•After burning for 17 hours, 250-year-old Iroko has leaves intact
By Tessy Igomu
The towering statue of a fisherman casting his net into an imaginary sea loudly advertised the occupation of Awhanjigoh residents. This sleepy, riverine community, a part of Badagry, Lagos, is home to over 700 people. The ancient relics and architectural marvel of this fishing community stand it out. It is home to a range of memorabilia of the slave trade era and many other historical monuments.
Awhanjigoh is tucked deep in the heart of Badagry, the ancient town whose position remains undisputed anytime tales of slave trade resonate. However, beyond history and the flurry of tourists thronging the area, there seems to be a number of mysteries surrounding this idyllic settlement, especially with a recent happening that many have found hard to believe or explain: the baffling sight of an Iroko tree that was mysteriously struck by fire and burned for 17 hours, defying professional efforts at putting out the flames. The weird incident, which occurred on Sunday, March 19, 2017, amazed residents and visitors alike.
The fire, which reportedly started at about 6:52pm at the Post Office area of the community, burned till midday the next day. It was gathered that the tree was gradually dismembered with its branches falling off after being consumed by the fire. The oddity in it all was that, while the tree burned ferociously, the leaves of climbers around it were not scorched. Rather, they seemingly formed a shield, preventing water from penetrating to quell the flames. The tree was only burning at the stem, leaving out the branches, and it later spread to its top. Eyewitnesses said the tree, just like a volcano, was spewing hot lava, while it emitted flames, which raged all night from the middle of the trunk. When fire fighters unsuccessfully tried to put out the flames, they turned their attention away from the Iroko tree to other properties around. Firemen who responded to the challenge likened the mystery fire to one ignited by a gas explosion, adding that they exhausted three trucks of water with chemicals at the scene, yet the fire refused to be put out. The National Emergency Management Agency’s spokesman, Ibrahim Farinloye, said the scene was one better seen than described. “It was strange but real. The Iroko tree, on its own, burst into flames. Firemen rushed to prevent its spread to nearby buildings. Surprisingly, when water with chemical was used, the fire increased rapidly and spread to the top of the tree. “The priest, who is the custodian of the tree, advised the firemen to stop their operation. It was strange because the tree, which is about 60 meters tall, generated some life-threatening heat, yet the leaves remained fresh-green and intact. When the fire was finally put out the next day, two branches of the tree had burned out, yet, the leaves were as fresh as ever.” Farinloye described the operation as exhausting, despite the fact that all responders fought hard to douse the flame. He observed that the tree’s branches all fell within the confined space housing the tree, causing no damage to any property around. Director, Lagos State Fire Service, Mr. Rasaq Fadipe, disclosed that the fire burned for several hours before his men were alerted, recalling that it started from the middle of the tree. “We got information about the fire at 7:07am and got to the scene at about 7:11am. We noticed that the leaves around the stem were not burnt. “Surprisingly when water with chemical was applied, the fire increased in ferocity. At some point, we observed to our surprise that it was spreading to the top of the tree. “At that point, we were told by the chief priest in the area, to halt our action. We had to evacuate people in the area to safety because there was a church, post office and some residential buildings sharing the area with the tree.” For many who witnessed the awe-inspiring sight, it was a strange development that was both creepy and mystifying.
Traditionally, the Iroko tree is a symbol of strength and stability. It has resilient and robust roots that reach deep into the earth. These characteristics were also displayed by this particular tree, which stood at a dizzying height of 60 meters, towering above the community, overlooking many rusty rooftops scattered around the bank of the serene Badagry River.
But that was before the fire. What was left afterwards was the charred remains of a once majestic tree. Its branches were all consumed by the inferno, even as a hollow chamber in its middle still emitted smoke when the reporter arrived. The 250-year-old tree was surrounded by deep, age-long, mysteries that precede the town’s inhabitants. Sacred, revered and appeased every nine days, the gigantic tree sat on a traditional worship place that also housed another Yoruba deity ‘Ogun Awanji,’ the god of thunder.
At the palace of the Jengen of Badagry Kingdom, Chief Onunosekan Gbewa 1, a walking distance from the Iroko tree, the incident was still being discussed. The monarch, who appeared to be in deep consultation with some men believed to be the custodians of the tree, later stepped aside to attend to the reporter. After he was told the mission of the reporter by an intermediary, even though he was well educated and literate, he took a leave of the visitors to have a bath. When he returned, he was adorned in an all-white outfit, typical of a Lagos white-cap chief. After a quick retelling of the history of the town, he disclosed that the fire incident was actually the third in a row, noting that it had occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. He explained that the traditional rites to appease the tree every nine days always started in his palace. The chief maintained that nobody ignited the fire and nobody could put it out because it was mystical, and it posed no danger to anyone. The royal father recalled that when he was informed about the fire, he alerted the Lagos State Fire Service. And while efforts were being made to put out the flames, he noticed that some leaves prevented the water from reaching the tree. He recalled that the leaves were not the Iroko leaves, they were climbers’ leaves that had long intertwined with the tree. He said: “At a point, when the tree continued to repel the water, fire started spilling out from its roots. At that point, my prayer was that it should not spread to the buildings around. Later, at about midnight, the fire fighters on ground exhausted their water and went to refill. After a while, the first branch fell, followed by the second and the third. It was at that point that the fire on its own started reducing and finally stopped on Monday.” He noted that all the three fire incidents recorded on the tree started strangely and stopped without external interference. “The first fire in the 1970s started at the top but the tree remained intact. The incident in the 1980’s, which I witnessed, also started at the top; the leaves were burned out. From then, the tree remained leafless until this fire. Unfortunately, this third one has reduced the tree to a skeleton,” he said. The monarch disclosed that at the death of the custodian of the tree, High Chief Igbehin Ojengen, his son was appointed to take over, adding that the age-long rite of worshiping the tree and the deity located in the same compound had remained: “We pour libation on the tree every nine days, which is the second day of Badagry Market (Ojo eyin Oja). We use local gin, corn meal (ekoo), cowries, eggs, hens, palm oil and other items to pray at its foot.” While revealing the flipside of the mystery tree, its custodian, Joten Gbeyon Jengen, disclosed that his family was in charge and shouldered the responsibility of performing all necessary rituals to the gods of the tree on behalf of the community. He stated that the tree had been standing for more than 250 years, promoting peaceful and harmonious existence of the community and its inhabitants. He stressed that none of the local festivals like Egungun, Igunuko and Oro, among others, marked in the ancient town could commence without homage to the sacred tree. The custodian described the tree as “Igi awon agba and awon aye” (One belonging to the elders and the terrestrial world), insisting that it was very powerful. Before the reporter could be allowed into the sacred groove where the tree was encased, some consultations were made. At the entrance, the chief priest, unlocked the padlock which secured the red gate, and sternly warned the reporter not to capture everything with the camera. Then, five men, and the reporter filed through the rough path into the shrine. It exuded an eerie feeling that made every hair stand on edge; this was even as goose bumps suddenly appeared on the skin, with the heart palpitating. But buoyed by the desire to get every detail about the sacred tree, the reporter quickly took snap shots of the tree.
“Ma ya ibeyen” (don’t snap that place), a voice bellowed. With the reporter apologising profusely, the tour continued. Then in a short while, the monarch announced that it was time to go, leaving the reporter pondering the personality of this mystery, awe-inspiring tree.