The Vanishing Owambe Culture

The vanishing ‘owambe' culture

SOMETHING serious seems to be happening to the age-old "owambe" culture in Nigeria, a reflection of the dynamism of culture and of the telling manner in which economic conditions impact on socio-cultural expressions. The "owambe" phenomenon is one of the established patterns of social life, particularly among the Yoruba speaking people of Nigeria. By the 70s and 80s, up till the 90s, no weekend was complete without someone throwing a lavish party: every social incident, including the purchase of a new car, even a second hand car, or a refrigerator for the household, deaths, birth, a promotion in the office, weddings, a journey- pilgrimage to Mecca or Jerusalem, or any trip overseas, or return from such trips occasioned huge celebrations; if a new house had just been completed, it had to be "warmed," and if it was a car, it had to be "washed", not with soap and water of course, but carton loads of drinks, greedily consumed by neighbours who were called upon to share the glory of success.alt

The social station of the celebrant determined the scope and richness of the celebration, but for major events like funerals, child naming ceremonies, weddings, graduation parties, there was a conventional template which social pressure turned into an obligation. The character of that template is like this: to really belong to the "owambe crowd" , a Yoruba word that means "we have it, so we can flaunt it"; no party is complete without the notorious "aso ebi" (group attire) which every invitee is expected to buy and wear as a tag of identification with the celebrant; the party itself is deliberately loud, with food and drinks generously provided, and wasted (owambe!); and there would be a musician on the bandstand, the more popular the artiste the better. The venue of such parties used to be a school field, or the streets, deliberately shut down to attract more attention, until state governments banned the holding of parties on main roads. One notorious man once shut down the Lagos-Benin expressway for his mother's funeral party! Soon, it became fashionable to rent events centres, really expensive events centres; and the party could go on all night-long.

The owambe parties became so frequent and often resulted in armed robbery attacks, and high rate of vehicle accidents the morning after; consequently, some state governments banned night parties. Still, this did not discourage the party goers and the generous celebrants. Parties held during the day-time were just as robust and showy, and the Yoruba were the most notorious promoters of this culture, with the men's expansive, parachute-like agbada, and the women's headgears of different designs, shapes and sizes, all creatively embroidered and worn with accustomed grace.

On a typical weekend, an average couple could be invited to about five parties, with five different "aso ebis", changing from one attire to the other, rushing from one end of the city to another. Usually what was meant to be a lot of fun, was invariably a lot of work and quite an expensive pre-occupation. Most persons woke up on Monday morning, completely worn out, groggy from weekend partying, and broke–celebrants expect gifts, the musicians expect to be decorated with cash: and this is a spectacle unto itself, naira plunking, later demonized by the Central Bank of Nigeria as an abuse of the national currency, but no one has listened, is a special art, easily converted into an entertaining spectacle by those who have mastered it. So common was the owambe among the Yoruba that other Nigerians who seemed to be more restrained soon began to organize owambe parties too: the oil boom had made easy money possible, and for years, Nigerians really lived it up. One contemporary English dictionary, describes the Yoruba as "the fun-loving people of West Africa!"

But the culture of ostentation was not just a product of the oil boom; it resulted in a certain madness in society, an inversion of values. Even the poor felt compelled to borrow money to throw lavish parties just so they could meet public expectations. Funerals in particular provided special excuse for indebtedness or bankruptcy. Driven by folk beliefs that it is compulsory to give one's parents a befitting burial, persons who could not afford to feed themselves took loans to feed guests - among the local people, the cow and the drinks could be purchased on credit, with the understanding that the guests will donate money to the celebrant, and after the party, careful accounting is done to settle all outstanding debts; where the guests fail to be generous, the result could be the gnashing of teeth and embarrassment by creditors. Home video producers in Nollywood have dramatized aspects of the contradictions in this owambe culture: poor people struggling hard to please others, irresponsible children who would not take good care of their parents while they were alive, preferring to bury them lavishly, how owambe parties provide fertile grounds for cuckoldry- what with the men and women dancing seductively, gyrating suggestively, all under the influence of alcohol; and how persons who choose to be restrained are stigmatized as stingy and anti-social.

