The following excerpt is taken from “Ogboinba: An Ijo Creation Myth” by Gabriel Okara, from ‘The Origins of Life and Death: African Creation Myths’ Edited by Ulli Beier.
JOURNEY TO THE PRESENCE OF WOYINGI
“There was a once a large field,and in this field stood an enormous Iroko tree with large buttresses. At the sides of the field appeared pairs of men and women, each woman holding a broom and each man a bag. As the women swept the field the men collected the dirt into their bags. And the dirt was manilas [wealth]. Some collected ten or more manillas, others none, and when the field was swept clean they disappeared back into the edges of the field, two by two. The sky darkened, and there descended on the field a large table, a large chair, and an immense ‘Creation Stone’, and on the table was large quantity of earth. Then there was lightning and thunder; and Woyingi descended. She seated herself on the chair and placed her feet on the ‘Creation Stone’. Out of the earth, on the table Woyingi moulded human beings. But they had no life and were neither man nor woman, and Woyingi, embracing them one by one, breathed her breath into them, and they became living beings. But they were still neither men nor women, and so Woyingi asked them one by one to choose to be man or woman, each according to their choice. Next Woyingi asked them, one by one, what manner of life each should like to lead on earth. Some asked for riches, some for children, some for short lives, and all manner of things. And these Woyingi bestowed on them one by one, each according to their wish. Then Woyingi asked them one by one by which manner of death they would return to her. And out of the diseases that afflict the earth they chose each a disease. To all these wishes Woyingi said, ‘So be it’.
Among this group of newly created men and women were two women. One of them asked of Woyingi rich and famous children, and the other asked for powers, mystic powers that would have no equal in the world- and this woman was Ogboinba. Both chose to be born in the same town. Woyingi finally led these created men and women to two streams, streams flowing to the habitation of men. One was muddy and the other clean. Into the muddy stream she led all those who had asked her for riches, children, and all worldly possessions. Into the clear stream led all who had asked of her no material possessions.
And so Ogboinba and the other woman came to be born in the same town and became inseparable friends. They ate and played together, sharing all their secrets and grew up as children of the same parents. But Ogboinba was an extraordinary child. At an early age she could heal and cure and had second-sight. She understood the tongues of birds and beasts, trees, and even of the blades of grass. She prophesied and performed things strange and wonderful, and her name became a by word on every lip.
When Ogboinba and her friend came of age, each took to herself a husband. Soon Ogboinba’s friend had her first child. But Ogboinba had no child and was not expecting one. Her powers, however, continued to increase. Her friend became pregnant the second time and soon delivered the child. Still Ogboinba had no child but her fame went far and wide and she became the most sought after medicine-woman of all time. In spite of this, she was worried. She felt her life bare-She wanted a child. She wanted children and yearned for them. Her friend had more and more children according to what she had asked of Woyingi, and Ogboinba loved them all and took care of them with her mystic powers as if they were her own. But this gave her no satisfaction. She wanted children of her own to care for. Her mystic powers, however, continued to increase just as she had asked of Woyingi. But there was no joy in her heart.
After a time, she could not bear it any longer and secretly resolved on a journey, a journey back to Woyingi to recreate herself. So one day she went into her medicine room, where she also kept her mystics powers, and asked them one by one if they would accompany her on the journey she had resolved to undertake. All of them showed signs of their willingness to accompany her. But out of them all she picked only the most mystic powers and the most powerful medicines and put them into a bag. She then went to her friend and told her she was going on a short journey. When her friend heard this, she was aggrieved, for, since they came to know each other as friends they had not parted, not even for a day. So the prospect of not seeing Ogboinba for a day and more made her very sad. Her children too would then have no protection. But Ogboinba assured her that even though she would be away the children would still be under her protection and that nothing would harm them. With this, Ogboinba took leave of her and started her journey to Woyingi.
