Masquerades are a major part of Igbo culture.
In the past, masquerades were not just used for entertainment; they served political roles too. They stood as custodians of village and clan laws. Anybody who broke the law risk being visited by a masquerade.
That time, too, the story of masquerades being spirits was still much believed. Folks believed masquerades were not human and weren’t born by women — it is believed that they appeared from ant holes at midnight.
The masquerade community was a revered cult at that time and every information surrounding their existence, place of rest and even as little as costumes were not common knowledge.
It took weeks of exacting initiation rituals to get accepted into the cult. The initiation rituals were mostly violent and only some men could go through it — reason women were rarely part of the cult.
This initiation process and the way the entire masquerade fellowship is viewed by people have changed today.
It can safely be said that westernization has sort of watered down the relevance of masquerades in rural communities, which is actually a good thing because the masquerade cults are prone to easy corruption and can be used for devious purposes.
The Adamma masquerade was never a terrifying masquerade. It relied on beauty to bring its awe. Till today, Adamma is still respected as the most beautiful masquerade in Igbo land.
The name alone — Adamma — literally translates to “Maiden of Beauty”. This is quite ironic because the masquerade is worn by men. Perhaps this also adds to the Adamma’s ability to amaze — knowing it is a grown man behind all the dramatic sequences and elaborate effeminate mannerisms.
In most climes, these three masquerades represent the same genre. The Agaba is a machete-bearing fearsome masquerade known for its huge and jutting front teeth and ugly persona. Agaba is not a masquerade for kids. It is said that a pregnant must never behold this masquerade in broad daylight, else she might miscarry.
Ajikwu is a night masquerade, never seen in daylight. Ajikwu is revered because it does not come out for nothing. It is a bad omen to be visited by this masquerade at night. The Ajikwu is a very political masquerade used for punishing those that have committed an offence.
Ajikwu masquerade is used to collect fines (ida nha) — any household the masquerade visits at night must lose something valuable, like a goat or an expensive casting. But the Ajikwu can easily be corrupted and used by evil masquerade chiefs to terrorize the innocent.
Oji Onu is a happy masquerade mostly used for entertainment. It is known for its beautiful masquerade chants (mbem) and theatrical dances. Oji Onu is a talking masquerade. You can listen to its funny mbem chants all day without getting bored.
The Oji Onu is carried by mostly mature masquerade men who have mastered the art of masquerade chanting and dancing. Unlike the other scary masquerades, anybody can watch Oji Onu perform and offer it gifts.
3. Mmanwu Ugo
Mmanwu Ugo is an elegant masquerade. It is one of the most expensive masquerades to showcase in Igbo land. The Ugo masquerade like any other animal-spirit masquerade (Atu, Mmanwu Odum, Agu Iyi, etc.) embodies both the mannerisms and significance of the ugo bird (African eagle).
Eagles are highly respected birds in Igbo land. You will likely only see the Ugo masquerade displaying on big occasions like ofalas. It is a wonder to behold, from its subtle and graceful dance steps to the moment it drops to the floor to lay an egg — WONDER!
The Izaga masquerade is the tallest masquerade in Igbo land. Displaying the Izaga masquerade is not a child’s play. A lot of technicalities go into it. This is why you are likely not to sight the Izaga masquerade in a small village occasion. During its display, the entire audience is held spellbound. Any small fault and the Izaga will come crashing to the ground. And it must never be heard that an Izaga fell.
This is the king of all Igbo masquerades. In any occasion the Ijele is going to display, expect it to come out last. Before the Ijele comes out, the entire ground would clear. Every other small masquerade displaying must step aside for the king of all masquerades to take the ground. For the Ijele must not share ground with others.
The Ijele is also the largest masquerade in Igbo land. Sometimes the Ijele can be so large it would have people standing on it while it is performing.
Daniel Nkado is a Nigerian writer and the founder of DNBStories.com.