Said to date back to the 16th Century AD, the Ofala Festival has, for half a millennium, remained a significant cultural rite for the people of Aguleri, Nnewi, Onitsha, Umuoji, Umueri, and many communities in Anambra State. It rose alongside the introduction of the monarchical system in Onitsha by migrants from the Benin Kingdom, serving a number of spiritual purposes including the renewal of the gods’ acceptance of the Obi, the purification of the land, and the attraction of good fortune to the people.
It is typically held as an annual three-day or week-long event in October, when people converge at the Obi’s palace for song, dance, food, and merrymaking. During the course of the festival, the king only comes out in public three times. The first appearance occurs after the morning rituals, with him dressed in royal regalia and led into the arena while flanked by his queen and a company of trumpeters.
A highlight is the elaborate dance featuring the red-capped chiefs who arrive separately, moving to the thunderous royal drums made from animal hides. After this, the chiefs go before the king, in descending order of seniority, and bow before him, singing his praises. This marks the king’s second appearance. The third happens just before the stage performances by different age grades. He dances with his first wife and children before stepping up to his throne.
The events of the festival come immediately after the Ukwu na Nlo, a period of retreat when the king is incommunicado and seeks the blessing of the gods or his people.
But this is not the only kind of Ofala there is. The death of a monarch also necessitates the celebration of another Ofala Festival, which is a farewell to the departed.
Beyond the spiritual aspect of it all, the Ofala, for many, symbolizes an avenue for business opportunities as entrepreneurs are usually seen at the arena, marketing their wares to the crowd the festival attracts. Crucially, telecommunication and drink brands usually sponsor the festival.
A testament to its adaptation to the times, the festival sometimes begins with thanksgiving services in the church.
In 2019, the International Association of Athletic Federations-approved Onitsha City Marathon was created to coincide with the events of the festival, drawing interest from a younger demographic. In 2015, the festival featured an art exhibition that drew artists from Germany, Belgium, France, and the UK.
Kanyinsola Olorunnisola is a journalist, social critic and literary enthusiast. He is the recepient of the 2017 Fisayo Soyombo National Essay Prize, the 2020 Speculative Literary Foundation’s Diverse Writers Grant and the 2020 K&L Prize for African Literature. He is the founder of SprinNG, a platform dedicated to the development of young African writers.