In the past, we – Igbos – regard masquerades (Mmanwu) as the means for maintaining peace and order within our communities, and they played the role of law enforcement agents. While entertaining through dances and exhibiting extra-human feats, most masquerades (Mmanwu) would walk up to certain individuals and loudly expose any bad habits, crimes or misbehaviors linked to such persons. As people would always take corrections from these exposures, masquerades (Mmanwu) were also effective in keeping up with traditional norms and values in the communities.
With colonization of our people in the 20th century, masquerades (Mmanwu) in Igboland have become more relevant as an institution for cultural entertainment than law enforcement agents. Nowadays, they are used more for tourist attractions when they come out in colorful robes accompanied by traditional dancers and music during festivities and celebrations like Christmas.
Be that as it may, it is generally believed by our people that masquerades (Mmanwu) are spirits which spring from the soil. Depending on your point of view, this may be true or merely a myth. However, according to Igbo traditional beliefs, some masquerades (Mmanwu) are linked with spiritual elements. They represent images of deities or sometimes even dead relatives. Masquerades (Mmanwu) embody the union between the spiritual and human worlds. The mystique surrounding masquerades (Mmanwu) is one the key components of our culture that has survived Western influences.
The identity of masquerades (Mmanwu) is a well-kept secret exclusively to men. The masks worn by masquerades (Mmanwu) are usually determined by local customs and traditions.
Masquerading during Christmas season may involve one person team or a team made up of instrument players, vocalists, dancers, masquerade advisers, and the masquerade itself. Most masquerades (Mmanwu) are covered from head to toe with some piece of clothing or/and bamboo rafters. Their masks vary depending on the type of masquerade and the place it is believed to have originated within the Igboland.
Some masks are designed to be beautiful, intimidating or downright sinister. Most masquerades (Mmanwu) claim to have some mystical powers and are constantly competing to see which one has the most mystical powers, whenever they appear together especially at village squares or festivals like Ede Aro Abagana.
Masquerades (Mmanwu) are classified into categories based on specialization. Each masquerade possesses particular attributes (warrior-like prowess, mystical powers, youthfulness, and old age) and specializes in one or more skills (dancing skills, acrobatics, and other ritual manifestations).
We, Igbos, celebrate masquerades (Mmanwu) in accordance with our local community native calendars during festivals, social gatherings, and annual festivities like Christmas. Some masquerades (Mmanwu) appear only at one festival, but the majority appears at many or all.
Written by Dunu Okigbo