The festive masquerades of Igbo people

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Apart from the language, the traditions and culture are also some other endangered heritage of the Igbo peoples. One of the branches of this culture that is fast ebbing away is the mmanwu culture, the masquerade culture. Mmanwu is a traditional masquerade of the Igbos, to whom it used to be a major form of entertainment. Masquerades can differ from community to community, and from village to village. Masquerades festivals generally last for weeks and some may span over months, and were performed during the end of the harvest or start of the new planting season. There are some Igbo peoples that perform masquerades throughout the entire year. Masquerades are used to honour the dead and pray to the gods for a successful planting season. They were also used to honour the dead, and would go about performing during burial ceremonies.

In these modern times, masquerades are used during the Iri Ji (New Yam), Christmas, New Year, Easter and other such celebrations. Masquerades became so important as an element of entertainment that Igbos from all over the world would converge at home during in order to ‘gbaa mmanwu’, that is, ‘to celebrate the masquerade during these ceremonies.

Indeed, in 1986, the old Anambra State began the annual Mmanwu Festival which lasted for days whenever it was celebrated. In those days, the less dangerous ones would come to display at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium in the day, while those regarded as spirits danced at midnight, and it was said that the lights were put off and some of the masquerades did wonders, like emerging from ant-holes in the ground.
With the increasing rejection of Igbo culture, many communities have lost their masquerade traditions, but the more culture-conscious peoples have refused to let go, continuing in the noble entertaining tradition as in the past. Among these communities, the Aro Ndi Izuogu people of Imo State holds its masquerades as the most important entertainment festival, and is perhaps, the greatest celebrators of masquerades in Africa. Practically, all Igbo towns have their masquerade cults and masquerades, but some have more masquerades than others, for instance, in Enugu State, Ugwuoba, Oji River, Enugwu-Ngwo, Enugu, stand out, though Nsukka and Nkanu areas are also known for their advanced masquerades like the ones that require a lot of charms. For the Anambra, peoples of Agulu, Agulu-Uzo-Igbo, Igbo-Ukwu, Nnewi, Nanka, Ekwulobia and others are known to run masquerades for weeks whenever there is an outing. Afikpo people in Ebonyi have several masquerades too. For Abia, Arochukwu, Umuahia and other towns stand out with their Ekpo and Ekpe masquerades.

So, Igbo sons and daughters still invest millions to ensure the success of the masquerade celebrations during festivities. Between Christmas Eve and two weeks into January, some of these towns sustain a tempo of dance, performance and magic, which the masquerade is known for. And the mmanwu, like humans, come in different ages and looks, as well as fame. For instance, there are masquerades for children, and there are those for young men, while old men also have masquerades that they run. For example, the Igariga and Esekemperi are young mmanwu who dresses light, and carries canes with which he chases people around, especially girls and women. The Ekpo is also a people-chasing masquerade, and would rub the soot on its body on well-dressed girls it catches. These types do not usually go with charms. The Omewaluigwe on its own side is a wise masquerade in the sense that it is known for its talkative nature. It goes around making proverbs and speaking parables, while its followers and the audience applaud it. Ada-mmanwu is a masquerade who dresses beautifully, with handbags, and face paints. It also swags like a girl. However, the masquerade cult is restricted from women, and no woman goes close to one. Indeed, it is a taboo for a woman to go close to one, and that is one of the many reasons why it carries canes in order to scare them away. There is also the Odo, an mmanwu peculiar to the Agbaja (Ngwo and environs) people.

The Ojionu masquerade is a water spirit character represented by a headdress of crocodiles, sharks and other water creatures. The major attribute of Ojionu is creative non-stop dancing. Versions of the Ojionu masquerade varies from those that perform voices only and possess superior mystical powers to those that dance predominantly with minimal voices and less mystical powers.
Another type is the Agaba. The Agaba masquerade is a warrior-like mmanwu, who, in actual sense, is a leopard masquerade.
The Ijele masquerade is a peculiar type of masquerade. It is such a popular masquerade that its fame is felt in every part of Igbo land. The Ijele masquerade is most popular in Anambra State, and to some extent, Enugu State.This masquerade is very big and completely adorned with very costly clothings and shiny objects, making it gleam in the sun when dancing.
Mkpamkpankụ is a very serious, fully masculine-featured masquerade. Mkpamkpankụ is brisk, aggressive, agile and notorious in its own way. It has the apperanance of a person. This masquerade is active to the extent that about two or more strong men are ever around it to with the rope that is tied around its west to draw it back from over acting.
The Okwomma is the type that carries a cutlass, well sharpened. It uses this to shake hands, to collect money and to greet people who are in the cult, or other great masquerades. But it chases people with
Other masquerades include the Enyi mmanwu(Elephant), mmanwu Ugo (Eagle), mmanwu Mbe (tortoise), Odum mmanwu. These assume the appearance of the creatures that they have their names attached. And during their display, they do things that are peculiar to those creatures.

