The Esan people (Esan: Ẹ̀bhò Ẹ̀sán) are an ethnic group of south Nigeria who speak the Esan language.
The Esan are traditionally agriculturalists, trado-medical practitioners, mercenary warriors and hunters.
They cultivate palm trees, Irvingia gabonensis (erhonhiele), Cherry (Otien), bell pepper (akoh) coconut, betel nut, kola nut, black pear, avocado pear, yams, cocoyam, cassava, maize, rice, beans, groundnut, bananas, oranges, plantains, sugar cane, tomato, potato, okra, pineapple, paw paw, and various vegetables.
The modern Esan nation is believed to have been organized during the 15th century, when citizens, mostly nobles and princes, left the neighbouring Benin Empire for the northeast; there they formed communities and kingdoms called eguares among the aboriginal peoples whom they met there. There are on the whole 35 established kingdoms in Esanland, including Amahor, Ebelle, Egoro, Ewohimi, Ekekhenlen, Ekpoma, Ekpon, Emu, Ewu, Ewatto, Ewossa, Idoa, Ifeku, Igueben, Ilushi, Inyelen, Irrua, Ogwa, Ohordua, Okalo, Okhuesan, Onogholo, Opoji, Oria, Orowa, Uromi, Udo, Ugbegun, Ugboha, Ubiaja, Urhohi, Ugun, Ujiogba, Ukhun, and Uzea.
The Esan Kingdoms often warred among each other. Despite the wars, the Esans kept a homogenous culture which was chiefly influenced by the Benin Empire. However, these kingdoms were colonized, along with the Benin Empire, by the British Empire during September 1897, only gaining independence 63 years later in 1960 when Nigeria became independent from British Colonial rule. After independence, the Esan people have suffered from civil war, poverty, and lack of infrastructure.
The Esans primarily speak the Esan language, an Edoid language related to Edo, Urhobo, Owan language, Isoko, and Etsako. It is considered a regionally important language in Nigeria, and it is taught in primary schools in addition to being broadcast on radio and television. The Esan language is also recognized in the Census of the United Kingdom.
It is estimated that the Esan people who reside in Esanland number about one million to 1.5 million citizens in Nigeria, and there is a strong Esan diaspora.
The term Esan has been applied to the Esan people for thousands of years, and was used before contact with Europeans. It is believed by many historians that the name 'Esan' (originally, 'E san fia') owes its origin to Bini (meaning, 'they have fled' or 'they jumped away'). 'Ishan' is an Anglicized form of 'Esan', the result of colonial Britain's inability to properly pronounce the name of this ethnic group. It is believed that similar corruption has affected such Esan names as ubhẹkhẹ (now 'obeche' tree), uloko (now 'iroko' tree), Abhuluimẹn (now 'Aburime'), etc. Efforts have however been made to return to status quo ante.
For academic purpose, Esan refers to
In the pre-colonial era, Esans carried a crow's foot tribal scar below their eyes.[
It is believed by many historians that the name 'Esan' (originally, 'E san fia') owes its origin to Bini (meaning, 'they have fled' or 'they jumped away'). 'Ishan' is an Anglicized form of 'Esan', the result of colonial Britain's inability to properly pronounce the name of this ethnic group. It is believed that similar corruption has affected such Esan names as ubhẹkhẹ (now 'obeche' tree), uloko (now 'iroko' tree), Abhuluimẹn (now 'Aburime'), etc. Efforts have however been made to return to status quo ante.
Esan is located at Longitude 60`5′ celcious and Latitude 60`5′ celcius. It has boundaries on the North West with Owan and Etsako on the North-East; on the South-West with Orhiomwon and Ika, while on the South and South-East with Aniocha and Oshimili, all areas that were controlled by ancient Benin especially from the 15th century (Patridge, 1967: p.9). The people populate areas such as Uromi, Ewohimi, Ewatto, Igueben, Irrua, Ubiaja, Ogwa, Ebele, Ekpoma, Ohordua and Ewu in central Edo State, South-South Nigeria. It has a flat landscape, lacking in rocks and mountains, and good for agricultural purpose.
Geographically, Esanland lies between the fringes of the Savannah to the north and the forest (marginal forest) to the south. The plateau on the northern fringes had the forest vegetation, which thinned into the northward Savannah. It is made up of sandy topsoil that could be easily cleared and cultivated, relatively weed-free. The reason for the sandy nature of the topsoil has been partly due to “the widespread occurrence of sedimentary, granite and gneissic materials the downward elevation of clay; differential soil erosion due to the high kinetic energy of rainstorms tending to remove fine particles in run-off water; and the possible chemical destruction of kaolin in the topsoil” (Kowal and Kassami, 1978, p. 116). The topsoil is also mixed with laterite, various clays and free metal oxides often coat the quartz and clay particles, immobilized phosphate, and help to cement or compact the soil not only at the surface but also in the lower layers where clay accumulates to form a pan-like horizon (Kowal and Kassami, 1978, p. 26). This area according to Darling have been very fertile for agriculture(1984, p. 26).