Journey through the seven kingdoms
So along a wide road Ogboinba walked with her bag of mystic powers and medicines slung over her shoulder. A wide road that led to a large sea. Between her and the sea was a forest, a mangrove forest where lived Isembi, the king of the forest. As she walked along, day and night without food or rest, she soon heard the noise of the sea, the waves breaking on the shore. With each forward step the noise came nearer. But Ogboinba walked steadily along and soon reached the mangrove forest, the Kingdom of Isembi. As she picked her way through the forest she heard a voice, a voice calling from behind. She turned, and it was Isembi. ‘Are you not the Ogboinba I’ve heard so much about he asked, raising his voice. Ogboinba replied, ‘There is only one Ogboinba in the world, and I am the one.’ If you are,’ Isembi replied,’You’ve not treated me well by not calling on me as the king of this place. We’ve all heard your fame and to find you here like this is an honour. Come with me to my house.’ So Ogboinba went with Isembi to his house and there was well entertained to a sumptuous meal and palm-wine. After the entertainment, Isembi asked Ogboinba where she was bound. Ogboinba said, ‘I’ve not given birth to a child since I was married many years ago. So I’m going to Woyingi to ask her to recreate me.’ ‘Turn back from here,’ said Isembi. ‘ It’s impossible to see Woyingi while you are yet alive. Your journey is in vain, so turn back from here.’ But Ogboinba said her mind was made up and though she was yet alive, see Woyingi she must. And so she left Isembi and his wife to continue her journey to the sea. But she had gone a little way when she turned and came back to Isembi and asked him if he would try her powers with his. Isembi said he would not fight a woman and asked Ogboinba to go her way. Still Ogboinba insisted on the trial of powers, adding that though a woman she was challenging him. This enraged Isembi, and he said; ‘Haven’t you heard of my powers ? I’m Isembi the king of the forest. How dare you, a woman, challenge me ?’ With this he went to his medicine hut. There, all his pots of medicine showed negative signs. But he was not to be daunted by such things where a woman was concerned. So, in spite of the warnings, he went out armed with such medicines and mystic powers that he required, to fight it out with Ogboinba. Outside, he asked Ogboinba to try her powers on him first. But Ogboinba declined. She said that he, Isembi, being the elder of the two, should try her first with all he had. Isembi, being anxious to do away with Ogboinba without further delay, repeated his incantations. Immediately Ogboinba’s bag became empty of her powers. Her mystic powers and the powerful medicines had all gone! She at once repeated her own incantations, circling round and round to counteract Isembi’s powers. As she did so, her mystic powers and medicines returned to the bag, one by one. And then she came to the end of her incantations, they had all returned to the bag and she was once more herself. Then she asked Isembi to try her with more of his powers. But Isembi had nothing more powerful than the powers he had already used on her, and asked her to try him with her powers if she had any. So Ogboinba started to repeat her incantations, circling round and round. As she did so, all powers and medicines of Isembi entered her bag, one by one, and Isembi himself fell down dead. Then she slung her bag over her shoulder and proceeded on her journey. But as she was leaving Isembi’s wife called her to come back and wake her husband for her. This touched Ogboinba’s heart, as she herself had a husband. So Ogboinba went back and, after repeating some of her incantations Isembi woke. Then Isembi’s wife pleaded for the return of her husband’s powers and medicines. But that Ogboinba said she would not do, and left to continue her journey.
