In Bayelsa State, the Nembe and Brass kingdoms stand out as practical custodians of culture and tradition. OSA OKHOMINA (Yenagoa) examines the culture of the people in terms of burial rites and why the dead are buried facedown and the role of periwinkle shells
For a first time visitor to Nembe and Brass kingdoms of Bayelsa State, he could mistake the cultural practices of the people to that of the Binis in Edo State. Honestly there are lots of similarities which is why the Oba of Benin or his representative must be present at the crowning of a Nembe monarch. They have close cultural affinity.
Nembe is one of the major communities in Bayelsa State Nigeria. The people cut across Nembe local government area and the ancient town of Twon Brass and Okpoama in Brass LGA of the state.
Professor Ebiegberi Joe Alagoa, in “The land and People of Bayelsa state”, said the towns of Twon Brass and Okpoama have traditions of early settlements by Ijaw speaking people from the dispersal centre of Obiama.
Nembe people can be found in the coastal areas of the state and they are predominantly fishermen, traders and farmers. Apart from their common religion, they also speak a common language known as Nembe. Since every tribe across the globe has its dos and don’ts, Nembe people are of no exception.
But what may look shocking to visitors is the way and manner a dead indigene, whose father and mother are alive, is buried. They are buried face down in their graves and sometimes, placed face down unto broken bottles.
And like, the burial of the Yoruba “Abiku”, some are marked with sharp objects or broken bottles before they are buried.
Chief Defegha Emmanuel, a notable Chief from Brass kingdom of Brass LGA, told LEADERSHIP Weekend that the tradition has been in practice over centuries and has no exception in Nembe and Brass areas.
According to him, though they grew up to meet the tradition, “Some deceased are buried face down into a grave with broken bottles without coffins.
“These are people that died with their parents still alive. Instead of a lavish burial ceremony, they are quietly buried without fanfare.”
Chief Emmanuel, who is a civil servant with the Bayelsa State government, said in recent times, many indigenes try to avoid this sad burial practice by burying their dead in Lagos and faraway places, “But such practice is believed to be followed by strange and deadly consequences,” he said.
Chief Nathan Egba-Ologo, a former commissioner for Information and Orientation and a notable Chief of Nembe Kingdom, said though the kingdom can boast of four types of burial rites, some are rough and strange but it all depends on the manner of death.
According to Egba-Ologo, “In the Nembe traditional burial system, there are about three forms of burial. There is the normal burial rites given to those who grow old and die of illness or natural causes or even younger people who may have lost at least one of their parents.
“However, there are others such as “iwo fe” which refers to a young person that dies or even older person that dies from injuries sustained from an accident or other violent means. Such a corpse is buried in a rough manner.
“The last types called “ibo duwei” this refers to a person that is known to be diabolical or wicked or in some cases from families who are identified to have a bad background. Such corpses are buried face down in areas marked as evil forest.
“However, this last type is no longer common as it is increasingly difficult in modern times to successfully prove someone as being diabolical or of wicked disposition prior to their death. However, “iwo fe” burial system is still in practice as it is believed that going contrary to it will attract negative implications for the family of the deceased.”
How some escape such face down style of burial
LEADERSHIP Weekend check among indigenes of Nembe showed that some indigenes have devised several ways of burying without the “sad” manner of burial for the deceased whose parents are still alive.
According to investigation, many now claimed to have buried their dead in faraway places rather than bringing the corpse home to face such style of face down burial.
A son of Nembe and a practicing journalist, who pleaded anonymity, told LEADERSHIP Weekend that the culture of Nembe is vast.
He confirmed that rather than allow their dead go through such process, “they bury in other parts of the country and come home to perform another rite to call the spirit of the deceased person into the periwinkle shells. They summon the spirit and do the burial in order to avoid calamity. This is called fengu-duwei. They can also cut the nails or hair of such persons are taken to the community for burial.” He said that is the reason why Nembe people don’t sell the periwinkle shells.
How the married female member is buried
While the coming of the missionaries into the country had adversely affected most African traditions, it is not so in Nembe Kingdom. They still hold their culture very close to their chest. This is not peculiar to Nembe people.
All communities in Bayelsa State so much cherish their culture and traditions that they are ready to defend them with their might.
They pride their tradition and customs above others, with the belief that such cultural values should be progressively preserved.
In the Nembe marriage tradition, whoever marries from the area is not allowed any right over the corpse of his wife, as they have a saying that “the bone must get back to its owner”.
The husband only has right over his wife when she is alive. As soon as she dies, Nembe tradition demands that her final resting place is her mother’s compound.
The burial tradition is well celebrated, not only in Nembe Kingdom, but the entire states as a whole. Both families take active part in the burial ceremony.
That is why it is allowed that the wake must take place both at the husband’s compound and deceased family’s compound.
The wake, according to the tradition, is the real burial ceremony unlike what obtains in the western part of Nigeria. It is an all-night affair. During the burial, a vest is printed; a banner is placed at a strategic position while the celebrants are entertained with Owugiri or Iworoko dance.
Life after death
Nembe people had the firm belief, that the spirit of all deceased persons first remain in the town after burial for few days, and then travels northwards towards a place called “Oliba Toboo” – “The inner part of Oliba Creek”, and on the night of the seventh day after burial, the spirit travels southward, till it reaches a great ocean or gulf which separates the living from the dead called “Duei Ama” – “Land of the Dead, which is Hades”, from ‘this our solar system’.
According to the people, in that place, there is only one tiny canoe capable of ferrying over only a spirit at a time, and that this canoe was owned by a woman called “Osoin Soinba”, the Watcher; and it was the only means of crossing over to the other side of Duei Ama; and unless a spirit gave her some of the goods it carried along as payment for the fare, she would not ferry that spirit over to the other side of Duei Ama.
This is the reason why some spirits of deceased people are believed to return to haunt their living relatives until something was given to it in the way of offering and sacrifices by the living relatives with which it eventually paid the transport fare to the other side of Hades.
The Nembe people had also the firm belief that the spirit of the deceased go to the other world with all the pomp and glory with which the body was honoured at its funeral; and this was the main reason why “we bury our dead with many goods which entails a lot of expenses, leading some to fall into heavy debts”, a native told our correspondent.
“We also had the belief that infants who died young having not accomplished the duty God intends them to perform, were sent back again into the womb of their mother or others and born again.”
Evidences are not wanting to prove this, where some mothers had put certain marks on the body of their dead children, which were born again with the said marks, either by the same parents or others.