The position of Esan land in a favourable climatic zone enhanced the initial agricultural development and the entire economic structure of the area. Climatic position determines the natural environment, within which an ecosystem affects agricultural and economic activities. The skill in which climatic elements were manipulated for production purposes enhanced the development of Esan agriculture. Esanland is influenced by seasonal winds. These are the Southwest and North-East winds. The former blows from the Atlantic Ocean. It is warm and humid. The wind prevails over the land and brings in its wake heavy rains that caused the wet seasons. Wet seasons were periods of much human activity when the planting of various crops by farmers was done. When rainfall stops by mid – October a period of dry season sets in following the Northeast winds. This usually lasted from November to March when there was virtually no rain in Esanland. The climate at this time is hot with a temperature of about 230 –250 centigrade at mid-day. From around mid – December to January the weather became harsh and it was referred to as the harmattan or okhuakhua. These seasonal variations according to Akinbode could have been from the “latitudinal migration of the tropical convergence zone (ITCZ)” (Akinbode,1983, p. 3). Sometimes light rainfalls were recorded in the months of December and January. Also, strong winds and high air temperatures could be recorded between the months of January and March while the lowest are usually recorded during the months of June and July. In general, the altitude of the Esan plateau modified the temperature to such a level of eliminating extreme weather conditions. It was therefore not surprising that the relatively flat tops of the plateau remained much cooler than other parts of the land throughout the year. This perhaps explains partly why the plateau land was the first to be settled in Esan.
The autonomous clans/kingdoms in Esan land are currently administratively arranged as follows under the current five local government areas:
(1) Esan North East LGA, Uromi: Uromi, Uzea
(2) Esan Central LGA, Irrua: Irrua, Ugbegun, Okpoji, Idoa, Ewu
(3) Esan West LGA, Ekpoma: Ekpoma, Urohi, Ukhun, Egoro
(4) Esan South East LGA, Ubiaja: Ubiaja, Ewohimhin, Emulu, Ohordua, Ẹbhoato, Okhuesan, Orowa, Ugboha, Oria, lllushi, Onogholo
(5) Igueben LGA, Igueben: Igueben, Ebele, Amaho, Ẹbhosa, Udo, Ekpon, Ujorgba, Ogwa, Ugun, Okalo
There are 35 clans each of which is headed by a traditional ruler called "Onojie": 1. Irrua 2. Ekpoma 3. Uromi 4. Ubiaja 5. Egoro 6. Ekpon 7. Ewohimi 8. Emu 9. Ewatto 10. Wossa 11. Amahor 12. Igueben 13. Idoa 14. Illushi 15. Ifeku 16. Iyenlen 17. Ohordua 18. Okhuesan 19. Oria 20. Onogholo 21. Orowa 22. Opoji 23. Ogwa 24. Okalo 25. Ebelle 26. Ewu 27. Ogboha 28. Uroh 29. Uzea 30. Udo 31. Urohi 32. Ujiogba 33. Ugun 34. Ugbegun 35. Ukhun
Esan speaks Esan, a tonal Edoid language which is a Kwa language that belongs to the larger Niger-Congo language phylum. Dictionaries and grammar texts of the Esan language are being produced, which may help the Esan appreciate their written language. There is a high level of illiteracy among the Esan, and a large number of dialects, including Ẹkpoma, Ewohimi, Ẹkpọn, and Ohordua. Most annual Esan Kings' Council meetings are largely conducted in English for this reason.
Esan has various dialects all of which stem from Bini and there is still close affinity between the Esan and the Bini, which leads to the common saying 'Esan ii gbi Ẹdo' meaning, Esan does not harm the Ẹdo (i.e. Bini). Esan are great poets, writers, singers, carvers, farmers, scholars, storytellers, etc. The folklore and history of the Esan tribe is worth re-visiting and attempt should be made to research the various ways that the villages are related to the Ẹdos, and others who may have occupied Ifeku Island many years ago. The Esan heritage is unique despite the variation of dialects.
