Esan kingdoms would loan soldiers to the Benin Kingdom, such as during the Idah War of 1515-1516, and the sacking of Akure in 1823.
During the nineteenth century, northern Esanland was continually attacked and sacked by the Muslim Nupe people in the hunt for slaves and converts to Islam, having previously taken over the Kukuruku peoples’ lands. Many Esan kingdoms from the south helped in the battle to fend off the Nupes. The battles came into the Esans’ favor; several Nupe and Etsako warriors were brought into Esan cities where their posterity reside today. The nineteenth century brought increasing influence of Europe on Esanland, as the English demanded palm-products.
In 1897, the British sacked the Benin Empire, effectively leaving the Esans free from British rule.
In 1899, the British led an invasion into the Esan kingdoms that lasted for seven years. Esanland proved to be harder to conquer than the Benin Kingdom because of its strong autonomy: Kingdoms chose to keep fighting the British even if its neighbors fell. Fallen Benin chiefs like Ologbosere and Ebohon were still resistant to British rule inadvertently guarded Esan soil from the west, by establishing military camps and blocking roads. This lasted from 1897 to April 22. 1899, where Ologbosere surrendered at the border village of Okemue.
The first kingdom to be attacked by the British was the Kingdom of Ekpon. Ekpon launched a fierce resistance against the British invasion on April 22, which nearly destroyed the kingdom. After the near genocide of Esans at Ekpon, the kingdom of Ekpon led an ambush of the British camp at Okueme, on April 29. This led British forces to retreat, consolidate their power, and kill Ologbosere in May. Subsequent attempts by the British failed as well: conquests into Irrua, for example, led to an adoption of a guerrilla warfare strategy followed by a retreat; this method was so successful that other Esan kingdoms adopted it and the British did not invade Esanland until 1901.
On March 16, 1901, the Kingdom of Uromi, headed by the old, yet intelligent Onojie Okolo, was attacked by the British. The Uromi resistance, led by Prince Okojie, was swift and employed guerrilla warfare.
After a short time, British forces overtook the village Amedeokhian, where Okolo was stationed, and murdered him. This angered Prince Okojie so much that he killed the Captain of the British troops before reinforcements were brought in. The British then realized that Uromi was nigh impenetrable without native help, and contact local sympathizers such as Onokpogua, the Ezomo of Uromi. This succeeded in napping Prince Okojie out of the forest and deported to the British offices at Calabar.
Esan land is bordered to the south by Benin City, to the south-east by Agbor, to the north and east by Etsako, to the west by River Niger. From Ewu to Benin City, the State capital, is 100 km long. No accurate demographic data of the people is available and the various local governments in Esan appear to lack reliable information in this direction. The people populate areas such as Uromi, Ewohimi, Ewatto, Igueben, Irrua, Ubiaja, Ogwa, Ebelle, Ekpon, Ewossa and Amahor, Ekpoma, Ohordua and Ewu in central Edo State, South-South Nigeria. It has a flat landscape, lacking in rocks and mountains, and good for agricultural purpose. The topography of Esanland Ekpon plateau starts its rise from Ekpon and into six miles slope to Ewohimi, creating “Ekpon mini Plateau” . Ekpon is the gateway to Esanland, South East and the first of Esanland Kingdom therein as a border town, where centuries contacts with neighbors south in the Niger Delta, have influenced its Esan dialects by its earlier contacts through subsistence agriculture with the Ika speaking people of Igbanke, Oligie Igbodo etc.
PRESENT DAY LOCAL GOVERNMENT AREAS
Esan West L.G.A., with it’s headquarter in Ekpoma
Esan Central L.G.A., with it’s headquarter in Irrua
Esan North East L.G.A., with it’s headquarter in Uromi
Esan South East L.G.A., with it’s headquarter in Ubiaja
Igueben L.G.A. with it’s headquarter in Igueben.
Rubber trees (used for the production of plastic products) and palm trees rank highest among Esan trees. The land’s variety of fruits range from mango, orange (ate), grapes, pineapples (edinebo), guava, cashew, banana (oghede), plantain, black pear, avocado pear, lime to walnut and even more. Cassava, yam, cocoa yam, sweet potato, pepper, okra and rice are some of its farm produce. It has numerous streams that are too small to afford fishing.
Esan dance is dominated by the Igbabonelimhin, an acrobatic dance performed mostly by young males. Igbabonelimhin involves spinning and somersaulting to a timed beat. This dance was mostly performed at New Year’s. Today, the dance is taken as a unique symbol for Esans everywhere.
