Writer : Christian Chukwuma Opata Apex Apeh Chidi Mike Amaechi, Hillary Oguejiofor Eze
Year : 2021
The structuring of social groups among the Igbo is organised around human and spiritual underpinnings,
which can be gleaned from the number of ways in which their culture, tradition and history are preserved, promoted and redefined. Whether the emphasis is on human-tohuman relations or that between humans and spirits, rituals play a significant role among the Nsukka Igbo of Nigeria. The appeal to spiritual forces, which, in most cases, are ritualised, is not limited to healing the sick, but also employed in the social milieu to bridge the social gap between members of a polity and in reducing the barriers to inclusiveness between sexes. This is most evident in the masking tradition in which rituals involved in ikpo ifu mma and ichi Ọyima place women on equal footing with men in the masked spirit institution in some Igbo societies.
Ritual has been defined differently by many scholars, but for this study, Rappaport’s definition is most useful and appropriate. Rappaport defines ritual as the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers logically. Ritual entails the establishment of convention, the sealing of social contracts, the construction of integrated conventional orders and the investment of whatever it encodes with morality, the construction of time and eternity, the representation of a paradigm of creation, the generation of the concept of the sacred and the sanctification of conventional order, the generation of theories of the occult, the evocation of numinous experience, the awareness of the divine, the grasp of the holy and the construction of orders of meaning that go beyond the semantic (Stepanek 2014). The rituals involved in the ikpo ifu mma and ichi Ọyima (two titles that involve several rituals taken by women) are tools for enacting a social contract between female members of society that want to be active and unrestricted participants in the masquerade institution and male initiates. David Griffiths observed that
[m]asquerades are regarded as special people in their communities forming a crucial and fundamental link between the past and present generations. Their methods of displaying and presenting their ancestry are handed down with ritualistic care and thoroughness from generation to generation. (Griffiths 1998)
[t]he masquerade serves the special function of differentiating the male and female in Igbo society. Everywhere, it is the exclusive function of the male,
while the female[s] are always excluded even where a female character is portrayed in the masking […] The social definition of man, therefore, is the ability to control a masquerade. (Onyeneke 1987)
There are several conflicting accounts of the origin of masquerade and the role and limitations to women’s participation among Igbo communities. In Ukana, S. N. Elo records that the origin of the Odo could be traced to a point in the history of Ukana when women neglected their obligations to men, because women virtually controlled the social functions in the community and relegated the vital position of men to the background. Uncomfortable with women’s domineering stance, the men met in secret and resolved to secretly dig a tunnel that would run from a thick forest to the market square. They accomplished this in two years. From the tunnel, an awful creature emerged. Consequently, there was stampede, but the creature ordered all to be calm, assuring them that his appearance was divinely inspired, because he came to solve their problems – on the condition that men be his mediators (Elo 2007). This account differs from one of the versions of the origin of Ọmabe among the Nsukka people. Onogwu Ikechukwu Obayi, the secretary of the Nsukka Council of Elders (male wing), posits that Ọmabe spiritually came from Mkpu Ozo (anthill) and that a woman known as Adada Nwabueze Nweze Eworo saw the spirit of Ọmabe as it came out from Mkpu Ozo and spoke to it. The spirit replied by saying ‘my name is Ọmabe; go tell the community that I am here’ (Ikechukwu Obayi). This account presupposes that women were the first to know Ọmabe.
Suffice to say, the idea of Ọmabe spirit coming from the anthill is metaphorical as the anthill is assumed to be the abode of some highly revered ontological beings among the Nsukka Igbo. This assumption is anchored in the notion that anthills are earthen structures created by termites and an indication that the soil used in erecting such structures is spiritually purified. Connecting Ọmabe with the earth (eja ala) or any other earthen structure is evident in one of the praise names given to Ọmabe. Among the Nsukka, the ‘Omaba [sic] masquerade is sometimes referred to as ilolo bu n’ani me eja etegi ya, meaning “the termite that lives underground without being soiled by the earth”’ (Opata 1998). This view is important in understanding the notion of Ọmabe as a manifestation of departed souls who were buried, but subdued death and hence are celebrated.
