Despite the incursion of Christianity and Islam, old traditions hold sway in some communities as locals still revere some creatures which they see as part of the family and dare not harm them or vice versa. Emeka Osondu, recently visited a few such places in Anambra State that revere the python and see it as part of them.
In 1985, Mr. Boniface Chukwunwike Ideh, an enterprising young mechanic bought a Bedford van, which he meant to resell for profit. But due to pressing family matters, especially as a newly married man, he decided to leave the car in the parking lot for a while.
When he later decided it was time to trade the van, he suddenly found out that one of the wheels was faulty. He therefore brought out the jack and set to lever the vehicle. But the soil was loose and the jack was shaky and could not hold. So, he called for help and some able-bodied young men helped to push the van to another position. And soon as he succeeded in loosing the tyre, Ideh was struck numb with an ugly sight, petrified.
A big python, which had occupied a space within the wheel, has just been crushed to death, while the vehicle was being pushed to its present position. And curiously, pythons are held sacred in the community. Thus, the killing of python by anybody was considered a taboo in the place.
The young Ideh, however, soon recollected himself from the shock and dashed into his house to inform his wife, Mary. But since the wife was married from a different community other than Ideh’s home-place, she did not understand the full import of what her husband was saying.
Solemnly, Ideh went to his uncle’s house to inform him about his ordeal. But his conscience was made worse when after listening to him; his aged uncle suddenly bowed his head and shade tears. Then after a brief moment he looked up and asked Ideh, why he had killed the sacred python. And the young man insisted it was an accident, as he did not even know that there was a python there in the first place.
Given his explanation, Ideh’s uncle referred him to his grandfather in the next compound to tell him what to do. There, his grandfather, who was incidentally in charge of the village deity, told him to go and buy a small coffin and a piece of white cloth for the burial of the slain snake. Ideh did and was further told to dig the hole for the burial of the python. Before the earth was covered, he was asked to plead for forgiveness as he had only killed the python by accident.
According to Ideh from Enugwu-Ukwu in Njikoka Council Area of Anambra State, who narrated the story to THISDAY in Awka recently. “I grew up to know that our people reverence the python. I also know that it is free to come into our homes and leave at will. But if you do not want it to stay at that moment, it is your duty to gently take it away, but not to kill it.
“But if accidentally our indigene kills a python, such a person will have to perform the burial rites as if the dead python was a human being. In the ancient times, if a child bed-wets, you tie a python around his or her waist and the bed-wetting would stop. If by mistake the python bites you, all you have to do is to simply present that part of the body to it and it will pour its spittle on it and then you are free from any trouble the bite would have caused.
“However, the python cannot come out and swallow hen’s eggs or their chicks as is the situation with snakes. If it does, then the children will gather and flog it and it cannot cause them any harm”, he pointed out, adding that the creature is only supposed to bring peace and protection to the community and not harm.
THISDAY investigations revealed that beyond Enugwu-Ukwu, many other communities in Anambra State and adjoining states reverence or avoid the eating of one animal or another because they serve as totems of their deity or ancestral gods. Such animals include monkey, tortoise, crocodile, snail and antelope, among others. Other communities that reverence pythons are Abagana, Agulu, Ihiala, Nri, Ogidi, and other towns in Idemili, and neighbouring communities in Imo State like Oguta, Mgbidi, Njaba and Oguta, among others.
For instance, there was this other story of one Carol, who got married to Ikechukwu, an artisan from Ogidi in Idemmili North Council Area of Anambra State and gave birth to a set of twins. And like every other healthy mother, Carol fed her children, lured them to sleep and went outside to wash and hang their cloths on the lines.
But on coming back to the room, she met quite an ugly sight: A huge python was lying on the same bed with her babies, intertwining them! Her heart leapt and she suddenly rushed out of the room and let out her breath for help! Immediately, other villagers within the area who heard her wails rushed to the scene and accosted her. Rather than explain, as she was dumb-founded, Carol hurriedly led them into the room and pointed at the bed where the python was lying rolling around her new babies. Instantly one of them, an elderly woman turned around and held Carol, covering her mouth and led her outside and told her not to panic because the gods had come to see her children and offer them protection against evil influences.
However, much as the members of the communities believe in the efficacies of the totem, most of those from outside their areas especially married women like Carol see the tradition or culture as alien to them, but only try to adjust to the dictate.
For instance, Ideh’s wife, Mary from another community other than Enugwu-Ukwu told THISDAY that she is still trying to adjust to the phenomenon of the python, especially that: “it is strange to wake up and notice a python rolling around your bed at night.” She said that she so often insisted that each time she returns home with her children to the village that her husband should do “an all-round clean-up” of the house so that nobody would be embarrassed.
