Rocking the Boat of Zarachi
The Irigwes, found in the central vicinity, are among elements that make up the tribal matrix of Nigeria. Before the coming of Europeans, Zarachi, held at the start of every rainy season, was to an Irigwe man what Christmas is to a Christian. It is about fetching the seeds, praying over them and asking a supreme being for mountains of harvests at the end of the season. Since the coming of the white man and his ways, however, the reverence of the festival has little by little given way, like wine into which water is continuously additional without adding anything else.
Zarachi has two idols: the nne-ruwu (the man who performs the ritual) and the nne-rigbe (the man who blows the horn). Of these characters the nne-ruwu is most awesome.
A river, towards the northern rim of Irigwe land, runs from east to west. It is called River Ruhwyevo. On Zarachi day the nne-ruwu must cross the river to the settlement of Rotsu where the shrine is located. It’s a rule that, on that day, no one crosses the river before him. The path of his journey from Nuhye House -one of the dozen houses that make up Irigwe tribe- to Rotsu shouldn’t be crossed until he has walked passed it. We were often told that should one violate any of these rules something dire would happen to him. “Something dire” could be giving birth to disabled children, or children who don’t live beyond their beginning, or outright death for he that violates the rule.
I went to Rotsu for this year’s (2016) Zarachi. I wanted to be there to welcome the nne-ruwu when he arrives. It would provide me the opportunity to see him. So I traveled on the eve of Zarachi, since tradition forbids crossing the river early on the day of the event. At Rotsu I was surprised that people have found all manner of justifications to crossing the river: “You can cross the river in the opposite direction. It’s permissible,” “You can cross early in the morning. It’s permissible.”
Ta’agbe settlement is a basic point along the way to Rotsu. It’s at Ta’agbe that the nne-rigbe blows the horn for the first time. The sound of the horn reverberates across the land, telling everyone that Zarachi is being famous. But at Ta’agbe youths, high on drugs, are said to cross the path without a mote of attention to neither the nne-ruwu nor the nne-rigbe, an insult to the festival and the people is serves.
Zarachi is strictly a man’s business. As a rule, a woman’s only bit in the event is the preparation of meals and wishing men well when they set out. These days, though, we hear stories of bold girls who rock the boat of Zarachi by insisting they must be active partakers. Worst of all they love to get dressed in trousers. People interpret their turn up as indecent and a violation of the purity of the event. But the girls, in whose eyes the line separating modernity and African traditions has faded, would argue that, for such an adventurous event, there aren’t wears as fitting as trousers. I was told about this girlish revolt, but didn’t see a single girl at the event in Rostu or anywhere else in the procession. The irony is that over thirty per cent of the men were dressed in women costumes. Men adorned skirts, phony breasts, artificial hair attachments, mascaras, eye shadows, lipsticks and all. Though Irigwe men have traditionally used earrings and plaited their hair, some of the appearances seemed extreme, fanatical and deplorable.
At about 2PM on the big day, we started out hunting at Rotsu to ultimately connect with the idols when they arrive. We needed chuo, a red powder that is applied on the confront to signify warfare. I was surprised that there was none from all of the houses in Upper Rotsu where I passed the night. To me this signifies without of seriousness and the diminishing standing of the event in the eyes of folks besotted by modernity. Also, people were averse to coming out to build a quorum that is basic for a successful hunt. A lot of men drifted towards liquor homes, instead of the bushes sheltering the animals. Since liquor is at the rim, instead of the heart of the festival, the rest of us were left frustrated and devastated.
With a handful of men the hunting began, following an arc that went round to connect with the Zarachi shrine in Lower Rotsu. All by the way we disturbed the shrubs to frighten the animals that were expected to jump in panic and be pursued and killed. There was no single animal that came out. As we approach the shrine, though, we were placated by a squirrel. I see this shortagen of hunted animals as a sign that the gods are angry, angry as regards the endless episodes of violations of the tradition.
At the shrine the rites of forgiveness and declaration of the purpose of the event were preceded by horse riding. There weren’t enough horses at all – just about four. A higher number of horses would have given the event more radiance and glamour. This was another dent on the confront of Zarachi, and it seemed more obvious that the fame of the festival is declining steadily.
Minors, aged ten to thirteen, thronged the event. The elderly who should have been there to rule were held back by their liquor cravings. It was a big shame that the elders made the preservation of Zarachi an opportunity cost to something as trifling as booze. The rather smaller population of men present felt frustrated in the mists of an army of under-aged rushing to become men.
From Rotsu the next stage in the event is passing the night at Chando Zarachi (the fireplace of Zarachi). Chando Zarachi is located some five kilometers east of Rotsu. People walk on foot, hunting along the way, branching and drinking in the houses that cross their path, and spending the night under the open skies, risking getting hunted by the brutes they hunted before nightfall and the vile spirits they believe exist. At Chando insults and counter-insult fly from left, right, center and the spaces in-between. This may not be a chief part of the ritual, but it’s nonetheless tolerated and does not amount to rocking the board.
By about 4AM the ordered procession that ended at Rotsu resumed with the nne-rigbe leading the way. At regular intervals the procession stopped to allow him blow his trumpet. ultimately, the march reached the final stage, a greatly opened arena where the seeds are taken. The identify is marked by a stone whose greater mass, starting from the hips down, is buried. But this year there were signs some herdsmen were keeping their animals close by, and the stone, that should be hallowed, was stained by cattle dung.
Since the rock is historic, I tried to take a photo of it. I was lucky that the cultural police only begged me not to do it. The camera is a symbol of modernity, the greatest enemy of the tradition. But what are they going to do about a sprawling settlement a few hundreds of meters away? The youths rushed to one of the buildings undergoing construction. They angrily unstitched the blocks that had been interwoven to form its unroofed walls.
Nevertheless, the ritual was performed, and the task of fetching the seeds was achieved. At the end of the day everyone prayed and wished that the tempest of modernity and little respect for what is ours does not grow strong enough to sink the embattled ship of Zarachi.