Society and Culture

Burn the mmonwu: contradictions and contestations in masquerade performance in Uga, Anambra state in southeastern Nigeria.

Masked performances organized by male associations are a distinctive feature of public performance among Igbo-speaking peoples of southeastern Nigeria (Jones 1984, Cole and Aniakor 1984) and have been the subject of attention by African art historians in the twentieth century (Ottenberg 1975, Aniakor 1978, Ugonna 1984, Henderson and Umunna 1988, Bentor 1995). Innovation and change in terms of iconography, ritual, and dramatic presentation have always been important components to these performances, as well as flexible adaptations and responses to changing social circumstances (Figs. 1-3). However, in the last two decades, new mass movements of Christian evangelism and Pentecostalism have emerged, successfully exhorting their members to reject masquerade as a pagan practice. During this time, in many places in southeastern Nigeria, famous and long-standing masquerade associations have disbanded and their masks and costumes burnt as testimonies to the efficacy of Pentecostalism, affirming the successful conversion of former masquerade members. This research examines the challenges that changing localized circumstances pose to masquerade practice in one locale in southeastern Nigeria.

Uga (1) is located in southeastern Nigeria in Aguata Local Government Area (LGA) in Anambra state, along the Nnewi-Okigwe expressway in Nigeria, some 40 km (25 mi.) eastwards from Onitsha on the river Niger (Fig. 4). It consisted until recently of four village units–Umueze, Awarasi, Umuoru, and Oka–spatially contiguous with each other and has a population of some 20,000 individuals. Historically it had wide-ranging relations with both neighboring and more distant village clusters (with which it was often in alliance or conflict). These extended as far as Arochuku, with whom they had married in the mid-nineteenth century (Anaedobe and Ezenwaka 1982:33). Uga is headed by an Igwe, the title often used to denote the forms of kingship that have emerged and been adopted throughout southeastern Nigeria in the twentieth century (for a discussion see Harneit-Sievers 1998, Matsumoto 2003). This replaced an earlier local title, Eze, which was considered not to have as much regional credence as the more widely adopted Igwe title. The current Igwe’s father was the first to be conferred with this title, as he was deemed to be the direct and senior descendant of the founder of the Uga community

At the present time Uga is without a police station, although mobile police set up temporary road blocks on a daily basis. The community conducts most of its judicial affairs internally through committees that regulate matters such as less-serious infractions of the law and the use of vigilante patrols to police the community and ensure collective security. Despite the adoption of a king in the person of the Igwe, social organization retains many of its earlier acephalous characteristics, based on segmentary principles centered on the patrilineages (umunna, ‘children of a common forefather’). These vary in size from one to many households, and the household or compound is the smallest territorial unit. However, the umunna is the smallest political unit, made up of its adult males. Its meetings are held in the compound of the head of the most senior family by descent, through whom collective and individual interests are negotiated. Wider interests and conflicts are dealt with at a village assembly overseen by ozo titleholders and meetings are summoned by beating the ikoro, the massive carved wooden slit drum found in each village square. Similarly, when this proves insufficient, the assembly of the village cluster is held, which all adult males attend (Anaedobe and Ezenwaka 1982:20-21). This assembly is the basis for the largest political unit. Some precolonial forms of organization, albeit much modified in the twentieth century, still have a great deal of salience in offering a template for organizing the community in interactions with the Nigerian state where the state’s infrastructures are relatively weak. In Uga there are presently five age sets within an age-grade system structured on gerontocratic principles. These are organized on a village basis within each of the four village units, through which much political and judicial action can also be exercised.

Masquerade has a long history in Uga. One founding charter of the origins of masquerade is that when yam farming on Uga land first began, theft became an immediate problem. Masked figures were used to deter thieves, and from this practice masquerade developed in a variety of performative styles and forms practiced exclusively by men, whose individual identities as performers remained unknown. Young palm fronds (omu) were tied to a tree, plant, or post as a warning against theft (Fig. 5)–and at least until the recent past, a masquerade would come out in response to any infractions to punish the person who had disregarded the warning. Different masquerades were autonomous to each other. However, various kinds of disputes and conflicts, particularly between the four village units, could be negotiated through the associations that supported and underpinned each respective masquerade. (2) In these instances, such an association would negotiate with a corresponding or comparable masquerade in the other village unit to resolve a dispute, mediated by the principles of collective authority that underlie masquerade in Uga. These principles could on occasion be used to negotiate with other village clusters, but the congruence between opposing masquerade associations becomes harder to establish and prone to break down (unless that masquerade was directly acquired from the other group, in which case associational links were maintained or could be revived). In each village unit in Uga there is an Onye Isi Mmonwu (‘head of masquerade’), a direct descendant of the individual who first introduced masquerade into that village community. All masquerades who pass over that community’s land should pay their respects to the Onye Isi Mmowu prior to performance or any other action that may be taken (Fig. 6). There is also an overarching Onye Isi Mmonwu who is seen as the head of all masquerade in Uga (and who resides in the village unit of Awarasi). (3)