Linguistic finding has shown the word ‘gbe’ to have the highest number of usages in Esan, with up to 76 different meanings in a normal dictionary. Names starting with the prefixes Ọsẹ; Ẹhi, Ẹhiz or Ẹhis; and Okoh (for male), Ọmọn (for female) are the commonest in Esan: Ẹhizọkhae, Ẹhizojie, Ẹhinọmẹn, Ẹhimanre, Ẹhizẹle, Ẹhimẹn, Ẹhikhayimẹntor, Ẹhikhayimẹnle, Ẹhijantor,Ehicheoya etc.; Ọsẹmundiamẹn, Ọsẹmhẹngbe, etc.; Okosun, Okojie, Okodugha, Okoemu, Okouromi, Okougbo, Okoepkẹn, Okoror, Okouruwa, Oriaifo etc. To any Oko-, 'Ọm-' the suffix of the name can be added to arrive of the female version e.g. Ọmosun, Ọmuromi, etc.
The Esan people migrated from the Bini Kingdom in Nigeria. The word Esan is a Bini word meaning "they jumped away, or they have fled." The name became the accepted name of the group of people who escaped from the reign of Oba Ewuare of Benin in the middle of the 15th century. During the 15th century, the Oba Ewuare of Benin had two sons that both tragically died on the same day. Oba Ewuare then declared for mourning the death of his sons to the whole kingdom that there shall be no sexual intercourse in the kingdom; no washing, sweeping of the houses or compound, drumming or dancing; and making of fire in the land. Oba Ewuare insisted that these laws be strictly adhered to for a period of three years as a mark of respect for his dead sons.
Many natives fled the Bini Kingdom unable to abide by these rules to join previous groups that had already migrated out of the kingdom years before (notably, the groups that had earlier formed Irrua, Uromi, and Ekpoma). Soon after, the Oba summoned a meeting of his subjects from various quarters and to his amazement, noticed that they had greatly diminished in numbers. When the Oba asked where his subjects had went to, he was told, "Ele san-fia" ("They have fled"). This later turned into E-san-fia and then Esan. When Oba Ewuare saw that his kingdom was quickly becoming depopulated, he revoked his laws but the migrations continued. Oba Ewuare tried to wage war against the migrants but this failed.
According to Jacob Egharevba, author of A Short History of Benin, the Oba conquered 201 towns and villages but he had to use diplomacy for many of the other scattered towns and villages in the forest in order to bring them under Benin rule. Thus, Oba Ewuare invited Esan leaders or their representatives to Benin for a truce. He enticed them with the idea of having an attachment to Benin City and of their having the honour of being called "Onojie", which means king. The future of Esan rested on the Esan who went to Benin and took the title of Onojie. It was not an easy decision for the Esan leaders to decide whether or not to go. Many feared Oba Ewuare but also did not want more military attacks against them. To reduce their fears, Benin promised military support for the Onojie to enforce authority over insubordinate subjects (Eweka, 1992: pp. 83-84). Only three leaders actually went to Benin in person.
All three were apparently men who had nothing to fear from the Oba due to various reasons. The first was Ekpereijie, the son of Oba Ohen's daughter and a sister to Oba Ewuare. The sister had been given to the leader of Irrua. Ekperejie came without fear because relations must have been cordial between Irrua and Benin.
The second was Alan of Ewohimi, the son of Ikimi who had left Benin prior to the reign of Oba Ewuare and as such was not considered as one of those who fled the city by the Oba. The third was Ijiebomen who left Benin for Ekpoma after the Oba had granted him leave (Eweka, 1992: p.169, 174). In contrast to those mentioned above, chief Okhirare of Ohordua, , had especially offended the Oba and would not risk his neck, so he sent his heir Odua to Benin (Eweka, 1992: p. 272).
His brother and leader of Emu also sent his son rather than risk his life. Three other Esan leaders dispatched brothers as their representatives to the meeting in Benin. Ede felt he was only less than the Oba by degrees and as such refused to honor the call. He then sent his junior brother to listen to what the Oba had to say. The leader of Ubgoha also asked his junior brother to go on his behalf. The leader of Uromi sent his junior brother to find out what the Oba had to say. Ewuare concealed his anger at the impertinent leaders in Esan since he was a skilled diplomat.
During the meeting, he told the visitors how they had migrated from Benin. He enthroned the Benin court traditions in Esan. The Oba bestowed the title of Onojie on those that were present at the meeting. This historic moment happened in 1463. Instantly, the Oba made them rulers of their communities and subservient only to the Oba. Above all, this noble title was not transferable to father, brother, or master, and once an Onojie, always an Onojie until death (Okojie, 1960: p.37).
Where Oba Ewuare had enthroned a proxy as Onojie except in Ewohimi, Irrua and Ekpoma, strife and hatred followed as the new leaders began to assert authority and control over the elders. Thus, the Oba wielded the numerous villages into large political entities that hitherto became known as chiefdoms, loosely knitted villages, ruled by the Enijie.
