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.
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Traditionally, during masquerades, people are meant to embody various spirits and ideas. Therefore, the costumes are usually well thought-out and not random at all. Different costume elements and materials serve their purpose in creating an image of the spirit. Here are some most popular mmanwu characters.
Ojionu. This masquerade represents the water spirit. The attire consists of an ornate headdress covered in aquatic predators, like sharks or crocodiles. Ojionu never stops dancing. Some portray it as very loud mystical creature, while others limit their performance to simple dancing and little noise.
Agaba. Agaba is a warrior character. Its name literally means ‘let’s go’. This persona is often taken by young people, as Agaba is swift and agile, and very handy with weapons and other instruments. The active physical performance is accompanied by the loud sounds of the ogene and chants in various Igbo dialects.
Odogwu. This character is a ‘Rebel with bloodshot eyes’. It is young, aggressive and loud. This character intimidates with his youthfulness and heavy chanting.
Ijele. Popular in Anambra and Enugu states, this mmanwu is extremely large and shiny. The whole costume is covered in valuables made of gold and silver, and the structure sometimes reaches 4 meters in height. It is meant to celebrate the Igboland and its greatness, at the same time scaring away the interlopers. This masquerade deserves its own article, so we will not go into much detail on it.
Mmkpamkpanku. This costume is intended to look like a person and to represent masculinity at its finest. The masquerade should be agile, fast and aggressive. Which is why there are usually two or more strong men with ropes escorting it. They are supposed to restrain Mmkpamkpanku in case it goes wild.
Iga. This spirit appears in the daytime and makes sure everything is in order. It usually wears brightly coloured fabrics around its body.
Okwomma. The Okwomma (or Okwo-Mma) character carries around a sharp cutlass, which it uses to collect money and greeting people who are ‘in-the-know’.
Adamma. A rather recent addition to the traditional masquerades, Adamma is supposed to represent the beauty of the Igbo woman. It does not particularly have any spiritual value, but it embodies the idea of maidenhood.
There are masquerades that represent certain animals, like Enyi (elephant), Ugo (eagle), or Mbe (tortoise). People that wear these mmanwus act like the animals they embody.
Other mmanwus are more mystical. They are usually associated with dark things and mortality. These include Otawaru Ikpo and Odegwu Anya Mmiri. Some of these masquerades are meant to represent and cause sorrow, tears and even death.
There are many more characters masquaraders use in their performances. Some represent not spirits but dead relatives or general ideas (like Adamma). Some deities only appear in particular villages and nowhere else.
Masquerade is a beautiful way to express your love for your culture and get to know other cultures as well. It is a celebration, a prayer and a party rolled into one vibrant and loud package. So if you have never witnessed anything like this, trust us, it is better to see it yourself rather than read about it.
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