The significance of Ovia Uwasi in Aro cultural etymology

  1. Meanings and Explanations of Expression

Every language and dialect has a provision for euphemisms. That is, words that communicate meanings and uses to present unpleasant and painful conditions, situations or circumstances in indirect or less disturbing and unsettling manner.

A common and handy example is the phenomenon of death. Across all languages and cultures, the painful phenomenon of death is lightly and less painfully presented thus:

Instead of bluntly stating that he is dead, it euphemistically or lightly states: He has passed on. “He has joined his ancestors”.  “He has gone to long, long sleep”.  “He has gone to the great beyond”.  Shakespeare, Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark puts it thus:

The undiscovered country

From whose bourne (boundary)

No traveler returns

Among us Aro, our dialect has provisions for similar euphemism: “ojuna nri” “onoo ne eze” “obone ivu na enu” “obaana ya aja”, “oga wan a” He has passed on.

Language and diplomacy are twin siblings, co-existing in symbolic relationship.  That is the one promotes the other.  And the Aro are widely noted for having a knack for diplomacy.  Thus the longstanding Aro dialectical expression: “Nwa Aro asughinsu, ogbaaama”.  And so very serious, controversial and explosive issues or incidents are couched in diplomatic language: “Ovuru nna ya na oto”  thus the typical Aro palliates the severity of the incestuous offence with the father’s wife, not just words alone, but the typical Aro father may contrive for the offending son’s exile; and opening a new village or sub-village.

Another such language and diplomacy conspiracy: “Nwanyi jere ije onyeke” a married woman commits adultery.  Yet another example: “Nwokegbujiriopia” This is a mild and diplomatic way of saying that a man has twin-related traditional handicaps or disabilities.  The typical Aro is so very careful and choosy with his words that instead of stating what is commonly known, concerning a concubine relationship between a man and a woman (uzi), it is mildly put “ya naya no”.  A similar careful choice of words is so often used thus: “Egbenaemekekenaenu” “Osiyanyetuyadiono”  The two (keke and diono) are used to avoid the obscene. 

The typical Aro would prefer the more diplomatic language to the more direct and offensive language:“Umuagbogho Aro sirianyanaitetaa” – Aro dialectical medium of idiomatic expression.  And this promotes and paints a picture of a typical Aro girl as modest, appealing and impressive instead of the real off-hand reckless and immodest personality.

Aro naming system blends to the highest peak both language and diplomacy: “ukwu” “aka” “nta” etc. are part of the naming system in which Aro excel in language diplomacy and family and social inclusion.  To avoid offensive implant within family and extended family life, a more attractive, appealing and impressive names are given to give him and his immediate family members a sense of belonging.

A more general and common use by the Aro in pursuance and promotion of language and diplomacy is the Aro dialectical expression: “nnuruyana aboavia”.  The typical or traditional Aro does not disclose source of information. And he would not complicate issues by mentioning names and involving more and more people and the various often conflicting interests.

The following expressions in Aro dialects should be noted especially as they relate to the subject matter of this article. They include:“idodammadu, izowemmadu” and “itisummadu”.  These relate to aspects of traditional Aro burial rituals directly or indirectly related to the subject matter, which are about to be fully discussed in the following sections of this article.

2. Inoo Ovia Uwaasi

a. Meanings and Explanations

In traditional Aro dialect, to say that “mmadu no na Ovia Uwaasi” means that the person is dead but yet to be traditionally and officially made public. Ovia Uwaasi derives its meaning and use from longstanding traditional Aro health delivery and prevention practice of quarantine/isolation of patients of dangerous and dreaded diseases such as leprosy, chicken pox (kitikpa) or small pox. The key word, ovia refers and presently recalls the historical practice of isolating patients of any of these dangerous and dreaded diseases in relatively distant or remote bush locations.  The purpose of doing so is to prevent and protect other relatives and neighbours from contacting the dangerous, dreaded and often infectious diseases.  The mortality rate among them is often high.  Very few manage to survive for very inadequate care and treatment, physical and emotional trauma.  It is in circumstances such as these that such persons were as good as “abandoned” property/properties, with little or no hope of recovery and return to the family and communal fold – socially or culturally.

The “ovia”/bush in the expression is further explained or stretched to include “ochuchuaja” simply meaning a bush for offering such sacrifice to our ancestors’ gods/goddesses, including at times corpses that might have issues with “bad” deaths such as juju (arunsi) or victims of ancestors’ wraths etc.

Our Arondizuogu Diaspora community refers to such bushes as “ajoovia”. This clearly marked it out as a bush or a refuse dump of dangerous juju, contaminated, impure, abomination and sacrilege, ancestors vengeance related corpses.  

It needs to be recalled that COVID-19 has trumped up seemingly new/current vocabulary such as quarantine and isolation.  Our predecessors had over the centuries devised appropriate and efficacious therapies for similar plagues, epidemics or contagions. 

b. Circumstances that could require declaration of “InooOviaUwaasi”

i. Obedience and adherence to Aro traditional requirements for protocol or procedure for announcing the death;

ii. The status of the deceased, the family and others interested in the burial;

iii. Suspected circumstances of death eg. “bad death” such as suicide, drowning in water, abomination and sacrilege, smitten by juju/arunsi, etc.

iv. If juju/arunsi has a hand in the death of the deceased, an arunsi agent or bailiff could be directed to inform deceased’s relatives.  This obviously means that there are several ritual requirements before burial.

v. If the head of the family could not be easily or readily reached, perhaps living abroad, Diaspora, etc.