Masquerade entities are separate and autonomous to the deities who used to be worshipped within Uga. (4) Two terms, mrnonwu and mmanwu, are used to designate masqueraders in twenty-first century Uga, and they semantically overlap. Mmonwu stems as a gloss from mmuo onwu (lit. ‘spirit dead’), highlighting that the masquerade is a temporary embodiment in the material world from the world of the dead. (There are a wide range of variable interpretations for both these words across the Igbo-speaking region; for a discussion of some of these see Ugonna 1984:2, Cole and Aniakor 1984:113). Mmanwu is a gloss for rnma onwu (lit. ‘beauty dead’), which draws on a range of ideas about funerary commemoration in which the deceased is displayed lying in state in his or her compound dressed in finery and surrounded by an array of beautiful hanging or rolled-up textiles. (5) Semantic and aesthetic parallels are drawn between the decoration and display of the deceased during funerary rites and the elaboration of decoration of masquerades, which locate masquerade conceptually in the spirit world where the dead reside and as part of this collective. Masquerades enter the world of the living temporarily through the holes made by ants, either in the ground or in anthills. However, when they appear they do not represent named and identifiable forebears, and Cole and Aniakor (1984:113) observe that “never among the Igbo are they ‘portraits’ of individuals, nor do they refer to specific individuals who have lived” despite being physical manifestations from the community of the incarnate dead. A central concept to the material embodiment of masquerade in Uga is that cloth or other materials cover every surface and limb, in order that the presence of the mmonwu is realized in public spaces. (6)

Only males can be initiated into masquerade, usually during their time within the youth age-set. Every male has the right to join, although not everyone decides to take up masquerade practice and, indeed, there has been local opposition to it since the advent of the Anglican church circa 1914. Public performances are spatially gendered, with women keeping their distance due to the inherent metaphysical and disciplinary dangers of masquerade. Up to the Biafran War (1967-1970) there were easily identifiable masquerade houses within each village, where communal masquerades were safely stored. These are no longer easily visible, although temporary structures and locked rooms in village community halls serve that purpose today in some communities. In addition, some masquerades, owned by a particular individual or family, are stored secretly within family compounds. There were a wide range of masquerades found in Uga along with the associations which supported them. They were the avenue for the advancement of individual male social status within the male world of masquerade, particularly as the life cycle of the masquerade and its accumulated history of exploits within the community developed over time, thereby gaining prestige in comparison with other masquerades.

Masquerades are charged with medicines that provide metaphysical protection when they compete and ensure their efficacy and success in public displays. In Uga there remains a contrast between masquerades that appear during daytime and those that appear at night. Night masquerades are considered more dangerous and their access and viewing is restricted to senior men of the community who have initiated into them. Night masquerades are considered to generally have the most potent medicines, linked to their capacities to kill, and individuals who encounter them in the night must be holders of important titles within masquerade associations if they are not to be killed by the encounter. Due to their nocturnal nature, sound is a key component of these masquerades, as the range of noises alerts non-members (which includes initiates of other masquerades) to the presence of a particular night masquerade and warns of the consequences of encountering them (Reed 2005:52, Anetoh 1987:96-104, Cole and Aniakor 1984:132-33). Their presence is sometimes manifested the next day by a trail of torn-down trees or other damage and, when used in a judicial capacity on behalf of the community, by the death of an individual. For example, the night masquerade Ogana igwe (‘it walks on the air’) emerges at night time to the sound of gongs and the next day has left a trail of broken branches that indicates that it moved through the air without touching the ground. Its medicines are so powerful that it can turn day to night and, if it encounters stray domestic animals, such as goats, and even wayward humans, it cannot be held responsible for any death it causes. Night masquerades also used to perform late on the last night of funerary rites of prominent individuals, in an area outside the compound, marked out by fresh palm leaves, which only the masquerade and its association members (and members of comparably ranked masquerades) were able to attend.

By contrast, day masquerades emphasize display and performance within the public arena to an audience of members, other masquerade initiates, and non-initiates, including women and individuals from outside Uga. They are also metaphysically charged with potent medicines that center on the competitive arenas in which they publicly perform. Most of these masquerades are associations that come together in fellowship to practice masquerade within and between the various Uga villages and also to compete against other towns’ masquerades. On occasion they also perform at festivals organized by the Aguata LGA administration or at Anambra state festivals (for a description see Reed 2005).

Masquerades can be acquired from within the village that an individual belongs to, from the other villages of Uga, or from other communities. For example, Asirimasi (‘Does not hide secrets’) is a powerful solo masquerade noted for its capacity to neutralize the charms of hostile masquerades of other towns when Uga masquerades compete against them. While other Uga masquerades perform competitively against the host community’s masquerades, Asirimasi mingles with the audience, dressed in a wrapper, in often humorous interactions, as if almost human itself. But at the same time it identifies and renders harmless hostile opposing charms by placing its walking stick in the shadow of anyone found to be exerting such means against the masquerades from Uga. It was first introduced by an Awarasi wood carver’s father some seventy years ago, after he saw it perform during a visit to Arondizoguo and carved a perfect likeness.7 Although the masquerade is part of the incarnate dead, the performance and the exploits associated with it are what enhance its prestige and popularity, giving it a social biography within the community and attracting members to join its association or purchase the rights to set up a new masquerade and association (for another example see Picton 1990). In the relationships between individuals and masquerade groups, titles are acquired that give status and prestige within this autonomous yet secret world of men. Furthermore these titles and the histories of the masquerades by which such titles are acquired have a knock-on effect, allowing titleholders to exploit this social capital in the wider public political arena through the garnering of male support through this covert fame.

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