Tradition meets commerce as Ibadan celebrates Egungun festival
The annual Egungun festival of Ibadan, the Oyo State capital, commenced last week with panache as family homes that traditionally have roles to play became a feast ground. Also in Ijebu, Ogun State, the Agemo masquerade festival commenced its week-long activities.
YEJIDE GBENGA-OGUNDARE reports that in spite of civilisation and religious beliefs, many Yoruba people still believe that for the society to prosper and be peaceful, the spirit of the ancestors must be invoked.
There was an unusual standstill on the ever busy Bere to Oja’ba road in Ibadan, the gridlock was led to a choke up on the street with vehicles standing bumper to bumper, leaving no leeway for commercial motorcycles to maneuver and perform their usual stunts in their impatience to beat the traffic gridlock.
And in that standstill, motorists had to roll up their car screens to avoid becoming victims of pickpockets as a huge crowd of people; male and female as well as old and young moved past the spaces between the vehicles, some wielding canes and others just making noise to express their excitement.
The loud sound of drumbeats accompanied the large crowd as women sang and danced to herald the approach of a masquerade, decked in colourful costume and enjoying the reverence of youths that carried him shoulder high so that he will be able to move easily among vehicles. Occasionally, the handlers of the masquerade approached motorists to offer prayers and are given cash gifts in return to encourage them and show appreciation while some just give so that they would move away from them.
This will be a common scenario in Ibadan for the three weeks that the Egungun festival will last. Often, more than one masquerade will meet on the same path and the crowd will mix as the masquerades greet each other. But in situations where there is superiority contest, meeting along the same route may lead to chaos among supporters of the masquerades. And to forestall this, the Olubadan of Ibadanland, Oba Saliu Akanmu Adetunji, at the beginning of the festival last week, called for peaceful conduct from all sets of masquerades and their followers.
Oba Adetunji described the festival as a celebration of Ibadan custom and tradition that should not be turned into an avenue to unleash terror and violence on the people, urging them to avoid use of dangerous weapons like guns, daggers, machetes and broken bottles not only during the Egungun festival but also after it.
Also in Ijebu, one of the foremost deities, the Agemo masquerade which is jointly celebrated by Ijebu communities in June or July annually came out. In spite of civilization, the Agemo like the masquerades in other parts of Yoruba land is seen as a rallying point for diverse communities
Egungun among the Southwest people of Nigeria refers to various types of masquerades; masked or costumed. And in Yoruba context, Egungun is seen as a spirit that appears during festivals, ceremonies or rituals and is majorly linked to ancestral reverence and worship. Though masquerades are different from each other in terms of functions, appearance, structures and routine, the festival of masquerades are celebrated annually in Yoruba land and is said to contribute positively to the economy.
Egungun festival according to history is an integral part of the culture and traditions of the Yoruba society which is passed down successive generations. Indeed, there are particular families known as traditional masqueraders in every Yoruba community and often, they bear names that indicate what their lineage is known for.
Tunde Ojelade, a teacher that claims he is from a lineage of masquerades told Nigerian Tribune that it is not mere festivities but a serious business that positively impacts the society economically and culturally.
“Egungun festival is an annual event that no one should treat as paganism or an activity that is tolerated for its nuisance value. It helps to develop trade and commerce which further aids the economic activity of the community and it also creates unity and love among the people.
“Though due to civilization, many do not believe that the Egungun has any relevance in today’s world, those of us that come from the lineage of masquerades know that it is not a culture that should be eroded in spite of our religious affiliations. Those masquerades though human are not mere men. Once they put on the costume, the spirit of the ancestors comes over them and they become representatives of the ancestors.
According to Sunkanmi Adetunji, a youth that was seen following one of the masquerades at Idi Arere, whatever the masquerade says while he is wearing the costume is straight from the gods. The sociology undergraduate from one of the universities in the southwest told Nigerian Tribune that he believes in masquerades.
“Though the person wearing the costume is my relative and we are age mates, I don’t underrate him when he’s doing this. Though we are related, he is my closest friend, but once the rites start; we notice an obvious change in his countenance even before he puts on the costume. So whatever he says, we believe. I will tell you education has not oin anyway affected our belief.
“He speaks on morality, values, ethics and tradition and he prays for everyone. Indeed, everything about him is very different from his usual personality. So I and others believe, it is the voice of the spirits speaking through him. Though we have some that just follow us for the fun or other personal reasons,” he stated.
There are various masquerades in South-Western Nigeria, the most popular among them includes Eyo from Lagos which is said started as a result of the need to protect a deity from the activities of hooligans who wanted to destroy or steal it. In Ibadan, there is Alapansanpa known for his visit to Olubadan›s palace annually in June every year and it is said that if he fails to go to the Olubadan’s Palace, there will be no be peace and prosperity in the land.
There is also Oloolu which must not be seen by women and Atipako, known as a ‘load-carrying’ masquerade that comes out annually in June and spiritually cleanses the community. Others include Elewe of the Igbomina which is common in Oke Ila Orangun, Ila Orangun and Arandun; Agemo; celebrated among the Ijebu people, Oladunwo, which is popular in Okemesi, Ekiti State and Obadimeji Masquerade worshiped by the Opayinka, Opadiran and Ojesanmi family in Ibadan.
The Egungun has stood to become an institution that has developed over time and has consolidate to the extent that civilization has not eroded it from the culture of the land and its appeal still transcends traditional set up. Atimes, masquerades are used for political purposes.
“Like every good thing, there are always some associated negatives. Those come in form of people that use the opportunity to commit crime, pick pockets, settle scores with perceived enemies and the bad ones that use the festival to carry out devilish assignments on the instructions of some politicians; these set are used as whips to deal with dissenting voices,” Sunkanmi told Nigerian Tribune.
Though traditionalists see the Egungun festival as a period for the living to interact with the dead and to commemorate the ancestors, many see it as a means of making money and are usually prepared for the season.
Akingbade Moradeyo, a canteen operator told Nigerian Tribune that during the festival, she opens small outlets on major roads that the masquerades will pass because she makes rapid sales during this period.
“During Egungun festival, you can’t find most of my girls in the shop. What I do is to set up counters along the road where food will be sold to the masquerade followers. And I pay some boys for protection so they won’t disturb them. I can tell you that the festival is one I await expectantly annually because I make what I would normally make in three months in three weeks.
“I also add to the variety of food I sell because akara, eko and moinmoin moves during these period. And sometimes, some families that are alagbaas allow us to come to their compound entrance on the day the masquerade will come out to fry akara for sale to augment what they prepare within their compound as it is usually not enough for the massive crowd.
“What makes the period important to me is not the tradition but the profit I make at this period. Though in the process, I find myself believing what they say because it can be very convincing atimes and the euphoria is quite infectious. But majorly, it is business for me,” she concluded.
And for the ardent believers and those that celebrate for commercial reasons, the Egungun festival is still relevant and should not be allowed to go extinct.