In Africa, a man’s resting place is often more important than the place of his birth because the dead, especially those who die at a ripe old age, are often venerated as ancestors, deities almost, to whom libation is poured.
In Onigbongbo, a thriving community two minutes from the very popular Maryland Bus stop and three minutes from the elitist Shonibare estate lies a street where the head of the house is buried right outside his homestead.
The modern day Onigbongbo community is made up of a number of streets; Aina Eleko Road, Aina Eleko Lane, Oke Ita, Ijaola, Omolake, Araromi, Irawo, Olajide, and Ibadiaran streets.
The area belongs to the Aworis, a Yoruba speaking people who trace their ancestry back to Ile-Ife, and who carved out a piece of their land for the siting of what is the Ikeja Military Cantonment.
But it is Ibadiaran Street that first catches the attention of the curious wayfarer, because on this short and narrow street lined with cars, tombs stand like sentries outside each house, the spirit of the dead standing guard, as it were, over the living.
Africans have always venerated the dead who are seen as beneficent spirits protecting those they have left behind, which is why we pour libations to the dead, but it is not only in Africa that the dead are accorded special reverence.
In Mexico, Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead is a national holiday observed almost country-wide with gatherings of family and friends who pray for and remember friends and family members who have died.
In Brazil, a similar celebration holds and is called Dia de Finados. It is also a public holiday during which many Brazilians celebrate by visiting cemeteries and churches.
There are similar celebrations in other places from Fiji to the Phillipines, India and China.
But in Onigbongbo, home to the Aworis, one of the founding tribes of what is now modern day Lagos, every day is for celebrating the dead who are a constant presence.
How do those who share their homes with the dead feel about the tradition?
“We dey enjoy peace for here,” Hajia Jummai, a tenant at 19 Ibadiaran Street, says in faltering English.
And peaceful, really, is the word to describe the Onigbongbo community where inhabitants say the environment is tranquil without incidents of armed robbery and unlike other parts of Lagos, they enjoy constant power supply.
How did the tradition develop? Kelvin Amajuoyi a former resident of Ibadiaran Street says “there are a lot of graves here because the landlords were indigenes here, so they buried their dead ones here. They felt since it was their land, there was no need to start paying for spaces in the cemetery.”
The assertion is corroborated by Peter Omeghara who says he grew up on Ibadiaran Street which he calls a village. “It’s a village because the Aworis are amongst the four or five major tribes that own Lagos. So when you come to Lagos for landmarks, Onigbongbo is a typical village, which is why its indigenes are respected. About this grave issue, one thing I understand is that indigenes don’t bury their loved ones outside; instead they prefer to bury them here. It is their tradition.”
Speaking further, Omeghara offers fresh perspective that alludes to religion. “Amongst all the names seen here, you would hardly find a Christian’s name. Ninety to ninety five per cent are Muslims. That has been the norm.”
And so the culture has persisted, right in the middle of cosmopolitan Lagos.
Muslims bury their dead without fuss. Not for them extended stays in mortuaries. So, could the tradition of burying the dead in front of their houses have emanated from necessity; the need to find a quick and cost effective resting place?
Alhaja Sadiq, an elderly Awori woman in her 80s, volunteers that ‘It’s our culture to bury the dead in their villages. It’s an African thing. If this place happens to be your village, where else will you bury your dead?’ she queries.
Seeking the views of other residents we spoke to a gaggle of four women seated outside a shop; Mosunmola Akerele, Salimot Rahmon, Aulat Sadiq and Fausat Fatini.
Fausat Fatini, the more outspoken of the quartet, seems to agree with the views expressed by her neighbours regarding the fact that the landlords are mostly indigenes, majority of whom are Muslims.
“In those days, the real owners of the land were the ones residing here. Anybody buried here is definitely an indigene, non-indigenes are not buried here,” she says with finality.
Commenting further on the fact that most of the tomb stones bear Muslim names Fausat Fatini, who is also a Muslim says, “Christians also reside here in Onigbongbo; however, the population of Muslims is far more than that of Christians and the majority of people buried here are Muslims and that is because Muslims are not using burial ground like Christians.”
Even though most of the houses are owned by Awori Muslim landlords, the tenants are a mix of tribes, with Igbos predominating.
Kelvin Amajuoyi traces the predominance of Igbo tenants in Onigbongbo to the coming of the missionaries. “The reason is that when the missionaries settled at Maryland, they didn’t take tribe into consideration when doing business and most Igbos are Catholics. Those of them that worked at Maryland for the missionaries were given accommodation here.”
While agreeing that the missionaries helped bring Igbos to Onigbongbo, Emeghara says commerce was also a top draw because as he puts it “you know Igbo people like food. There is a big market here called Onigbongbo market. About 80% of the shop owners are Igbos, who sell mostly food stuff. Apart from the settlement of missionaries here, the market also contributes to the high population of Igbos here.”
Whatever it is that drew Igbos and members of other tribes to live among the Aworis must have been strong enough for them not to mind sharing their homes with the remains of their dead landlords.
“Some of us have been dwelling here for a while, so I can say we are used to it. There was a grave in front of my house when I resided here,” Kelvin says as if it is the most natural occurrence.
Sylvester, who hails from Obudu in Cross River state says he’s lived in the community for 33 years and claims it is more peaceful here than anywhere in Lagos. He insists several people who left Onigbogbo are coming back because, in his words, ‘As an estate agent, I know that in all of Lagos, this side is better than many places. We have light every time. So many people who left here because it is not developing, they come back because our light is good.’
Other inhabitants of the area corroborate his point. A room, they tell us, goes for N4,000 per month with two rooms renting for N7,000 per month. It’s a steal, they say, when you add that to the security they enjoy plus the constant power.
Why is life so tranquil in Onigbongbo? Are the dead watching over the living, here, where they all exist in such proximity? No one knows for sure but if Fausat Fatini is to be believed time is running out for the tradition. The newly dead on Ibadiaran Street may need to find resting places far from their homesteads.
Ms. Fatini lays the blame squarely at the doors of exposure and modernity. According to her, “these days, other people have started building houses here, so that tradition has stopped. All the graves you can see are those of forefathers. Everything is civilization now so they have stopped it.”
But civilization or not, old habits will die hard.
Mrs. Fatimo Sadiku, who we find airing herself in front of a set of graves points out that the two graves house her husband and his first wife, her co-wife.
So, would she be buried next to them when her time comes? Mrs. Sadiku looks up and without batting an eye lid laughs and says, ‘why not?’
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