Other highly entertaining dances include, Agbenojie, Uleke, Ukinabojie, Asonogun, Abayon, Ojeke, etc.
Among musical instruments, the akpata, an African harp, is common among traditional Esan storytellers who would tell stories known as Ulogho.
RELIGION AND FESTIVALS
Today, Esan People are mainly Christians. Over the centuries, Christianity spread across the Esan community. The New Yam Festivals of the Esan people are celebrated from September to November and are collectively referred to as ‘’Ihuan’’.
Esan people are addicted to pounded yam with ogbono soup and bush-meat. Their native black soup, omoebe is a must! They however appreciate other Nigerian cuisines.
For the men, Ukpesan is the traditional attire. It is mostly worn at weddings and important events.
The Esan people also dress in an ashobi (a headpiece, a blouse and a long skirt) and traditional village garments.
Esan kingdoms did not have standing armies; rather, kingdoms set up emergency programs in which all of the able bodied men in said kingdom would fight. If a kingdom was attacked, the onojie would contact the edionwele to mobilize the forces. The onojie or odionwele would then appoint a commander, or ‘’okakulo’’ to control forces. The ‘’okakulo’’ would usually be a noble, physically strong, of the ‘’Igene’’ age group and a feared medicine man and man of valour. Typical Esan weapons would include the bow and arrow, crossbow, barbed cudgel and machete, in addition to Dane guns used after the fifteenth century. War would be declared if the kingdom was attacked, if a wife was seized, or if a man was killed (if the latter two occurred, the kingdom could choose to make reprisals.)
ESAN TRADITIONAL MARRIAGE RITES AND BRIDE PRICE REQUIREMENTS
Esan people value their children, male or female, this is why unlike some cultures; the bride price is very low. The payment of bride price is vital to the conclusion of marriage notable under Esan native law, which like any other customary law marriage in Nigeria; it is recognized under the Marriage Act.
The impression being that Esan people do not sell their daughters into marriage, the requested amount for bride price is usually meagre; 24 Naira (representing 24 cowries or British pounds used in the pre-colonial and colonial days). A huge sum is usually presented these days, from which the prominent members of the bride’s family would remove a small amount and refund the balance to the groom for his wife, their daughter`s up keeping.
We have two major types of marriages in Esan Land: Monogamy- A marriage between one man to one woman and Polygamy- A marriage between one man to two or more wives.
Traditional marriage is usually an arrangement between two families as opposed to an arrangement between two individuals.
The man usually pays the bride-price and is thus considered the head of the family. Adultery is acceptable for men but forbidden for women.
Marriage ceremonies vary among Esan Clans.
Sometimes parents actually go looking for a wife or husband for their children. This led to the BETROTHAL SYSTEM where marriage was conducted with or without the consent of the individuals involved. Sometimes such betrothal, took place when a baby girl was born. Suitors would begin to approach the parents by sending a log of wood or bundle of yam to the parents of the child. You are likely to hear statements such as -” Imu’ Ikerhan gboto”-I have dropped a log of firewood. When a boy decides to get married and the parents have accepted the bride as a prospective daughter-in-law, messages go up and down between the two families. This is called IVBUOMO-SEEKING FOR A BRIDE.
Series of investigations are conducted by both families – about the disease, scandals and crimes which may affect the families.
The terms of the marriage which of course may include the bride-price, would be settled in some families. Gifts for mother of the bride and IROGHAE- members of the extended family would be part of the settlement. Then a date would be set for the ceremony which would take place in the home of the woman’s family. The OKA EGBE of the woman’s family would normally preside over the ceremony.
Many years ago, the woman would be sent to the bridegroom house about thirteen days after IWANIEN OMO and gingerly hoisted either on her husband’s lap or the OKAEGBE of his family. They are done immediately nowadays in the home of the bridegroom. The bride, now known as OVBIOHA would be led by her relatives to the husband’s house with all her property meanwhile, the family and friends of the bridegroom are feasting, drinking, singing and dancing while waiting for the bride to arrive.
As the family and friends of the bridegroom await the bride (OVBIOHA), messages will arrive suggesting that there are UGHUNGHUN-barriers on the road. The bridegroom has to remove the barriers by sending money to the party, bringing the wife to him or else the wife will not arrive. As they approach the house of the bridegroom, you can hear the echo of OVBIOHA GHA MIEN ARO-ARO, meaning “Bride! Be proud/ the Bride is proud.” Arrival at the bridegroom’s house is immediately followed by the ceremony of IKPOBO-OVBIOHA-washing of the bride’s hands. A bowl of water with money in it would be brought out. A woman in the groom’s family, sometimes his senior wife would bring out a new head tie, wash the hand of the Ovbioha in the bowl and dries her hand with the head tie. Both the new head tie and the money in the bowl belong to the bride.
