Growing up in Nigeria, you learn to associate masquerades with fear and panic. The otherworldly aura, the chaos in the entourage and the incessant whipping is common imagery for many and I'm no different. My journey of contextualizing African cultural phenomenon blessed me with the opportunity to attend the 2023 Egungun Festival and so I ignored all my younger self knew, and made preparations with an open mind.
Across Nigeria, the role of the masquerade is perhaps the most important link, serving as the mouthpiece of the creator. Quite obviously performers in costume, the ancient practice of honoring masquerades has been used by our people to connect to the divine through the souls and memories of the ancestors. The practice is used mainly to uphold moral and judicial values, so they serve as a guide for the present and the future through stories of the past. It is not exactly sure when and where the masquerade festivals started, they predate any written records, but across the continent, it is a common theme in African cosmology.
In Southwestern Nigeria the Yoruba people refer to them as 'Egungun' (Eegun for short) and annually, festivals are held across the region in their honor. These high-energy celebrations are a vibrant sight to behold, constantly sparking awe, wonder and mystery among onlookers and participants.
By mid-morning (June 26), I arrived at the venue of the event, (the family home of the Olubadan in Beere) and the stage had been set for the show. People had started arriving in large numbers, the dignitaries and guests of honor dressed in fine clothing befitting of the occasion.
Music plays an important role in these events, and there was an assortment of instruments steadily producing melodies. The drummers earnestly beat their bata and gangan providing rhythmic beats which helped to dictate the pulse of the occasion. The darkened mid-year clouds had gathered in the sky, adding a sense of anticipation and drama.
The festival kicks into full gear at the arrival of the Olubadan, his presence adding a jolt of energy to the Egungun and the people. He is considered the custodian of the culture and traditions and him being present was a final stamp of authenticity of the festival.
I found the Egungun costumes rather fascinating. They are made up of layers of fabric of different kinds, usually the best money can buy, and the more extravagant the costume is, the more powerful the masquerade or the family they represent is. It is not uncommon to see sheets of silk, velvet , damask, cotton embroidered with cowries, colorful beads, animal skins and other symbols of wealth. Some also possessed beautifully carved masks, further cementing the festival as an artistic expression of the pantheon.
Turn by turn, the Eegun's danced, marched, crawled their way to the king to give salutations. They moved in a graceful yet otherworldly manner, showcasing personality and flare. Perhaps this was to capture virtues of the ancestor they represented, and so it gave them a familiar, yet alien feel. The people loved it, you could see the glee in their faces, as they danced and sang for their beloved Eegun's. Sometimes the oriki of the Eegun is recited, a way to please them and relive their adventures while they were alive. It was great to see the people come together in this way, the festival no doubt, is an opportunity for the society to bond.
At the heart of it, the Egungun festival carries a metaphorical message and the performances are not just for entertainment. Each dance and gesture is laden with symbolism that portrays the wisdom, virtues and life lessons imparted by the ancestors. The Egungun masquerades are the physical embodiments of the collective wisdom of those before us, and the fear of them seems silly in retrospect. The colonialism-spurred drive to modernize has caused us to lose these links resulting in a mental displacement, but slowly and surely we are finding our way back.
By late afternoon the crowd had grown quite large and the traditional accommodations started getting strained. It was time to make my leave but I was definitely leaving full - of appreciation, wonder and a deeper understanding of our local culture once again. A fantastic experience that everyone needs to see.
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