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Friday, December 02, 2016

The Participation of Igbo Children in Masquerade Activities

Written by: Muoka Chibuzor Bsc

In English – Masquerade, In Igbo - Mmanwu/Nmanwu

Factually, Masquerading has to deal with the representation/disguising of oneself to buttress a point, which is to become the unknown probably the dead/spirits. Such appearances, instigates fear and respect from the viewers. This can be compared with the Halloween [a time of celebration and superstition] practiced by the western world on every 31st October.

Masquerades are associated with spiritual elements and represents mostly deities [with superb powers, importance and influence]/dead relatives as according to the Igbo belief system.

“No one dares to see the face behind the Mask, Unmasking the Masquerade is a taboo”

In the Igbo culture, the masquerade is of great significance and is composed of both the spirit and human world. Despite ardent changes brought by the western world, including Christianity, the activities of the masquerade never stopped but dwindled a little as a result of converts to Christianity and then it became a bit more sophisticated with new innovations and ideas.

Masquerade are held in Igbo land, according to the community native calendar, during festivals, annual festivals, burial rites and other social gatherings.[1] The masquerades are mostly covered from head to toe with colorful piece of clothes and the masks can be made of wood or fabric, and of recently the incorporation of rubber masks is also acceptable.

Some Masks are designed to be beautiful, intimidating or fearful. Most masquerades claim to have mystical powers, and whenever they appear together, they tend to involve in competition. Masquerading may involve one person or a team made-up of instrument players, vocalists, dancers, masquerade advisers and the masquerade itself.

During the public display of masquerade, people gather around to see the masquerade perform. The viewers might change different positions to have a better view of the best performing masquerade.

Thus the Igbo adage – “Adiro akwu ofu ebe enene Mmanwu” [2]

Meaning – One does not stand in one spot to watch a masquerade.

The identity of the masquerades is a well hidden secret, the activities are clandestine and subterranean, and is exclusively performed by men and younger boys. Women and Children are usually denied several rights when it comes to their participation in masquerade.

In Igbo land, women mostly stay at home when the masquerade is outside, there has been situations whereby Masquerades attack women and children. Some masquerades are said to abhor the presence of women and so women tend to stay away from them.

There are two basic types of masquerades, visible and invisible. [3]

The visible masquerades are meant for the public. They often are more entertaining. Masks used offer a visually appeal for their shapes and forms. In these visual masquerades, performances of harassment, music, dance, and parodies are acted out.

The invisible masquerades take place at night. Sound is the main tool for them. The masquerader uses his voice to scream so it may be heard throughout the village. The masks used are usually fierce looking and their interpretation is only fully understood by the society members. These invisible masquerades call upon a silent village to strike fear in the hearts of those not initiated into their society.

Children [Younger boys] are usually not allowed to view or come closer to masquerade grounds or domains, unless they have been initiated into the masquerade cult. The initiation process is called “Ima Mmanwu” which means, “Knowing the Masquerade”. The children are minors, and are only allowed to participate in the visible masquerade type as it seems to appear safer.

Ima Mmanwu entails various ritual rites to initiate the naive young boys into the Masquerade cult. After the initiation process, the young boys will perform and appear in masquerade activities only when they are invited.

They do not have full rights to carry out masquerade activities, and everything they do concerning masquerade is limited and restricted to avoid abuse. They have to watch and learn the art of masquerading from their initiators. Until they become fully grown men – who have learnt the art and are fully able to take responsibility for their actions, having attained majority.
Currently in this 21st century, most Igbo parents do not really understand the essence of masquerades and consider it fetish due to westernization, hence they take the decision to alienate their children from masquerade activities.

The alienation of children from masquerade activities coupled with western influence has led to the dwindling strength of the Igbo masquerade. Today, even children who has not been initiated and actually know little or nothing about masquerades, has started wearing masquerades in various villages in Igbo land. Due to lessened restriction from guardians/elders, total negligence, ignorance and other several reasons that seem acceptable in the land.

Reasons why Children (Younger boys) are allowed to participate in Masquerade activities.
The participation of Children in Masquerade is not a coincidence, but of futuristic importance.

Mostly, children are allowed to participate in Masquerade activities to acquaint them with the dos and don’ts of masquerading. So that the tradition does not vanish and to ensure strict succession/transfer of the masquerade heritage/culture from fathers to sons. 

What a child does not learn in childhood will definitely become a hard task to indulge in, during adulthood. This is why the elders in Igbo land sees it of primordial importance to catch them young for the gods, in accordance with the customs and tradition.

In most renowned villages in Igbo land, the children are allowed to wear masquerade occasionally, prior to the appearance of the main Masquerade the people are anticipating. Thus, the appearance of children wearing masquerade, serves as a forewarning or signal about the immediate appearance of men with vigor, strength and power [The Masqueraders]. This is a way of also making sure that the younger generation participate.

Also the involvement of children in masquerade enhances the entertainment aspect, because the children might wear their masks and dress in extremely funny little ways, which can create and heighten amusement in the viewers who in return give the children money or any other gift out of generosity and in support of their active participation in masquerade activities.

The Masquerade remains embedded in the Igbo apex culture and tradition. And the only way to sustain it, is to enlighten our children the future leaders about it, for them to be aware that such things happen/exists and thus they will learn to appreciate the lifestyle of their fathers.

In contrast, several initiation rites performed by the masquerades of which are inhumane should be abolished and replaced with acceptable and simple initiation procedures whose hook, line and sinker would be easily swallowed by all.
Finally, the participation of children in masquerade activities is not wrong after all.

1. Igbo guild.  Masquerades and Festivals. Retrieved November 28, 2016.
2. Umunna. Masquerades from the Igboland. Retrieved November 28, 2016.
3. Wikipedia. Mmanwu. Retrieved November 28, 2016.

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