MMANWU IBONO AND THE CHALLENGES OF THE 21st CENTURY
Dons Eze, PhD
We aim at this write up to look at the concept of Mmonwu and Ibono Festivals, particularly how they are being currently celebrated in Akama Oghe and Ezeagu local government area in general, and see how these festivals have helped to promote or hinder our cultural heritage, political and socio-economic development. We also present a philosophical justification of the Mmonwu cult. We examine the significance or the roles played by Mmonwu the traditional Igbo society, such as entertainment, judicial and social mobilization. We then explore how these roles could be gainfully harnessed to benefit our contemporary society. We then put forward suggestions on how the festivals could be celebrated to make for economic progress, social and harmonious existence of all people in our Community. Between Mmonwu Ibono and Mmonwu Christmas Before delving into the discussion, we would like to make a distinction between Mmonwu Christmas or Mmonwu Obiagu (Emeka, 1993), and traditional masquerades (Mmonwu Ibono).
Also Read: 25 Most Popular Igbo Masquerades
i. Monwu Christmas or Monwu Obiagu
Mmonwu Christmas or Mmonwu Obiagu are those masquerades performed by some Christian converts. Though not willing to openly challenge the traditional beliefs and practices associated with the Mmonwu system, these converts and their wards while still engaging in masquerade celebration, would nevertheless, not indulge in any type of rituals considered to be against their religion. These masquerades were only for entertainment purposes. They wore no protective or offensive charms and amulets. As Lawrence Emeka rightly observed: “Their province was drama, song and dance”. Among these masquerades are “Ulaga”, “Oji-nma”, “Okwonma”. “Akwuna-eche enyi’, etc. These types of masquerades are usually seen around Obiagu Road, Coal Camp, Abakpa, and along other major roads in Enugu during Christmas, New Year and Easter Festivals, and hence, the sobquirient – Mmonwu Obiagu. Mmonwu Obiagu solicits and accepts money for “pure water” from women! Some of these masquerades used to feature in Akama during Christmas and Easter celebrations before they were proscribed.
ii.(Mmanwu) Mmonwu Ibono
Unlike Mmonwu Obiagu or Mmonwu Christmas, traditional masquerades (Mmonwu Ibono) are believed to be the true re-incarnation of the dead. They are said to originate from certain anthills, from holes, or from somewhere in the bush. On the eve of every traditional Ibono festival, for instance, we hear various noises coming from different directions, particularly during the night. That is the time the spirits of all the dead people in Akama are said to return to earth, to make their temporary abode with men. Only the initiated are allowed to witness this mystical transformation. Mmonwu Ibono appear in Akama around October of every year, when various masquerades of all descriptions will be displayed at the Afa-agu village square. It is only a men’s affair, and particularly the initiated, while women will be peeping from a far distance. The festival itself is preceded by whip-wielding masquerades – Agu-ani Ojii, Ochili-opu Nwankita, Uvu, Utobo, etc. They patrol the length and breadth of the community, chasing any one that crosses their path. This lasts for between twelve to sixteen days, or as may be determined by the community. During this period, all activities in the community are virtually at standstill, since nobody would like to go into confrontation with the spirits.
