Nigeria’s Osun River: Sacred, Revered and Increasingly Toxic

By CHINEDU ASADU

August 19, 2022 GMT

OSOGBO, Nigeria (AP) — Yeyerisa Abimbola has dedicated most of her 58 years on Earth to the Osun, a waterway in deeply religious Nigeria named for the river goddess of fertility. As the deity’s chief priestess, she leads other women known as servants of Osun in daily worship and sacrificial offerings along the riverbank.

But with each passing day, he cares more and more about the river. Once sparkling and clear and home to a variety of fish, today it turns dirty and brown.

“The problem we are facing now is those who mine along the river,” said Abimbola. “As you can see, the water has changed color.”

Flowing through the dense forest of the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, the river is revered for its cultural and religious significance among the Yoruba-speaking peoples who predominate in southwestern India. Nigeria, where Osun is widely worshiped. .

But it is under constant threat from pollution from waste disposal and other human activities, especially the dozens of illegal gold miners across Osun state whose sewage is filling the holy river with toxic metals. Amid poor enforcement of environmental laws in the region, there are also those who use the river as a landfill, further contributing to its pollution.

Osun’s servants, mostly women between the ages of 30 and 60, live in a row of one-bedroom apartments along the side of Osogbo Palace, the royal home of the Osogbo monarch about 1.5 kilometers (1 mi). ) north of the grove and the river.

They leave behind everything related to their secular life, including marriages, to serve both the goddess and the king. They have little interaction with outsiders, allowing them to devote themselves entirely to the goddess, whom they worship daily in a hidden shrine deep within the grove.

Often seen in white robes symbolizing the purity the river represents, the women carry out various tasks for the goddess from dawn to dusk, from supervising the sacrificial offerings, mostly live animals and drinks, to carrying carry out cultural activities in the waters of Osun. Some say that the goddess cures them of afflictions when they drink or bathe in the river, and others say that she can bring them wealth or fertility.

A servant of Osun, who calls himself Oluwatosin, said that the river brought him a son when he was having difficulty giving birth. Now that she is the mother of two children, she intends to remain forever dedicated to the river and the goddess.

“It is my belief, and Osun answers my prayers,” Oluwatosin said.

The river also serves as an important “pilgrimage point” for the Yoruba people in Nigeria, said Ayo Adams, a Yoruba scholar, especially during the Osun-Osogbo festival, a colorful annual celebration that attracts thousands of Osun worshipers and tourists.” to celebrate the essence of the Yoruba race.” Some attendees say that it offers the opportunity for a personal encounter with the goddess.

But this year, as the two-week August festival approached, palace authorities announced they had been forced to take the unusual step of telling people to stop drinking the water.

“We have written to the state government, to the museum about the activities of the illegal miners and to take action to stop them,” said Osunyemi Ifarinu Ifabode, the head priest of Osun.

Osun State is home to some of Nigeria’s largest gold deposits, and miners searching for gold and other minerals, many of whom operate illegally, are scattered in swampy areas in remote villages where there is little police presence. While community leaders in Osogbo have been able to keep the miners out of the immediate area, they are essentially free to operate with impunity upriver and to the north.

Miners take water from the river to use for exploration and mining, and runoff returns to it and other waterways, contaminating the drinking water sources of thousands of people.

“It’s more or less like 50% of the water bodies in Osun state, so the main water bodies here have been polluted,” said Anthony Adejuwon, head of Urban Alert, a nonprofit organization that leads defense efforts to protect the Osun River.

Urban Alert ran a series of tests on the Osun in 2021 and found it to be “heavily polluted”. The report, which was shared with The Associated Press, found levels of lead and mercury in the grove’s water to be, respectively, 1,000% and 2,000% above the Nigerian Industry Standard. Urban Alert attributes this to many years of mining activity, some of it within 30 kilometers (19 miles) of the river.

Despite a drinking ban issued by the palace, during a recent visit, the AP saw residents flock to the river every day to fill gallon containers for household use.

Dr. Emmanuel Folami, a doctor based in Osogbo, the state capital, said drinking toxic water or using it for purposes that risk human exposure is a “major health problem” that could cause lead poisoning.

In March, the Osun state government announced the arrest of “several people for illicit mining, seizures and site closures,” and promised it was studying the level of contamination in the river and ways to address it.

But activists question the sincerity and commitment behind such efforts: “If we can’t see the state government taking action within its own jurisdiction as a (mining) license holder, what are we going to say about the other people?” said Adejuwon of Urban Alert, which is running a social media campaign using the hashtag #SaveOsunRiver.

Abimbola, a servant of Osun since she was only 17 years old, said that the goddess is tolerant and generous. She thanks Osun for his blessings: a home, children, good health.

“Every good thing that God does for people, Osun does the same,” he said.

However, she and others warn that even Osun has his limits.

There may be problems if the river remains polluted and Osun “gets angry or doesn’t calm down properly,” said Abiodun Fasoyin, a village chief in Esa-Odo, where much of the mining takes place, about 40 kilometers (25 miles). ) east of Osogbo.

“The riverbank will overflow and sweep people away when they are angry,” Abimbola said. “Don’t do what she doesn’t want.”

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Associated Press religious coverage is supported through AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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