In the context of Africa, the term, “masquerade” seems to have been carefreely, and, indeed, carelessly used by Europeans and Americans and those social scientists trained by them, such that the real meanings of the concept they are attempting to portray become elusive and the representative terms assume derogatory and wrong meanings and connotations. (Miachi 2012)
The terms Ọyima and ikpo ifu mma, as used in Nsukka and Enugu-Ezike Igbo communities respectively, refer to women who, through title-taking and rituals, are initiated and empowered to belong and know the secrets of the Ọmabe masquerade institution as well as enjoy all the rights denied non-initiates – male or female. The Ọyima and ikpo ifu mma titles, as they relate to Ọmabe, strongly help to puncture the erroneous impression that ‘women cannot be initiated into Ọmabe because of the unfounded belief that women cannot keep secrets’ (Onyishi 2005). Writing on masquerades and masking theatre in Africa, Oyin Ogunba concludes that, in many African cultures, women are not admitted into the secrets of the masking art. Indeed, they are often the target of masking and satirical ridicule, because it is assumed that they live a more poetic life than men, have secret powers and have more spirits than human beings; they are therefore objects of fear and veneration (Ogunba 2005). Writing on the level of women’s participation in masquerade in Igboland, Nwando Achebe observed that
[t]he Igbo expectation about the relationship of women to masked spirits is clear. However, they distinguish between categories of male associations with masquerades as well. In Igbo sensibilities, the umu- mma [masquerade secret society] is the institution that separates full men [i.e. biological men who have been initiated into the umu-mma] from uninitiated men and women. It is forbidden for any individual who is born female [i.e. a biological woman or a gender-transformed or masculinized (wo)man, including female husbands, female fathers, female sons, and, in Ahebi’s case, female warrant chiefs and female kings] to control a masked spirit in Igboland. Moreover, it is forbidden for uninitiated biological men to control masked spirits. Biological women [again, including gender-transformed women] and uninitiated biological men were supposed to run away at the sight of a mask; if they claimed knowledge of what was behind the mask – in essence if they claimed that they had seen the mask in its nakedness – they would have committed an abomination against the mask. (Achebe 2011)Because this remark by Achebe was made in connection with the Ọmabe masquerade institution, it would be germane to research the rituals of the Ọyima/ikpo ifu mma that empower women to contravene Achebe’s observation of the Lejja, Nsukka and EnuguEzike areas of Igboland.
Consulting the spirits follows definite patterns that depict hierarchy and order. The spirits first consulted were those personal to the aspirant and her husband. The aspirant first seeks protection from her Chi (personal god) through the sacrifice of Egbele (cock), pounded yam with egusi or ọgbọnọ soup. During the sacrifice at the altar of her Chi, she also brings a snuffbox, a kola nut and a small wooden stool on which she sits while offering the sacrifice. She requests her Chi to guide and protect her through the various stages involved in the title-taking. As a rule, she is not to invite any person outside of her immediate family to this ritual. However, if people from other households come and partake in the event, it is interpreted to mean that her Chi is already building some alliances that could help her actualise her ambition.5 After the worship of her Chi, she and her husband agree on a date to worship the Chi and Ụkwụ (leg) of her husband. On the chosen day, two cocks are used: one for the Chi and the other for the Ụkwụ. All the other items used on the day the aspirant worshipped her god are also used. An important point in the second stage is the veneration of the human leg. The man kills one of the cocks and smears his toes with its blood and feathers. While doing this, he beckons all departed ancestors of his lineage to wait for his wife and him at their ancestral meeting house (Obu Ogwa). Rationalising the ritual of worshipping the leg, Ugwoke Nwiyi posits that the essence is to inform the husband that he will be involved in several trips – involving meeting with many groups and spirit forces – before his wife consummates the title. Because vehicles were unknown in traditional settings, this ritual was like servicing the vehicle (the leg of her husband) through spiritual fortification.
