The city of Asaba lies nestled in a serene but peaceful environment strategically located atop a gentle hill on the central portion of the Niger Delta Peninsula of Nigeria. From historical records, the famous Mungo Park was the first Westerner known to have travelled from Asaba up the River Niger up to as far as the confluence town of Lokoja. Founded in 1884, the city of Asaba, actually became the very first known capital of Southern Nigeria Protectorate probably because it played host to the early commercial activities of the colonial masters especially. It is little wonder that when the then sleepy town was identified as an ideal location to stimulate the export of goods to England, it became the headquarters of the Royal Niger Company (later known as UAC Nigeria Plc).
It is said that the early British settlers chose to establish their means of communication to their bigger war armadas and ships in the sea by establishing a place called ‘Cable Point’ and a post office in Asaba. They also brought religion and western education through missionary schools. This explains why Asaba indigenes are amongst the most educated and religious ethnic entities in Nigeria. It is therefore somewhat of a paradox that this group of people who welcomed western civilisation very early can still hold so tenaciously to a myth. The fact that Asaba is now the administrative capital city of the oil- rich Delta state, its people fastidiously hold unto their elaborate cultural heritage. They cherish the ties they share with their communal ancestors. This fact finds a vivid expression in their age-long belief that the Ogbono vegetable remains a culinary taboo. In a sense it is a classic validation of the famous Nigerian saying that “One Man’s meat is another Man’s poison”.
Like most African communities, the people of Asaba eat plenty of starchy food and a favourite staple is the “swallow” (a meal made from yam or cassava and usually eaten with soup). This food culture is based on swallowing small rounded mounds with the help of tasty soup dishes. Slippery soups such as those made from the Okoro or Ogbono seed are very popular in this regards. But while Asaba natives freely eat Okoro, the same cannot be said of Ogbono. In fact it is has remained a sacred taboo heavily frowned upon till present day. Perhaps the recorded testimony of a certain Chief Patrick Nwamu, who attended a sumptuous dinner hosted by the late Ambassador Edwin Ogbu in his New York residence many years ago, best illustrates the place of Ogbono amongst the people of Asaba.
“At the party, I had Okoro soup. Unknown to me, it was blended with Ogbono. The next day I had a swollen mouth with severe pains. Upon investigation, I was told by the Ambassador’s wife who is a Yoruba lady that the soup I ate at the party was mixed with Ogbono. It was then I knew where my problem came from. It is a taboo for Asaba natives to eat Ogbono soup because our mother goddess, Onishe uses it for spiritual purification which in local parlance is known as ife-ahu” .
In Asaba the sale of the Ogbono seed and its consumption can be likened to the sale and consumption of narcotics or hard drugs. Such ill- advised behaviour attracts sever condemnation and sanctions. Ogbono is not sold openly or grinded in the market. Those who choose to sell it do so in hiding. According to Mama Maria, a trader in Ogbogonogo market Asaba who deals in soup delicacies: ”we do not call it Ogbono here in the market; it is called ‘okuluenu’ so that they do not ban us from selling in the market. In fact I hide it, I only display Egusi, crayfish and oil but ‘okuluenu’ is always tied and kept inside my bucket. Even when my customers come they buy it wrapped because they know that they cannot open the nylon in any Asaba market….hmmm it is a serious offense against ‘Onishe the spiritual mother because she protects and holds the destiny of Asaba people’ So how did this eye raising myth come around to be interwoven into the culture of a people so educated and widely- travelled? .
The myth behind the taboo is traced to the river goddess ‘Onishe’ who is said to be as old as the city of Asaba, and is traditionally worshipped by the Asaba people as their divine protector. Onishe, who is believed to be an amazon of a woman with big breasts is considered as the most revered deity whose sacred abode is located within groove at the mouth of the River Niger. The people of Asaba have pledged their loyalty over the ages to the Onishe deity who is believed to provide everlasting spiritual and physical protection to them. Oral tradition has it that the goddess was invited to a dance party where she was served Ogbono soup, and while eating she soiled her traditional white dress unknown to her. When she noticed, she got angry, left the party unceremoniously and headed to the forest where she burnt the dress and proclaimed that henceforth no Asaba indigene should eat Ogbono soup.
To further strengthen this proclamation, she placed a curse on whoever goes against her proclamation after which, she disappeared. The spot where she stood before disappearing became the Onishe shrine and her spirit and memory is worshipped there till date. History records that a calm atmosphere surrounds the enclave of the Onishe shrine and for the past 250 years. It is said that neither the leaves nor the Ogbono seeds that lines both sides leading to her groove have ever fallen to the ground. According to Ogbuesi Onyali a titled elder of the society from one of the seven villages that make up Asaba ‘…. I grew up to know that Ogbono is a forbidden soup because my great grand-mother mama Ogbeanu Dibia was a worshipper of the great Onishe.
I remember then she puts on white attire from head to toe when she wants to visit the shrine. In fact natives of Asaba view the Ogbono soup as’ ife a I u’ and the consequence of eating the soup is devastating, so we do not go near the soup. It is so serious that Ogbono seeds are not sold in our local market, non indigenes buy from neighbouring villages. It may sound surprising to you, but obedience they say is better than sacrifice…….. ‘According to him, Onishe’s faithfuls gather regularly to seek spiritual help and protection and as a tradition the goddess requires a full grown cock, a goat or cow depending on the financial capacities of the person.
For Prof. Anyanwu, a professor of African history ‘….man cannot live without myths because man is a being that cannot bear to live with certain cultural questions unanswered…. myths have answers to all questions of man…’It is therefore evident that culture and nutrition are two inseparable duo; culture guide behaviours and thoughts of people making humans to be biologically adapted to their ancestral food environment. Today, out of respect for the ‘Onishe’ and also for the fear of the consequences of disobedience, Asaba natives have come to accept the reality that they cannot afford to enjoy the sumptuous Ogbono soup without consequences. Their safest bet remains in the realm of imagination !