The sun was preparing to retire to the east for a well-deserved rest after scorching the earth tirelessly all day. A group of men in a convoy of four motorcycles arrived a stream, which locals prefer to call a river, in a remote part of a village.
The road to the river is uneven. In fact, it is doubtful if the road had ever been graded not to talk of being asphalted. The river is surrounded by mangrove with bamboos, standing as if on sentry duty while some children were playing inside the river, splashing water about merrily.
On arrival, the eldest of the men, Pa Aaron Njoku, a slim built fellow with springy steps, crossed to the other side of the river and walked up a few metres. Left in his own world as it were, he muttered some words like appeasement of or deference to an unseen being before rejoining the party.
He spent just a few minutes on the trip across the river. But his mission was accomplished as events proved few minutes later, to show that oftentimes, nature plays mankind a game too hard to understand.
Pa Njoku, who is one of the custodians of the river, retrieved a wrap of palm fruits from another man and began to throw them, one after another, into the river. As he did that, he was saying: “Fish, come and eat palm fruits! Fish, come and eat palm fruits!! Fish, come and eat palm fruits!!!” Suddenly, the river began to rumble and fishes of various sizes emerged from the shallow water and began to struggle for the palm fruits being thrown by the elderly man. As soon as the man ran out of palm fruits, placidity returned to the river. The fishes disappeared. A while later, another man began to throw palm fruits into the river, inviting the fishes to come and make merry. The fishes also honoured the invitation.
Welcome to Okwa Ibe River in Ihenu-Uburu, Ohaozara Local Government Area of Ebonyi State. A sacred affair, it is home to king-size fishes, which hearken to the voice of men.
Okwa Ibe River could be described as one of the wonders of the world. From one generation to another, the mystery of the fishes that obey the voice of men has been playing it.
To start with, the kind of fishes found in the shallow stretch defies logic. Again, the fishes are believed to be human beings, who reincarnated in that form. This was revealed by Pa Njoku. To cap it up, he further volunteered that when a prominent indigene of the place dies, one of the fishes will also die and turn upside down.
Daily Sun visited Okwa Ibe recently and was warmly welcomed by the fishes.
The making of mystery
Pa Njoku, an indigene of Umuza in Ihenu, described himself as “one of the people in charge of overseeing the river.”
Explaining how the Okwa Ibe fishes came about, he said: “It started very long time ago, from time immemorial. Our forefathers were overseeing it and whoever is chosen takes over. I’m now in charge and it is the whole villagers that gathered and agreed that I’m the one who should be breaking kolanut or slaughtering he-goats brought there. I accepted it because I cannot disobey my people. So, I started breaking kolanuts and performing necessary rites.”
He added that the river was not all about the fishes in them. “People who have various problems or challenges do come to appeal to the river for assistance and when their problems are solved they return with he-goats to give thanks. When such happens, our people gather and make merry. The name of the stream is Okwa Ibe. It means something or someone who helps the people. When things are difficult, the river will be approached.”
Pa Njoku further disclosed that Okwa Ibe helped in establishing the truth when there is a dispute. Hear him: “When someone denies doing what he is accused of, the villagers will gather to find out the truth. A calabash will be brought with kolanuts and he or she will stand inside the river with the calabash containing kolanuts and some water. The person will declare his or her innocence, eat a piece of the kolanut and drink some water. If he remains alive for a year, it means that he was, indeed, innocent.”
Continuing, Pa Njoku said: “Okwa Ibe came into existence in the time of our forebearers. But we were made to understand that it was a covenant between the gods and Ihenu people as represented by our forebearers. Up till today, our people have not broken their rules. There is a part of the river (Eta) where people can kill fish but Okwa Ibe area is strictly out of bounds for fishing.”
Consequences of disobedience
Asked what happens if anyone catches fish at Okwa Ibe, Pa Njoku answered: “Whoever catches fish at Okwa Ibe will not live and he or she will not be mourned. Anyone, who eventually goes afishing here has forfeited his or her own life. In short, anyone who kills fish here has himself to blame. There is no one guarding the river but if anyone sneaks in under the cloak of darkness and does anything fishy, except he does not pass where there is river or stream before he can escape death.
“Many people have tried it and it did not pay them. It has made many people blind and such people have been confessing with their mouth that Okwa Ibe imprisoned them.”
