August 28, 2010

Oshogbo Sacred Forest

This weekend I escaped Lagos and headed north to attend Nigeria’s biggest cultural event, the Osun Festival. The festival draws thousands of pilgrims every August to the Oshogbo Sacred Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site regarded as the heart of the traditional religion of the Yoruba people. In an odd twist, the sacred space was actually developed by a white Austrian woman. The artist Susanne Wenger came to Nigeria in the 1960s, became a born-again Yoruba priestess and filled the forest with all sorts of eerie wooden sculptures that she called refuges for the Yoruba gods that the modern world had abandoned. During the festival, the Yoruba travel to the forest to pay the gods their respects.

I traveled to Oshogbo via a Dodge Caravan that I hitched a ride with at a Lagos transport hub. Each vehicle in the hub puts a sign on its roof advertising its destination, and it only leaves once it’s filled to capacity. I was the first passenger to arrive, which meant I waited for half an hour while literally everything a person might need was peddled to me: hankies, wristwatches, rat poison, pirated copies of Hannah Montana. And the peddling didn’t stop there; whenever the van drove through any city, it was assailed by hordes of street vendors who literally sprinted alongside it. Sometimes the poor salesmen would be midway through an exchange before the van started speeding up again, which meant they had to dash after it to collect payment. I saw a guy who could quite possibly beat Usain Bolt run down the highway, losing a sandal in the process, just to deliver the proper change. Such is the fate of every Nigerian who falls victim to the country’s 50% unemployment rate: grab a box of cupcakes or pirated CDs and go stand in the middle of the highway.

Once in Oshogbo, I met up with two awesome guys, Kola and Taofeek, who a friend had arranged to be my guides for the weekend. I don’t even know how to explain how great they were—they made it their personal mission to keep me safe and see as much as possible and just keep me company, which any lone traveler probably needs more than anything. They also kept me well-fed even though they were fasting all day for Ramadan; Oshogbo is roughly half Christian and half Muslim, but still 100% traditionally Yoruba.

Our first stop was to the king’s palace. We were walking along when Kola and Taofeek suddenly bent down onto the ground; in front of them sat a wizened old man in a throne, eyeing me skeptically. Kola stood up and frantically whispered, “Prostrate yourself! Prostrate yourself!” So I bowed down and pressed my head to the ground before the king. Add that to the “things I never expected to do in my life” list. He was nice enough to let me snap a photo with him after I stood back up.

Inside his palace was a shrine with a priestess ringing a bell and accepting prayers. Pilgrims prostrated themselves before her and paid money for her to cast a handful of nuts on the ground; how the nuts landed predicted the pilgrim’s fortune.

More on the festival in my next post.

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