The Itsekiri (also called the, Isekiri, Itsekri or Ishekiri or Itsekhiri) are a peculiar and unique riverine people who were traditionally fishermen and skillful traders living in the Nigerian Niger delta. They have inhabited their homeland, which now constitutes the three Warri Local Government Areas of Delta State, Nigeria, for centuries. The Itsekiri make up an appreciable proportion of the modern towns of Sapele, Warri, Burutu, and Forcados. The Itsekiris traditionally refer to their land as the Kingdom of Warri or ‘Iwere’ as its proper name.
Historically Itsekiri are said to have migrated from Egypt to their present day location in Nigeria. According to Jackson Omasanjuwa Ireyefoju and Florence Ejuogharanmakelesan Ireyefoju in their seminal work “Ife Oracle in Itsekiri Social System of Nigeria,” Itsekiri people came from Egypt after the battle of Actinium in 31 B.C. They arrived and settled in the present Warri Kingdom in about 28 B.C in Gborodo, Ureju and Ode Itsekiri. The leaders of the teams were Iset, Iweret and Ipi. Gborodo is very far from Ode-Itsekiri but they speak the same language without dialectal differences. The people of Gborodo have no quarter in Ode-Itsekiri like other ltsekiri settlements of the era of Olu Atogbuwa, Erejuwa I and Akengbuwu I. The people of Inorin, Omadino and Ureju are pre-Ginuwa, the first Olu in 1480 but the Olu and his people were quickly absorbed into Itsekiri language like the Romans who conquered the Greeks but were civilized by the Greeks.
The people, Iset, Ipi Seikiri and Iweret came with some religions. Most of the gods were of the water. In a book titled “HISTORY OF THE ITSEKIRI” written by a renowned Itsekiri historian, William A. Moore, came more revelations. He wrote, “Prior to the advent of the Benin Prince Iginua, the territory now known as the Kingdom of ITSEKIRI or IWERE, was inhabited by three tribes, namely, Ijaws, Sobos(Urhobos) and the Mahims. The most populous among them were the Sobos. They (Sobos) occupied the hinterland while the Ijaws occupied the coastline and the Mahims squatted on the seashore near the Benin River…. Prince Ginuwa first landed at Amatu where he squatted for about three decades. He moved to Oruselemo where he married an Ijaw woman named Derumo. After several years stay at Oruselemo, a dispute arose between him and the Ijaws of Gulani (Ogulagha) on account of the woman, Derumo who was killed by him…, He therefore moved to Ijala where he later died and Ijijen (Ijeyem), his senior son took his place. Hence Ijala is held to be the Olu’s burial ground by the Itsekiri. Ijijen led the entourage from Ijala to Iwere or Ale-ode-Itsekiri….” The settlement at Ode-Itsekiri, the ancestral homeland of Itsekiris occurred at about 1520AD.
In the 15th century, the early Itsekiris adopted a prince Iginua (Ginuwa) from the Kingdom of Benin as a monarch, and quickly coalesced into a kingdom under his rule. When Prince Ginuwa came to found the Iwere kingdom in 1480, people were around. The IJaw of Isiloko that paddled the canoe which brought the Prince and his entourage from Bini speak the Edo language. Hence they were able to assist them (the Prince and his subjects) with their canoes down to establish the kingdom. Itsekiri language was already predominant before they came, thus they were not able to dominate the Itsekiri linguistically.
Traditionally fishermen and traders, the Itsekiri were among the first in the region to make contact with Portuguese traders. The Itsekiri are a minority ethnic group in Niger-Delta but they were well-respected by the Europeans that met them during the pre-colonial and the colonial era. Dapper in 1668 had described the Itsekiri as being in many ways cleverer than the Bini (Roth H. Ling. Great Benin). Captain Leonard described the lsekiri thus: ‘on the Warri and Benin rivers we find the ltsekiri middle men who are not only the most intelligent and tractable but quite the best mannered of all the tribes in the lower Niger’ (southern Nigeria) (Captain Leonard 1906).
The Itsekiri who have rich traditional and cultural practices are now people of complex mixture of the many different ethnicities and races and speak a language very closely related to the Yoruba language of South Western Nigeria but which has also been significantly influenced by other languages particularly Portuguese, Edo (Benin), English. Although linguistically related to the Yoruba ethnic group, however, through centuries of intermingling modern day Itsekiris are of very mixed ethnic origins (primarily of Yoruba (Ijebu, Ilaje,Ondo and Owo), Edo, Urhobo, Ijo, Anglo-Scottish and Portuguese descent) and are today mainly Christian (Protestant and Roman Catholic) by religion. Thus having had six centuries of direct cultural exposure to Western Christianity and other African influences, contemporary Itsekiri language and culture has successfully evolved into a hybrid of the many cultures that have influenced its development. Similarly owing to the complex genetic mix of most Itsekiris over the centuries, many individuals self-identifying as Itsekiri would usually be a complex mix of any of the aforementioned ethnic and racial groups. Itsekiri, however, remains a Yoruboid language as opposed to other tribes of the Delta hinterland which as Edoid languages.
