We see them at big cultural events and festivals. Quite different from the rest of us, yet they move, swish, dance, and gyrate like us. They come decked in intriguing outfits featuring raffia, colorful clothes, wooden masks, and a slew of other unconventional choices that make them stand out from the crowd. African masquerades are an enigma that has existed for thousands of years, and are still relevant in many societies today regardless of the surge in “modernity.”
Some are believed to be physical representations of spirits and ancestors. Others are said to belong in the spirit world but creep out of ant holes to walk on the land of the living. Meanwhile, a good number of the bunch are said to have functioned in pre-colonial times as the police of tribal societies. When it comes to their personalities, they are diverse as humans — menacing, funny, mischievous, evil, good, entertaining, and the list is endless. You may not believe this, but there are also introverted and extroverted African masquerades who really do embody those personalities. For instance, some can be seen on almost any occasion, while others rarely come out.
Regardless of the origin or temperament of these masquerades, they are heavy in the core of African societies, and it doesn’t seem as if they are leaving soon. But what is it about them that has intrigued and fascinated Africans for millennia?
Check out 6 reasons why African masquerades are still downright fascinating…
#1. Cultural significance
Many African societies believe that spirits show themselves to human beings in the form of masquerades. The Yoruba and Igbo tribes of Nigeria, the Dan of the Ivory Coast, and the Chokwe of the Democratic Republic of Congo believe that ancestral or forest spirits become visible as masquerades.
The Ekpe Masquerade, which is present among the Efik ethnic group in Nigeria and in Cameroon, represents the Leopard Society. It is said to have functioned before colonial times as a law enforcement and judicial system. Elsewhere among the Igbos, masquerades have also been known to maintain law and order by settling disputes and exacting punishments on law offenders. This historical value and cultural significance of masquerades is part of the reason why many of them are still revered today.
#2. Otherworldly beauty
A good number of masquerades are delightful to behold, and that is why they are loved. The Adamma Masquerade of the Enugu-Igbo of Nigeria is a brilliant example. Flamboyantly costumed in a feminine outfit and a gorgeously made-up slender mask, she dances like a woman to the sounds of traditional music.
This maiden spirit mask flaunts a permanent stare of charm on her face which is designed to entice the men around. There is no doubt that Adamma, and others like her, are super adorable which is why they have captured the hearts of many.
#3. The thrill of magic
A lot of African masquerades command an air of mystery. For many, there are initiation rites required before one can participate in their activities. Yet, regardless of their secrets and hidden “rites,” we are often captivated by the thrill of magic that can only be found with them.
Wonder Masquerade of Oguta in Eastern Nigeria is a fabulous example. It appears to be a mere piece of cloth in a box, but when its followers begin to sing around it, it starts to rise and then grows to an astonishing height of about 40 feet. When it reaches its limit, it gradually shrinks back into a flat sheet of fabric. Then its followers pick it up, fold it, and put it back in its box. Clearly, everything about this unique masquerade looks like utter magic, enthralling spectators.
#4. Adrenalin-inducing thrill
Starting with their grotesque faces, most masquerades are scary to look at. There are even some that are not to be seen by the uninitiated. For example, the Ekpo masquerades found among the Ibibio, Efik, and Anang ethnic groups of Nigeria have broad, black, grotesque wooden faces and can be a real scare to children. There are also some other African masquerades that have vengeful-looking faces and speak in guttural or reedy voices that are unpleasant to human ears. All of these combine to create an adrenalin-inducing thrill that tap into our primal fears and excite us in an unparalleled way.
Beyond their looks, masquerades can also be a force and can come wielding sticks, whips, or even machetes. Of this bunch, it isn’t difficult to spot some bad-mannered sets that are so menacing in their behavior and movements that they must be restrained by a long leash. Whatever they do, whether stopping you in your tracks, bounding away from you, or bearing down on you, they certainly start your heart racing. If you are a lover of thrillers and horror movies, you may easily fall in love with the adrenaline-inducing sights racing and leaping at festivals, unleashing mild stampedes.
#5. Unadulterated art
Masquerades can be generally regarded as artistic representations of human or spiritual realities. A careful study of their carved and painted masks, intricately woven fabrics, and ornately embellished bodies will show the rich artistic value that they embody. Whether we are looking at the white-appareled Eyo masquerades popular in Lagos, the Ekpe masquerade, or the 15-foot-tall Ijele masquerade – one of the biggest and most revered masquerades in Igboland – there’s no doubt that one would be staring at an elaborately styled piece of art.
#6. Secret desire
I suspect that there is a secret part of us that seeks to be masked so that we can have the full liberty to explore life in a daring, provocative, and celebratory style. That is a liberty that masquerades tend to enjoy. And the prospect of that liberty endears us to them somehow.
Featured image: @asiko_artist/Instagram
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A writer fascinated by humanity and diversity. He is the author of Do Not Say It’s Not Your Country.