Esanland is on a plateau, surrounded by slopes down to the lower Niger river, the valley and wetland towards Etsako, the Kukuruku Hills and the plain around Benin city the state capital. The tableland though reddish-brown in colour, is a fertile land for farming, which is the main occupation of the Esan people. There is a dense thick forest, nutritionally rich in economic crops and herbal plants. However, it is suffering from bush burning, and wood felling for timber and as a major source of fuel (which is in high demand) for the increasing population of the Esan people.
By 1460, a viable agricultural economy was in existence in Esan with the development of indigenous crops native to the savannah – forest belt. The cultivation of the indigenous yam and the utilization of the oil palm trees were complemented by the production of other crops including cotton, beans, pepper, melons and fluted pumpkin. The rearing of domestic animals was also practiced. These activities led to the expansion of communities in the area. An early agricultural development was crucial for the Esan people especially as it formed the basis for the future introduction of some American and Asian crops that diversified the agriculture of the people. Apart from providing food for the people, agriculture was an economic sector, which created gainful employment for all members of the society. Although in its foundation, agriculture was inward looking pre-occupied with the need to provide food for the people, for a long time families or individuals were able to produce more than was needed for home consumption and for manufacturing items of immediate utility. Being an agricultural area men, women, and children all members of the society were engaged in agricultural production. Enough food was produced to feed the population. Surplus production was traded away. Population grew. Turnover grew. Potentials increased. It was in this setting that cotton assumed the status of a significant crop in pre-colonial Esan.
For many centuries before 1900 when British agents colonized Esan, “Ishan cotton” an indigenous crop was used to manufacture Ukpon-Ododo the thick multi-coloured cloth. “Ishan cotton” (G. vitifolium) locally called olulu was of long, strong and coarse lint. By the 19th century it was obvious that Esan had a long history of cultivation and use of cotton. However, Esan people did not export cotton to other areas, but instead exported large quantities of native cloths manufactured from indigenous cotton to many places including Benin and Agbor. Cloth weaving in Esan was an important pre-occupation by women in pre-colonial times. Esan cloth was an important commodity in the trade with neighbours.
Cotton products were exchanged for salt, iron tools, and beads. Apart from the lint, cottonseeds were edible. Women planted cotton in their husbands’ farm during the months of April and May. The dried wool was picked from the plants by January (Okojie, 1960, pp. 26-27). Women did the transformation of the wool into cloth. The varieties included ukpon-asiso specially woven as work cloth or sewn as the farmer’s bag, ukpon-agbo or the ordinary wrapper, ukpon-ododo or the multi-coloured cloth and ukpon-nogian – the scarlet cloth. While it is possible that the craft was independently developed in view of the available raw materials in the forests, it is also possible that the knowledge came from people who migrated into the area long before the 15th century. In the process of weaving the native cloth, dried wool was picked from the plant and separated from the seeds with wooden tools known as Osomuro and ukpelomon. The wool was spun into threads after beating into some softness. The wool was thereafter drawn out and spun into threads that were later dyed with various colours of black, red and yellow. The vertical and horizontal handlooms locally called erindo were used to weave the threads into cloth. Both the ordinary (undyed) thread and the dyed ones were alternatively used to achieve specific artistry (Talbot, 1926, p. 94). Other sticks used as tools to process cotton included eben, aha, okidore and ikpifeme.
The most valued cloth for farm work was ukpon-asiso, thickly woven and coarse in texture. The ukpon-agbo was woven with un-dyed threads. They were usually woven for womenwho tied them as wrappers before the advent of European textiles. The ukpon ododo or multicoloured cloth was the popular Esan cloth, which attracted commercial status from European traders beginning with the Portuguese in Benin during the 15th century.
Esan people are communal in nature. This means that their hopes, aspirations and relationships are perceived in communalistic terms. Following the above, land ownership in Esan has a communal foundation. According to Okogie (1994), Land in Esanland was strictly communal and held in trust by the Onogie (king) for his people. It could neither be sold nor bought. If there was a dispute over a piece of land in the village, the Edion looked into it and effected a settlement. If it was a dispute involving two villages, the onogie decided the matter.
In Esan land, there are places which are the exclusive preserve of the Onojie (chief or king). These places are strictly, commonly and “constitutionally” understood by everyone to belong to the Onogie in office. For instance, such places are the palace grounds and the market place. It is this understanding which warrants “main markets” in Esanland being named “after their Onogies”. For instance, there are markets prefixed after the Onogie such as Eki Ojieuronmun, Eki Ojieugbegun, Eki Ojieuobiaza, etc. Literarily translated, the above means the markets of Uronmun king, Ugbegun king and Ubiaza king respectively (Okogie, 1994).