Does it mean that the fishes will respond and come out whenever anyone throws palm fruits into the river?
“Whoever comes to Okwa Ibe without evil intentions, if he throws palm fruits into the river, they will come out for them. But if you come to me as the chief priest, I will ask you why you want me to call out the fishes. But if you come on your own and throw palm fruits into the river, they can eat them. However, if you have bad intentions, even if you pour a basin of palm fruits into the river, they will ignore you. Many people have tried it and they did not see any fish.
For example, some soldiers wanted to eat fresh fish during the Nigeria – Biafra war and they decided to come to Okwa Ibe to make some catch. So, they came to Okwa Ibe with palm fruits and guns. They threw palm fruits into the river for a long time but they did not see any fish,” he explained.
Pa Njoku further said another remarkable thing that happened was that during the Nigeria – Biafra civil war, no fish was seen in the river. “We, Ihenu people, thought that the mystery was over. We thought that the thing, which started from time immemorial, had gone with the war. But when the war ended, one day, somebody reported that the fishes had started appearing again. It was something beyond the understanding of men. And since the war ended till today, fishes continue to appear in their numbers.
“It can be said that the fishes at Okwa Ibe are sacred; they are not to be toyed with because they have been there through the ages. Some communities have things they revere or respect; we cannot afford to destroy this mystery in our generation.”
Is it true that Ihenu people do incarnate as fishes?
“There is something that seems like Ihenu, turning to fish but it is not all Ihenu. What makes it appear as if Ihenu people incarnate as fishes is that whenever a prominent son of the land dies, one of the fishes at Okwa Ibe will die. So, before you see a dead fish at Okwa Ibe, a prominent son of Ihenu must have died. This has been happening from ages.”
Can someone pick and eat a dead fish at Okwa Ibe?
“No one can eat it. If anyone picks a dead fish from Okwa Ibe and goes home with it, his kith and kin will chase him back with it. And if the person decides to go and sell it to an outsider, whatever happens to him is his own problem. Many of our people are Christians but none has tried to destroy Okwa Ibe because no one knows how it came about. If someone pours chemical into the river in an attempt to poison the fishes, the person has succeeded in killing himself.”
The chief priest made other revelations about Okwa Ibe. He said: “The spot where the fishes congregate is beneficial to mankind. For instance, if anyone is troubled by evil spirits or witches in his home in any part of the world, all the person needs do is to come and we call out the fishes and fetch some water from the spot. If the person puts the water in a bottle and hangs it in his house or sprinkles it around his home, that will be the end of the disturbance by witches or evil spirits. Again, we drink the water. We use it for cooking and other things. When we have a new child, we put the water into his or her mouth because we are Ihenu people, who come from water. Sincerely speaking, we come from water and it is very difficult for an indigene of this place to be drowned except the person has committed one thing or the other. Moreover, people do not get drowned at Okwa Ibe. If someone crossing falls into it, somehow, God will save the person from drowning.”
Incarnation as fishes
Mr. Aka Godwin, Chairman, Ihenu General Assembly, offered fresh perspectives. He told Daily Sun: “I want to make some addition about the origin of the fishes. We were told that it started hundreds of years ago. It was as a result of a war that took place within the village. The war was so fierce many people were killed in cold blood. Some group of people decided that instead of dying in cold blood during the war, they jumped inside the river and reincarnated as fishes. That is how it all started. Those people who chose to jump into the river and drown instead of waiting to be killed in cold blood reincarnated as fishes. That was a very long time ago. In fact, no living human being can say when it started.”
Aka added: “This place has been a tourist centre and we’ve been begging government to come and develop it so that it can attract people from far and near. Though people do come to see things for themselves, foreigners can come from outside the country to feed their eyes if it is properly developed or modernised.”
In the same vein, Mr. Ezinna Vincent Obinna Akpa, President General, Eweze Uburu United Assembly, urged government to maximise the potential of Okwa Ibe for benefit of the people.
Waxing philosophical, he opined that their forefathers, who established the mystery, had a reason for doing so, noting that this could be auspicious time to realise the objective. “We are happy that Okwa Ibe is becoming known. I believe that things like this bring development to any given society. Our forefathers had a reason for doing it and, perhaps, this is the time for it to manifest for those of us who are used to it. It may not be so exciting to us, who see it everyday, but any first time visitor will testify that it is awe-inspiring,” Akpa said.