The Ilaje people are unique, distinguished, distinct linguistic group of the Yoruba Empire made up of four tribes namely Ugbo, Mahin, Etikan and Aheri
ILAJELAND is surrounded by the Ijebus to the West, the Ikale to the North, the Itsekiri to the East, the APOI and Arogbo Ijaw to the North East, while the Atlantic Ocean formed the southern boundary. No gainsaying the Ilajes are one of the most dynamic and enterprising people in Nigeria. There swimming skill, coupled with their high adaptational ability enable them to conquer the harsh geographical environment and turn it to a big advantage.
Large communities like Ugbonla, Aiyetoro, Zion Pepe and Orioke, Aiyetoro for example in its hey-days had the highest per capital income in the whole of Africa and attracted visitors, tourists and researchers from all over the world especially Europe, Canada, and America.
The Ilajes can also be found in cohesive Diaspora communities in Douala (Cameroon), Sapele/Warri (Delta), Asejire (Oyo) and parts of Lagos State.
Igbokoda, the Ilaje local government headquarters is fast becoming an international trade center as it popular market attracts traders not only from other part of Nigeria, but, also from other African countries especially Togo, Benin, Ghana, Cameroon and Gabon
History shows that the original ancestral home/settlement in the 10th century. We mainly occupy the Atlantic coastline of Ondo State of Nigeria while a large population of them settles on land in the hinterland. The area we occupy today remains the Ondo State of Nigeria only outlet to the sea.
According to our dethroned Olugbo Oba Mafimisebi “we were the aboriginal Yoruba that was displaced from Ife”. He and Oba of Benin agreed up to this point. Olugbo claimed this is why Ugbo and Benin have similar chieftaincy titles: Lema, Ashogbon, Oliha, Ojomo, Yasere among others. They were the Obalufon, Obamakin, Obalufe, Obawinrin, etc whose Yoruba language were originally spoken, including the lingua fraca in Benin palace.
According to Ben Omowafola Tomoloju, popularly known as ‘Pappy Ben’, a culture activist, author of books and the Aremo Onipopo of Ilaje Land, the Ilajes were members of the ancient communities that existed in Ile-Ife before the advent of Oduduwa in the the 10th century A.D. Upon the arrival of Oduduwa in Ife, he seized power from the incumbent ruler and assumed monarchical authority over the land.
Tomoloju said: “The ancestors of the Ilajes detested the Oduduwa take-over and, therefore, migrated through the forest of Oke Mafunrangan to a place near Esinmirin River from where they invaded Ile-Ife over a long period, carting away spoils and capturing slaves”. This invasion was what motivated the legendary Ife Queen, Moremi, to embark on a heroic espionage quest that led to the eventual defeat of the marauding aborigines.
The coastal town, Ugbo, under the paramount ruler, Olugbo, is a major settlement of the protesting migrants. Its full meaning is ‘Mo r’ubo gbo ni.’ (I have a place to stay.) Ugbo is primary setting in the Moremi legend, which people sometimes mistake for Igboland in South-eastern Nigeria.
“Another major town, Mahin, comes under the paramount rulership of the Amapetu. Ugbo, Mahin and other towns like Atijere, Obe-Nla and Igbo-Egunrin reflect a degree of cultural mix which suggests some form of historical kinship between the Ilaje, Itsekiri and the Edo.
