“I entered the water, and it washed me. That was how I got myself back.”
On a cloudy Saturday afternoon in mid-September, 2022, Patrick Ogbonna, a resident of the Awhum community in Udi Local Government Area of Enugu State, wore a smiling face, as he emerged from the famous Awhum water cave in the community, where he had gone to pray.
He had become one of the regular visitors lately to the cave, which also has a waterfall.
Mr Ogbonna’s excitement did not immediately send a message. But as this reporter would later understand, it tells a story of a narrow escape from a life-threatening ailment.
For over two years, Mr Ogbonna battled for his life. A colleague in his place of work in Rivers State, South-south Nigeria, had poisoned him, he told PREMIUM TIMES.
He said the poison almost paralysed him, forcing him to seek spiritual help from several native doctors in other states.
Mr Ogbonna said he was shocked when a native doctor he visited in Imo State, South-east Nigeria, told him he (the native doctor) could not “handle” his ailment because a “superior power” exists in his (Ogbonna’s) home town.
The native doctor asked him to visit the water cave in his community, Awhum, and dip himself in the water to get healed.
“When I got to the waterfall, I prayed according to directives I received, because I was asked to pray there with pure mind and narrate how the ailment started,” Mr Ogbonna said.
“I entered the water, and it washed me. That was how I got myself back. (I am now) healthy,” he told PREMIUM TIMES, with a grin.
Inside the cave and waterfall
A trip to the water cave was exhausting for a PREMIUM TIMES reporter who visited it. It was about an hour’s trek from the community, crossing two shallow rivers. A narrow and bumpy footpath remained the only road to the area where the cave is.
The cave, a massive outcrop of granite rock forming a narrow space, provides a captivating sight.
It is the first contact before the waterfall.
The tall rock is said to be about 30 meters (98 feet) high from the ground, with water flowing through another footpath formed by a boulevard of the granite rock. Visitors juggle through the water flowing through the narrow footpath to access the waterfall.
The water is warm in all seasons, according to visitors and residents of the community.
It takes about five minutes to trek from the cave to the waterfall.
At the cave, water cascades endlessly from atop the rock, forming a stream at its base.
Apart from being a tourist attraction, the water flowing in the cave is said to have some kind of “healing powers” and is capable of “dispelling” evil forces wherever it is sprinkled, the villagers said.
This, they say, has turned the cave into a place of prayer for Christians and non-Christians, where visitors dip themselves inside the stream for a miracle.
People in groups – like prayer groups from different churches – regularly visit the stream too.
Erected at strategic points in the cave, are statues of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ and other biblical figures. Several visitors, especially members of the Catholic Church, are often seen praying in front of the statues.
Some visitors engraved their names on the walls of the rock inside the cave. They believe that doing this would attract miracles, the villagers told PREMIUM TIMES.
Located in a forest, the area around the cave is dark green and wet. It is extremely calm and quiet, save for the occasional chirping of birds.
“People come here for exhibitions, picnics. People come for camping and prayers as well. Couples who are looking for a child, they get a child after coming to this place. If you come to this place with a clean heart, your problems are solved,” Uchechukwu Oba, a resident of the community, told PREMIUM TIMES.
“A lot of people who have come to this place like blind or crippled people, as soon as they get into this water, the blind will see, the cripple will stand and walk,” said Mr Oba, who is the chairperson of a youth group, Awhum Youth General Assembly.
But the stream, according to the youth leader, does not heal sicknesses “incurred as punishment for abominable acts”.
He said some Chinese tourists visited the cave in early September. Other foreigners have been visiting too, according to residents.
The cave has also become a choice location for the shooting of movies, the residents said.
Onyekachi Onah, a resident of Ebonyi State, had grappled with an avalanche of family problems which she believed were “spiritual attacks”.
She was moved to visit the cave in search of her own “miracle” after listening to the testimonies of others.
“I was scared because I did not expect what I saw. The whole place was bushy. The thing is looking like (a) house, but it is stone,” the mother of three said of the cave.
“Only the water falling on you, and you will be swimming inside the water, you will enjoy the place,” she said, excitedly.
Mrs Onah said she dipped herself inside the water and also fetched a keg for her use back home.
Another visitor, who identified himself as Paul, said he has been visiting the waterfall for over 15 years, travelling from Lagos State, South-west Nigeria, to Enugu State.
Mr Paul owns a Christian ministry in Lagos. He does visit the cave with worshippers from his ministry.
