A few months ago, my father took the body of his elder brother back to the village of Arogbo in Ondo State, Nigeria to be buried. When my father dies, he too will return to Arogbo to be laid to rest. I wonder if my father hopes that I also would wish to be buried there. My father tells me that the people of Arogbo are my people.
A few years ago, when my father tried to convince me to visit him in Nigeria, the people of Arogbo built me a hut and a canoe in expectation of my return. The idea was that I would be returning to Arogbo because this was the place I always belonged, even if I had never been there before in my life. I can’t use a canoe to save my life. Here in Canada, canoeing is actually a very popular pastime. But as a child I was too poor to go to camp and learn to canoe. The canoe was an invention of the indigenous peoples of this land. Canoes were used by early European explorers in order to navigate the vast territory that is now called Canada, a word that means village in Iroquois. Canada became the property of kings and queens thousands of nautical miles away who would never stoop to sit in a canoe. The Ijaws have a reputation for being experts at navigating the creeks and rivers of the Niger Delta with their canoes.
My father’s people have a close relationship with this landscape. The pollution caused by oil drilling in the region has destroyed the livilihood of many of my father’s people, as well as sending toxins into the drinking water which have resulted in an increase in cases of cancer and other maladies.
It was only when I found my father that I learned of the Ijaws. I’ve spent the majority of my life not knowing that such an ethnic group even existed. So what can my relationship to them possibly be? When I learned that my father was an Ijaw I immediately tried to get my hands on anything written about them. I was lucky to find Alagoa’s “A History of the Niger Delta” which really should be called the history of the Ijaw because it gives detailed chronologies of each Ijaw sub-group in the Niger Delta region.
It was from this book that I learned that the Ijaw were broken down into sub-groups. I asked my father which sub-group he belonged to and he said we were Arogbo. Of course, “we” were Arogbo, not just him. Arogbo roughly translated means canoe-maker’s camp in Ijaw (aru-canoe, obgo-forest). The Arogbo are further divided into three groups. My father belongs to the group Erubiri, from which the Agadagba, the king of the Arogbo, is chosen.
The following passages are taken from “A History of the Niger Delta: An Historical Interpretation of Ijo Oral Tradition” by Ebiegberi Joe Alagoa, Onyoma Research Publications 2005.
Arogbo lies in the middle of trade routes traversing this part of the Niger Delta. Accordingly, it is the only Ijo sub-group for which direct references can be found or inferred in the European records. It also had contacts with the Ijebu (Yoruba) traders in the delta to the west and with Itsekiri on the Benin River to the east. This history of varied contacts is shown now in the bilingualism of the Arogbo (in Ijo and Yoruba). They have retained their Ijo dialect and cultures intact because of their delta location south of the Apoi (another Ijo sub-group), and because of their Egbema Ijo neighbours to the south-east. In addition, Arogbo traditions are in the mainstream of Ijo traditions of origin and migration from the Central to the Western delta.p. 32
Perebienmo who led the Arogbo out of the Central Delta is said to have been the son of a previous pere (The religious head of an Ijo sub-group serving its national god as High Priest) Ogbonu, but his authority was largely based on the fact that he was priest of the gods Egbesu (The Ijo God of War and Retribution)… The connection with Egbesu is specially preserved in the coronation of the Agadagba of Arogbo. The ceremonies are rounded off at the shrine of Egbesu. He is told that he derives his power from Egbesu and must serve Egbesu. And finally, that he must pray daily at the shrine for the welfare of all three quarters of Arogbo-Aguobiri, Egbesubiri, and Erubiri. p. 33
The sense of unity and continuity is again evident in the position of Agadagba of Egbesu, the priest/king of the Arogbo. In the coronation, it is the head of Egbesubiri who shows the pere elect from Erubiri to the people, and it is the head of Aguobiri who marks him with the chalk of office. The traditional regalia too show little influence from outside: a staff of multiple iron bells, and armband made of leopard’s teeth (the animal sacred to Egbesu) and coral beads, an eagle feather, and a crown made of beads. Arogbo traditions claim a trading area extending westwards to Lagos and eastwards to the Itsekiri country. Slaves were mentioned as a prime article of sale, and piracy is implied as a means of procuring slaves. These claims seem supported by early nineteenth-century accounts of trade in this portion of the Niger Delta. The Ijebu slave, Osifekunde, had been captured by Ijo pirates, who could have been Arogbo, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Osifekunde had been following Ijebu trade routes in the delta covering the same area claimed by the Arogbo…p. 34
A second early nineteen-century source identifies Arogbo even more specifically. One of Koelle’s slave informants at Freetown (Sierra Leone) on African languages was Okoro who supplied a word list of Edso (clearly Ijo). This Ijo dialect has been identified as Arogbo; and Okoro belonged to the Egbesubiri ward of Arogbo. He had known Ijebu and had been sold into slavery at the Itsekiri port of Bobi on the Benin River. (FGH: He had been convicted of adultery and sold by his fellow Ijaw). The goods listed by the Arogbo as traded by their ancestors are similar to lists in early European accounts of the Benin River. They included slaves, carvings, ivory and birds such as parrots……p. 35
There are still in Arogbo several relics of the trans-Atlantic trade, including old cannon, and collections of porcelain and china ornaments. And when in 1885, the British came to erect posts of sanctuary for slaves in this part of the delta, Arogbo was one of the places chosen. The Arogbo date the planting of this okpo, or freedom pole, in the reign of Aga (circa 1885). p.36
How am I supposed to react to that? What responsibility do I carry for this? What degree of guilt should I feel?
You might say that I’m making too much of a big deal out of this. So, my ancestors sold slaves. Also, my ancestors were enslaved too by rival African ethnic groups. There is evidence of Ijaws in places like Cuba and Guyana. My ancestors didn’t really benefit from the trade. Just look at the sorry state of the Ijaw today! Africa is so incredibly underdeveloped. White people made all the real profits. This is true but I do have one privilege that the descendants of the Africans my ancestors sold don’t have: I know my origins.
African Americans are paying thousands of dollars to have their maternal DNA tested in the hopes of tracing just where their ancestors might have originated from in Africa. One of the most serious traumas caused by the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was the breaking of kinship ties. People no longer know their origins. Even if I don’t know what it means to me to be Ijaw, I know that I am part Ijaw. My father is from Arogbo and he is of the Erubiri. Whether I want to or not, I can choose to go home again and be buried in the soil with the bones of my ancestors.