Karuna read my article on enjoying Christmas – The Eket Way and became intrigued by masquerades and like she put it, “Their costumes are exquisite…. but they sound really scary.” I tried to disabuse her thoughts from the scary aspect and made up my mind to check out her ‘fears’ and let her into our exciting world of masquerades this side of the globe. This is for you Karuna 🙂
To “masquerade” by dictionary definition is ‘to disguise oneself and assume the character of’ amongst other meanings. Therefore it is simply an act of pretence or cover-up.
In Nigeria, masquerades apart from the disguise aspects have several functions they play in the community they operate. Like Unyime-Ivy King noted in her book “Burning Hurt”, ¹ in Akwa Ibom State, masquerades serve the purpose of being the societal watchdogs and news reporters. They keep themselves informed about happenings in the community (either good or bad) and report same during their displays to the community so that the errant fellow is brought to judgement. These masquerade societies had their criteria for intending members and were different for the male and female gender.
For the men, it was the Ekpo Society. “Ekpo Society is founded on the belief in life after death; and it is regarded as the soul or ghost of ancestors that return to the land of the living in masquerade form to participate with their kinsmen in communal festivals such as farming and rites of passage. From the pre-civilization era, the Akwa Ibom people used traditional cultural institutions such as Ekpo and Ekpe to maintain order in the society. These institutions stood out as government of the time. As a secret society, membership is strictly by initiation; hence, every aspect of Ekpo is designed to strike awe, fear and caution among women and non-initiates. In the pre- colonial era, Ekpo served as the government of the entire Akwa Ibom people performing such functions as judicial, administrative and religious duties.” ² And their means of communication was through Folk songs. Ebre Society was mainly for the womenfolk. Read “Burning Hurt” (pages 155-164) for more information.
According to Daniel A. Offiong ³ in his article, “the esoteric basis of their activities sets them apart from others…and the associations are secret or ‘exclusive in the same way as any club is exclusive to non-members or the uneligible’ (Akpan, 1974). In order to maintain their awesomeness and also entice others to join them ‘their tools, emblems, signs, tokens, and methods are secret to unauthorized persons.’”
In my village – Eket and the State at large, we have different masquerades with different names. Hope I get the spellings, not as if you can pronounce them correctly though 🙂 like ‘Tinkoriko’, ‘Ekpo Nyoho’,
‘Obio Okpo’ (this one has really long legs.Well, the person hosting this masquerade would stand on a very high bamboo sticks secured to both legs and walk tall above every other person) and ‘Ekpri Akata’ (This is a cultural society that serves as a powerful medium of disseminating of information in the communities. It has the power to reveal and transmit to the populace secret deeds of men, women and youth in the society, thereby curbing crime and promoting integrity. They act as community news vendors, exposing fornicators, murderers and other undesirable behaviours in the society). Some of the masquerades dressed in plenty colours and others like the Tinkoriko looked like a pretty lady with makeup, that is – their masks was made up to look like a beautiful lady (of course it was a man underneath the disguise).
By and large, they show up during festivals and also at Christmas seasons like I mentioned earlier and it is always fun trying to run and hide from a masquerade, especially the less fierce ones. And as long as you were not the object of their mockery in folk songs, it’s all good!
1 Burning Hurt by Unyime-Ivy King
3 “The Functions of The Ekpo Society of The Ibibio of Nigeria” by Professor Daniel A. Offiong http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=9029914
© 2014 Frances Kelvin Otung. All rights reserved.