The customs and traditions of peoples is a very important part of their identity.
Growing in the city of Benin in the early 80s, I can vividly remember how the children of a deceased parent, dressed in colorful wrappers, nicely crafted local beads, a symbolic spare or a real one around their waist or hanging down their shoulders, and white chalk marks on their bodies, march around their neighbourhood with the arms of a man (apparently the first son or senior son of the deceased) held up by two other men as part of the process to lay their dead to rest.
A beautiful box with some colored fabrics and ornaments leads the procession alongside some very interesting songs, drum, and metal beats. I always enjoyed the sight and sound but never bothered to dig in as to why they do that but time has made me realize how important it is to document our fast eroding tradition.
On Saturday 3rd of July, 2021, while working on an assignment at home on that cloudy day in Benin City, I got a call from my dear friend, Chief Owen Chamberlain Obaseki, the Otaifo of Uromi Kingdom, to come and document the “ISOTON” for His Grandfather Chief S.I. Abusonmwan (as the first grandson of the late chief). I did not hesitate to join him, as it was an opportunity to learn about the process.
Isoton (as I now know it’s called) a part of the Benin traditional burial rites – is a procession of the deceased children through the town. It normally should hold on the 5th day within 7days for ordinary Edo citizens or the 14days for the royal Edo citizens from the chosen burial dates.
In this procession, Okun (a box), decorated ideally with bright red fabric but in this case, a combination of yellow, green, and white fabric is used. The box is adorned with brass ornaments which represent prosperity in the family. The “senior son” (who may not necessarily be the firstborn of the family) organizes it. He does not go round the town with his Okun.
He merely dances within a short distance along the street where the deceased lived and returns to present his Okun before the elders of the family who remain seated in front of the residence of the deceased where the ceremonies take place.
When the family accepts the Okun together with all its accouterment, he is then allowed to take his seat with the elders. In Edo tradition, this indicates that the son has taken the position of his father amongst the elders of the family.
All his other brothers and sisters then go on the Isoton procession around the town, led by the Okun. If the procession is in Benin City, each group visits the statue of Emotan (a woman that lived in the fifteen Century honoured by Oba Ewuare the great for her generosity) to pay respect. The gifts offered at this statue are collected by Akairo-mwon (the royal jester), the caretaker of the Emotan statue site. This family could not go to the Emotan Statue for reasons best known to them.
On return from the procession, the children each return to the house of the deceased and are received by The “Okaegbe”- The elder of the family who normally officiates or delegates whom to officiate this ceremony.
The siblings present their Okun to their eldest brother as a sign of submission to his jurisdiction –thus acknowledging his leadership. Performing the Isoton ceremonies is very important to any Edo person because it indicates that a child has played his proper role in the funeral rites of the deceased and he or she is therefore entitled to a share of the property of the deceased.
The 7days or 14days process includes Iwa Orhimwin, Izakhue, Isoton, Okpovbie, Isuerhan Fua, and Igiogbe. Chief Owen Chamberlain Obaseki is a true son of the soil who loves to showcase the rich cultural heritage of Benin Kingdom, and He loves His people hence his participation in the burial rites of his grandfather.
Our African Tradition is indeed beautiful, it holds several ethics which we must do all we can to preserve.
This story is a contribution by Babawale Obayanju.