The next event involves the aspirant informing members of her husband’s lineage (Ụmụnna) of her intention. It is the duty of her husband, however, to meet the elders to set a date; in most cases, this date is the one agreed upon by the aspirant and her husband on the day of igo Chi n’ ụkwụ. The husband goes to the house of the eldest male (Onyishi) of his lineage with at least four big lumps of kola nut to inform him of the intention of one of his (Onyishi’s) wives, because it is assumed that the eldest man of the lineage is, metaphorically speaking, the husband of all the women married in his lineage, because he is the representative of the ancestors of the lineage and must be informed of any event concerning any of their ‘wives’ before any other person – save the actual husband of the women involved. From the kola nuts, the Onyishi sends one to the man who is responsible for sending some of the paraphernalia of the lineage Ọmabe to the spirit world (Onye n’edu mma or Ọgbanụkwụ Ọmabe) on the day of its departure (ula mma). On receiving the kola nut, Onye n’edu mma uses the kola nut to meet a diviner from whom he seeks to know if the Ọmabe spirit approves of the aspirant’s intention. The verdict of the Ọmabe spirit as revealed by the diviner is kept secret by Onye n’edu mma until the day the husband meets with his lineage members. As a rule, there must be a gap of eight days between the day the kola nut was taken to the elders’ house and the date of the meeting to give room for spiritual investigations.
On the day of the meeting with members of her husband’s lineage, the woman cooks cowpea (Ọkpa), which is served to the attendees. Her husband provides them with kola nut, two gallons of palm wine (in the olden days, it was a big calabash of palm wine, which is called obelle akpacha, and could contain an equivalent of the liquid contents of 10 to 12 bottles of Star beer) and a snuffbox. Before deliberation begins, the eldest man or his designee orders a younger person to break one of the kola nuts. From the broken kola nut, the Onyishi chooses one lobe that must be male, holds it in his right hand and says prayers. While praying, he invokes the spirit of the ancestors of the lineage. After praying, he orders the Ọnyishi Ọmabe to take one lobe, which must also be male, before the rest is shared among those present. The Ọgbanụkwụ Ọmabe utilises the kola nut given to him to offer special prayers to the spirit of the ancestors; then, he goes outside the assembly hall where, watched by all, he throws up the lobe of the kola nut he used in his prayer. All watch to know how the lobe will fall. If it falls down with the lines facing the sky, it is regarded as a good omen; if the lines are facing the ground, it is regarded as a bad omen and connotes danger, which must be cleared through further divinations before any other steps are taken. However, in most cases, the sign seen is that of a good omen.7 When he goes back to the hall, the Onyishi orders the Ọgaa (sharer) or Eri (messenger) to share the palm wine. On lifting the wine container, the sharer first pours some into the lineage mpi atu (buffalo horn) and hands the buffalo horn to the Onyishi, who pours it all away as libation to the ancestors. The same horn is fille and handed to the Ọgbanụkwụ Ọmabe, who also pours some away and hands the remainder to the Ọyima/ikpo ifu mma aspirant to drink some and hand the remainder back to him.
The Igbo believe that spirits are in charge of a number of the activities that occur in life, but some men are specially endowed with the understanding of this operation and can influence, prevent or suspend the powers of these spirits as occasion demands (Mulumba Ibeabuchi 2013). The rationale for the use of the buffalo horn to give palm wine to the aspirant is because they believe in the power of the buffalo. Woodcott notes that those who have buffalo as a power animal must walk a sacred path, honouring every walk of life. Buffalo is assumed to assist in establishing a deep connection with Mother Earth and Father Sky. Buffalo is also believed to bestow one with strength of character and a free, independent spirit (Woodcott). Implicit in this aspect of the ritual is the attempt to connect the candidate with celestial bodies, earthly beings and the community’s ontological forces at large. At the end of the meeting in the lineage house, the aspirant, her husband and the Ọgbanụkwụ Ọmabe go to the private residence of the Onyishi.