But there are more mystical mmanwus, like the Otawaru Ikpo-dreadful masquerade with charms that enables it dance on cassava leaves. Another terror is the Odegwu Anya Mmiri which sheds tears when it is about. It ius a two-faced mmanwu, and can move simutaneouldy in two directions. It is also so dreadful that whoever it meets first as it leaves the shrine dies. In order to avoid human deaths, a ram is tied in its path, which perishes after it passes.

Masquerades used in enforcing the law include the Omoba night masquerade, Ojukwu and Ekpe, and these mmanwus are common among the Arochukwu people.
Mgbadike is a warrior mmanwu which wields axes and cutlass, and its guide would use the cutlass to cut open his mouth without inflicting any injury on himself.
Then there is the Mkpa-mkpa from Agulu, which is said to lays a large egg like a chicken whenever it appears. There are also the night masquerades, and these include the Oga nigwe, Omoba and others. These are the types said to come out of ant holes at night to dance in the darkness. There are also the crowd masquerades that are used during burial ceremonies of titled men and at ofala festivals. Such masquerades are common among young men and usually carry canes with which they scare people away.

The Ịzaga are tall masquerades that have the ability to grow very tall and also make itself short. The Ojiọnụ, on the other hand, has a long mouth.
Masquerades are also very sacred to Igbos. No one dares a masquerade in any guise as it is regarded as a taboo. There is a story about a school teacher who beat up a child masquerade at Doodo, Oji River, Enugu State. The little masquerade, an Igariga had flogged his girlfriend, and he in anger, caught the spirit and tore its cover, beating it up. Before nightfall that day, the whole streets of Oji River was filled with wails and cries of masquerades, for, as every masquerade in the town had assembled to lament the incident. According to Mr Ogunjiofor, who narrated this story to Daily Newswatch, such an incident is regarded as ‘killing the spirit’, and that was why all the masquerades wailed. They all converged at the teachers’ quarters. The young teacher was lucky as he was smuggled out of the house, and out of town. He never returned. They burned down the building where he lived, and were only appeased by the school authorities with items needed to perform a burial, including a goat. “If it were in the past, they would have killed him, but they deliberately allowed him to run away to avoid having blood on their hands”.

Also, masquerade cults are used to preserve morals, as is the case in Ugwunani, Aku, Enugu Statein March last year.
Daily Newswatch learnt from a native that the Odo stripped two ladies for coming out in skimpy trousers. One of the two women stripped, whose name could not be ascertained was a visitor and that she was attacked at Eke Aku by the masqueraders, which completely removed her blouse and compelled her to pay a ransom of N1,700 to regain her freedom for wearing trousers in the area during the period of the Odo masquerade celebration.

Also, masquerades are not allowed to abuse their powers against the people. For instance, Nkerefi people of Enugu State used to be a major masquerade community, and had the Ovuvu, Okoro-Ocha, Okoro-Ojii, among other entertainment masquerades. But according to Nwuko Christopher, a priest with the Methodist Church, Umuogbii Nkerefi, the masquerade culture is no more because they were banned. “Masquerades became an annual affair in our town until they began to abuse their privileges. Masquerades will flog people will reckless abandon, even chasing them into their homes to beat them up. It was one year when the thing became too much that it was banned. They went as far as beating up a girl and tearing up her clothes.” On his part, Emeka Nwajagu, a student with NIIT Benin also stated that his hometown of Aguluzigbo still has masquerade festivals, but that some have been banned due to impunity: “We used to have the dreaded Omaba masquerade which only comes out in the night. But one year, while it was about, it sighted a man with lights, an abomination to Omaba, and killed him. Since then, the Omaba has become a taboo here. Not too long ago too, it was reported in the news that women of Opio in Nsukka Local Government held a protest due to incessant rape cases in the community. According to sources, some masquerades had taken turns to rape a nursing mother, who was also a student.
The lady, Ngozi Ugwu told newsmen that the rape, which happened on March 21, 2012 left her in both physical and psychological trauma.
All in all however, many people still wonder why Igbos insist on travelling home during festive periods. One of the answers can only be given by a masquerade.



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