ENUGWU-UKWU town in Njikoka Local Government Area of Anambra State could be said to derive its name from its geographical topography. It perches like a bird on top of a big hill, looking down on the earth. The town is culturally buoyant, even as it has embraced modernity in all ramifications. All over Enugwu Ukwu town, pythons are like beautiful brides. They must not be hurt or killed. In fact, it is a taboo to do harm to pythons there. There are dire consequences for hurting the creature.
In our visit to Enugwu Ugwu recently, we had a chat with Pa Francis Anisiobi, from Urunnebo village. He is a traditional/native doctor and chief priest of Ngene deity, which owns the pythons. Explaining why pythons are not killed in Enugwu Ukwu, the chief priest said: “Our forefathers came into the world and saw that pythons were not killed in this area because the pythons belonged to the shrine. And whoever killed it would be enveloped by problems. Whoever kills a python in Umunri as a whole will be required to do certain things to free him from the disastrous consequences of the act.
First, some native doctors will be consulted for divination, and he will be told what to do. He will organise burial rites for the python and bury it at Ajoagwa Arusi. The burial rites include bringing goat and chicken that will be taken to the shrine. After that, if the person is having problems, they will stop.”
What sort of problems could someone who kills a python have? His answer: “If he is a businessman, his business will start dwindling. If he is a driver, he will continue to have accidents; he will not die but continue to battle difficulties. There is nothing that the person does that will progress. So, if he is conscious enough to make appropriate consultation, the cause of his misfortune will be revealed to him. He will go to the shrine with two native doctors for divination and he will be told what to do so that he can make progress. But where he refuses to do what he was asked to do, he will remain in problems.
It could be that if the person has a child, that child will die. It can affect many children. Maybe at that point, the person will do the needful. Organising burial rites for a python does not stop the offender from going to church or to belong to any society. It has been there since time immemorial, from the time of our forefathers. It is not a recent development.”
On how harmful the reptiles are, he said:“It does not bite. It can even go and lie with children so that it can experience some heat. Some people will take it out with bare hands, telling it that the children are afraid. If it comes into a house, you just gently take it out. During the rainy season, it usually looks for a warm place. It could enter the kitchen if it is open. It does not bite. I have not seen or heard about anybody bitten by a python in my village. It does not bite anybody in Umunri as a whole. Even if you step on it, it would jump up and continue moving.”
Anisiobi said that it does not matter if the offender was a stranger; the consequences are same. “The person will experience problems. That is why we tell non-indigenes on time that we do not kill pythons. There was someone who unknowingly killed a python while working in his farm. He saw a snake and killed it and brought it out majestically.
He was from Abakaliki, Ebonyi State. He experienced serious problems. He spent all he got from his farm that year to free himself. If he had not done that, he would have continually been in trouble. Ironically, when he killed the python, he rushed out of the bush in excitement, saying that he had killed big meat. We told him it was an abomination; we do not kill pythons in our place. Problems started manifesting in his life immediately. So, he did the needful and was liberated. He is still living with us till today.”
Pa Anisiobi, a former policeman further explained that it does not mean that they (Enugu-Ukwu indigenes) worship pythons. “We do not worship pythons. We plead for blessings from God through the shrine that owns the pythons. God created it and created everything in the world. We came into the world and discovered from our forefathers that they did not kill pythons.
“We also have a big river (lake) Mmiri Arusi, Mmiri Ngenenebaka. There are more than 30 crocodiles there. There is nothing lacking there. Children go there to swim and they were usually warned that they would have problems if they swam there. A particular boy was always going there to swim; he would abscond from Nimo Boys Secondary School and take kids to go and swim there. Despite series of warnings, he did not listen. One fateful day, I was in the shrine that I feed and I warned them to go away. Others obeyed and dressed up but he did not. He entered the river and stood up there. And he died. Water did not enter his mouth but he was dead. The children that went there to swim with him were detained at the police station in Abagana. Some swimmers went into the lake and brought him out. His stomach was flat because water did not enter into mouth. It was like he was magnated there.
There is a signboard warning people not to swim in the lake. Fishing is also not allowed there too. The remains were brought to the front of Umunnem hall. He was buried by the side of the river. It happened two years ago. He was popularly known as Okocha because he was light complexioned. He was less than 18, very popular. Such victims do not get burial rites. He died in vain; he died for obstinacy, because he was warned.