Monwu in Traditional Igbo Society
Mmonwu, according to traditional Igbo belief, signifies what it represents. Once a particular masquerade is designated to represent a certain dead person or ancestor, he is regarded as representing such individual. From time to time, the dead like to return to earth, to have communion with their descendants, to share in their joys and tribulations. They will bring to them good wishes from the spirit world and carry back their requests to the land of the spirits. On their part, the living will approach the masked spirits, the spirits of their ancestors, friends or relations, with love and respect. They will offer them gifts and solicit their assistance to intercede on their behalf, for good health, long life as well as for material benefits. Masking is therefore the externalization of that intimate relationship between the living and the dead, where the living conceives of the dead as existing body and soul in the other world and constantly interacting with the living, albeit, in a masked form. Traditional Igbo community is not lacking in its rich culture and tradition. At every masquerade festival, each community will fall back on its rich cultural arsenal to produce masquerades of various types, shapes and sizes. The masquerade festival is usually a delight to watch. In Akama, the Okpoto Umungwaka Isiokwe which had earlier announced the commencement of Ibono season, would summon all male adult at Afa-agu Village Square to watch various kinds of masquerades on display. No woman or the uninitiated will be allowed to come close. It is only a men’s affair, where power and charm combine to transform an otherwise passive object into an aggressive and terrifying being. The powerful medicine man that is at the heart of Igbo masking, casting spells and incantations, makes the masquerade dreadful which no commoner dares to come close to. The masquerades vary in sizes, in appearance and outlook, attracting and repelling, some beautiful, others very ugly, some very powerful and aggressive, others lovely and effeminate, etc. – all these combine to make the Igbo masquerade an outstanding spectacle which cannot be fully viewed standing at one position – Ada akwu ofu ebe ekili mmanwu. Such masquerades like the Ogbunma – “He who kills with the knife”, and Mgbedike – “Time for the brave”, typify manliness, strength and valour. They are usually age grades’ masquerades and are symbolized by buffalo, leopard, and the like, and armed with the knife. When the Oja man, the flutist, or a sonorous singer, in an apparent attempt to arouse his potent force, begins to challenge him – that he is moving like an old woman, lacking in power and strength – he will break loose from his tether, display his fierceness and aggressiveness, jump into the bush, to destroy plants and cash crops. From there, he will scale through the fence, and then to the roof of the house. When this type of masquerade is on display, it will be foolhardy to ask anyone to take to his heels – ada agwa ochi nti na afhia esu – nobody tells a mad man that the market is on fire. Ogbunma or mgbedike, is a war masquerade used to avenge any misdeeds on the community by an enemy or rival communities. It is also used in funeral ceremonies of notable war heroes. Only men who are men are admitted into this group, and not women in men’s clothing. The purely effeminate mask spirits like the Ada nma do not exhibit much physical prowess, but are noted for their good looks, attractiveness and beautiful dances. Even though women are not supposed to know the secrets of the masquerade, when they die, however, there is practically no difference between them and their male counterparts. Death has made them the same since a dead woman not only knows the secrets of Mmonwu. She can also appear in masquerade. There also the Ugo, Eagle, the mysterious Izaga, as well as the majestic Ijele, masquerades – all showing the extent to which masking is at the core of Igbo culture. Some masquerades like Obute, are also good in storytelling, using proverbs and idioms drawn from folklore to entertain the people. In times past, there was no festival which attracted as large gathering in Igbo culture as the Ibono festival. People from far and near, the young and the old, even women and children, in spite of restrictions imposed on them, all clamoured to take part in the festival. Neighbouring villages would also come with their own masquerades as a mark of solidarity. It is during the Ibono festival that the spirit of the living and the dead coalesce.
Philosophical Foundation of the Masquerade
It is not easy to fathom the mystery of the masquerade – its awesomeness as well as its nature. Suffice it say, however, that the reality of the masquerade is rooted in the Igbo worldview of the symbiotic relationship between the living and the dead. In a society where the living and the dead freely mingle with each other in the interpenetration of forces, it is natural that the masquerade (Mmonwu) should exist to symbolize that relationship. The Igbo cosmology does not view death as “finished”, as the end of human existence. Rather, it views the dead as existing in the other world, though in a diminished condition of life, as lessened “life forces”, Tempels (1959), but nevertheless, retaining their higher strengthening fathering life force. Being now closer to God, they must have gained greater knowledge of the forces of life and nature, while their lessening life force must be less extensive than we might at first believe. As spiritual forces, they are in communication with their descendants who now see them as existing body and soul in the other world. “Our philosophy knows the problem of immortality and deathlessness and has recognized it long ago”, writes Alexis Kagame. The living person has the innate wish to exist forever, but since death is inevitable, he prolongs his existence as a living person in his descendants. And as a dead man, he is concerned about his living descendants. To leave no living heirs behind him is the worst evil that can befall a man, and there is no curse more terrible to put on a man than to wish him to die childless, for he would have thereby lost the chance of those who would prolong his life on earth. Mbiti refers to the departed as the “living dead”, whose personal immortality is expressed or externalized by the living through sacrifices, the pouring of libations and other rituals. These are symbols of communion, of fellowship and remembrance, the mystical ties that bind the “living dead” to those on earth. Senghor writes:
“Sacrifice is above all a way of entry into relations with the ancestor, the dialogue
of THEE and ME. Food is shared with him. Its eternal force is to give him the sense
sense of life. And this communion extends to identification, in such a way that, by an
inverse movement, the force of the ancestor flows into the sacrifices and into the
community which he embodies. Sacrifice is the typical illustration of the vital forces
of the universe”.
