March 1- Off to see the King in Benin City.
Prior to leaving for Benin City in Edo state, the Rotary Club of Aba hosted a breakfast and presented two potential projects – Clean water and the rebuilding of a school.
As previously commented, the roads in Nigeria leave much to be desired … poorly paved and filled with pot holes. As we drove to Benin City we observed young men at roadside digging trenches with pick axe and hoe. Perhaps they were laying the foundation for power lines which are desperately needed. We also saw many types of palm trees and were told that the people use palm oil as a staple in their diets. Again, the countryside is littered with churches and once again, we caught sight of a sign for Nigerian Jews. But we have yet to find the deli!
We crossed over the Niger River which has the longest bridge in all of Africa and saw a sign for the Asaba Rotary. Our security guards are definitely worth the investment as when we stopped once to fill the gas tank on our van, and the group needs the “convenience”, we were urged to re-board the bus. There was no direct threat but rather they were just acting prudently. As we proceeded, we also saw yams and cassava root being sold and observed bright red earthen mounds that were termite hills. They actually looked like giant sand castles.
Finally we reached Benin City and went directly to the palace to meet the King which dates back as far as 1380. We practiced saying OBAGATOPYA which means “long live the king.” We waited under a covered shelter which reeked of urine for about 45 minutes to see him. When we finally entered the room, the king was on a raised platform and on one side of the room were his chiefs all garbed in white with orange beads. These chiefs have no other job and the Oba pays their wages. The OBA is a godfather or a “King Solomon” type figure. We sat opposite them in chairs that were heavily carved. I imagine it is something like the pope and the cardinals meeting. On the walls of this chamber were photographs and awards and next to the King (OBA) were young errand boys and a man holding the kings scepter.
After a late lunch (paid for by a contribution to our team from the OBA), we realized that our schedule needed to change due to timing of the afternoon. We returned to our rooms to rest and prepare for the evening’s festivities.
We were invited to a dinner hosted by Sir Chief Dr. Gabriel Osawaru Igbinedion (you can Google Igbinedion to learn more) who is the Esama (godfather of the people with responsibilities that include assisting the poor) of Benin Kingdom. He is well-educated, a huge philanthropist and a major donor to Rotary. He is an industrialist with business interests throughout Nigeria and all over Africa, We all arrived at 6:30 as requested to a circular banquet room draped with orange and red chiffon from the center out. While we waited for 45 minutes for the host to arrive, soft drinks were served and a competent yet loud band played. The Esama arrived clothed in a long white garment covered with beautiful white Alanson lace, to a fanfare of sequined costumed dancing girls, gyrating, singing and playing gourd-like instruments covered with beads. Bongo drums added the necessary rhythms. Team leader Rick with Helen, PDG Carl and his wife Lina and Past District Governor Sonya and her husband Staffan were all invited to sit at the head table. Soda, champagne and wine were on the table so that we might toast the Esama. Our dinner was a buffet including two types of rice (of course), fish, the “meaty” bones of a “mystery meat”, fresh fish, fresh salad and fufu garri.
After dinner there was further entertainment of the African girls dancing and singing. Finally we Rotarians were invited to dance to pop music including the Beatles, Elvis, Motown, and other western rock music. After a while, the Esama spied our Rotarian Wendy who was dressed in a beautiful Nigerian dress. As He walked through the crowd, we stepped aside and he invited Wendy to dance. He took her hand and they danced to rock and roll and 50’s music. The Esama was very light on his feet especially for a man of 78 years. We all gathered a round them as they were in the spotlight. Both of them appeared to enjoy the moment, dancing as though they were teenagers again.
As the dancing ended, we Rotarians were invited to the Esama’s private residence one half block away. We entered his “small” palace we had an “oh my” moment as were viewed the multi-tiered chandelier and dual curved staircases leading to the upper level. We saw artwork and artifacts. We were seated in a long room with men on one side and women on the other. The chairs were heavily carved and the room had multiple Oriental rugs on the floor. We were each presented with a gift of a bronze casting of a head of a past monarch.
Next we were invited into one of many dining rooms for a ”’Chinese snack” consisting of rice, noodles, shrimp, vegetables and concluding with fresh fruit. There was also more wine and champagne and more toasting the Esama.
As if this were not enough, each guest received additional gifts honoring the Esama’s 78th birthday (last year) and a heavy volume listing all the individuals who had received honorary degrees from the University that the Esama founded. Lastly we were gifted about 12 yards of green fabric with Esama’s photo on it.
To say the least, this has been an amazing day.