Nigeria’s Osun River: Sacred, Revered and Increasingly Toxic

By CHINEDU ASADU
Associated press

OSOGBO, Nigeria (AP) — Yeyerisa Abimbola has devoted most of her 58 years on Earth to the Osun, a deeply religious Nigerian waterway named after the river goddess of fertility. As the deity’s chief priestess, she leads other women known as servants of Osun in daily worship and sacrificial offerings along the riverbank.

But with each passing day, she worries more and more about the river. Once sparkling and clear and home to a variety of fish, it is now muddy and brown.

“The problem we face now is those who exploit the riverside,” Abimbola said. “As you can see, the water has changed color.”

The river, which runs through the dense forest of the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove – designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005 – is revered for its cultural and religious significance among the predominant Yoruba-speaking people in southwestern Nigeria, where Osun is widely revered. .

But it is under constant threat from pollution from waste disposal and other human activities, especially the dozens of illegal gold miners in Osun State whose runoff fills the sacred river with toxic metals. . Amid lax enforcement of environmental laws in the region, some are also using the river as a dumping ground, contributing to its contamination.

Osun’s servants, mostly women between the ages of 30 and 60, live in a row of one-room apartments along Osogbo Palace, the royal home of the Osogbo monarch about 1, 5 kilometers (1 mile) north of the grove and the river.

They leave behind all of their secular life, including marriages, to serve both the goddess and the king. They have little interaction with outsiders, allowing them to devote themselves fully to the goddess, whom they worship daily in a shrine nestled deep in the grove.

Often seen in flowing white robes symbolizing the purity the river represents, women perform a variety of tasks for the goddess from dawn to dusk, from overseeing sacrificial offerings, primarily live animals and drink, to making cultural activities in the waters of Osun. Some say the goddess heals them of afflictions when they drink or bathe in the river, and others say she can give them wealth or fertility.

A servant of Osun, who goes by the name of Oluwatosin, said the river brought her a child when she was having difficulty giving birth. Now the mother of two children, she intends to remain forever devoted to the river and the goddess.

“It is my belief and Osun answers my prayers,” Oluwatosin said.

The river also serves as an important “pilgrimage point” for the Yoruba people in Nigeria, said Ayo Adams, a Yoruba scholar – especially during the Osun-Osogbo festival, a colorful annual celebration that attracts thousands of worshipers and tourists of Osun” to celebrate the essence of the Yoruba race. Some participants say it offers the possibility of a personal encounter with the goddess.

But this year, ahead of the two-week festival in August, palace authorities announced they had been forced to take the unusual step of telling people to stop drinking the water.

“We have written to the state government, the museum about the activities of the illegal miners and for them to take action to stop them,” said Osunyemi Ifarinu Ifabode, the high priest of Osun.

Osun State is home to some of Nigeria’s largest gold deposits, and miners in search of gold and other minerals – many of whom operate illegally – are scattered across swampy areas in remote villages where the presence of law enforcement is weak. While community leaders in Osogbo have managed to drive miners away from the immediate area, they are essentially free to operate with impunity upstream and north.

Miners take water from the river for use in exploration and mining, and the runoff returns to it and other waterways, polluting the drinking water sources of thousands of people.

“It’s more or less like 50% of the water bodies in Osun State, so the major water bodies here have been polluted,” said Anthony Adejuwon, head of Urban Alert, an organization in nonprofit leading advocacy efforts to protect the Osun River.

Urban Alert conducted a series of tests on the Osun in 2021 and found it “heavily contaminated”. The report, which was shared with The Associated Press, revealed lead and mercury levels in the grove’s water that were 1,000% and 2,000% higher respectively than allowed by the Nigerian industry standard. . Urban Alert attributes it to many years of mining activity, some within 30 kilometers (19 miles) of the river.

Despite the drinking ban issued by the palace, on a recent visit AP saw residents going to the river daily to fill gallon containers for domestic use.

Dr Emmanuel Folami, a doctor based in Osogbo, the state capital, said drinking toxic water or otherwise using it for purposes that risk human exposure is a “big health concern which could cause lead poisoning.

In March, the Osun state government announced the arrest of “several people for illegal logging, seizures and site closures”, and promised it was studying the level of pollution in the river and ways to remediate.

But activists question the sincerity and commitment behind such efforts: “If we can’t see the state government operating within its own jurisdiction as a (mining) licensee, what are we going to do? tell us about other people? said Adejuwon of Urban Alert, which is running a social media campaign with the hashtag #SaveOsunRiver.

Abimbola, a servant of Osun since she was only 17, said the goddess is tolerant and generous. She thanks Osun for his blessings – a home, children, good health.

“Every good thing that God does for people, Osun does the same,” she said.

Still, she and others warn that even Osun has her limits.

There may be problems if the river remains contaminated and Osun “gets angry or is not properly appeased”, said Abiodun Fasoyin, a village chief in Esa-Odo, where much of the fishing takes place. mining, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Osogbo.

“The bank will overflow and carry people away when it gets angry,” Abimbola said. “Don’t do what she doesn’t want.”

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Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.