Another important issue in land tenureship in Esanland is the question of the location of a building or house. The piece of land where a building is sited or located and the “cleaned” area around the building is a man’s possession. His children also have ownership claim to the building and the cleared portion around the house. What happened in a situation in which a man decides or relocates or live elsewhere outside his former abode? Strictly speaking, no one has the right to trespass the vacated piece of land and the building. The reason for this is that his former residence had become the man’s IJIE or ITEKEN or IJIOGBE (A man’s IJIE or ITEKEN or IJIOGBE, ITOLUWA or ICHUWA is where he lives and dies (it is his ancestral home). If the house had fallen down and the place had become bush, the old building site or ITOLUWA or ICHUWA was still his sacred possession (Okogie, 1994). On the other hand, if a man endorses or permits another person to build on his ITEKEN, he ceases to be the bonafide owner of the house and the land on which the house was built.
An important issue associated with ITEKEN is that it cannot be sold to a non-member of the community or village. It would be considered adversarial or inimical to the community. This act could put the sovereignty and integrity of the community in jeopardy. Admittedly, the implication of a man’s inability to sell his ITEKEN to a stranger means the “ownership” of land was not absolute. Absolute ownership was vested in the elders of the community. In the case of Ijiogbe, the ancestral Ijie, the statutory owner was Ominijiogbe – the first surviving son of a deceased man.
The Ominjiogbe who is usually the first male child of a departed father is the automatic owner of the “ancestral Ijie” or Ijiogbe. The succession of inheritance or ownership of Ijie is authenticated by the presence of a surviving first son of a dead man in a family. The first son of a man is the rightful owner of Ijiogbe after performing the necessary burial rites of his late father. In a situation in which a diseased man has no surviving son, his brother takes possession of the Ijiogbe.
Regarding the important issue of ownership of farm lands, Esan custom and tradition provided
adequate definition of the legal owner of such. In clearly defined terms, a farmland belongs to
whoever deforested and farmed on a piece of land. In this case, where a “hitherto”, “virgin” and unclaimed forest was cleared by a person, it becomes his possession. This law remains in force even in contemporary times. As Okogie (1994) has rightly noted:
The basic law over farmland was that HE WHO FIRST FARMED A VIRGIN FOREST, A LAND HITHERTO UNCLAIMED, OWNED IT.
That means that in Esan custom the first man to clear a forest, cut down the trees for the purpose of farming, owned it OVER GENERATIONS. It is expressed as ONON GBE EGBO YAN EGBO (He who de-virgined a forest owned it).
Once this law has been established and recognized in Esan land, the piece of land “which now becomes a man’s property immediately becomes his family’s property. It passes from generation to another by virtue of the fact that every man passes it to his son”. When a man decides to become an absentee farmer or landlord over his acquired piece of land, no one can trespass or farm on the land left by the owner who remained domiciled elsewhere. If any man so desires to utilize the piece of land, permission must be sought from the authentic owner of the land. Once the permission is granted, the land must be vacated after the farming season by the borrower of the land. There is also an understanding that no permanent economic or commercial trees such as orange trees, palm trees, rubber trees etc, should be planted by a borrower of a farmland. This act or order mitigates against the ambitious, selfish and futuristic intention of the borrower possessing the land he borrowed.
Esan political structure is based on gerontocracy, which was a form of social organization in which a group of old men or a council of elders dominate decisions by exercising some form of control (Webster, 1990: p.514). In Esan, elders exercised a general control over the people. The laws that governed Esan communities were based on the customs and traditions of the people, which the elders were the main repositories of power (Okojie, 1960: p.76).
The belief and utmost confidence in the elder as the head was a natural inclination that began with the family. The home Ukuwa was not an isolated unit but part of an extended family. Each home consisted of a man, his wife/wives, children, junior brother, his yet unmarried sisters and any other persons within, either as a mother or servant provided he or she was within the circle. A combination of such homes represented the extended family. The head of the extended family unit was called Omijiogbe. As the junior brother’s own families and multiplied it so it was easy to see this man’s position as head of the family increase in importance (Okojie, 1960: p.50). Being the head he was the spokesman for the unit and was in charge of the ancestral shrine (David .O.
Umobuarie, 1976: p.45). The day-to-day administration of the family lay on the shoulders of the
head of family. He was in fact in a position to control not just the religious but the political activities of the family, thereby ensuring maximum security of all members. He was also regarded as the person at the helm of affairs and “the orbit around which all other things revolved” (Okojie, p.50). In the event of any disagreement in the family, he was seen as the arbiter and he reserved the right to punish any erring member. However, in the event of any conflict between members of the family a protective position for his family by soliciting for peace or asking for compensation was required. But in cases where it was difficult to arrive at a compromise with an out-going or out-group, the matter was then referred to the highest person in the gerontocratic ladder. This was the Odionwele or eldest of the elders.
