By Obike Ukoh
The popular novel, Things Fall Apart, written by Chinua Achebe in 1958, gives a vivid description of the popularity of traditional wrestling amongst the Igbo people.
The Igbo traditional wrestling is a form of recreation that gives the young ones an opportunity to let off the steam and unbundle their energy via a sporting spirit instead of a fighting spirit.
At a time when some cultural practices and values are already going into extinction, the Okposi community in Ohaozara Local Government Area of Ebonyi has kept this age-old culture and tradition alive.
Wrestlers drawn from villages that make up the Okposi community recently gathered at the community’s village square for the annual Mgba Okposi Festival.
The drumming and displays at the fiesta aptly reflected the scenes depicted by Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart, as the spectators applauded innovative drum beats and flute tunes.
A genre of music known as Egbenegbe Mgba was rendered by a group called Dimgba Union, which is composed of ex-champions, a demonstration that the competition is for courageous men and designed to motivate the younger ones.
The music signifies the commencement of the tournament after a procession by the wrestlers and a special procession led by the traditional ruler, Eze Comas Agwu, and members of his cabinet.
In this year’s edition of the fiesta, more than 24 youthful wrestlers and 30 adult wrestlers took part in the procession.
Eze Nwegwu of Mgbom Okposi defeated other contestants to emerge the champion of the 2014 edition of Mgba Okposi Festival.
Mr Benson Igboke, the Director-General, Centre for the Preservation of Okposi Culture, said that Mgba Okposi Festival was always organised on the last day of Ekwu Festival, adding that the festival was celebrated for a whole month.
Igboke, an ex-Commissioner for Lands in Ebonyi, described the month as “a sanitation month’’, as farmers then had some time to relax, after the end of the year’s planting season.
“So from the first day of this particular month called Ekwu, we have a sanitation programme in every village and other festivities, which will end with Mgba Okposi.
“There is nothing fetish with the traditional wrestling festival; absolutely nothing,’’ he said.
Dr Ben Igwenyi, an indigene of the area, said that the wrestling competition was as old as the community.
Igwenyi, who is the Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice in Ebonyi, said that in the past, warriors were identified in the community through the competition.
He also noted that young maidens were usually attracted to young men who displayed uncommon bravery and valour during the contest.
Igwenyi noted with satisfaction that in spite of the setback which the event suffered in the past; the competition had been revived.
He underscored the need to preserve the culture of the people.
“Unfortunately, Western education has succeeded in educating us in the way of the white man and it has also propelled us to jettison the African culture. Right now, our culture is dying and we do not know what will happen in the next 20 years. So we want to get back to our roots, particularly for those customs that do not touch on sacrifice; the wrestling was a platform used by our people to identify the strong men of the community,’’ Igwenyi noted.
A Catholic priest, Monsignor Lawrence Nwachukwu-Aja, said that Mgba Okposi Festival was one of the ways of building friendship; while Mr Ikechukwu Eke, another spectator, noted that the fiesta had promoted peace in the area.
“I am a Catholic priest, Catholic faithful are known for their sporting activities; we are all interested in all kinds of sports.
“It is a part of building up the body; as soon as the body is strong, the spirit will also work well, in accordance with our belief,’’ Nwachukwu-Aja said.
On his part, Eke said that the wrestling competition would help to promote unity and spirit of sportsmanship among the youth.
“In view of what is happening in our country nowadays, the wrestling contest is one of the ways adopted by our community to build communal trust,’’ he said.
Mr Magnus Eze, the Coordinator of Okposi Development Centre, noted that the mammoth crowd that attended the event this year was an indication of cultural renaissance in the area.
“There is a total renaissance in Okposi and it is driven by the `Mezie Okposi’ (rebuild Okposi) message that has started gaining ground.
“For the past two months that we came to office, we have adopted a mantra `Mezie Okposi’ and the concept of `Mezie Okopsi’ is basically to rebuild Okposi.
“So, culturally and sports-wise, we have encouraged this spirit of rebuilding, rediscovery, coming together again; coming together and behaving as one family.
“The people now believe in the community which they come from,’’ Eze said, adding that the centre was planning to involve other key players in the private sector in efforts to take Mgba Okposi Festival to the next level.
One of the guests, Chief Dave Nwachukwu, who commended the people of Okposi for upholding their culture, advocated the promotion of indigenous sports.
“I am very impressed that back home here, we are rejuvenating one of the old cultural values of our people.
“The wrestling competition is a form of recreation that gives the young ones an opportunity to let off steam and unbundle their energy in a sporting spirit, rather than in a fighting spirit.
“I think it is something that should be encouraged, even beyond Okposi to the other communities in Ebonyi where wrestling exist,’’ he added.
However, Mr Emmanuel Utobo, the Director of Sports, Ebonyi State Sports Council, pledged that the talents discovered at the Mgba Okposi competition would be encouraged by the council.
He urged other communities in Ebonyi to emulate the Okposi community and organise regular traditional wrestling competitions in their communities.
Utobo noted that the Traditional Sports Federation of Nigeria was inaugurated as a National Sports Association on Aug. 19, 1993, due to the importance attached to traditional sports.
He recalled that traditional wrestling was among the 11 sporting events that featured at the maiden Traditional Sports and Games Festival in December 1994.
One of the wrestlers, Onyema Amos, said that although he was not the overall winner in the contest, he would continue to take part in the annual Mgba Okposi competition.
“Every year, we used to do it; so, I have to come out and show my skills, I will not be afraid to do that in subsequent editions of Mgba Okposi,’’ he added.
Stakeholders urge the Okposi community to sustain the Mgba Okposi Festival.
They also want all the state sports councils in the entire South-East geopolitical zone to encourage communities to regularly organise wrestling competitions, akin to Mgba Okposi competition.
“Traditional wrestling is part of our heritage which should be treasured,’’ some say. NAN