Mbiti (1969) conceives of the dead or the departed as “bilingual”: they speak the language of men, with whom they lived until recently; and they speak the language of the spirits and of God, to whom they are drawing nearer ontologically. From time to time, they return to their human families and share meals with them, however symbolically. They know and have interest in what is going on in the family. Hey are the guardians of family affairs, traditions, ethics and activities. Offence in these matters is ultimately an offence against the forefathers, who, in that capacity act as the invisible police of the families and communities. Because they are still people, and have not passed the stage of forgottenness, they are the best intermediaries between men and God; they know the needs of men, they have recently been here with men, and at the same time they have full access to the channels of communicating with God directly or indirectly through their own forefathers. Even if the dead may not do miracles or extraordinary thing to remedy the needs, men experience a sense of psychological relief when they pour out their hearts’ trouble before their seniors who have a foot in both worlds. Generally speaking, it is only those who have offspring and become old before their departure who becomes ancestors. But there are those who although are not strictly qualified for admission into this category of ancestorship who may be admitted into the spirit world of the deceased because they are good and their days on earth are done, even though they may be young and childless. Belief in the continued existence and influence of this category of deceased persons is symbolized in mmonwu, odo, omabe, okonko, or whatever the various Igbo groups may choose to call it, which is a manifestation of the fact that those who have passed into the spirit world of departed members of the community are still a part of the social structure.
Mmonwu and Its Social Functions
The principal functions of the masquerade are its roles as agent of social control, entertainment and mobilization. In various Igbo societies, the masquerade plays very important roles in ensuring the healthy growth of society by providing the people with entertainment for their relaxation as well as mobilizing them for communal works, both in peace and during the period of emergency. It also helps to maintain social discipline and cohesion.
In traditional Igbo society, was a potent force for social control, for maintaining and preserving the norms and values of society. Mmonwu is so sacred an institution to be made an all comers’ affair. Only those who have high value for the people’s culture and tradition and who can keep their mouths shut are admitted to the secrets of the masquerade. In this case, women and children are necessarily excluded. Initiation into the Mmanwu cult was therefore the best form of instilling discipline in the child. He must never divulge its secrets under pain of death. Mmonwu had legislative, judicial and executive powers. It set the norms and rules of society and ensured that they were strictly observed and followed; failing which any offender would be severely punished. Thus, when an over-zealous Christian convert refused to “give Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God” by revealing the identity of the masquerade, it was the masked spirits themselves who could exert the appropriate punishment, such that the fellow would forever live to regret such an abomination, if he ever survived it.
In avenging criminal offences, in punishing anti-social behaviour, in collecting communal levies and fines, and in ensuring environmental cleanliness, mmonwu had played significant roles. A particular masquerade known as Odozi Obodo in Akama Oghe area of Ezeagu local government, would go through the community lanes, village squares, oboli, ilo, etc., to inspect areas not properly cleared or swept. He would then use his hoe and broom to symbolically clear or sweep them and later ask to be paid for his labour in form of fines. No individual or group of individuals whose compound, village square or lane was cleared or swept by Odozi Obodo would ever wish for such a “favour” in future, by allowing weeds to take over their compound. Mmonwu helped in settling disputes. When two people were in dispute, mmanwu would be invited to adjudicate. Whoever was pronounced guilty must pay the fines imposed or be ostracized from the community or isolated such that nobody would talk to him until he paid the necessary fines imposed. There was no appeal beyond the judgement of the masquerade. If individuals and government officials could be bribed to influence issues and decisions, it would not so for the masquerade, who was thought to represent the spirit of the ancestors, those who the people held in high esteem. Whatever was their decision must be fair and just. The thought that the masked spirits could be influenced, never arose. Night masquerades would not hesitate to reveal the misdeeds of individual members of the community. An unfaithful house wife who would jump from one bed to another, would have her lustful escapades exposed and warned of the unpleasant consequences should she persist in such an irresponsible behaviour. A lazy young man who is afraid to handle a hoe like Unoka, in Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”, would have a music composed in his name by the masquerade and told to better change his sex and become a woman. Night masquerades were no respecter of persons and of status – the rich and the poor, the young and the old, men and women – all would have their secrets exposed. This is a way of instilling discipline, of changing the lives of individual members of society. The masquerade was at the centre of every human activity in traditional Igbo society. Initiation into adulthood (Iwa Ogodu) must be celebrated with masquerades, who would go round the village with the neophyte as a way of introducing him to the community, that he had reached the adulthood.