The head of the family Omijiogbe also participated in the religious life of members of his lineage. For example, he was the go-between or the mediator through whom the members of the family appealed to their ancestors. Consequently it was his direct responsibility to control the family shrine, pray to the ancestors for peace and forgiveness of wrongdoing as well as for prosperity. It was to this end that the Esan people believe that the living descendants of the ancestors must as a matter of fact, pay due respect to the ancestors to prevent any form of disaster and attract to themselves some good fortunes or blessing (Ukhun, 1997: p.39).
Many lineages that were contiguous formed the Idumu or quarter. The leader of the eldest lineage was seen as the head or leader of the quarter. One important thing about this organisation was that members usually had a claim to common descent or blood relation hence inter-marriages were not allowed. Many Idumu or quarter usually came together to form the village. The most elderly of the elders by age was usually made to assume office as the Odionwele when the old Odionwele died.
The organisation of each village rested on the division of the male population into age sets namely Egbonughele (Sweepers) regarded as the youngest male members of the society. Igene (Scavengers) were the next in the age ladder while the Edion were made up of the eldest male in the society. Gerontocracy worked well in villages and not in the cities or urban centers with people of diverse interests or background. Usually the head of the village was the Odionwele who presided over its affairs. The Odionwele was regarded as the pivot around whom all activities revolved. He presided over all meetings and took decisions with his executives. The post of the Odionwele needs to be qualified because if a stranger settled in a village and became the eldest member he would still not be Odionwele. An Odionwele’s family members must have existed long enough in the village to lose all the identities of a stranger. The Odionwele with three most elderly Edion formed the most elderly four or the EDIONENE.
The Edion had messengers known as UKOEDION. It was the messenger’s sole responsibility to summon all the Edion in the village whenever there was an issue to be discussed. The choice of who became an UKO-EDION was essentially the prerogative of the Odionwele who considered the quality, honesty, wisdom and out-spokenness of the individual. Usually, meetings which concerned the well being of the community were held at the village square called, Okoughele. The elders formed the village council that dealt with serious crimes of all sorts and they possessed walking sticks called OKPO that were used for support whenever they walked from their homes.
Such walking sticks constituted the effigies that could be counted to have a glimpse of the number of Odionwele that have lived Apart from the administrative function of the elders, they also arbitrated religious issues. For instance, the Odionwele was not the chief priest of the village but the custodian of the ancestral shrine. Every year before the new yam festival or at any other ceremony to the gods of the land he would pray to the ancestors on behalf of the village. The religious aspect of village life rested on both the chief priest and the Odionwele. In fact, he was the custodian of the village land which he held in trust for the living members of his village, the dead and the yet unborn. Before any new settler acquired land the Odionwele must give approval
The Igene – grade was next to the Edion. They were usually not called for public duties unless such duties were beyond the competence of the lower grade. Like the elders, they held meetings form time to time to discuss issues of common importance. The military and physical defense of the village usually rested on the group. Its members headed such major works as house –building or roofing and were really the dare – devils of the village community. They were usually called upon when there was a serious matter like fire outbreak, burglary or theft. They also assisted in burying the dead and helped the junior age grades in the digging and clearing of ponds. The leader of the Igene age grade controlled the affairs of the Igene and effected discipline among its members. This was done through the imposition of fines Oko on any erring member of the group (Okojie, 1960: p.76).
The Egbonughele or street sweepers were the last in the age group. Their known jobs were mostly the sweeping of streets, clearing of marked places, farm paths, streams etc. The most common was the sweeping of the village square UGHELE that was usually done once in every 4 days. They were responsible for a major part of communal labour in the village and they only got help from the Igene when the task was too heavy for them alone. This was usually in a form of an appeal to the Edion who then requested the Igene for required assistance by the Egbonughele sweepers. The leader of the sweepers maintained discipline within the age grade and made sure all in the age-grade obeyed the rules and regulations of the group. As the head, he reserved the right to punish any member who violated the rules of the grade. Such offences included failure to participate in the sweeping of the village square on market days, fighting in the square, and failure date. Like the scavengers or age grade the punishment was usually in form of a fine that was either paid in cowries or by confiscating any possession of the offender in lieu of cash. Money or items so acquired was divided among members of grade in the order of seniority. The leader of the sweepers was expected to take the biggest share of any cash or any item collected at a time followed by the next three people in age known as Egbonughele - nene.
The expansion of Esan communities from villages into chiefdoms under Enijie did not negate the rule of the elders. The Odionwele continued to exercise his right to rule at the village level by virtue of him being the oldest member of the community. In the same way other male members of the community were potential successors to the stool of the Odionwele.The belief of the people about their elders being closer to the ancestors greatly aided the principles of gerontocracy to the extent that despite colonial rule it remained a pattern of governance at the village level even till today.