Soon, Ogboinba left the mangrove forest behind her and reached the town of Egbe by the seashore. As she passed by someone hailed her from behind. She looked back, and it was Egbe. ‘Is that not the Ogbionba I’ve heard so much about ?’ asked Egbe. Ogboinba said, ‘There is only one Ogboinba in the world, and I am the one.’ Your fame has been here before you,’ continued Egbe. ‘Come to my house. I’m the king of this town and you can’t pass like an unheard-of person through my town. Come, I’ll entertain you.’ Ogboinba went with Egbe to his house and there was well entertained with plenty of food and palm wine. After the meal Egbe asked Ogboinba what the object of her journey was. Ogboinba replied,’ I’ve been married many, many years, but have not had a child. I’ve not for once been pregnant; so I’m on my way to meet Woyingi to recreate myself.’ Egbe was astonished on hearing this and counselled her, ‘Turn back from here. No person who is alive ever sees Woyingi.’ But Ogboinba said that she had made up her mind to, slung the bag of powers over her shoulder and left to continue her journey. But presently she came back to Egbe and asked if he would like to try his powers with hers. Egbe was enraged on hearing this and choked with anger. When he found his voice again he said with contempt: ‘Go your way, you are a woman.’But Ogboinba would not move and insisted on their trial of powers, their mystic powers. Egbe had not been known to have refused a challenge from any living being and this, though from a woman, he would not now overlook since she insisted on it. So he said, ‘Come on, and let’s see who’s more powerful, you, a woman, or Egbe, the king of the town and the sea shore.’ With this he went into his medicine hut and armed himself with the most powerful medicines he had always used in overcoming all those who had come to challenge him. He came out and asked Ogboinba to try him first. But Ogboinba, as usual, refused and asked him to try her first with all he had. Egbe, not wishing to make this a long argument, at once repeated his long incantations. As he did so Ogboinba’s bag became empty of all her powers. All her powers, plus those of Isembi she had acquired, had been scattered away in all directions by Egbe’s mystic powers. On noticing this, she at once repeated her counteracting incantations moving round and round in a circle. As she did so, her own powers plus those of Isembi returned to the bag. When she found all the powers complete in her bag, she stopped her incantations and asked Egbe to try her once more with more of his powers. But Egbe had nothing more powerful than the powers he had already used and asked Ogboinba to try him with her own powers. so Ogboinba started her own incantations and before she had been half-way through, all the powers of Egbe had entered her bag and when she stopped, Egbe fell down dead. With Egbe on the ground she left to continue her journey to the sea with the bag containing her powers plus those of Isembi and now those of Egbe, slung over her shoulder. But Ogboinba had taken only a few steps when she heard Egbe’s wife weeping and calling her to come back and wake her husband for her. Ogboinba taking pity on her went back and after repeating her incantations brought Egbe back to life. Egbe’s wife again pleaded for the return of her husband’s powers. but Ogboinba refused this request and resumed her journey to the sea.
And so Ogboinba came to the brink of a mighty sea. A sea that no living person had ever crossed. A sea with high waves breaking thunderously on the shore, a turbulent roaring sea. it struck terror into the heart of Ogboinba. But cross she must; there was no other way. As she stood regarding the sea it spoke! ‘ I am the mighty Sea that no one ever crosses.’ Then Ogboinba with all the audacity at her command said, ‘I am Ogboinba, the only Ogboinba in the world, and I am on my way to Woyingi. I must cross.’ The Sea replied, ‘I am the mighty Sea that no one ever crosses. I’ll take you into my bowels if you dare.’ Ogboinba was terrified by what she heard. But she wanted a child and the only way to get it lay in her seeing Woyingi. Nothing would stop her. Urged on by this resolve, she made for the sea and as her feet touched it, waves rolled towards her and submerging her feet, began to rise. soon it was up to her ankles and then up to the knees. fear gripped her, Ogboinba could not move herself, she was, she was powerless, hopeless, and just stood there watching herself being swallowed by the sea. It continued to rise and soon the sea was up to her waist. She raised her bag of powers above her head. Still the sea continued to rise and now it had come up to her chest. Still the sea rose until it came to Ogboinba’s chin. Then she cried out in fear; ‘O Sea, are you really the sea that no one crosses ?’ and repeated her incantations. As she did so, the sea immediately started to recede. Soon it had come down to her waist, then to the knees and then to her feet. So it continued to recede until the bed of the sea lay bare exposing the gods and spirits of the sea. Then Ogboinba, with her bag of powers, picked her way across. On the other side, she turned to the dry bed of the sea and commanding it back to its place continued her journey.