A few days later, the bride would be taken to the family altar and prayers are said for her. She undergoes what is called the IGBIKHIAVBO ceremony-beating of OKRO on the flat mortar. This would be followed by a visit by the bride’s mother-in-law and other female members of the family to the newlywed if they are not living in the same house. She would demand the bedspread on which they both slept when they had their “first sexual relationship” after the wedding and if the bed-spread was stained with blood, the bride was regarded as a virgin and as such she would be given many presents including money. If it is proven that she was not a virgin, then the preparation for the ceremony of the IVIHEN-OATH TAKING ceremony would be set in motion.
First, she has to confess to the older women, the “other men” in her life before she got married. The husband would never be told any of her confessions, then, she would be summoned to the family shrine early in the morning, without warning to take an oath of FIDELITY, FAITHFULNESS, TRUSTWORTHINESS, HONESTY ETC, to her husband and family. This ceremony is the equivalent of the oath people takes in the church, mosque or marriage registry. Once the oath taking ceremony is over, she would be fully accepted back into the family and immediately becomes married not only to her husband but to the family and sometimes to the community.
Christianity, Islam and Westernization of today have weakened the Edo traditional system of marriage. The traditional ceremony is sometimes done the same day with many of the rituals avoided in the name of Christianity or Islam and many women would rather die than take the oath we described above. It was the oath that kept Edo women out of prostitution for many years; thus making the Edo women, in general, to be regarded as very faithful, trustworthy, honest with strong fidelity to their husbands making neighbouring tribes want them as wives. It also made divorce on the ground of adultery, less common in those days.TES AND BRIDE PRICE REQUIREMENTS
Below is an average bride price list.
Use the below bride price list to draw up your marriage introduction budget, and be prepared by saving up before contacting your future in-laws.
The Holy Bible – 1 (one)
1 suitcase filled with clothes (box of wrappers)
2 bottles of hot drinks (schnapps)
1 crate of malt drinks
1 plate of kolanuts
1 bag of salt
25 liters of palm oil for the bride’s mother
1 jar of palm wine
1 carton of wine for sundry use (the groom should hold this)
3 crates of malt for women of the lineage
6 carton of beer for men of the lineage (broken down into: 2 cartons of small Guinness stout; 2 cartons of Star beer; 2 cartons of Gulder beer)
28 tubers of yam arrange in groups of seven
14 tubers of yam for the eldest man in the lineage
N1,500 cash for the dowry
N5,000 cash for the bride’s mother
N3,000 cash for the bride’s father
N9,000 cash for the men in bride’s lineage
N6,000 cash for the women bride’s lineage
– When a woman is married to an Esan man, it is an abomination for another man to touch her wrapper, else it is considered as though she has committed adultery unless the married woman shouts at the man or reports to her husband.
– It is an abomination for married couples or anyone at that to have s*x in the afternoon as it is believed that a certain spirit would be angered by the act.
– When a woman commits adultery, she will loose her children and her life as repercussion for the abominable act unless she confesses and as restitution, she is stri*ped completely unclad, a part of her head is shaved, a part of her private part is shaved, one of her armpits is shaved and both of her hands are tied behind her, while a basket full of trash is placed on her head. She is then paraded around the community by other women.
– If this is not done and the woman goes ahead to cook for her children, her children will die one after the other including her. If she also confesses to her husband and out of love or pity her husband conceals the confession, he will die within a week, if he eats a meal cooked by the woman.
– It is a taboo for another man to cross an outstretched legs of a married woman else it is considered as though she already had s*x with the man.
– A married woman can not steal her husband’s money in Esan land as it is seen as an abomination. She must tell him about it.
– It is considered an abomination for a man to sit on the matrimonial bed of an Esan couple as it is seen as a taboo.
– It is also an abomination for a woman to spit on her husband under any circumstance. If she does, she must sacrifice a fowl to appease him but the man can bathe his wife with his own spit.
– It is seen as an abomination for an Esan man to use the same bathing bucket with his wife but due to widespread Christianity, this taboo has almost gone into extinction.
– The husband of a woman who just gave birth must stay away from her sexually for three months as she’s considered unclean because of the after delivery blood she discharges.