The major occupation of the ilajes is fishing. An average Ilaje person knows which fish is gotten from the fresh water and which fish is gotten from the salt water. There are also seasons when the water in the Lagoon turns to salt water; this is between April and July, when we have heavy rainfall. Despite fishing across several villages at a time, there is no occasion where any Ilaje fisherman loses his way on the high sea. This, he said is due to the fact that, when you are on the sea, there is a way you picture yourself and there are landmarks you will identify to tell you the distance from home. The weather condition, the direction of the wind, the position of the sun by day and the position of the moon by night, all contribute to forming part of your compass and a forewarning for straying off the normal route. A very few of the Ilaje, who live outside the water, known as the Ilaje Igbo (that is, Ilaje on land) try their hands on farming, but some people jocularly state that, nature never conferred farming on them but fishing, as a result they have not been able to produce beyond subsistence level as the lands are said not to be fertile enough for agriculture. So, they majorly depend on the Ikale and Apoi people for enough farm produce. Another occupation of ours is timber logging. Though the wood logging occupation in Ilaje land suffers some kind of setback due majorly to the absence of a sawmill, we still manage to use our canoe to ferry the woods to Igbekun, a neighbouring towns in the hinterland.
The pre-colonial ilajes were also salt miners due to our closeness to the Atlantic ocean which contains a lot of salt water.
The advent of the white missionaries saw the Ilajes embracing Christianity with full force, with a slight majority of the Christians among them worshipping with the Cherubim and Seraphim Church of Zion, which has its headquarters in Ugbo Nla. There are also considerable amount of Anglican and Jehova witness worshippers.
Though the Ilaje are scattered in various places along the coastal lines, at various times of the year, they all return to their home base in Ondo to celebrate some of their festivals, which include: masquerading (the Umale festival), Malokun (a fertility festival for the goddess of the sea), regatta and periodically, the Epo (Raffia-costumed masquerade), which was used to scare the people of Ife before the Moremi saga.
During these celebrations, there is the uniquely polyphonic renditions of both the Biripo traditional music and the Ilaje spirituals of the Zion Christian sect. They are particularly soul-lifting and you find a lot of upland Yoruba musicians trying to imitate these in their compositions. In a typical Ilaje marriage ceremony where the bride comes from Ilaje, a court of young girls from the bride’s place are selected to entertain their guests with the traditional biripo dance where the make use of obele (paddle stick) to demonstrate their dance act.
Ugbo is the major town in Ilaje land and is under the paramount ruler known as the OLU-UGBO of ugbo.
Beside ugbo, there are three other major clans,These include Mahin, Aheri and Etikan. Aheri is presided over by the Maporure and Etikan is headed by the Onikan of Etikan while Ugbo is headed by the Amapetu of Mahin.
Being migrants from Yoruba land, it would be surprising to know that the core Ilaje traditional dress code borrows from outside the Yoruba tribe. The Ilaje traditional mode of dressing is of the semblance of the Itsekiris or Urhobos with slight modifications. The men dress in wrapper with a buba top and a hat with feather stuck in one part of the hat, while the women dress in blouse and wrapper. But, in the past few decades, most Ilaje have embraced the conventional Yoruba mode of dressing, except on special occasions.
Though the presence of fish is emphasised in all the foods, there are special kinds of foods prepared. These foods are peculiar only to the Ilaje. They include the Pupuru and Obe Marugbo. The Pupuru is made from cassava, and prepared in a similar process as fufu, it also has a similar taste with fufu. The Obe Marugbo is cooked with a special type of vegetable that is grounded. The colour of the Obe Marugbo is dark green ( I usually term it black soup..lol). There is the mashed yam and unnripe plantain prepared with palm oil (ogolale) and we also have what is called the Igbanyeghe, boiled corn with fish and palm oil added to some other Ilaje food condiments.
Apart from petroleum which is largely found in the area for which Ondo State today is recognized as an oil producing State. Other mineral raw materials that are abundantly available in Ilajeland include Glass Sand, Salt, Tar Sand, Quartz and Clay while Agro raw materials include fish, poultry, maize, Palm oil vegetables, Timber, Rafia, Poultry Okro, Cocoyam, Banana, Cassava, and Piggery
And lastly, the Ilajes are highly accommodating and friendly.
If you want to call the Ilajes in a gathering to an attention just scream AYEMAFUGE de de Ilaje oh…the response you get aftermath is AWAYE oh!!!!