The acceptance by many Igbo communities of the masquerade as agent of social control and reform is based not only on respect, but also on fear – not to offend the departed spirits behind the masquerades, and fear because of the immense power of the masquerades.
Masquerade as Agent of Social Mobilization
There is no society where the truism of man being a social animal is as true as in Igbo society. The Igbo do not view man as existing in himself without being affected by other beings. As a matter of fact, the very essence of his existence is being defined in relationship with hi neighbour. Whether he his rejoicing or mourning, he must share it with his neighbour; he cannot rejoice or mourn alone. That is why there is elaborate celebrations in all his activities – whether it is in birth, in death, in planting and in harvesting of farm crops. They must all be celebrated. And in celebrating, it is not only the living that is involved. The dead is also included as well, since they are related ontologically.
In every month of the year, there must be an Igbo community celebrating one form of festival or the other, which are usually occasions for masquerade displays. People from far and near come back to their roots to commune with their ancestors, manifested in the masked spirits. It will be the occasion to make important pronouncements concerning the community. Initiation into adulthood must be celebrated with masked spirits who would go round the village with the neophyte as a way of introduction to the community that he has now reached adulthood. At death, it was the masquerade that would announce the demise, particularly the death of a young man. For instance, a young man who died at the prime of his life would not be considered strictly dead until he appears in a masquerade before his burial. No woman would be allowed into the room where the corpse was lying, and his age mates, while invoking the spirit of the departed, would have him appear in a masquerade. He would come out looking very sad, tired and weary, probably as a result of a very long journey he had undertaken, or because he was still having the effect of the illness that killed him. He would sympathize with his young wife, if he had any, or his aged mother and other
relations, who would be crying out their hearts. He would move towards them and try to embrace them, but would be restrained by members of his grade, who would be quick to remind him that he was now different, that he was no longer an ordinary human being. His aged mother or wife would present him with gifts and bid him farewell. While asking him to go home in peace, they would urge him to fish out the person(s) responsible for his death and revenge accordingly. Later, members of his age grade would lead him round the village in a dirge, as a formal announcement of his transition. Since the people do not consider the death of any young man natural, having him appear in a masquerade is a way of recommending him for acceptance in the spirit world, having been considered to have led a good life. It is also a way of bidding him farewell from the land of the living, and of cutting the umbilical cord between him and the living. No deceased young man who did not appear in a masquerade upon his death would ever appear in it in future. Such is an evil man who had led a wicked life. He would not even be buried, but dumped into the evil forest for vultures to feast upon. He is completely dead and must be forgotten.
