Traditional Igbo masquerades, or mmanwu, are elaborate costumes worn by males originally as a representation of the spirits of the dead. They could be made to look like human beings or animals, or some other abstract creature depending on the driving spirit behind the masquerade. This driving spirit also determines the nature of each masquerade, with respect to its form, its role, its gait, whether it’s a dancing mask or not, and its dancing style if it has any. It is generally believed that masquerades are carried with powerful charms with which they protect themselves from other masquerades, or for spiritual attack.
According to region, a masquerade may be owned by am individual native doctor, or by a community, or by an association, but in many places the masquerade group is a secret organisation that transcends village and town borders. This group requires special initiation rites before one can be a member, and is referred to as ‘ima mmanwu’.
Women don’t wear masquerades. It is a taboo. A woman may own a mask, and be responsible for preparing and maintaining its charms, but will not enter it. These women are usually native doctors and are referred to as Ezenwanyi.
The Evil Forest is the most formidable masquerade in the Nnewi kingdom. Originally based on the Ohimili, it is accompanied with only one wooden gong, mmanwu otu ekwe. The ohimili is a representation of old spirits. Its not agile and doesn’t dance, but rather performs by praying for anyone it favours in a ritual called ‘igo ofo’. And Ajofia Nnewi is very good at making such prayers.
This is a masquerade mentioned in the Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and has a proprietary smoke emanating mysteriously from the top of its head.
Just the crowd of admirers is a testament to the popularity of this great masquerade!
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