On why fishing is forbidden in the lake, he explained: “The lake is beside the shrine. Ezu Ngene Urunneboaka warned from the time of our ancestors that it would not tolerate any fishing there because, when you do, you disturb the spirits resident there. If anybody wants to do rituals, you do it. The crocodiles and the rest of them would come out and make merry. After the sacrifice, progress would be made. But he cannot go without the chief priest.
Whatever anyone that goes fishing there sees, he would take it. It means he went there secretly. The person would be assailed by sicknesses. The person would deteriorate in all forms. That is why people don’t go a-fishing there. Communities have things they forbid. In Ogbunike, for instance, they don’t kill the tortoise. If you go there, you would see tortoises moving about because they don’t kill them”.
Commenting on the traditional and Christian practices in the land, the chief priest said, “If you come to our shrine, the first thing you see is God the creator. Thereafter, you begin to call upon the things kept on earth. Christians don’t disturb us. On Sundays, you tell your children to go to church to listen to the word of God. But tradition remains profound. We work together with Christians or people who go to church. If there is anything happening in the church, we cooperate. If there are levies in the church, you make sure that you are up-to-date in payments.
Give Jesus what belongs to him and Caesar his due. It is all channeled to one God because He created everything in the world. If those things are not useful to him, he would not have created them. There is so much power in the world; only God knows all. Those sent down from heaven are receiving power from God. Power is in the river. We, traditionalists, obey nso ana. Our motto is, ‘live and let live’. Whatever you would not want anyone to do to you, do not do to another. We don’t marry our relations. We forbid so many things such as involvement in bad or ungodly things. We belong to many societies that confer different titles so as to obey nso ana. God created the heavens and the earth and we obey all so as to live long.”
Igwebuike Alloysius Okeke from Akiyi village in Enugu-Ukwu, said: “Pythons, in my place, belong to the deity. Anybody who kills a python in my village will have to organise a burial ceremony for it just like it is done for human beings. The only difference is that people will not gather to mourn as in the case of a human being. “After the burial of the python, the land will have to be cleansed by appeasing the deity. Certain items will be presented before the deity for the appeasement. That is how it is done in my village.
Coming to the issue of Ngwu, it came to Akiyi from Awkuzu, because its kindred are from there. It is not everybody that eats its head, unless it calls you. Before then, it gives a sign and, on investigation, it would be discovered that it has invited one to be one of its relations. And when you come, all the necessary requirements would be spelt out for you. After that, you would provide all of them, including some animals, which would be sacrificed before the Ngwu. “After the sacrifice, you would eat the meat and thereafter, you become its relations because it is assumed you have dined and wined with it.”
On why the people don’t kill pythons, Okeke said: “The way I understand it is that the python belongs to the deity and should not be killed. It enters peoples’ houses and compounds but it does not destroy anything. Even if it bites you, there is no problem. That is why we have decided to follow our forebears to keep the tradition.”
Revealing the consequences, he said, “If anybody kills the python without letting people know what he or she has done, it would not take long before the person begins to have series of problems and that is why anybody who kills it would always tell others what has happened. “For example, if such a person is in a vehicle that is involved in an accident, only the person would sustain injuries; others would be saved. The person could also be cultivating land and accidentally injure himself with the hoe or cutlass, and such wounds would never heal until investigation reveals that such a person killed a python sometime in the past without telling anybody.
Sometimes, people, including the person that killed the python would cry like when somebody dies. The people that cry are just people that are around and who understand what the culture says regarding killing a python. Then, they would get a carton, put the python inside it and bury it before other rites would be carried out. Yes, it could be buried in a coffin. A person who wants to accord full respect to it would buy a small coffin and bury it because, at the end of the day, it is all about burial.”
On other traditional rites after the burial, Okeke further said: “Other necessary rituals after the burial include the fact that the priest in charge of the python could demand a fowl or a goat to be slaughtered. Whatever their demand, it would be provided so that the sacrifice would be complete. Even if you are a visitor in this village, as long as you keep to the rules guiding us here, the python will not harm you in any way.”
Concerning their Religion, he said, “Well, you know that all over the world, religion is supposed to be a personal choice. But here, you find Christians wishing that tradition be abolished, so that everybody will follow Christianity. But so far, so good, there has been no clash. Christians are worshipping their God while the traditionalists are equally doing their own thing. There is no problem between the two at all in this village.”