Masquerades in Contemporary Society
Notwithstanding the noble roles, which Mmonwu played in traditional Igbo society, it is however doubtful whether these roles could still be relevant in this day and age. The Monwu cult generally is undemocratic. It is segregational, repressive and autocratic. Mmonwu is only a man’s affair, and particularly for the initiated. Women are never allowed to take part in any of its activities. As rightly observed by E. E. Amaku (2003), African culture, and by extension, the Mmonwu cult, is “totalitarian in character”. It is uncritical, authoritative, dogmatic, and coercive. In the present technological age, it is doubtful whether such system could move any society forward. Mmonwu has been seen as “an agent of social mobilization”. But that would be under a primitive society, which had no access to sophisticated and modern means of communication – the telephone, telex, radio and television, the newspaper, the e-mail, the internet and things like that. Even the Town Crier could mobilize more people than the masquerade, which disperses rather than brings people together. It is only during the Christmas, Easter and the Women August meetings that fund raising activities, for instance, are organized for community development. No such thing takes place during the Ibono festival, since the Mmonwu disperse rather than mobilize people. During the Ibono festival, no social or economic activity is allowed to take place. Wedding ceremonies are postponed. Burial or funeral activities are put off. The Ekeugbo Market, from where many of the people eke out their living, is closed, because women are not allowed to watch the masquerade, even at a safe distance. Their children and wards would be forced to stay hungry, until after the festival. It is difficult to estimate in monetary terms, how much the people lose every year during this period when everything is at a standstill. Of late, there were reports of altercations or quarrels between some Mnonwu groups and adherents of Christian religion, not only in Akama, but also from several communities in Ezeagu. This has greatly affected the relationship between the followers of Mmonwu cult and the Christian religious groups, and by implication, the overall development of various communities in the local government. As reported elsewhere, “thirty-five followers of African traditional religions including ‘two masquerades, are being held in Enugu for attacking Christians and burning down their houses”. A total of nine houses were alleged to have been burnt down in the process. The report had it that the masquerade followers during the annual Ibono Iwollo festival attacked a Catholic priest for being outside at the time of the festival. The priest, Reverend Father Chukwuma Innocent Nnajike, explained that what actually triggered the confrontation was that “traditionalists prevented Christians from attending worship services on Sunday, saying that they were observing their religious festival and no Christian should be seen outside”. This was not an isolated case. It had happened in Akama, though no houses were burnt, nobody was killed, and no masquerade was arrested. But it brought a strained relationship between the Christians and the Monwu followers. Similar reports had come from several communities in Ezeagu local government, including a report of how some group of masquerades had beaten up some women passengers travelling in commercial vehicles that passed through their area.
Sadly, the worst enemies of the masquerade are not necessarily the practising Christians, but those who have their one leg in Christianity and the other leg in traditional religion. Many of them bear Christian names, but hardly attend church services. And they would not also take part in traditional religious worships. They desecrate Christianity, but would not also keep the rules and practices of the traditional religion. They are thus in between two worlds. They are pushing the masquerade to a breaking-point so that people would start having faults with it in order to get it proscribed. In times past, both the Christian worshippers and the traditional religionists, kept their separate turfs. None of them interfered in the affairs of the other. The masquerade neither harassed nor disturbed anybody going to Church or pupils going to school. Even a small boy could lead any woman pass through a masquerade, once the person gives him the necessary respect. It is no longer so now, when masquerades pursue women even right inside their kitchens. Even students who come from other communities to Akama to sit for their WAEC General Certificate for Education (GCE) examinations would be running from pillar to post, so as not to be beaten by masquerades. No doubt, that was what led to an agreement that no masquerade should appear in the community on Sundays before 12.00 noon. This was to enable Christians come back from their Church services. Time was, when judgments passed by masquerades were sacrosanct and could hardly be faulted. Such verdicts were never challenged, because they were judgements based on objective truth, or as were revealed by the spirits. That was when Mmonwu performed judicial functions and thus instilled discipline in society. This is no longer so now that Mmonwu could be manipulated to achieve some selfish ends. They would harass and intimidate their target object until their aims were achieved. A story was told of a certain widow who had consistently refused to surrender a piece of land bequeathed to her to her husband’s brother. Her position was that the land in question was her only means of livelihood through which she could take care of the children left behind by her husband. However, when her dead husband “appeared” in a night masquerade and ordered that the land be forfeited to his brother, the woman readily acquiesced!
As an entertainment agent, the Ibono festival should be an opportunity to attract tourists, who could watch the various masquerades on stage, and thus attract revenue and development for the community. This, however, was never the case, as only the initiated are allowed to watch masquerades at the village square (Afagu). And they are few in number. For the moment, the Ibono festival has remained an occasion for merriments and alcoholic consumption! For Monwu to really serve as an entertainment agent which, no doubt, is the only role now left to it, it should be democratized to enable it serve more people, and hence, earn for the people, the much-needed respect and revenue through tourism. In this regard, the masquerade should put off its toga as an instrument of vendetta, harassment, intimidation and manipulation. Mmonwu, as originally conceived, was meant for recreation, entertainment, amusement, and ultimately for an orderly society. It was never intended to be used to cause dislocation or disharmony in society. Happily, some Catholic clergymen of Ezeagu extraction have begun to show the way masquerade festivals could be celebrated to make for progress and better understanding among all segments of society. Worried by frequent altercations and misunderstandings between some Christian faithful and Monwu followers in the local government, they began to organize their own masquerade festival right inside Ezeagu local government headquarters. The aim was to prove that Christianity is not against masquerade celebrations, nor is it anti-culture. It is also to prove that Monwu could be celebrated without necessarily using charms and amulets.
