This coming Christmas season may mean everything to you, but not to the people in Bende (and few other) Local Government Area(s) in Abia State. Not that Christmas doesn’t ring a bell, but Otu Omu (a celebration of old age and of the official retirement from active communal functions of the oldest Age Grade), rings a louder bell. Usually observed at the end of December, it is a time when the community celebrates and approves an Age-Grade assigned project(s) deemed to satisfy the needs of the community. On successful completion of said project(s) by the retiring age grade, a special day is set aside for presentation and handling over of the project(s) to the community headed by the “Ezie Ogo”. In certain circles, the Otu Omu ceremony is considered so important a rite of passage that some individuals would be heart-broken to die before their age grade got to perform theirs.
Dance troupes move from one compound to another, chief among which will be the War Dancers, to rival the DJ’s deafening loudspeakers. Inscriptions such as CONGRATS TO OUR DADDY/MOMMY or FINISHING STRONG take the place of SEASON’S GREETINGS or MERRY CHRISTMAS/ HAPPY NEW YEAR. Large photos of the smiling celebrants hang where those of Santa Claus’ ought to have, ordinarily. At one end of the courtyard stands a small booth covered all over with the costly and much valued George wrapper. Even the chair inside this booth is also enshrouded in George wrapper. The celebrant dresses in a flowing blouse, a George wrapper, a stately headgear, and a walking stick or some other symbol of office. In some cases two or three chairs are placed on each side of the celebrant’s, where dearest friends and relations can sit momentarily to share drinks with the celebrant. It is the time for even the lowliest of the pack, who had never rested from menial labour, to finally get a pinch of nobility; to understand how Emperors felt when they were surrounded by happy and loyal subjects. A desk stands at another corner of the courtyard for the notary, who is usually a trusted member of the family, for the purpose of collecting visitors’ names and cash gifts, the worth of which might determine the kind of souvenirs the donors might get. There have been cases where some wealthy visitors showed up with police escorts or some other armed private security who released occasional shots into the air as a deterrent to potential criminals and to also remind the other visitors that there were superhumans amongst them.
At dusk, the tired celebrant rises in a dignified manner and waltzes into the sitting room, which might still be crowded by family members and friends, to wave at, shake hands with, or even embrace one or two persons before retiring into his or her bedchamber.
Otu Omu is hardly 100% bliss. For one, it is the worst time to be the poor son or daughter who can’t make significant contributions towards your parent’s party. It is also a time for less privileged celebrants to embrace painful reality, seeing the superior gifts and personalities that flood some other celebrants’ booths.
Otu Omu is not an occasion for only the elderly, but also for the youths. It must delight the elders to see young men and women donning the traditional costume, even though some of the guys use jeans trousers in place of loin cloth. It is a time that city beauties come back home to mingle with other returnees. It is a time that successful guys in the diaspora visit home to be thrilled by home-based maidens, some of whom were still adolescents few years ago when the boys were leaving home for the city. It is a time for re-union and match-making.
But, perhaps, what matters the most is that Otu Omu is a moment of plenty: plenty food even for households that can’t feed two consecutive times in a day; plenty music for stiff joints to stretch in a dance; plenty opportunities for faces long wrinkled with frowns to get to smile again.