The next Kingdom that she came to was that of the Tortoise. Tortoise was the king and lived with his parents Alika and Arita and his wife Opoin. Tortoise saw Ogboinba as she walked along and calling her, wanted to know if she was not Ogboinba he had heard so much about. Ogboinba gave her usual reply. ‘There is only one Ogboinba in the world and I am the one.’ ‘Come, lets go to my house,’ Tortoise said,’ We’ve heard so much about you and we all want to know you. please come.’ So Ogboinba went with Tortoise to his house and there had food and palm wine with the family. After the meal Tortoise always curious, asked Ogboinba; ‘What has brought you over this side of the sea? No human beings live this side; pray, tell me, what has made you come like this? ‘Ogboinba replied, ‘I have had a husband for many years but have not had a child, so I am on my way to see Woyingi and ask her to recreate me.’ ‘Go back from here,’ Tortoise advised, ‘No one who is yet alive ever sees Woyingi.’ ‘But Ogboinba said her mind was set on seeing Woyingi and that she would not turn back. Then Tortoise warned her; ‘Beyond me live the gods Ada and Yasi the great, and the most powerful, who possesses two small “creating stones”. Nobody ever goes that way. So end your journey here. ‘But Ogboinba said nothing would stop her and shouldering her bag, which had now become quite heavy with the powers she had acquired on the way, left to continue her journey. After going a little way she came back to Tortoise and confronted him with her usual request for a trial of powers. Tortoise did not take it seriously and asked her to go on the journey she had set her heart on. But Ogboinba insisted on their contest of powers. Then tortoise began to boast: ‘Haven’t you heard of me? My name has gone round the world for my mystic powers. If you really mean what you say I’m ready for you.’ With this he went into his medicine hut and armed himself with his powerful medicines and mystic powers. When he came out Ogboinba asked him to try her first with his powers. But Tortoise said that could not be, for he was a man and besides he was the Tortoise. Still Ogboinba insisted on his starting the contest and so Tortoise began his incantations. As he repeated them Ogboinba’s bag dropped from her hand to the ground and all the powers were dispersed to all the corners of the world. Ogboinba at once repeated her own incantations to counteract the powers of Tortoise. First the bag returned, followed by the powers, one by one. When the powers had all returned Ogboinba asked Tortoise to try with more of his powers. But Tortoise had no more and asked her to do her worst if she could. So Ogboinba began her own incantations and before she had gone half way, Tortoise had fallen down dead and all his powers had entered Ogboinba’s bag. With Tortoise lying on the ground Ogboinba shouldered her bag and made to continue her journey. But before she could take a step she was stopped by the weeping voice of Opoin the wife of Tortoise. Opoin begged her to wake Tortoise, her husband, for her. Ogboinba took pity on her and waking Tortoise with her mystic powers resumed her journey.
On and on she walked day and night, with her bag of powers over her shoulder. Soon she reached the kingdom of the god Ada. Ada, on seeing her, asked her if she was not the Ogboinba he had heard so much about. Ogboinba gave her usual reply; ‘There is only one Ogboinba in the world and I am the one.’ Ada said he would not allow her to pass on like that without entertaining her, she being such a famous person. So Ogboinba, as usual, went with Ada to his house and there was well entertained to a meal of yam, plantain and all other choice dishes that befitted a god and king to entertain a famous person. After the meal Ada asked Ogboinba: ‘What has brought you here where only the gods dwell? This place is virgin to the feet of human beings. No human being has been here before you: tell me, why have you come? On Ogboinba’s giving the reason for her journey, Ada said: ‘Turn from here for no one ever sees Woyingi, not even me.’ But Ogboinba would not turn, for her heart had been hardened by desire, desire for a child. So she told Ada she would not now turn and would continue her journey to Woyingi wherever she might be. With that Ogboinba shouldered her bag of powers and left to continue her journey. But she came back presently to Ada and asked him if he would try his powers with her own. Ada was surprised-a human being to seek contest of powers with a god! All he said was to ask Ogboinba if she really meant what he had heard her say. Ogboinba replied by repeating her request. Ada went into his medicine hut. But there, the contents of all his medicine pots had turned to blood! No, he said I won’t heed this; she is but a human being. So heedless of the warning his medicines gave him, he came out and asked Ogboinba to try him with her powers. But Ogboinba refused and asked him instead to try her first. Ada, moved with anger, at once directed his powers on Ogboinba. Ogboinba fell down apparently dead. But she regained her consciousness after a while and began her own incantations. As she did so all the powers of Ada left him and entered her bag, and in the end Ada fell down dead. Once more victorious, Ogboinba shouldered her bag of powers and continued her journey.