The belief in the ancestors enhanced the belief in the continuity of life after death and in the unbroken intercourse between the “living dead” and the living members of the family. As the living
father provides for and protects his children, so the departed father was expected to continue with
a greater spirit in the world beyond. This means that in reality; the survivors are never cut off from protection and guidance of their deceased relations who have trodden the path of life which the living now tread. Ancestors have their feet planted in both the world of the living and that of the spirits. They therefore know more than the living and are consequently accorded great respect for that (Bolaji Idowu, 1973: p.179). Also, as the deceased possessed powers of omniscience, to influence, help or molest the living, ancestors represented an order of intermediaries who related prayers to God (Smith, 1950: p.10). Pronouncements by elders were regarded as law. The belief in the wrath of the ancestors, and the elders who follow them as the most senior members of the living enhanced the tenacity of gerontocracy in Esan. Elders were experienced through age and knowledge over time. This belief is strongly rooted in the popular saying that “what an old man sees while sitting down, a young man can not see even while standing”(Okoduwa, 2003).
Over time, the practice of gerontocracy remains tenable to the structure of a changing society. For example, with the development of a political super structure following the establishment of the rule of the Onojie over loosely knitted villages, the rule of elders remained as bedrock of administration in the villages. The Onojie as the ruler of the corporate entity derived his position by right of being the first son in the royal lineage. He enhanced or reduced his acceptance and popularity by his sensitivity of conscience, greed or avarice. On the other hand the Odionwele acquired his position by being the eldest male in his village.
Two major types of marriage exist in Esan Land: Monogamy, A marriage of one man to one woman, and Polygamy, A marriage of one man to two or more wives. Traditional marriage is usually an arrangement between two families as opposed to an arrangement between two individuals. Accordingly, there is pressure on the bride and bridegroom to make the marriage work as any problem will usually affect both families and strain the otherwise cordial relationship between them. The man usually pays the dowry or bride-price and is thus considered the head of the family. Adultery is acceptable for men, but forbidden for women. Marriage ceremonies vary among Esan Clans.
Before Now, girls were generally regarded as ready for marriage between the ages of 15 through 18. Courtship can begin among the individuals during the trip to the river to fetch water or during the moonlight play.
Sometimes parents actually go looking for a wife or husband for their children. This led to the BETROTHAL SYSTEM where marriage were conducted with or without the consent of the individuals involved. Sometimes such betrothal, took place when a baby girl was born. Suitors would begin to approach the parents by sending a log of wood or bundle of yam to the parents of the child. You are likely to hear statements such as -" Imu' Ikerhan Vboto"-I have dropped a log of firewood. When a boy decides to get married and the parents have accepted the bride as a prospective daughter-in-law, messages go up and down between the two families.
Series of investigations are conducted by both families - about disease, scandals and crimes which may affect the families.
The term of the marriage which of course may include the DOWRY would be settled in some families. Gifts for mother of the bride and members of the extended family would be part of the settlement. Then a date would be set for the ceremony which would take place in the home of the woman's family. This was called IWANIEN OMO in the old days the go-between for the two families must be somebody well known by both families. There would of course be a lot of merriment on the day of marriage when the bride and the bridegroom are presented openly to the two families.
Kola nuts and wine are presented. The head of the woman's family would normally preside over the ceremony. Prayers are said and kola nuts broken at the family shrine. Rituals vary from family to family. The woman always sits on her father's lap before she is given away. Amidst prayers, laughter and sometimes tears, the woman would be carefully hoisted on the lap of the head of the bride's family.
Many years ago, the woman would be sent to the bridegroom house about thirteen days after IWANIEN OMO and gingerly hoisted either on her husband's lap or the head of his family. They are done immediately nowadays in the home of the bridegroom. The bride, now known as OVBIAHA would be led by her relatives to the husband's house with all her property, meanwhile the family and friends of the bridegroom are feasting, drinking, singing and dancing while waiting for the bride to arrive.
As the family and friends of the bridegroom awaits the OVBIAHA, messages will arrive suggesting that there are barriers on the road. The bridegroom has to remove the barriers by sending money to the party, bringing the wife to him or else the wife will not arrive. As they approach the house of the bridegroom, you can hear the echo of “Bride! Be proud/ the Bride is proud." Arrival at the bridegroom's house is immediately followed by the ceremony of IKPOBO-OVBIAHA-washing of the bride's hands. A bowl of water with money in it would be brought out. A woman in the groom's family, sometimes senior wife would bring out a new head tie, wash the hand of the Ovbiaha in the bowl and dries her hand with the head tie. oth the new headtie and the money in the bowl belong to the bride.
