Mmanwu: The Masquerade

I remember festive events in my childhood with so much fondness. It was usually at Christmas or Easter, or some other very special events such as the memorial party of an influential person. It was a time of creativity in entertainment, and the children and youth seemed to have a free hand. For us boys, getting behind masks and masquerade dresses known locally as “mmanwu” was something we anticipated all year long. As much as I can remember, all the preparations seemed to have happened naturally without any grown-up supervision though it was always helped if you had a patron. People just got together just for the purpose of entertaining the masses on those festive occasions and earning some money which spectators voluntarily gave to the masquerade teams.

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The different compositions had different names: There was “Big Belly” masquerade that stuffed the stomach with lots of clothings to create the impression of huge protruded stomach; there was the “Iga” which created the impression of being very hairy and so on. Whatever was the dressing, the face had to be covered, a cane or whip had to be carried, and the masquerade had to be accompanied by supporters.  It was always very important to conceal the identity of the person behind the mask to leave people guessing. The spectator, if local to the area, tried to guess the person from the manner of walking or based or who was absent in the accompanying support team.

The masquerade had to perform to keep the audience engaged. The performance usually involved chasing spectators, charging at the them, or performing some acrobatics and other funny impromptu movements. There was often lively chorus singing to accompany. Sometimes the masquerade’s support team flogged each other as a show of strength and masculinity.  Often when a senior or more powerful masquerade appeared , the junior ones had to kneel in respect to avoid being battered. Then there were certain streets designated to masquerade viewing. People would travel those roads by car knowing fully well that there would be a long trail of traffic. It was an opportunity to view different groups of masquerade in one place, and most of the masquerades made it their ultimate destination after touring other streets.  Those vehicles on those viewing streets had better prepared enough change to hand over to the masquerades. Some other viewers climbed strategic positions in order to ensure good viewing.

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There were quite a few things that many people complained about the masquerades: some of them as part of the show flogged spectators or other passers-by who either stood on their way or were not being able to run away fast enough from their chasing or charging. Also as with all things of this nature, there were some taboos. One of the taboos was a girl/woman seeing the person behind the mask. I remember a childhood story where a little girl living in the upstairs apartment managed to peep through her windows and apparently saw the dressing up process in the backyard. This. it was said, agitated the masquerade group and the prevailing myth was that the girl would turn blind if his parents did nothing about it. The girl’s father, as I remember, had to go down to compensate the group and everything got sorted. These were rare cases, and I don’t remember much animosity.

After some time, the state authorities decided to create a specially dedicated masquerade festival that was to be an annual event at the main stadium. This created an impressive opportunity not only to see Igbo masquerades from different places, but also masquerades from other parts of the country. It became a major tourist attraction. Masquerades have been a very important part of Igbo culture.

You need to read Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God to appreciate the roles they have played. There is always some mysticism associated with masquerades. The person behind the mask had to be a mystery; the starting place had to be a secret; the masquerades had to possess some supernatural powers and had to perform all sorts of rituals. That was the magic and charm behind it. As with all things in life, some people believed in this literal possession of supernatural powers by masquerades believed to be from satanic/pagan  worship while for some other it was just about the fun and charm. Talking about charm, many people up till today struggle to understand that charm and magic are about making an impression, rather that about the supernatural.

Fast forward 15 years later and masquerades are no where to be found. They have become extinct, exterminated by the wave of extremist religious views that hit the country in early part of this century.  Apparently they were all of the evil spirit as they have no reference in the holy books. Apparently having one’s face covered with a mask was a sign of evil.  Apparently, people who have seen masquerades in their dreams had had bad things happen to them. Even viewing them might increaser the likelihood of seeing them in your dreams. All these I was told when I enquired about masquerades.

I weep…

ChristopherEjugbo
Is a sustainability professional with keen interest in education, project management and sustainable development. He was born and bred in Nigeria, spent most of his adult life in Latvia, where he headed the Afro-Latvian association, an NGO that promoted intercultural dialogue and diversity. He now resides in the United Kingdom. Hobbies include reading, music and comedy.
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Comments

  1. Bert says

    Christopher,

    A moving and beautiful description – and a sad story. Indeed, this has to do with religious extremism. As we know, Christmas and Mardi Gras (Carnival) are also celebrations that are not of Christian origin – yet Christianity was able to incorporate them, of course changing them as well – but still keeping essential elements. It is only the religious fanatics that want to stamp out these traditions altogether.

    Perhaps one word of comfort: it is perhaps not too late! In other parts of the world, it has been possible to revive traditions that were almost or totally extinct – as long as there is still some memory of things past, old traditions can be modernized and revived…

    • ChristopherEjugbo says

      Thank you for your comments, Bert. The problem is that the very people who want something like masquerades banned are completely unaware of the things you talked about such as Christmas and Mardi Gras being of pagan origin. Ignorance and close-mindedness breeds intolerance.

      I really look forward to such a tradition being revived. It’s true we need to change with times but it has to be for the better. This is something that could be a great source of tourism attraction for all and sundry to see, and have a different story to tell of Africa apart from the usual negativity.

      I think there are still good memories of this tradition, but the task is convincing people to re accept it and view it in a different light that does not threaten their religious beliefs. I think a lot has to do with the phobia of Africanism. See my previous post. http://www.africaontheblog.com/africanism-the-phobia/

  2. IdaHorner says

    A beautiful story indeed Chris. It really pains me when something so innocent is misinterpreted on the basis of something foreign. Most western countries celebrate Halloween and Christmas and that is OK. Some still have their masked balls.

    • ChristopherEjugbo says

      Thanks for your comments, Ida. Really innocent tradition as you say. The sad thing is that is happening not from direct foreign influence but through misinterpretation or reading too much into something.

      It’s something I think many tourists would love. A few months ago I met a German researcher on these masquerades who lamented on how they were being destroyed.

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