It is 2.00 am on the night of Saturday the 1st of July, and I am wide awake in Obosi, listening to the sounds of the night masquerade as Osita Chidoka shares the live videos on his page.
It takes me down memory lane and all our experiences with masquerades. Especially of my aunt Eucharia, otherwise known as UK Kingdom (to which she’d reply, “onwere ka kingdom siri kwaba ahụ – e get as kingdom take keep body), and how she always had to go and dare our village masquerades to pursue her (and us), all the way home.
UK had a “single bone”, whatever that meant (looked like a poorly set broken arm bone to us though), and she thought that instilled in her, the spirit to be a real life Killeewee Nwachukwu.
My mother would send us home to her mother in the village for Christmas holidays with strict instructions that we were not to go and join in the annual masquerade festivals (unto born again things na), but grandma would ask UK to take us out so we can join in the fun other teenagers were having, and UK’s idea of “fun” was going to dare those short-short Ukpor masquerades into chasing us all the way home.
We would leave grandma’s house in Okohia, Umuohi, and trek all the way to Ebenatọ, just to go and watch masquerades.
Other people would watch and go away, UK Kingdom and her single bone, would go and pick the masquerade with the worst anger management issues, and parade herself across its front again and again, until it noticed her, then game on!
UK Kingdom would forget that her nieces were ajebos from Kaduna. That the only time we ran was TOWARDS an ice cream van, and not AWAY from the spirit of our ancestors who were determined to flog us into joining them.
She would forget that whatever her angst with the mmanwus were, we were not there when it was contracted.
They would pursue her and she would take off.
Leaving us and our skinny skinny legs to hobble along after her.
Our saving grace was usually the elders who realizing that these were late Ezike Mmeziegbunam’s daughters about to receive filaria from flogging, would snatch us out of the way and give us “immunity”. Thankfully, the masquerades were not even interested in us, they just wanted to catch UK and flog the madness out of her.
We have been chased by Akakpo of Umudiji, all the way back to Okohia – normally a distance of twenty minutes of brisk walking, but which we covered in five minutes of flight time, riding on UK’s back.
We have been chased by Fighter of Ebe n’atọ. Our saving grace, were its handlers who caught up just as I was prepared to adopt the “kuku kee me”, pose. Better to die from flogging, than to die from exhaustion.
When my paternal grandfather died, the funeral lasted 7 days (things fall apart was not all fiction yo!), and I remember us, women and small children, sitting at the back of the old house, facing the yam barn on the 4th night of festivities, as the ancestors came to welcome one of theirs back home.
We couldn’t move, we sat with our heads between our legs and waited until the “spirits” had been and passed. I remember the whoosh of the raffia as they came round. I couldn’t have been more than four years at the time, but that night is all I remember.
My father was a titled man, I remember his funeral and us sitting with our grandmothers in that same pose as the spirits came and passed. I realize now, 29 years after, that I do not even know the symbolism behind that.
I remember when the wave of born againism swept through the South East and we began to demonize this aspect of our culture.
And then again, I recall one night in February 2015, turning round the corner in the Stratford Westfield shopping mall in London, with my daughter, and running into a full parade of Chinese masquerades.
My first instinct was to run and I had actually grabbed my daughter and headed for one of the shops, before I realized that these masquerades were “made in China”.
And I also realized then, that my daughter had turned ten without ever experiencing a real life masquerade. So she didn’t understand why her bush mother’s first instinct was to run.
We have substituted all that is beautiful in our culture with the borrowed culture of the white man which we prefer to view as “religion”, and sometimes it is saddening to think that our children might grow up to consider masquerades “evil demons” who need to be burnt or exorcized out of our life and history.
On Sunday after the night masquerades visited in Obosi, I went to Ukpor to visit my relatives and along the way, I recalled how as we climbed the treacherous, slippery and extremely winding Ubo Osibu river hill, we would chance upon an akapo making its way from one village to the other.
My father and brother being titled men, would give and receive greetings from them, but the rest of us would stay with our heads bowed and avoid looking directly at the masquerades. We could only turn and look at their backs after they had long past.
As we made our way up the hill to Afọr Ukpor where the town hall was located, we would see ijele in its full glory, dancing and surrounded by its handlers and one or two smaller masquerades. My father would park in the nearest compound so we the females could go and take refuge, while he mingled with them briefly.
Of course if we were in the car, we had a lot of immunity. But if you chanced upon them while you were on the back of a bike or trekking down a bush path, sorry!
That day, you would be forced to understand all the principles of physics and engineering as your mind would force your body to move faster than the speed of light.
I know that it sounds like I am romanticizing the masquerade culture too much, maybe I am.
I am just a bit upset that all the way down to Ukpor, I could not identify those distinct masquerade shrines that littered the way. Civilization had taken off most of them, aided by fanatical pentecostalism which demonizes tradition at the expense of common sense.
All the “obom mmanwu” had disappeared and in their stead, were small tuck shops and stuff like that.
Yet some of those who demonize and burn down shrines, will fast and pray for a visa to a western country, where they would go to a museum or other site of tourist attraction, and pose with their well preserved relics.
I wonder sometimes if we have an active Ministry of Culture and Tourism. If yes, what do they do? Promote zoos and resorts, or preserve these little bits of our stories and lives as Nigerians that come together to form the bigger picture of our existence.
Perhaps the only thing that should be done to the masquerades, is to ask them to stop flogging female spectators and uninitiated male observers.
Other than that, these shrines should be preserved by government, the annual masquerade festivals should be elevated to tourist events and fiestas with international bodies and organizations invited to participate as spectators and their masks, costumes and carvings preserved for posterity.
And as for those ones who bring in pentecostalism to burn down these aspects of our culture to make way for their shiny, blue eyed gods; I think that a life sentence in jain is too mild a punishment.
I would have loved to prescribe an appropriate punishment, but children might be reading this, but just imagine for one moment that you are in your church, let us say your church is “shoozin” for instance.
And you are on a parade, jumping around on the streets, rolling in the mud and hanging off mango trees like monkeys; and a group of masquerades descend on you, pack all your bibles and aprons and set them on fire, and begin to chant unintelligible gibberish around you, then cap it up with pouring palmwine on your head and declaring you “anointed and free”; would you like it?
But that is what you do when you burn down shrines and masquerade houses.
Live and let live.