On and on she walked, a lone figure on a wide road until she reached the kingdom of Yasi, the great and powerful god. Yasi had seen her and had watched her progress a long way away even before she came within range of human vision. So as she wandered along on his territory Yasi asked her if she was not the Ogboinba he had heard so much about. Ogboinba gave her customary reply ‘There is only one Ogboinba in the world and I am the one.’ Yasi said; ‘I am the king of this place; come and I’ll give you food and drink.’ So Ogboinba went with Yasi to his house and there again was well entertained to a meal of rare dishes and palm wine befitting for a king to entertain a famous guest. After the meal, Yasi asked Ogboinba why she had come on her journey. Ogboinba told him; ‘ I’m a woman you see, and have been married many years, but I am without a child, I’ve not even for once been pregnant. I am barren so I am on my way to see Woyingi, and asked her to recreate me.’ Then Yasi said, ‘No living person ever sees Woyingi so turn from here.’ But Ogboinba would not listen and said she would continue her journey. With that she shouldered her bag of powers and set forth. But she came back presently and made her usual request for a contest of powers. Yasi could not believe what he had heard and asked Ogboinba to repeat what she had said. Ogboinba repeated her request. Yasi then replied in anger: ‘I am the greatest and the most power of all gods. How dare you, a human being, a woman, throw a challenge at me for a contest of powers. Go your way, you’re no match for me.’ But Ogboinba insisted on the contest. So Yasi in fury went to his medicine hut. But there the contents of his medicine pots had turned to blood! ‘This can’t be,’ he whispered in surprise, ‘she’s but a human being. She shall have the contest she wants,’ and taking the two small ‘creating stones’ came out and asked Ogboinba to begin. But Ogboinba as was her wont, refused and asked Yasi to begin. Yasi at once directed the force of his powers on her. Ogboinba’s head was immediately severed and went up into the sky while her body remained standing, holding the bag of powers. Soon the head came down from the sky and rejoined the body and Ogboinba was once more whole and live. Ogboinba then asked Yasi to try her with more of his powers; but Yasi having none more powerful than the ones he had already used asked Ogboinba to try him with her powers. So Ogboinba started to repeat her own incantations, moving round and round in a circle. The force of her powers also severed the head of Yasi from the body and it went up high into the sky. But his body remained standing on the creating stones’ and Ogboinba noticing this, pushed it down on the ground. When Yasi’s head came down from the sky there was no body for it to rejoin and it smashed itself on the ground. So Yasi the god was overcome and Ogboinba was once more victorious. But she would not move on without the ‘creating stones’ and made for them. She tried to lift them but found that they could not be moved, small as they were. For a moment Ogboinba was at a loss what next to do. Then she repeated some of her incantations and immediately she was able to move them and lifted them on to her shoulder. She then moved on, bent double, with the weight of the ‘creating stones’ and the bag of powers to the kingdom of Cock.
