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Mmọnwụ: What Are They; What Is Their Place in our Culture?

Updated: Feb 20

When someone invites you to a masquerade festival or to an event at which a masquerade would perform, what picture comes to your mind? Ijele, Omaba, Ekpe, Inyi-agba-oku, Okonko, Iga, Okwomma, Odogwu-anya-mmee, Ulaga, Odo etc? How many categories of Masked spirits are you afamiliar with? Who qualifies to join the fraternity? What functions/roles in the community? Who does a masquerade know and know run from the masquerade?

Let me begin by saying that the English word “masquerade” does not do justice to this revered tradition that our ancestors held at the highest esteem. For the Europeans, a masquerade is merely a performative form of social activity that was done wearing a mask or some other form of face covering. What our ancestors had, which English people labeled masquerade was far more than a mere stuff of social entertainment. In fact, our ancestors called their … spirit Mmụọ. Ours was, and still is, much more than stuff of public entertainment. Ours is a brotherhood; a fraternity; it is sacred; it is exclusively for the initiated; it is esoteric! It is much more than some costume that you buy in the market and put up a show with. Just ask Collins.

Have your heard the story about Collins? Well, Collins was a young Igbo teenager born in the United States, to an Igbo mother. He went to Nigeria as a teenager to visit with that part of his family.

It was the time of year with lots of fun and festivities. Collins was taking a walk around the village one late afternoon when he came upon a masquerade. He liked the appearance of the masquerade and did not understand why everyone else was running away. He thought he ought to be polite and friendly enough to go and say 'hello' to the masquerade. So in his innocence and naivety, he walked up the masquerade and, extending his hand, said to the masquerade, "Hi, my name is Collins, and it’s nice to meet you!”

Long story short; Collins got the 'whooping' of his life. Who's to blame? Collins had not been educated about the masquerade. It would have been his father's responsibility to do that. But his father was not an Igbo man. His mother is, but the masked spirits (Mmnw) fraternity is not open to women. She couldn't have taught her son that which she didn’t/couldn’t know. What experiences, if any, have you had with a masquerade? Is anyone in your immediate or extended family a member of the brotherhood? Is there someone in your family who can educate you about this sacred tradition? This a fascinating tradition in Igbo culture that we see a lot of but many know very little about. There are three families or categories of Mmnw:

Is anyone in your immediate or extended family a member of the brotherhood? Is there someone in your family who can educate you about this sacred tradition?

1. Mmnw Obodo or Mmnw ha (Community Masked Spirits): The fraternity is organized and sponsored by the entire community. Any adult male in good standing with the community can be initiated if they fulfill the initiation requirements. There is a strict calendar for their outing; usually every other year. In their off-year, it would take an unprecedented event for the Spirit(s) to come out. *Achịwkụ is an esoteric and secret Spirit of the dusk that some communities organize. I can’t talk about it here. Ask an elder in your community if your people do Achịwkụ and see what they can share with you.

2. Mmnw Otu Ogbo (Age Grade Masquerade): This is organized and sponsored exclusively by an Age Grade (an association of cohorts). It follows that only members of the association can participate in their activities.

3. Mmnw Mmemme or Mmnw Oriri (Ceremonial Masquerade): This is the one that operates independently, usually upon request, at social events. It can be organized and sponsored by an individual or a group. There is a freelance approach to ceremonial masked spirits. The organizers are usually compensated for their performance, and/or they are free to solicit their spectators for support.

Masked spirits add color to the life of a community, especially during festivities. Children and uninitiated adults may be frightened at the initial and unexpected sighting of a masquerade but it is always a thing of joy to see them perform, entertain, and carry out other duties. Across precolonial Igbo land and up till recent decades, masked spirits were the primary arm of law enforcement in many communities. Yes, before there were police and sheriffs, there was the masquerade! It may surprise you to learn that masked spirits were built into the political structure of Igbo communities. But that was the case. Much more than the social and ceremonial roles they are now known for, most Igbo communities had masquerades performing the formal duty of law enforcement and the regulation of certain community activities.

One example was the enforcement of fines and levies. It used to be that if members of the community goes against the laws of the land or had fines levied against them for whatever reasons, the elders set a date when the fines and levies must be enforced. On that day young men would accompany a masquerade to the homes of affected persons. Shielded by the power and authority of the spirits the young men would seize property or livestock that was adjudged equal or greater in value to what is owed the community. No one dares dares challenge or fight the spirits so whatever was seized from the home of the offender must be forfeited or redeemed when due settlement is made by the offender. When you see a masked spirit, be assured that they carry a lot of significance in Igbo culture. #Igboamaka

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