A few days later, the bride would be taken to the family altar and prayers are said for her. She undergoes what is called the IGBIKHIAVBO ceremony-beating of OKRO on the flat mortar. This would be followed by a visit by the bride's mother-in-law and other female members of the family to the newlywed, if they are not living in the same house. She would demand the bed spread on which they both slept when they had their "first sexual relationship" after the wedding and if the bed-spread was stained with blood, the bride was regarded as a virgin and as such she would be given many presents including money. If it is proven that she was not a virgin, then the preparation for the ceremony of IVIHEN-OATH TAKING ceremony would be set in motion. First, she has to confess to the older women, the "other men" in her life before she got married. The husband would never be told any of her confessions, then, she would be summoned to the family shrine early in the morning , without warning to take an oath of FIDELITY, FAITHFULNESS, TRUSTWORTHINESS, HONESTY ETC, to her husband and family. This ceremony is the equivalent of the oath people take in the church, mosque or marriage registry.
Once the oath taking ceremony is over, she would be fully accepted back into the family and immediately becomes married not only to her husband but to the family and sometimes to the community.
Christianity, Islam and Westernization of today have weakened the ESAN traditional system of marriage. The traditional ceremony is sometimes done the same day with many of the rituals avoided in the name of Christianity or Islam and many women would rather die than take the oath we described above. It was the oath that kept ESAN women out of prostitution for many years; thus making the ESAN women in general to be regarded as very faithful, trustworthy, honest with strong fidelity to their husbands making neighboring tribes want them as wives. It also made divorce on the ground of adultery, less common in those days.
Esan Belief in supreme God is captured in these words "Iyayi" which means “I believe” or “faith in God”, (Iyayi Osenebra). It is often abbreviated as Ose. God is also described as "Ofuekenede" (merciful God), "Okakaludo" (stronger than stone), "Obonosuobo" (the great physician), etc
Osenebra is a supernatural source. As the Supreme Being, Osenebra is the ultimate controlling principle of the universe. Since the foundation of the world God has foreordained whatever will be. At birth the individual has his ehi (guardian angel) who guides him. He is teleguided by his ehi in accordance with his fashioned destiny by God.
Awolalu and Dopamu, when writing on the concept of destiny among the Edos hold that it is the ehi that chooses or declares man’s destiny, and that offering must be given to him from time to time to attract favour from him. They also hold that the ehi can apply to God to take its client so that the ehi can go back to his Maker. (Awolalu and Dopamu 165-166). These do not correctly depict the Esan account. It is not the ehi that chooses or declares destiny. The ehi does not even implement but only monitors what God (Osenobulua/Osenebra) legislates or decrees and takes feedback and petitions to God. If offering is given to the ehi to attract favour, it means therefore he has dissented from the role assigned him by God to taking bribe, which means therefore that even the angels can take bride. On the contrary, the ehis do only what is proper to their nature. The ehi is subordinative and will-less, uninfluenced and impartial, objective, and an observer and messenger. They do not need any material thing. And as such they are not deficient in any material thing. They are pure spirit. If offerings and sacrifices are made, they are not for the consumptions of ehis (angels) but for either malevolent spirits that can yield to or accept sacrifices in negotiation or to the gods/deities for appeal or appreciation. For the ehi to apply to God to take its client is to say it is not only willful but also in negotiation with God for self interest. This will make the ehi a malevolent being because he desires the termination of a life which is his prerogative to guide and defend.
Evil forces: This is also a supernatural source. Evil forces can efficaciously alter, swap or over-turn a favourable destiny through power from elimin ebe (devil). The implacable, sadistic agents can wrought their evil machination through witchcraft, magic, and other diabolic and malevolent channels. If a misfortune incessantly attends to an individual or people, the Esans often say ebalulu non, that is, it is what was done, hence the name ebalulu (what was done) among the Esans. To rescue an individual from these forces, appeal, dialogue and supplication are not very potent; confrontation is more efficacious. Confrontation is preferred because, it is believed among the people that evil forces hardly yield to other methods because they are inherently evil. One can thus commune with higher forces who, through confrontation with or by causing the death of the evil agents put an end to such evil powers and the attendant unfavourable destiny. For example, an individual that is rescued from a revolving circle of birth, premature death and rebirth is named Asiazobor. This means ‘let’s, leave him now’, a depiction of belief in destiny.
All Esan men and women possessed the loin cloth. For example an average Esan man had a loin cloth for ordinary wear and three pieces sewn together known as igbu or male coverlet. This would give a total of four pieces on the minimum of loin cloth needed by every male. The woman also needed at least two wrappers of two loin cloths sewn together as one. A European visitor James Welsh who visited the area in 1588 observed that wrappers were tied by women above their breasts
to cover them up to their knees (Hodgkin, 1960, p.144). Thus, the woman needed an average of
four pieces of loin cloth at any given period.