“I have read history books of ancient traditions where kings and nobles were buried with the living to, supposedly, escort them on their journey to the great beyond, but could not imagine that I would witness it myself someday. Watching that young man ride with the body of the Aku Uka on the horse to Nando, with the possibility that it could be the last time anyone would see him dead or alive, left me in a state I can’t quite describe. It was intriguing watching such history unfold, and scary too.”
The above statement by Mr. Emeka Chukwudili aptly captured the scenario.
Millions of people around the world remain stunned by the events that took place recently to mark the transition (Pankya) of the supreme leader of the Kwararafa Kingdom, Dr. Shekarau Angyu, Masa-Ibi Kuvyon II, the Aku Uka of Wukari, to his final abode with his ancestors at Nando.
Unlike every other mortal, the Aku Uka does not die but simply transits from the mortal world to join his ancestors at Nando and then to Kindo, and so there are no burial rites or undertakers to convey his body or even a grave to be visited by loved ones to lay flowers.
According to Dankaro Solomon: “Pankya is the Jukun transition ceremony for the Aku to the great beyond. The Aku does not die. He is a ‘son’ of the gods, the guardian and protector of his people. His place is between the mortal and the immortal.
“The Aku is not venerated or honoured. He is ‘worshipped’ by his subjects. He is a priest-king to whom libation is offered every morning. He is not associated with affairs of mortals like funerals and weddings. He is beyond emotions and weakness. Thus, he does not die and there is no funeral rite for him but the journeying to Nando and, finally, Kindo.
“The Pankya is a mystery in that it can not be understood using human logic. Only those inserted into its cult and ‘educated’ in its practice can make sense of it. So, the Pankya is not just a ceremony or rite, it is a religious rite performed by cultic priests and worshippers. All others are just onlookers.
“Because he does not die, there are no undertakers, coffin or grave that will make him mortal. He rides majestically on his royal horse to meet his forebears. The young man with him serves as his sheath-bearer. But also serves as the proverbial scapegoat, on behalf of the community.”
While thousands of people from across the country gathered in Wukari, Wukari Local Government Area of Taraba State, to witness the burial of a late first class monarch, Dr. Shekarau Angyu Masa-Ibi Kuvyon II, the 27th Aku Uka (paramount ruler) of Kwararafa and the 13th since the founding of the Wukari Federation, they were taken aback by the solemn procession of barechested men and women as well as children who moved from the palace into the forest known as Puje, regarded as a holy ground, where almost everything was shrouded in secrecy like nothing witnessed in recent history.
Chukwudili, a businessman who witnessed the ceremony, told our correspondent that he was stunned.
“I usually come to buy yam in Wukari to transport to the East. So, when I came, someone told me that they were doing the burial of the Aku Uka, and I decided to go and witness it for myself. What I have seen here today has left me in great shock. I was not so surprised seeing men tying wrapper and moving bare chested but when you have so many women and children in the same colourful attire all barechested, it can only mean this is something serious.
“After we moved to the woods, where most people just sat on the bare floor, I realized that I did not understand anything that was going on. The peak of it was when I saw that young man with the body on the horse. I understand that he is aware that he may never return alive and he agreed to undertake such a precarious journey.
“I am still left in shock as we speak. Clearly, some of us who are visitors may never understand this fully. I don’t know why the king cannot be buried like every other person in a coffin or grave where his loved ones can visit and lay flowers sometimes. But I guess that is their culture and we can only look and marvel at it. I am impressed that the people have not allowed Christianity or (Western) civilization to destroy their rich cultural heritage”.
The event of the king’s transition started with the procession of Katon-Byenis, which commenced from the Aku Uka Palace to Puje at 8am, while sympathizers and mourners processed from Wukari East Primary School to Puje. Sons and daughters of Jukunland were seen wearing the traditional dress of the Jukun ‘Adire’ without shirt, for the men, and wrappers wrapped to their chest, for females. They marched in silence, while observers and spectators were chanting.
Sons and daughters of Jukunland from various spheres and endeavours of life came to pay homage and last respects to their king. The Abon Ziken conducted affairs to ensure strict observance of traditional rites at Puje, which started at noon, where traditionalists, mourners, spectators and subjects of the monarch gathered.
It was an incredible moment for some, to many, a moment of respect, while to others, it was a moment of reflection when they saw the majestic horse bearing the king, with Pa Be Ndu (Man of the Horse) riding. Chanting praises, respect was shown and loyalty was pledged and culture was in full display as the king transited to Nando.
The last time an Aku Uka transited to Nando was nearly five decades ago many who were mature enough to witness and fully understand the rites at the time are already late. This perhaps made it even more mysterious as the late monarch, who has ruled for over 45 years has become the symbol and definition of the stool.
Investigations by our correspondent revealed that, though there are great chances that the sheath-bearer may never return alive, almost all those before returned alive, but some died a few days after.
According to Mr. Danjuma Adamu, the Taraba State commissioner of information and a Jukun historian, the journey is one of the most precarious journeys to undertake and those to do so prepare well, as it is a matter of life and death.
“You need to understand that this is the toughest task you can possibly imagine. You are not just dealing with physical forces here. No. The sheath-bearer contends with powers from the underworld and their chances of returning alive are very slim.
“I can confirm to you that all those who undertook this journey before returned alive. However, we have some of them dying within days of their return under strange circumstances. This is a deeply spiritual battle and that explains why the sheath-bearer takes time to prepare well for the journey.
“Usually, a few young people of great courage, strength and good standing in society would be selected and the oracle would decide on one of them. He is then prepared as if going to battle, only, this time, the battle is both physical and spiritual,” Adamu said.
While the sheath-bearer Mr. Sallah Atobe, waved to the mesmerized crowd as he majestically rode the royal horse with the Aku Uka without any show of doubt, fear or reservations, knowing he may never return alive, the beauty and richness of suppressed African cultures once again reared its head gloriously, making history in the great Kwararafa Kingdom once again.
Atobe returned home after undertaking the journey, bearing the weight of a kingdom on his brave heart and warrior’s shoulders, to the admiration of a generation that may never witness anything of such in their lifetime again. He was dubbed a hero of unparalleled courage, who played a great role in reliving the rich cultural heritage of the Kwararafa Kingdom.