This excellent example must be supported. Akama people have a very rich culture which is in no way inferior to any other culture. This should be kept alive, and passed on to generations yet unborn. Besides, it would be foolhardy for anybody to think that he could make any progress or be comfortable in a culture that is not of his own. A borrowed culture is like a borrowed garment, which never fits its wearer. As rightly observed by Edward Blyden “… Every race has a soul, and the soul of the race finds expression in its institutions, and to kill these institutions is to kill the soul. No people can profit by or be helped under institutions which are not the outcome of their own character”. At this juncture, it may necessary to critically examine some aspects of the culture of the people to see which ones are still relevant and which should be modified or discarded altogether. This is necessary since culture is dynamic, and not static. Culture as the totality of man’s life in society, should serve man, and not destroy or suppress him. It should be used to advance the welfare of man in society. Culture should be seen as progressive and forward- looking, and not retrogressive. It should not draw the hands of the clock backwards. Some people, who are currently opposed to or are against Ibono festival or the masquerade in particular, do not do so because they despise or hate their own culture. They are only worried by the fact that while people from other climes have mastered science and technology and use them to conquer nature and develop their areas, some of their own people were only content in using charms and masquerades to decimate or paralyze their fellow human beings! Similarly, they are not happy that Monwu or the masquerade is used by some people as an opportunity for personal vendetta, victimization and intimidation against their perceived enemies. That is why the Ibono festival currently has a poor image, and why some of the elites still see it as “fetish, satanic and devilish”.
But this negative image can be reversed. It is the responsibility of the elites to educate the people that if in the past, charms and amulets were found to be necessary ingredients in the celebration of Ibono or Mmonwu festivals, these may no longer be so now when science and technology are ruling the world. Africa was backwards not because their culture was inferior to that of Europe and America, but because these countries had mastered science and technology and use them effectively. Ibono has neither a shrine nor is it worshipped anywhere. Therefore, there is nothing really wrong or sinful about the festival. Ibono is only a celebration of culture, and meant for
entertainment. Ibono is the equivalent of the Brazilian Carnival, which attracts tourists from
far and near, and which helps to promote and advance their culture, and at the same time,
yield revenue for the country through tourism.
Accordingly, while maintaining the sanctity and sacredness of the masquerade as spirit manifest, it is necessary to device means of getting a wider spectrum of the populace to participate in Ibono festival. Thus, Ibono festival should no longer be the exclusive concern of men or the initiates, since women also love to watch masquerades, though maintaining a very safe distance. Such masquerades like Odegelu, Ogaja, Oganigwe, Ntukpo, Ada nma, Igbo-fhunanya Okwelu, Ugo-achaa, Otiokpokpo, etc. are crowd pullers. Even masquerades like Obute, which speak in riddles, are equally enjoyed by all and sundry.
To that effect, special day(s) when everybody would be allowed to watch these masquerades on stage in the public arena should be mapped out. They could then be recorded on tape or disc for posterity, since many of these masquerades are fast going into extinction.
This would not only help to keep alive the Ibono festival, but also boost tourism for the people. In this way, the Monwu and the Ibono festivals would have become relevant in the 21st century.
Amaku, EE (2003) Philosophy and African Culture in Academia: A CIP Journal of Philosophy Owerri, Assumpta Press
Emeka, L (1993) The Funny as the Punch – Mmanwu Obiagu Genre for Effective Social Mobilization, Enugu, Unpublished Article
Eze, Dons (1993) Mmanwu as Agent of Social Mobilization, Enugu, Unpublished Article
Idowu, EB (1973) African Traditional Religion, London, SCM Press
Jahn, J (1961) Muntu, London/New York, E.T
Mbiti, JS (1969) African Religions and Philosophy, London, Heinemann
Parrinder, EG (1962) African Traditional Religion (Third Edition) London, Sheldon Press
Ranger TO & Kimambeo (1972) The Historical Study of African Religion, London,
Tempels, P. (1959) Bantu Philosophy, Paris.