Cock on spying Ogboinba from the roof of his house flew down and asked if she was not the Ogboinba everybody, even the gods had heard so much about. On Ogboinba giving her usual reply Cock said, ‘If you are the Ogboinba I’ve heard about come into my house and I’ll give you food and palm wine befitting me as king to entertain you.’ So Ogboinba never refusing, went to Cock’s house and there was well entertained to a meal of choice dishes and palm wine. After the meal Cock asked Ogboinba the reason for her journey and she said: ‘I’ve been married many, many years but I am without a child. I posses all the parts of a woman but I am barren. I am barren and so I’m on my way to see Woyingi face to face and ask her to recreate me.’ ‘Journey no further,’ said Cock, ‘No one ever sees Woyingi alive. Mine is the last kingdom. Beyond me is the void; so turn back from here,’ Cock advised. But Ogboinba said she would journey on, and shouldering her bag of powers and the ‘creating stones’ took to the road. Presently she came back and asked Cock for a trial of powers. But Cock liked nothing better than a show of powers and at once began to boast: ‘My face has gone round the world for my powers. I am the ruler of the first and the last kingdom of things that die. Come, and I’ll show you my powers; nothing pleases me more.’ So boasting, Cock flew to the roof of his medicine hut and crew several times, summoning his powers. Then flying back, he stood in front of Ogboinba and asked her to begin. But as was usual with her she refused and asked Cock to begin. Cock, not wishing to prolong matters, began with all he had at once. Immediately Ogboinba became bare of all powers and Cock, noticing this, began boasting once more. ‘Mine’s the first and the last kingdom of things that die. How can you stand my powers?’ As he boasted thus, Ogboinba repeated her own incantations and got all her powers back. She asked Cock to try her with more of his powers. But Cock said he had used all the powers he had and if Ogboinba had any powers to match his, it was now her turn to use them on him. As Ogboinba repeated her incantations, Cock’s town suddenly burst into flames and burned down to ashes.
Thus with more powers in her bag, Ogboinba journeyed beyond Cock’s town and kingdom, the last kingdom of things that die, to the large field [ie the eternal infinite realm]. The field with the large Iroko tree with the large buttresses. There she hid herself in the buttresses of the tree and watched.
In the presence of Woyingi.
Soon men and women appeared in pairs from the side of the field. The women carried brooms and the men, bags. As the women swept the men collected the dirt into their bags. When the field had been swept clean they disappeared back into the sides of the field, pair by pair. As she waited she saw the sky darken and a table descend on the field followed by a chair and a large ‘Creating Stone’. then there was lightning and thunder. Woyingi came down and sat on the chair and placed her feet on the ‘Creating Stone’. Then on the table descended a quantity of earth and with it Woyingi went through her usual process of creation and led the men and women to the two streams, the streams that flowed to the habitation of men. Then Woyingi returned to the field and ordered up the table, the chair and then the ‘Creating Stone’. These things went up one by one into the sky. When Woyingi was about to ascend, Ogboinba rushed out from her hiding place and challenged her to a contest of powers.
Then Woyingi said; ‘I know you were hiding in the buttresses of the Iroko tree. I saw you leave your town on your journey to find me. I saw you overcome all living things and gods on the way with the powers that I gave you which were your heart’s desire. Now It is children you want, and for that you have come to see me and challenge me to a contest of powers. You have come to challenge me, the source of your powers, strong-hearted Ogboinba. I now command all powers you acquired on the way back to their owners.’Immediately Woyingi made this pronouncement, Isembi, Egbe, the Sea, Tortoise, the gods Ada and Yasi, and Cock, all had their powers back. And Ogboinba overcome by fear, turned from the face of Woyingi and fled in panic to hide in the eyes of a pregnant woman she met on the way.
On seeing this Woyingi left Ogboinba alone, for a commandment she had given to men was that pregnant women should never be killed- and she would not now violate it because of Ogboinba. So Ogboinba remained in hiding and is still hiding not only in the eyes of pregnant women but in the eyes of men and children as well. So the person that looks out at you when you look into somebody’s eyes is Ogboinba…”.
According to Nigerian scholar of the Niger Delta E. J. Alagoa in his essay God is Mother: A Historical Review of Women in the Development of Niger Delta Communities:
Gabriel Okara’s story, “Ogboinba: the Ijaw Creation Myth”, is the ultimate statement of the supremacy of the female in Ijo religious thought, and specifically, the centrality of motherhood. Ogboinba sought Woyengi, mystic powers in place of children at creation, only to discover that she could not be happy without children. In the adventures that followed her journey back to Woyengi to see a life of female satisfaction, she overcame all male opposition on the way.