Masquerades, dances: Rediscovering our rich cultural heritage

Nigerian music, dance, and films have enjoyed global acceptance over the years. In this piece, SAMSON BENJAMIN examines how other aspects of the nation’s culture can be harnessed.


Culture is the identity of a people or race; it defines who they are, their history, the food they eat and how their houses were constructed.

 In Nigeria, masquerades, dance, festivals, etc. are some of the ways we expressed our rich cultural heritage. Mr. Ezewani Ekere, a lecturer at the Nigerian Institute of African Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, told Blueprint Weekend that masquerades are very important figures in Nigerian festivities.

He said,  “Many cultures believe that they represent the ancestors while some believe they are gods. Whatever the case, they are believed to be mystical and hold related powers, hence should be respected.

“Some masquerades are so revered that they hardly come out, only at very important events, such as the funeral of a king or great person, special religious festivities, etc. The more revered a masquerade is, the slimmer the chances are of seeing it.”

Our rich cultural heritage

Speaking exclusively to Blueprint Weekend, the president of Nigeria Folklore Society, Dr. Bukar Usman, said Nigeria has rich cultural heritage which cut across all the sections of the country.

“Nigeria’s rich cultural heritage boasts of huge eclectic and colourful festivals that are full of rhythm, brilliant colours, fun and great pace. Their origins are steeped in great traditions of religious obeisance, traditional games, folklore, dance and drama.

“These festivals present an ever present reminder of the finest of the country’s heritage which should be enjoyed and appreciated from generation to generation. They also form a great treasure to be continuously showcased to the world with a systematic process where local and international stakeholders in the arts, culture and tourism sectors in both the public and private sphere can enhance their promotional and commercial interests respectively,” he said.

Speaking further, he said, “The Eyo Festival, also called the Adamu Orisha Play presents one of the most serene and prestigious celebrations in Nigeria. At the time of the festival, the streets of Lagos Island are transformed into stunning white. It attracts thousands of tourists from around the world who come to see costumed dancers or masquerades called ‘Eyo’ perform.  It is strongly believed that Eyo Festival is the forerunner of the world biggest carnival in the world, the Rio de Janeiro Carnival, with the strong migration of the Yoruba of Lagos to Brazil many years ago.

“The Calabar Carnival takes place every December and comes with a lot of fanfare, artistry and scintillating performances. It is a blend of creativity and culture, tradition and modernity. You get to see long feathered head dresses, the colourful costumes, gorgeous dancers and dance steps.

“The Ofala Festival is held in Anambra state where the Obi of Onitsha, Dr Alfred Nnaemeka Achebe and traditional rulers who are adorned in their red caps and royal regalia with their traditional staffs paint the whole place red with their parades and display of affluence and power. You may have experienced some fascinating water activities around the world but if you have not been to Argungu fishing festival, your list may not be complete. The alluring dynamics of the festival, the exciting spectators, and the anxious competitors who are ready to jump inside the river to begin their search for the biggest fish make this fishing festival extraordinary and beautiful.”

Continuing, he said: “The Durbar is also an annual festival celebrated in several cities of Northern Nigeria. It begins with prayers, followed by a parade of the emir and his entourage on horses, accompanied by music players, and ending at the emir’s palace. Durbar festivals are organized in cities such as Kano, Katsina, Bida, etc.

“Durbar festival dates back to hundreds of years ago before the arrival of religions when horses were used by the emirates in the combats. The festival was intended to be the parade of military soldiers of various northern regiments riding in defense of the emir showcasing their horsemanship, loyalty and preparedness for war.

“Today, Durbar festivals are also organized in honor of visiting heads of state and it displays the rich northern Nigerian culture and tradition. The festival is full of colorful procession, pomp and pageantry which are led by the emir and it features a competition between the royal Calvary, drummers, trumpeters, praise singers and wrestlers, making it a widely viewed event in Northern Nigeria.

“The festival also showcases the full procession of villagers as they gather at the public square or in front of the emir’s palace where this spectacular and amazing event takes place every year. On this day people enjoy the fabulous view of horse race at full gallop across the public squares, especially the fierce riding acts by the emir’s household and regimental guards.”

 The conflict

However, over the years, there appears to be a conflict between religion and culture in Nigeria. Mr. Ekere told this reporter that the conflict is as a result of the advent of evangelical Christianity which is ardently opposed to local traditions and culture.

He said, “Once a year, around the time of Afia Olu, the Igbo new yam festival, my father, who is a knight of the Catholic Church, ‘sacrifices’ a chicken to his ancestors so that in his own words  (they too might enjoy it like the ancestors of those who still do things ‘in the old way’). He lets the blood of the animal soak into the ground outside our family home. Then, people who observe the traditions the colonisers called ‘paganism’. My father cooks and eats the chicken. As a second-generation Christian, the son of an adult convert, my dad is still close enough to the old ways to feel guilty at the thought of abandoning them, and so he compromises. He wants to be a good son but he also wants to be a good Catholic.