These days however, the owambe culture appears to be vanishing. Perhaps, it is safer to state that it is reducing; the creeping epidemic of poverty is compelling a revision of expenditures, even among fun-loving persons. The rich, those who can afford to indulge themselves and their guests still throw lavish parties, and I guess, no one can stop the rich from having leisure. With their hard-earned money though. Government officials who steal public funds to organize owambe parties, or company executives who loot the till, just so they can be seen to belong to the "jollofing" class cannot be excused. But among ordinary people, the owambe culture is being modified, a culture of restraint is emerging, although it is difficult to predict how long this would last. It used to be a sin not to have a musician on the bandstand at an owambe party; many families these days make do with musical sets, or a one-man band, with the sole musician stealing all possible copyrights and providing entertainment all the same.

It was a sin not to buy the aso ebi: these days when you demur, and insist you'd rather wear your own clothes, people tend to understand. On many occasions, the celebrant simply announces the chosen colours for the party, all you are required to do is to wear caps or headgears of matching colour. Ordinarily, people threw parties in the past, to show off, to impress. The Yoruba used to boast: "ariya has no end, miliki is unlimited". There can be no limit to joyful celebration. You could go to a party and drink as much as you wanted. Up till the eighties, if you asked for drinks, you could be served a carton load! People attended parties, with plastic bags hidden in their pockets, to cart away food and drinks.

This still happens in well-appointed parties, but increasingly party organizers have become very vigilant. It could be difficult getting an endless flow of drinks, except you are very close to the celebrant or you are a special guest. In the past, you could join any party without an invitation card, a complete stranger, and expect to be served food, and drinks and given gift items. That trick may not work these days. Celebrants look out for their own guests, unknown guests looking for free food are politely asked to move on by fierce-looking guards with bulging biceps. For many, a party these days is even a fund-raising event, carefully designed to generate profit, not to impress anybody. A special economy has developed around the aso ebi for example; shamelessly, the celebrant inflates the cost of the material, and you are expected to oblige.

Most parties were held on weekends in the past: weddings were reserved for Saturdays and funerals on Fridays: everyone looked forward to the weekend- it was the time for parties. The weekends are still busy across the country, but the calendar of social parties is changing. People now hold parties on virtually any day of the week: weddings on Tuesdays, funerals on Mondays, during office hours! Loud house warming, "car washing" and such wasteful social events are gradually disappearing. You don't need to be told that people no longer plan to entertain the whole community with free food! You could be told: "We are Jehovah's witnesses" or "We are Methodists!"

It used to be a taboo to hold a party during the Lenten season or the Muslim fasting period: Christians kept the bodies of their departed loved ones in the mortuary until after such seasons, and held the funeral at a time when every guest would be able to eat freely. Not anymore. Most people would be glad to have a party when everyone is fasting! And when last did you see anyone at a bar, saying: "Everybody one bottle, serve them round, owambe!" Fewer people now engage in that tradition of burying the dead afresh after ten years, or as the Yoruba would say: "turning the back of the dead". With the living almost dead from hunger and the pangs of poverty, they'd rather allow the dead to remain dead!

Every weekend, so much gaiety is still seen on our streets, a sign, it may be argued that Nigerians still manage to be happy, in spite of the poverty in the land, but it is not the same; not the same owambe culture we used to know, caterers, chairs, tables and canopy suppliers, managers of party tents, and musicians still get orders for their services, but something has happened, and it is perceptible; with most parties now almost a silent battlefield between the partying crowd and the horde of area boys, and beggars, who remind everyone else of the paradox of poverty, and the potential risk of an armed robbery attack after an ostentatious party.