Inside Edo communities where corpses of residents are dumped in evil forest

  • Chief priests, natives burn monarch, commissioner’s houses for opposing sky burial
  • Edo government, NGOs wage war against practice, say citizens’ health in danger

The horrible inhumane practices that took place in the pre-colonial era in Nigeria whereby people are labeled as witches and wizards upon their deaths, their remains seized from their families and dumped in “evil forest” to rot and devour by animals, are still happening in some parts of the country, findings by The Point have revealed.

In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart which was published in 1958, the evil forest was described as a section of land outside of the village. It is believed by the villagers to be cursed, which is why they only use it to dispose of the bodies of those who die from infectious diseases or are considered unclean, like Okonkwo’s father.

Sadly, over 2,000 years after, the barbaric practice is still in force in some communities in Akoko-Edo Local Government Area of Edo State notwithstanding the modernity and advancement of the 21st century.

The Point gathered that the unhealthy funeral practice in the communities where a human corpse is left on a mountaintop or thrown into the forest to decompose without the conventional digging of ground and lowering the body into it is called Sky Burial. The illegal practice exposes human remains to be eaten by scavenging animals.

Findings further revealed that apart from the health challenges and environmental pollution the practice exposes the affected communities to, it leads to loss of human dignity, unresolved quarrels among natives, family disputes, and lack of trust amongst family members and victimisation of the poor.

Stakeholders informed The Point that some ritualists take advantage of the practice to besiege the evil forest in order to fetch human parts for fetish purposes.

It was gathered that many natives of Ojah, Imoga and Ososo communities in Akoko-Edo have in the past fallen victims of the age long practice as the chief priests of the areas considered them unfit to be interred. Their corpses were said to have been thrown into the forest while their property and other belongings of their family members were confiscated and taken to the shrine.

Recently, a woman was said to have died in the Ojah community and a test was said to have been carried out on her remains.

After the spiritual test, the chief priests in the community declared that her family would not bury her because she was a witch. They insisted that her body should be taken to the evil forest.

However, the traditional ruler of the community, the Okogbe of Ojah, Chief Daniel Suru Lawani, and the Edo State Commissioner for Social Development and Gender Issues, Christabel Omoh Ekwu kicked against it and maintained that the deceased woman would not be taken to the evil forest.

Displeased by their opposition, some men and women in the community, led by their chief priests stormed the monarch’s palace and the house of the Commissioner who is also an indigene of the community and set them ablaze.

They vandalised the houses, burnt down the traditional ruler’s vehicle and sacked him from the community.

The Point also gathered that the Sky Burial supporters attacked some security personnel including soldiers who were drafted to the community to restore normalcy.

A non-governmental organization in the state, Josémaria Escriva Foundation had gotten wind of the uncivilized act and wrote to the state government to move against it, describing it as a harmful traditional practice which should not be allowed to continue.

However, despite some interventions and campaigns against the act by the state government, some indigenes remain unyielding as they described the practice as their custom and tradition and thus attacking anyone who is against it.

In an interview with The Point, the Chief Responsibility Officer, Josemaria Escriva Foundation and Co Convener, Peaceful Election Rallies Nigeria, Dr. Jude Obasanmi, said Sky Burial has been on in the communities for a long time, adding that whenever someone dies, they would carry out tests to know whether the person lived a good life or not or whether the person had connection with the evil spirit.

“For example, if these chief priests discover that the dead person has connections with spirituality or the person did not live a good life, the person will not be allowed to be buried in the normal way we bury people in Nigeria whereby we dig the grave and put the deceased in a casket. In this case, they will carry the body and take it to the evil forest.

“This was so terrible in Ojah community in Akoko Edo, and when we got that complaint, we wrote a petition to the state governor, that was around August, last year, telling the government about the impending challenges and in the VAPP Law, it is stated that people should not get themselves involved in inhuman treatment of widows or deceased fellows,” he disclosed.

He said the state government in partnership with his organization had assembled stakeholders in the affected communities including security agencies, government functionaries, monarchs and chiefs and discussed the dangers in the practice and why it should be stopped.

“Those sky burials constitute health hazards for the people. These bodies are dumped in the forest and the forest is close to their homes. It is not too far; based on development, houses are getting close to this so-called evil forest. When it rains, it washes the bodies of these dead people down to the stream and they only have about two streams in that area, and people in the community would go and fetch water from there and drink the water, use it for cooking and bathing.

“It also causes environmental hazards because all these scavengers and ritualists go there (evil forest) and begin to remove body parts of these persons that have been dumped there for fetish purposes,” he revealed.

Asked if there are other communities that indulge in the act, Obasanmi said, “It is so rampant in the Ojah community. There are others that are not significant. Imoga will say they won’t do it there again because in the past two years, we have not heard of it. Even when I lost my mother about nine years ago, it almost took place but we stood against it. Most of these tendencies used to happen to poor people. The family of the deceased will lose virtually everything to the shrine managed by those who called themselves chief priests.

This issue has been creating a running battle between the traditional ruler and the chief priests.

“In the village, people are always scared and no one wants to talk. It is when our organization got aware that we started talking. Most locals, if they talk, and anybody dies, they will do a test and since you have been having issues with them, their bodies will be taken to the evil forest. It is a case of paying back because those whose relatives have been thrown into the evil forest will like it to be done to others,” the activist stated.

At one of the sensitisation programmes in the affected community during 16 Days of Activism held last year, the Commissioner of Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, Monday Osaigbovo had called on the traditional rulers in the affected communities to identify a suitable area to government to serve as cemeteries as a way of preventing dead residents from being thrown into forest.

On his part, the Commissioner of Health in the state, Samuel Alli noted that sky burial is an unhealthy practice that could cause some health hazards, spread of diseases amongst others.

Similarly, the Commissioner for Environment and Sustainable Development, Joshua Omokhiodion said some animals feed on the corpses and “at the end, we end up eating these animals like bush meat. Also, when rain fails, it washes the corpses to our streams and we end up using the contaminated water for drinking, washing, thereby causing undefined health and environmental challenges.”

Meanwhile, the Edo State Governor, Godwin Obaseki, has condemned the arson in Ojah community and assault on security personnel by some villagers who insisted on taking the remains of a woman to the evil forest.

The governor ordered the re-accreditation of all operatives of the State’s Security Vigilante Network, numbering over 6,500, in a renewed effort to strengthen the state’s security architecture to combat crime and ensure the security of lives and property of residents.