vi. If a key member of the family is seriously ill and that breaking the news could worsen or endanger his/her life;

vii. If promptly announcing the death could adversely affect continued payment of his/her salaries or pensions;

viii. If announcing the death could breach denominational church regulation or stipulation for period allowed for burial

ix. If traditional calendar could influence family to opt for burial during or around such periods as Ikeji, Christmas, New Year, Easter, Public and extended public holidays – in the case of Arondizuogu Diaspora Ikeji Arondizuogu which often takes place between late March and much of April annually.

xi. The season of the year could be a factor for requirement – Rainy season could discourage hasty announcement. But dry season could be a factor for positive consideration.

xii. Generally, it could be that the family is not ready for immediate burial;

xiii. If the family considers burial is at the onset of Ikeji Aro Okeigbo or within it

xiv. Circumstances of death of birth could compel the family to dispatch emissaries in far-flung places noted for special and prowess in the third eye of finding out cause(s) of death. Here in Aro, we often talk of “AziAnyim”. Enuanyim””ImimeIbibie” or Nde ojeenammuo”

xv. If the circumstances of death are too controversial, dubious and questionable to warrant the family or community before burial arrangement begins insists on or administer “arusi” oath on suspects(s) the period of one full year lasts through to find out if suspects are guilty or not.

xvi. If the deceased while alive was widely known as a powerful juju man or medicine man, he could, for instance, belong to many arusi or juju or traditional deities/gods and goddesses, burial of such person requires a long “clearance paper” requirements.  That is, to settle as many issues or obligations to them.

xvii. The deceased could belong to several high profile secret societies which may involve him in assented-to obligations or commitments involving him in complicated rituals.  It could be noted that failure to comply with would attract serious consequences.

xviii. Joint burial arrangements such as involvement of a community or village may not completely augur well for the deceased and the deceased family.  For it has reportedly been claimed that one of Aro’s greats who was reportedly buried out of respect, given a befitting burial by an entire Aro community, repeatedly warned his immediate descendant’s family to do him the honour of family burial for him to enable his spirit/personalityto assume the place of honour and recognition in the spirit world. 

3. Practical examples from among Aro villages and the greater Aro Kingdom

In my own Amankwu village, various stages in the process of or prior to announcing death is hereunder used to illustrate the above circumstances.

a. The pattern or phase could take or involve the following: that is, from the head of the nuclear family, to the head of the extended family, to the head of the traditional village compound, to the village head or Eze Ogo.  The sequence or pattern of announcing is in informing each of the people in each of the categories may be shortened by one, two or three meetings.  The point to properly note is that even when almost all members of the compound, village and beyond must have all heard of the death, it is this traditional and formal announcement before members of the village, men and women and at times youths, that is the authentic and recognized announcement.

b. In the case of a deceased status, a similar procedure as explained above follows.  But it would be more involving and more period of time to complete and conclude.  Such deceased may attract the interest and involvement of persons far beyond the village, even the Kingdom itself.  In some instances attendance, participation and overall involvement could cut across the country and even beyond.   Here again, the bottom line the taproot reference point is the nuclear family, precisely the head of the family, often, popularly referred to as the chief mourner.

c. In the case of Aro royals, Nde Eze Ogo, key cabinet members, an Ugwu Aro, Ada Ukwu, former PG Nzuko Aro, etc., a similar pattern of traditional announcement follows similar pattern, similar sequence.  The more the spread of traditional announcement, the more the expenses and other associated involvements and commitments.

d. There is another category among the deceased.  This is mainly among the underprivileged, disadvantaged, impoverished or poverty stricken.  Very often they have no reference to important family members ready to stand by to shoulder responsibility.  Here in Amankwu, we have had many recent instances, non-relatives, distant relations, well-wishers and philanthropists in quick response(s) automatically shoulder the responsibility of the burial.   Such traditional formal announcements are set aside to collectively provide often befitting burials.  Those who fall into this category include widows, the childless, the poor, and the physically challenged.

e. The traditional and formal method of announcing deaths of relations could be adversely affected or compromised by the following:

i. War time exigencies 

ii. Community collectively agreed predetermined monthly organized/supervised mass burials

iii. Mandatory church directed, stipulated period or duration of time for burial – two weeks, four weeks or more, depending on circumstances as understood or appreciated by the priest, etc.

iv. The use and role of mass media – This is full of advantages and disadvantages.  For a very serious traditional society like ours, the use of the mass media/social media could do more harm than good.

v. World-wide emergencies such as COVID-19 are so recent and so current as to burst open and distort all these aforementioned traditional and formal announcement procedures and protocols.

4. Conclusion

Aro Kingdom is a very traditional society proud of its history and culture, and adheres to it.  And that is why traditional procedures, protocols and requirements are jealously guarded and protected. 

A full-blown traditional announcement procedure and protocol for burial remains one of the lasting legacies and pride of Aro culture. It provides clear evidence of the intellectual, creative, highly arranged and organized system.  It also reveals the Aro man’s sense and feeling of humanity and the dignity of man.  And this is contrary to the pamphleteering journey man writers, European adventurers and fortune hunters and collaborating roles of some religious groups.  The peak of Aro traditional announcement of the death of a deceased relative is illustrated thus: In a long line of traditional mourners, deep into the night, probably by midnight the following public announcement is released/bellowed, breaking the serenity and innocence of the night:

Nna, owuowuoo!

Nna, owuowuoo!

Nna, owuowuoo!

Nna, owuowuoo!

The above lines are followed with a refrain/chorus.

It remains one of the moving, awe-striking, head swelling traditional scenes to behold!

By Ohiaerinwa Ogbonnaya Okoro

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Solomon Nnanna Umeham

Solomon Nnanna Umeham

Lecturer and professor of Zoology and Hydrobiology will clock 61 on the 2nd of January, 2016. A native of Ammanagwu village, Solo White was educated ...