Op ed

Mbari Houses

The custom of building mbari houses, monuments honoring Ala, the Igbo creator goddess, is limited to a region in Nigeria around the town of Owerri. Mbari are unfired, painted mud figures constructed by young boys and girls from a certain age group who work under the supervision of senior craftsmen.

The artists, working from nine months to a year, live in total seclusion outside the village on a piece of land that has been fenced in with palm leaves. A mbari house is not a shrine. After a sacrifice is brought to Ala, no further ceremonies take place there. Exposed to wind and rain, the figures crumble within a few years, and then the next age group will construct new mbari.

Some key figures must be represented in these monuments: Ala, the earth goddess with a child sitting on her lap, typically wields a sword in her right hand; her consort, Amadi Oha, the god of thunder, is often dressed in a topee and tie like a British district officer; and various river goddesses serve to affirm the cycles of nature. Young artists invent other gods, people, and animals: Christ in a schoolboy’s uniform, a schoolteacher with a book, a tailor with a sewing machine, women in childbirth, gorillas, monkeys, dogs, horses, leopards, and horned fantasy creatures called “elephants.”

The ephemeral quality of mbari is essential to its meaning and purpose. It would have been easy enough for the builders to protect the figures from wind and rain, or the artists could construct heavy, solid forms with arms closely attached to the body, like the mud figures found in Benin City in shrines dedicated to Olokun, the god of the sea. However, mbari artists seem to provoke decay by representing Ala with an outstretched arm, or portraying a leopard pouncing onto a goat. In the mbari tradition, the act of creation is more important than the finished object. The function of the building is to honor the goddess of creation and thereby ensure the productivity of the earth and the survival of the community. The very short life span of mbari houses allows every age group in the village to participate in this eternal cycle.


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