Thursday, February 4, 2016

Exploring Historic Epe and Sungbo's Eredo

I joined the Nigerian Field Society last December, and on my first trip with the group we explore historic Epe and the mysterious Sungbo Walls. Here’s my account of the trip.

On December 31, about 20 of us met up at Lekki Conservation Centre in Lagos between 8.00 – 8.30 AM and left for Epe at 8.40 AM. During the 80-minute drive to Epe, Ed Keazor, brilliant historian, lawyer, author and filmmaker and our guide for the trip, provided us with some background on the land development around Lagos Island and extending all the way toward Epe, from colonial times to present day. He talked about the intricate ties that Ancient Benin had (and still has) with Lagos and a large part of Western Nigeria, highlighting some of the influences of Bini culture and history in Lagos and Epe. Ed also answered questions on land sale in Lagos, discussing its somewhat precarious nature and some risks and pitfalls to avoid.

As we arrived Epe, Ed discussed the past economic and religious tensions between the 'Eko Epe' – the settlers who arrived Epe with Oba Kosoko in 1851 when he fled Lagos after being deposed by the British colonial government – and the 'Ijebu Epe', the Epe locals. The Eko Epe were mostly traders while the Ijebu Epe were largely fishermen. We learnt that Epe is about 80% Muslim, and that the town got its name from the large number of soldier ants in the area. Ed pointed out trademark Afro-Brazilian architecture, a lot of which can also be found in parts of Lagos, as we drove through the town.

At 9.57 AM we reached the First Epe Central Mosque, built in 1862 and rebuilt in 1930 to accommodate the expanding Muslim population. We met the Chief Imam of the mosque and, with our feet bare and heads covered (for females), were allowed to see the inside of the mosque. (Only then did I realise, to my surprise, that this was my first time ever inside a mosque.) We took in the ancient rafters in the building as the Chief Imam spoke (in Yoruba, with Ed translating) about the significant role of the central mosque in the community, for information dispersal, for guidance and leadership; and also about the ways in which religion and tradition interface in the community (for example, the traditional leader of Epe is turbaned in the Central Mosque by the Chief Imam).

Chief Imam (centre) and Ed Keazor (right)

Inside the First Epe Central Mosque

We left the mosque at 10.40 AM and drove to the Fish Market. There, we explored the market, buying fish, taking pictures and watching the local fisherwomen work. As it was a Sunday the market wasn’t in full swing, but we got a good enough sense of its scale and its economic significance to the town.

Man on canoe

Fish kept alive in water so it stays fresh for long

More fish

Baskets and berthed boats

We left the Fish Market at 11.50 AM and arrived Eredo at 12.25 PM, where we headed to the home of the Baale (community leader) to make our presence known and pay our respects. Next, we visited the caretaker of the Sungbo walls, Chief Sunny, whose dedication and personal devotion have kept the Walls open and accessible. Chief Sunny has had virtually no support from any quarters in maintaining the walls. Since he fell ill about a year ago the Walls have deteriorated even further, and as we walked our guide had to clear a path for us through the forest with a cutlass.

Walking the Walls

As we walked, Ed told us about the history of the Walls – which were commissioned by Bilikisu Sungbo – some of the myths and speculation surrounding them, as well as some amazing facts: for example, sections of the Walls can be seen from space, and about one million cubic feet of earth was moved to create the Walls. Ed pointed out that there are still many unanswered questions about the Walls: its purpose (it is thought to be protective or spiritual, or both), its extent and its shape (circular or otherwise) are debated till this day.

It was saddening to learn that there is very little study being undertaken to uncover the mysteries behind the Walls. Some of the most notable research on the Sungbo Walls was done by British archaeologist Dr Partick Darling. According to our guide there is some talk about some government involvement with the Walls in the near future, but only to the extent of building (much-needed) staircases to allow for safer ascent and descent to and from the trenches, and to build a gate at the Eredo entrance to control access. So essentially, the government involvement will only be concerned with revenue generation, and not research into or preservation of the Walls. The Eredo Walls are on the tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

We emerged from the Eredo at 1.28 PM, and walked about 20 minutes to a nearby spring where we had lunch. We left Eredo at 2.50 PM and arrived the lovely and serene Epe Resort and Spa at 3.10 PM. There, we had drinks and admired the grounds of the resort. We left the resort at 4 PM and arrived back at the Lekki Conservation Centre compound at about 5.20 PM.

The Nigerian Field Society is a national organisation founded in 1930 to:
- encourage interest in and knowledge of the fauna, flora, history, legends and customs, arts and crafts, sciences, sports and pastimes of West Africa in general and Nigeria in particular;
- support their conservation;
- co-operate with organizations with similar interests.

NFS is active in a number of cities in Nigeria. For more information on the organisation, as well as how to join, please visit the NFS website.