Upon arriving at the house of the Onyishi, they choose a date on which all the members of the village elders can feast. On the agreed date (which must be on an orie market day), the candidate, through her husband, presents the elders of her husband’s village with seven gallons of palm wine, many lumps of kola nut, a billy goat, pounded yam, enough soup for everyone present and a big snuffbox filled to the brim with snuff.The husband of the candidate hands everything to the eldest man of his lineage, who then hands them to Ọgbanụkwụ Ọmabe to present to the village elders. The protocol observed in the presentation is vital. It shows the level of consensus reached internally between the aspirant and her lineage members before being presented to the entire village; this confirms that consensus-building is a vital element in the rituals of titletaking among the Igbo, as epitomised by the positions of the people involved in the presentation of the items to the village. Once these conditions are met, the elders take their turn to perform their rituals, accompanied by the aspirant.
All the items brought by the aspirants are taken by the elders of the village to the Ọmabe shrine. The oldest man in the village says prayers on behalf of the candidate and pleads with the Ọmabe spirit to accept her as one of its members. The goat is slaughtered and the blood flows freely on to the ground. Food and drinks are offered to Ọmabe before merriment begins. Part of the blood of the slaughtered goat mixed with sand is collected by the officiating priest and used to smear the forehead of the aspirant as a sign of initiation.8 However, the initiation is incomplete, because the candidate has yet to obtain the authorisation of the town’s council of elders and other ontological forces that serve as the community’s territorial angels.
At the community level, the aspirant is to present the chief priest of the masquerade of the community with a cock, one billy goat or ram, a gourd of palm wine and many kola nuts. The number of kola nuts, as well as the choice of either ram or billy goat, depended on the community’s law. With these items, the chief priest took the aspirant to the central groove of the community. However, even in the absence of these items, the ritual could still continue, because the overall chief priest is assumed to be superior to all of the required items. As a rule, however, the chief priest from the village of the aspirant must be present. While inside the grove, they made some incantations to invoke the Ọmabe spirit. After the invocation, they broke one kola nut, poured palm wine into a buffalo horn and the community’s chief priest would hold both items with his right hand after he had inserted one lobe of the broken kola nut into the buffalo horn. The chief priest spilled part of the contents of the buffalo horn onto the altar, making sure that the lobe of the kola nut fell off the horn. The remaining wine was given to the aspirant to drink. If, in the process of drinking the wine, predatory bird(s) flew or hovered around the grove, it was assumed that the candidature of the aspirant was eagerly awaited by the community; however, the absence of a predatory bird did not depict rejection. Then, the billy goat was slaughtered and the blood spread profusely on the altar of the Ọmabe spirit. The head of the slaughtered goat was severed from the body and was passed over the head of the initiate four times amid incantations by the chief priest. The severing of the head of the billy goat and passing it over the head of the aspirant four times was a sign that the candidate has got to a point where she cannot change her mind again. Also using ‘the head of a male animal to run over the head of a woman connotes transformation for the woman concerned; she is now a man but a man with no testicles’.9 The implication for gender equality as it concerns the Ọmabe institution is that the woman who underwent this ritual is now empowered to sit with men to discuss matters relating to the Ọmabe institution.
After the rituals in the central Omabe grove, the woman who underwent this ritual is now empowered to sit with men (Oha and Ekpuru Arua) to discuss matters relating to Ọmabe – and other titled men were hosted by the aspirant. On this day, the aspirant (as was the case for Lọlọ Celestina Ọyima Ezema) presented the community with a sturdy bull, a white ram (Ebule ọcha), one cock, food (igbugbu ọkpa, n’utara Ji) and many gallons of fresh palm wine. All the animals were sacrificed and used in the propitiation of ontological beings in the community.
