Author: Vivian Falae
Masquerades are always beautiful and captivating. Bright colours, loud noises, the wild energy leave no one bored or indifferent.
However, usually there is not much more to them other than the festive dress up. But in the Igbo culture, masquerades have a deep spiritual meaning that has passed on for generations. Today, we will tell you about traditional Igbo masquerade (or mmanwu) in detail. So settle in and enjoy!
What is mmanwu?
Mmanwu is a name for a traditional Igbo masquerade. It is meant to embody both the spirit and the human world and how they coexist. Despite the ever-present Western influence, mmanwu remains true to itself. There are several Igbo masquerade festivals in Nigeria over the year. One happens every year in November in the Enugu State, Nigeria and it involves people in their costumes that come from all over the state.
Additionally, there is another very important festival for Igbo people and Nigerians in general. It is the New Yam festival. Usually held in August/October, it is the beautiful way to celebrate good harvest and to thank God for the crops. Everyone dons their Igbo traditional wears and masquerade costumes and dances the night away. This festival is beautiful and colourful; it involves people performing traditional rites and cultural dances, roasting of yams and praising God.
However, masquerade does not only refer to the festival itself. It is also the name for the people that wear the peculiar Igbo traditional attire. The costumes for masquerades are usually made out of straw, rough fabrics and wood. Apart from festivals, mmanwu are also seen during funerals, weddings and other significant social activities.
It is curious that only men are allowed to be masquerades. Women are prohibited from even seeing mmanwu’s clothes. Another interesting thing is the fact that, to wear a masquerade costume, you need to belong to an exclusive club, outside of which no one should know your true identity. Each member goes through an initiation process to become a masquerader.
Types of mmanwu
For Igbos, masquerade is not only in the costume. That is why there is a visible masquerade and an invisible one. Visible masquerade is pretty self-explanatory. People wear bright and colourful costumes, celebrate and have fun. Masquerades dance around in their masks and costumes and mock harass the spectators.
The invisible masquerade happens at night. Its main instrument is the sound and not the visuals. There are three groups of invisible masquerades: agu mmuno, achikwo ojii and ocha, and ogbagu.
Agu mmuno represent the leopard (or tiger) spirit. Masqueraders of this group traverse through the villages and scream their lungs out. It is meant to instill fear in those who are new to the Igbo traditions.
Achikwo ocha, or white masqueraders, are meant to protect the people. They sing, dance and joke around. Achikwo ojii, or black masqueraders, are also supposed to protect, but they also appear during executions and punishments.
Ogbagu only offer entertainment in dance form. The group makes loud cacophonous noises with various musical (and other) instruments and dances in the twilight.