The Itsekiri presently number over a million people and live mainly in the Warri South, Warri North and Warri South West local government districts of Delta State on the Atlantic Coast of Nigeria. Significant communities of Itsekiris can be found in parts of Edo and Ondo states and in various other Nigerian cities including Lagos, Sapele, Benin City, Port Harcourt and Abuja. Many people of Itsekiri descent also reside in the United Kingdom, the USA and Canada. The Itsekiris traditionally refer to their land as the Kingdom of Warri or ‘Iwerre’ as its proper name – which is geographically contiguous to the area covered by the three Warri local government districts. The area is a key centre of Nigeria’s crude oil and natural gas production and petroleum refining and the main town Warri (a multi-ethnic metropolis) forms the industrial and commercial nucleus of the Delta State region.
Itsekiri system of governance is gerontocracy, but priests are highly revered at every occasion. For instance, Gborodo, Ureju and Okere leadership is paternal, not necessarily by age. They are allowed to preside over every meeting that involves discussion of the deities because their existence is claimed to be controlled by ancestors and spiritual forces, particularly those from the seas.
Itsekiri has the following class: (1) Otonolu (Royals), (2) Omajaja (king-makers), (3) Ibiedo (domestic workers), (4) Egungun (people with shady historical origin), and (5) Ejoji (Strangers). It should be noted that royals are never made priests at any public shrine or masquerades. They are the overlord at every point. A disregard of a royal can result into something that the ancestors do not cherish. It could be mentioned by Ife oracle when the ancestors or shrines are being appeased. An Itsekiri proverb succinctly put it this way:
Eru eka kpa Oton olowa. Or Osan ekaja gba kpa irumu ti owi edon ro.
Translation: A slave does not kill his master’s child. Or a shrine does not kill the grass around it.
This is because everybody is at the mercy of the Olu and the royals. It is only Ife oracle that proves them wrong for anything contrary to the ancestors and shrines, not the masquerades. The only masquerade the royals reverend is Birikimo at Orugbo. It is the Olu that authorizes its celebration. The Olu is above all the shrines and the masquerades in Itsekiri, not the royals in all cases because indiscipline is not a virtue in Itsekiri. Nobody in the Niger-Delta glorifies acts of indiscipline.
Itsekiri believe in Supreme Being and Creator God known as Oritse. Their neighbours The Edo called God Osalobua, Ilaje called him Olorun and Itsekiri say Orise which is closer to Osiris in Egypt than any of the first two. Ra, the god of the sun in Egypt that helps the crops to mature is the wife of Umalokun in Itsekiri, the provider of sea foods. Ife oracle with its 256 literary corpus is a compendium of the cultural practices of the people. It includes the metaphysical and psychic studies of the people, a source of ethics and discipline of the people. It must be sustained to raise the spiritual level of the people.
Itsekiri, Ijaw and Urhobo of the Niger Delta in South South Nigeria share service and obedience to different deities assumed to be responsible for their protection and predicaments. Evil, the measure of goodness is always unacceptable by the deities except a few that need blood before being potent enough to protect the people.
ltsekiri was using Albino (Afen) to appease the god of the sea. Later they changed it to white he-goat. Most of the effective war shrines were appeased every year with blood. Some of such shrines include Benikurodo and Afinayan of Usele, Osunya of Daleoketa, Opuegba of Ebrhimi and Koko, Osankporo of Deghele, Osonikia of Jakpa and Oro of Ureju. In Okere it is Ogungbaja Okere di Ola and Ugbokua of Gbolokposu.
Itsekiri as a people communicate with the spirit world through Ife oracle. The 256 literary corpus of Ife oracle in Itsekiri have distinct esen, names with their oracular languages – Ogbe. They are logical coupled with oratory and poetic expressions. They may sound open ended to the ignorant who does not understand the metaphysical concepts of the Ife oracular languages. Ramakacharaka (1978) said words are images and symbols that constitute evil and good which the spirit of truth discerns to apportion blame on the people according to their contributions.
Ife oracle with its arranged literary corpus is anti-evil among the Itsekiri. This is basically found among these Ogbe: Obara – blood, Igite obara – evil deed
Oghorilogbin ti oda
Oghori mi no Ukuti ofe
Kpa imino ka wi Ugogoro
This implied that the evil that men do lives after them.
They are arranged in cosmic language, and the ability to use the passwords to open the seal is learned. Words like Owun (incantation), Ogbe (Ife language), “Odu” (pass words) must also be studied. These are part of levitation and psychic study. These words raise the Ife oraclist level of clairvoyance to discuss the past deeds and make futuristic conclusions during divination.
Traditionally, Itsekiri men wear a long sleeved shirt called a Kemeje, tie a George wrapper around their waist and wear a cap with a feather stuck to it. The women wear a blouse and also tie a George wrapper around their waist. They wear colourful head gears known as Nes (scarf) or coral beads.
The Itsekiri Traditional Marriage is usually an arrangement between two families as opposed to an arrangement between two individuals; both families arrange the day the bride price or dowry will be paid. On that day the family of the bride prepares for their guests by providing drinks, food, kola-nut, dry gin, native chalk and palm wine. The bride will be dressed in a pair of georges and beads around her head and neck,with her face well made up, while the groom (husband of the bride) will be dressed in georges and a matching long blouse on top of it. He comes on that day with his family to present a bowl of kola-nut, bottles of dry gin, soft drinks and a box of cloths for the bride.Then the father or any other head of that family will present the things they have brought, including 24naira for the bride price. It is then accepted and followed by prayers from both families that the marriage should bring forth good things such as peace, love, long-life, prosperity and children. Then the merriment starts (eating, drinking and dancing).
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