Beyond providing refuge in times of peril, the Ogbunike caves are a spiritual bastion and a hidden gem of Eastern Nigeria. In the latter months of 1968 and 1969, when hundreds of people hid in the dark to escape the perils of the Nigerian Civil War, the Ogbunike caves presented many options. For the locals and soldiers who hid and lived there for days and weeks in some cases, it was familiar territory; a complex maze of caves that outsiders could never understand. It was not the first time that the Ogbunike caves offered a place for hiding; it is said that slave traders in pre-colonial times hid in the caves from which they planned and executed slave raids. The safety and refuge that the caves have provided across history are partly why they hold special importance to the indigenes of Anambra and the Eastern part of the country. The caves are actually a system of many caves linked together by small, tunnels and passages. They take their name from Ogbunike, a town in Oyi Local Government Area of Anambra State where they are situated. The main cave consists of a massive structure with a big open chamber of about 5m high, 10m wide and 30m long at the entrance. Beyond their storied history as a place of refuge, the Ogbunike caves have an important spiritual heritage that dates back many years before the white man first set foot on African soil, to a time when they worshipped in its darkest recesses. It is said that the Ogbunike caves were discovered by a man named Ukwa, from the Umucheke family of Ifite-Ogbunike, about 4000 years ago.
According to legend, the caves were created by a deity named Ogba, who they believe lives within. The Ogbunike caves draw much of their spiritual significance from this belief. Some of the indigenes still come there to worship and they point to many phenomena in and around the cave as proof of their beliefs. The caves have a large colony of harmless bats of various sizes that seem to stand as guardians of the structure from the entrance of the place. The water around the caves is also thought to be divine. A stream flows out from one of the caves’ tunnels into River Nkissa, a rapidly flowing river at the foot of one of the caves’ exits. The water drops perpetually from the roof of the caves at many points, people also believe that the water has healing powers that can cure any ailment and many come to collect it for different purposes.
According to some publications online, there is a crocodile, tortoise and a talking stone in the caves and the indigenes call the talking stone “Nwanyi Akpanyi”. As hard as it may seems for many to believe, as seeing is believing, the caves have taken on an essence that makes them different from other caves due to the naturally-occurring underground structure in Nigeria. As such, there are rules and regulations, provisions and celebrations that seek to preserve their sanctity and honour their significance in times of old and now. Another thing to note about the cave is that you can’t use the same way that led you into the caves. You have to leave the caves through another passage as there are many points of entry and exit. The caves also forbids women who are on their monthly cycles from entering the caves, and all visitors, regardless of age, status and race must first of all take off their shoes before entering. Every year, locals hold the Ime Ogbe festival in celebration of the caves and its spirits that attract visitors from around the state and beyond.
In 2007, UNESCO added the caves to their tentative list to be considered as a World Heritage Site, after it was submitted by the Nigerian Commission for Museums and Monuments. The site has been protected from the threat of urbanization to a large degree; there are large boundaries of about 20 hectares on all sides, between the caves and the closest human settlement. There is no doubt that the Ogbunike caves have major tourist potential, both for their history, novelty and the many mysteries that lie within the dark recess of its chambers.
By Pupwaya Timothy Dibal