After the merriment, the elders mandated that some people set a date with the candidate to come to her husband’s village to initiate her into the Ọmabe masquerade institution. On the day of the final initiation, the delegates of the council of elders met with the woman in question in the ancestral meeting hall of her husband’s lineage. As usual, the visiting party was entertained sumptuously by the aspirant. On this day, too, a cock and another billy goat were slaughtered at the shrine of the progenitor of the village of the aspirant. After eating, the delegates of the council of elders ordered the aspirant’s husband out of the lineage hall. Then, the council of elders educated the aspirant on the secrets of Ọmabe. After this orientation, they led her into the Okiti Ọmabe (the house of the masked spirits). With this entry into the house of the masked spirits, the woman became fully initiated and could witness any event concerning the Ọmabe and could even own a masquerade. For instance, in February 2016, it was only the masquerade owned by Lọlọ Ọyima Ezema that displayed in the entire Amaeze-Ani Village, Nkpunano Nsukka and thus saved the village from paying a fine that is levied on villages that have no masquerade display for that year.11 However, the entry into the masked beings house is for one who took the Ọyima title. The woman that went through the ritual of ikpọ ifu mma enjoys all the advantages earlier mentioned but was equally permitted to carve, design and own any type of mask in Enugu-Ezike where this is applicable. To cap the equality between a woman that performed the ikpọ ifu mma rituals with male initiates, she is qualified to go to ugwu mma – ‘hill’, where the masked beings are supposed to descend from on the day of their return from their spiritual abode. Not all men go to ugwu mma.
Worse for the Ọmabe institution is the inability of some adherents to honour the rules of the game. This is made worse by the inability of the elders to call them to order. Reverend Fadimonuh observed that, in police stations, you might chance on erring masquerades frogjumping or peeping from behind police cell bars fully clad in their masks, thereby bastardising the few remaining civil and social values (Fadimonuh 2006). The excesses of this group of adherents are such that, in 2006, an Ori Ọkpa was pursued by a drove of the Catholic faithful at the behest of a Catholic priest, and caught and unmasked in public (Ugwu 2011). It is common knowledge that, when one tears the garment of honour, he/she is to be dressed in shame. However, the Christians are engrossed with overgeneralisation, because all their complaints about the Ọmabe’s unruly behaviour are about Ori Ọkpa, even though there are many others, such as Edi (Eji), Okokoro, Shasha, Mpuru, Echaricha mma, Agbaeji, Egbeochal, Ajija Ọmabe and Mgbedike.
Another problem confronting the Ọmabe masquerade institution is that, from the outset, despite the avowed court alliance, the teachings of the missionaries were a direct challenge to basic beliefs about masquerades and traditional religion in general. The Igbo catechism, which is the quintessential documentation of Catholic missionary catechesis in Igboland, is an illustration of the depth of their attack on the native culture. The Igbo catechism lists some traditional elements of Igbo culture as grave sins (njo ogbugbu) for the information and formation of converts:
(a) Ife alụsi – worshipping idols (b) Ikpọku ndi mmuọ – invocation of spirits (c) Igba afa na ichụ aja – divination and sacrifices (d) Ime ma ọbu idebe ọgwụ bia chekwube ya ka chukwu – preparing or keeping charms and amulets taken as God (e) Igwọ ajọ ọgwu – evil practices with medicine. (f) Ikwa ozu ugboro abuo ka ndi ome njo, na isonye ndi obodo mee otu ihe ahu – the practice of second burial, etc. (Chukwuma 2010)
The Christian attack on the Ọmabe and Ọyima/ikpọ ifu mma institution discourages some women who are Christians from getting involved with the institution, because the blood rituals involved are ‘misplaced’. Christianity is founded on and sustained by blood rituals, especially among the Catholics (the predominant group in the study area that is opposed to these institutions). The Christian ritual concerns the historical blood sacrifice of a human – Jesus – while the Igbo ritual has to do with domestic animals. Condemning a culture from the prism of another culture is, to say the least, wrong, because it denies the condemned culture its peculiarity and essence. The Igbo converts should engage the West ontologically if they are to make any meaning of their culture. By doing so, the bias would be mitigated, and women would be better placed to attain equal status with men.
Finally, the egalitarian nature of Igbo society is proven by the possibility of transforming a woman into a ‘man’. People can rise above their status by dint of hard work. A woman who so desires can break the bounds of gender. The masquerade institution in Igboland is generally spoken of as a male institution, but the present study has shown that there are exceptions to the rule in some
societies in Igboland.