“But for today, I came here for a private prayer programme,” he said to PREMIUM TIMES.
He planned to spend three months praying at the cave and waterfall, according to him.
“The water falling there heals people. On one occasion, one of the visitors from my ministry, who was poisoned, drank this water and vomited the poison,” Mr Paul said.
He said the speed at which one receives healing or any other miracle in the cave depends on the level of one’s faith.
Like others, Mr Paul usually fetches water from the cave and takes it back to Lagos. He said he uses the water to “dispel evil forces”.
Another visitor, who asked not to be named, told PREMIUM TIMES he was prompted to visit the cave to fight off work-related stress after seeing photos of the cave posted on social media.
He said when he got there he joined the people who went inside the water to pray. “The water fell on my head. It was very interesting,” he said.
Who’s in charge?
Although it is owned by the Awhum community, the water cave is managed by a Catholic organisation, Our Lady of Mount Calvary Monastery, which is close to it.
Visitors (excluding indigenes of the community) to the cave and waterfall pay a fee before they are allowed access.
The monastery has rooms for rent at the rate of N2, 000 per night for visitors to the cave.
A security guard said there is usually an increase in the number of visitors to the monastery during festive periods like Christmas and Easter.
When a PREMIUM TIMES reporter visited the monastery in September, the Catholic priest, simply identified as Kelvin, who heads the place, was said to have travelled outside Enugu State for a religious programme.
Some monks who asked not to be named told PREMIUM TIMES that the number of people visiting the water cave had reduced “drastically” in recent times.
One monk attributed this to the ongoing renovation of the monastery.
“We didn’t ask them to stop coming. They just saw there was no accommodation and stopped,” the monk said.
But PREMIUM TIMES gathered that lack of access roads and the rising cases of kidnapping in the area were among the major factors behind the reduction in the number of visitors.
“Just yesterday (16 September) somebody was kidnapped here,” another security guard at the monastery told this newspaper.
For security, the monastery usually deploys two of its armed private security guards to be with the pilgrims, PREMIUM TIMES learnt.
The security guards accompany the pilgrims to the cave and accompany them back after prayers.
A community leader in Awhum, Felix Atuchi, told PREMIUM TIMES the cave has existed “so long”, and that the history of how it came about was unclear.
He said the community took refuge inside the cave during the Nigerian Civil War, and that bombs could not destroy the cave.
Another community leader, James Ugbor, said traditionalists managed the place before the monks arrived around 1975.
Mr Ugbor said when the cave was managed by traditionalists, people could not go in there alone because of the fear of an encounter with some unknown spirit beings.
Some years ago, some traditional worshipers attempted to resume fetish activities at the cave, residents told PREMIUM TIMES.
Some Christian clerics too had turned the cave into a venue for “prayers and deliverance sessions” for people believed to be possessed by evil spirits.
But the monastery reportedly resisted their activities and subsequently banned any visit to the place without approval from them.
Pilgrims are to be in a group before they are allowed access into the water cave, an official, who asked not to be named, said.
Tourism, a neglected sector
The Awhum water cave has the potential to become a major tourist site in Nigeria. It is for the relevant authorities to first look into the challenges facing it and then consider elevating the site to a deserving status.
Nigeria’s tourism sector accounted for 34 per cent of the GDP and about 20 per cent of the nation’s employment creation in 2017, the Chief Executive Officer of the National Bureau of Statistics, Yemi Kale, said in 2018.
Also, the Managing Director of Nigeria Export Processing Zones Authority, Adesoji Adesugba, in April, said, over the years, tourism has contributed about $1.5 billion to the country’s economy.
The Commissioner for Culture and Tourism in Enugu State, Ugonna Ibe, said, “For tourism to thrive, like at the Awhum Waterfall, there should be security, power supply, and accessible road.”
He recommended that a holiday resort and a hotel should be built close to the cave.
The commissioner said a delegation sent by the federal government, during the 62nd Independence Anniversary, visited the cave and similar tourist attractions in the state, but nothing has been heard from them.
“Not just in Enugu State, but (successive) Nigeria governments too have not realised it (the importance of tourism) simply because we are neck-dip into crude oil. And soon, the oil will finish,” he said.
A tourism expert, Bolaji Suen, said to assure people of security and safety, the government could set up a vigilante group for the cave.
“That will give people peace of mind to visit the place,” he added.
“Tourism is part of life. Whenever we are close to nature, we are close to God. So, nature refreshes our mind, our spirit and makes us feel at home,” he said.