“In the 1970s and 80s, many in Osumenyi, my father’s village in Anambra state in south-eastern Nigeria, performed a similar balancing act. They initiated their sons into the masquerade cult, with its secret language, on Friday nights, and on Sunday morning those sons volunteered as altar boys at the local church. The church then was cooperating. There was Christianity and there was tradition; the two were not mutually exclusive.

“In those days Afia Olu, which held at the end of the rainy season in August, was an exuberant, colourful affair celebrating not just yam but a successful harvest. Families dressed in their finest clothes travelled from afar to take part in all the festivities and ate to excess: yam and chicken fried incandescent gold; spicy goat meat which would make your nose run; jollof rice and salad soaking in cream. These days hardly anyone from outside the village bothers to make the trip, especially not the wealthy, who are afraid that they or their children will be kidnapped and held for ransom.

“Across Nigeria there has been an explosion of a fervent brand of evangelical Christianity which is ardently opposed to local traditions and culture. In Igbo land, shrines have been destroyed, and converts abandon traditional names that sound as though they might have ‘pagan’ links in favour of biblical names. In Osumenyi, some churches are discouraging their congregation from taking part in Afia Olu rites and festivities.

“Sometimes I worry that when my father’s generation passes away this beautiful celebration of rebirth will die with them. Yet I take solace not only in the fact that there are churches willing to find a good marriage between Christianity and Afia Olu, but also in the fact that the new yam festival is a common denominator in all Igbo societies. So perhaps it will continue to survive. After all, as the Igbo say, when a group urinates together, it foams.”

 Exporting our culture         

In a chat with Blueprint Weekend, Iniobong Obinna-Onunkwo, the founder of Heritage Education For Youths, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) said, if properly harnessed, Nigerian culture can attract foreign tourists.

She said, “Our culture in Nigeria is like an elephant with many parts, each unique and exceptional. It is also like a machine with many moving parts, but the mistake we make as a country is putting the entire thing on a stationary wheel. As a country, our culture is going nowhere if we keep consuming it alone.

“In the last couple of years, Nigeria’s music, dance, films and entertainment, in general, has enjoyed global acceptance, but we haven’t milked that opportunity for all it is worth.

“During the festive season, a lot of Nigerians in the Diaspora visited the country, and asides going to see a few plays, movies and the tourists’ attractions we do not have, they simply spent the rest of their time indoors. We can simply create temporary entertainment with our culture and we can sustain that entertainment if we make our culture the tourist attraction.

“For example, most people who holiday in countries of the world sometimes take two or three weeks of dance classes or cooking classes while they are in that country. We can do the same with our Nigerian culture. When people visit or holiday in Nigeria, part of the attraction can be cooking classes, dance classes, or adire-making classes. This is an opportunity to pump them with our culture and make them our own global ambassadors.”

Continuing, she said, “Let’s teach them the Bata dances, the Atilogwu, Yengben, Apepe, Ekanbi, Swange; or how to cook bean cakes (moin moin). These things may seem ordinary to us, but to a tourist or Nigerian living in Diaspora, it is great value for money – even Nigerians living in Nigeria.

“We can’t remain mysterious and keep trying to consume our culture by ourselves; it will eventually die out, so let us spread it. Chinese people unapologetically spread their culture through their food and clothing apparel, and their culture has reached nations of the earth where they almost have no representation. People have learnt to eat their food, drink their tea and even use their utensils, chopsticks. We need to adopt that policy.

“Let people living in Australia head out and say, “let’s have ‘Nigerian’ for dinner.” Our culture should be our introduction to the world. But it can only happen when we see the value of what we have. The dance studios and industrial spaces that remain empty at certain periods can be put to use for that purpose. Let tourists look forward to visiting Nigeria, and our culture will go global.”

 Similarly, Usman said, “Nigeria’s culture is invaluable and priceless. It is what defines us as a nation. Without it, we lose our identity and it is important that all efforts are made to ensure that it does dissipate in face of western invasion. This revival needs to cut across all the fabric of our social life-dressing, language, cuisine, and social interactions which have been kicked to the backseat.

The way out

On the way forward, he said, “We must embrace our culture, no nation in the world jettison its culture for anything. When you get to any European country their architecture speaks volume of their identity. When you get London, Rome, Paris, and Moscow and even Asian countries their architectural designs differentiate one city from another. So also is their technological development. As a nation, we must embrace our culture; each ethnic group must do so to engender homemade technological advancement.

 “Young people are expected to be the promoters of culture but this generation does not seem to be interested in it. The craze to adopt foreign belief system is overwhelming and youths need to see the value of Nigeria’s culture. Conferences should be organised for them so that they can see the value in our culture. The more young people appreciate our culture, the less people have to worry about anti-social behaviours.”

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