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Dr Oluseyi Atanda, a consultant gynaecologist and obstetrician, who is also an Ifa priest and the President, Traditional Religion Worshippers Association, in Osun State, talks to PUNCH Newspaper Correspondent about the viral video that showed some participants at the Osun Osogbo Festival drinking contaminated water from the Osun River
Were you at the last Osun-Osogbo festival?
Yes, I was.
A video on social media showed some participants at the festival drinking from the Osun River. Were you aware of that?
I even saw some on the fifth day after the grand finale, on the day of an activity called ‘Ikoesirodo’. Some people still drank the water that day.
Are you aware that the water is contaminated?
Yes, I was one of those who championed that course to expose the dangerous activities for government representatives regarding the water. So, we are aware and I am also aware of the report that was circulated after checks on the water, though it is still a temporary one.
We had a stakeholders’ meeting involving Traditional Religion Worshippers Association, the non-governmental organisaton that spearheaded the research on Osun River, and officials of the National Museum, it was agreed that another independent body either at University of Osun or Obafemi Awolowo University should work on the water sample, and that it should be sent there to corroborate the level of toxicity in the water. But be that as it may, the water is contaminated.
You are a traditional worshipper and at the same time, a medical doctor. What was your reaction when you saw people drinking contaminated water?
It just showed the level of faith that our people have. It further confirms the belief of traditionalists in Osun deity. It further confirms that the Osun festival is more than a cultural festival, pageantry and tourism. It has something to do with the spiritual existence of some people. You know at times when people believe in something and they are asked to lay down their lives it, some would do so. That is just the demonstration of what I saw some people doing because they knew the potency of that water.
How reliable is the potency of the water?
The water may be potent spiritually but can we wholeheartedly now say that the physical contamination that occurred in the water will not cause medical problems in the body? That’s the challenge. The water may have solved some of their problems in the past. So, in telling such a person not to drink the water, you need to do it repeatedly.
I think I will blame the government for that (people drinking from Osun River). Even the publicity about not drinking the water before the festival was not good enough. Maybe the government was also running away from the embarrassment that people may not believe them. Journalists too didn’t do enough because I can’t think of any newspaper report, jingle or anything I heard warning against the (contaminated) water. There should have been some publicity 48-two hours before the festival by way of jingles, announcements and different other forms of publicity, to say that while people can scoop water from the river, can bathe with it, or do other things, like washing spiritual items, it may be detrimental to drink the water because it has been contaminated with metals.
But what did your group do before the festival to ensure people didn’t drink the water?
“Well, I can say that those I saw drinking the water were people outside Osun. They are foreigners. I meant foreign locals who are from Lagos, Oyo, Ekiti and anywhere else outside Osun, because our members were well aware and certain numbers of us still told people not to drink the water and some claimed not to be aware. I think everyone concerned didn’t do well enough to publicise that contamination.
You said faith might have made those that drank the water do so. Should such people expect to remain healthy following their action?
There is likely going to be a challenge, and unfortunately, they may not be able to remember because this is a challenge that may take another two, three or five years to manifest.
What can be done to decontaminate the river?
The way forward in my thinking is that the source of contamination should be addressed. We were told that mining had stopped but have we gone to verify? And they cannot stop it (mining) eternally because it is a source of revenue for the government and people who have licenses. So, the government needs to ensure that it does standard gold mining. The regulations for standard gold mining must be enforced. When that is done, it then means that it will take time for the water to become clean. It means we need a lot of rain to wash that river out day in, day out since it is not a situation in which the government will have to bring water tankers to fill the river with clean water.
The only way to solve it is by decontamination and dilution process. It is only rain that can dilute the water. With the havoc that has been done, if possible, the government or miners can be sued by traditionalists because it is a breach and an infringement of our fundamental human right of worship. If the water is what I believe in to cure illness in my body and I don’t use medical drugs, that means the government wants me to die, for it to have allowed this (contamination) to happen. Who can determine how many years of rain or volume of rain that is needed to wash away all the contaminants from the water? So, are we now saying that for the next five years we will not fetch from Osun River?
Many foreign tourists didn’t participate in this year’s Osun Osogbo festival. What was responsible for that?
To the glory of God, COVID-19 seems to be at a stable level in Nigeria. In the diaspora, COVID-19 is still a big concern. Remember that recently, the wife of the American president was also confirmed to have tested positive for COVID-19. So people are still trying to restrict themselves from travelling. Secondly, the economy is bad everywhere. World economy is bad. Also, the war between Russia and Ukraine has also affected the Euro. The world is a global village now. So many things would have affected people and prevented them from participating at the festival. However, for me, that festival still had a large turnout. That crowd was massive.
The Osun grove still suffers from lack of patronage by the government. As an Ifa priest, what are you doing to improve the physical outlook of the grove?
For me, I think we have yet to put a round peg in a round hole. Each time I go to that grove, I feel sorry that we don’t know what we are losing. There are other sites in other places of the world that do not worth one-10th of what Osun grove is worth and they have been maintained and turned around as a big source of revenue for both the locals, government and the adherents of the religion. It is like the government is looking for something in Sokoto when they have it in the pockets of their trousers. We have not done well when it comes to the grove. Let’s look at the road that leads to the grove. If not because it is a spiritual thing, coming in through that road is enough to turn someone off. The traditional ruler in Osogbo too can do better. The Osogbo cultural heritage council can do better and it is to the advantage of all.
More women appeared to have been in a trance because of the way they behaved during the Osun Osogbo festival. What was responsible for that?
I am sure you are also aware that women are closer to God than men. Men have a lot of distractions and in any religion, you find more women than men. So, in a congregation of 1,000 people comprising 700 women and 300 men, 10 people will behave that way. Women are more spiritually inclined, that is why you will find more women and we have more of Osun priestesses and female devotees compared. Being under the influence of a deity depends on the way you look at it. When the spirit of Osun enters them, it has nothing to do with the colour of their clothes. If Osun wants to reveal herself to you, that you are a daughter of Osun or even somebody who doesn’t know, Osun could enter the person and deliver a message through the individual. So, it has nothing to do with colour. There were quite a number of people wearing white and black clothes that went into spiritual trance.
The annual Isese day will soon be held. What should we expect?
The highlight of the celebration which I think is the biggest we should look forward to is the spiritual message of Ifa. Just as I said when we started, we will do well in Yorubaland or Nigeria, if we listen to the words of Ifa. Whoever listens to Ifa will not miss it because Ifa spoke to us in January, June and Ifa has spoken again for this Isese festival about the problem we have now. But do not be shocked that Ifa talked about the looming war of the herdsmen and Ifa is telling us in the South-West that we should take care of our security architecture. The details of that will be revealed on Saturday during the festival at Freedom Park, Osogbo. I think that is the most important thing that anybody should look out for. When it comes to the beauty of tourism, seeing the beauty of our Orisas, then this year’s parade of Orisa colours is something anybody should look forward to. I think it is something you have not seen before because what will be demonstrated is special.