Not minding that anyway, her husband, although a Christian still believes that there is still some spirituality in the python phenomenon, adding that all it required is to avoid confrontation with the ritual avoidance of any community you find yourself in at any moment.
“If you are in Rome, behave like the Romans”, he advised, adding that he had arrived at this conclusion from the various experiences he had had over time. Ideh recounted that during the civil war between 1968 and 1969, he was deployed as a soldier Lokpanta in Abia State, and noticed that the people revered Cobra. He said that from onset, the indigenes warned them not to kill such snakes because they were sacred and belonged to their deity. He said that while they crawled in the bush, the cobra crawled over them but did not harm any of them, but that soon as some of the soldiers began to kill them, there was trouble: the cobras revolted and struck.
“The snakes began to bite those soldiers that got in the habit of killing them. But they never touched any of us that did not harm them. Instead they joined us and fought the enemies of the war front,” he stressed. Still emphasising the practicality of the belief in the totem of the python, Ideh said, “when we were young, we learnt that if you live outside the traditions of Enugwu-Ukwu setting and there is an emergency at home, which affected you, the python would travel from Enugwu-Ukwu to wherever you live as the need may arise.
“When this happens, it is your duty to take it back home to Enugwu-Ukwu and consult the oracle on why the python had mysteriously visited you at the place you sojourned”, he stressed. Ideh also recounted an experience he had in his Enugwu-Ukwu community last year where by his friend had begged him from his base in Awka to drop him off at his home place. But quite close to his house something strange happened.
He said as soon as they got close to the junction to his house gunfire rented the air and he was forced to scurry to safety in the darkness. But in doing that his mobile telephone handset fell and switched off as well as his house keys. But while he succeeded in picking the phone he could not find the keys and as such horribly left the key even as he marked the exact location in his sub-conscious mind.
According to Ideh, he was surprised that when he returned to the same place around 5 am the next morning that a python had covered itself around his bunch of keys. And that on sighting him, the snake suddenly recoiled, leaving the keys and crawled out of the vicinity, so that he can pick his keys.
Just like Enugwu-Ukwu is the case of its nearby community of Awka, which reverences monkeys and forbids any harm against them because they are totems of their ancestral deity, Imoka. However, there are three versions to the Awka monkey-myth. According to one of the prominent sons of Awka, Mr. Chukwujekwu Nnaemeka from Umuogbu village, the phenomenon began in the ancient times when on returning from a hunting expedition, the hunters stood before the Imoka shrine to share the games of their exploits, which included a live monkey. Nnaemeka, a businessman and traditionalist, said they were told that towards the end of the sharing, one of the hunters suddenly remembered that they had ignored to give anything to the Imoka deity, which live monkey to the shrine.
He nevertheless, gave another version whereby the monkeys were revered because they were quite instrumental to Awka in wining an unexpected invasion by providing some guiding signal to the Awka warriors at that time. “We were told that warriors from Ndikerionwu had invaded the first village in Awka and were advancing to the next village Umuike. And on sensing the invaders, the friendly black monkeys journeyed down and began to wag their tails at the indigenes to warn them on the looming danger,” Nnaemeka explained.
Collaborating this version of the myth, another indigene of Awka, Chief Chukwuma Igwilo, from Umudioka village said: “according to my father we revere the black monkeys because when we were engaged in a warfare with our invaders the monkeys worked in our interest by providing our warriors with signals that helped them win the war.”
Igwilo, a hunter and vice chairman of Omenala (tradition) Awka, nevertheless said there are three types of monkeys in the category: the brown monkeys, the milk-colour monkeys and the black monkeys. “Our people noticed that the monkeys involved in the warfare were particularly black in colour and we therefore resolved to adopt and reverence it in our tradition. So our ancestors decided to entrench the myth of the black monkeys into our tradition and culture, which is celebrated in our annual Imoka festival,” Igwilo explained.
“And since then any one that kills black monkeys within Awka kingdom would be held responsible as having committed a taboo, and such person would be subjected to its burial rites as if he had killed a fellow human being. If you are an Awka indigene and you see a stranger kill a black monkey, such Awka person would definitely be killed by the Imoka deity,” he stressed.
In another interview with THISDAY, a prominent herbalist in Amawbia, Awka South Local Government Area of Anambra State, where pythons are equally revered, Ozo Nweribe Nwekeodo, simply told THISDAY in an interview that the phenomenon of the python being held sacred in his community began “since the ancient times when after dinner, our children got a lot of troubles. Then our ancestors went to the oracle to find out the reason for the troubles. They were told that the people should stop eating crawling creatures.” (Thisday)