Every culture has a central idea that guides the way people interact and lives. In traditional African culture, myths and beliefs were believed to guide and control the way the community lived. The complex structure of ancestors and spirits that were regarded as important by the community was one of these beliefs. The spirits and ancestors served to highlight the importance of both the living and dead in defining the complexity and wholeness of universe. Islam and Christianity brought a whole new dynamic to the relationship between the alive and the deceased. This essay asserts that African Masquerades have played an important role in determining and controlling the society. The Esan of Southern Nigeria will be highlighted, along with the Senufo and Mende of Sierra Leone.
African society has a rich tradition that reflects the ideals of the living and the deceased. Masquerade is a unique way to express culture and beliefs. Masquerading, a dance tradition that involves dancers wearing masks to perform in the community, is a cultural expression. These performances are culturally significant. This is not an everyday phenomenon. It’s more like the appearance of a masquerade signifies that the ancestor has returned to a human form.
Masquerading is a concept that involves masks, objects held in the hand, music played and dance moves performed to represent a certain spirit. The masquerades can show human or animal behaviors that either excite the audience, or instill fear. Spirits can show extremes in power. They may be weak, or they could be very powerful. In many cases, strong spirits were given their own living space called a temple. The performances are intended to influence people and inspire them to take action.
Okoye (2009) states that Europeans view masquerades differently than Africans. Africans believe that masquerades are part of everyday life, whereas Europeans only consider them as a disguise with entertainment value. The Africans believe that the spirit of their ancestors is embodied in the masquerades, and life continues after physical death. In short, Africans believe that when a person dies, their spirit continues to exist in an undefined place, and they continue to be in contact with the living.
Masquerades play different roles in African culture. They help to create a more healthy society by bringing the dead together with the living.
It was hard to understand the Elimin, or spirit masquerade amongst the Esan people in Southern Nigeria. They considered it secretive and women were even forbidden from talking about it. The spirits are thought to be the descendants of ancestors. They control the destiny of the living. They were therefore called on to perform both legislative and administrative functions. But it’s important to know that these spirits worked in tandem with other people, such as the Edion or priests. The masquerades supported and presided at the initial and transformation of various groups in the society. It is believed that the spirits were present to guide young men or women into the different roles and cadres in the society. It guided the initiates and helped them to learn their new roles.
The spirit also played a role in Esan society, which was to control the community’s politics. The spirits had to be in charge of negotiating and arbitrating cases in traditional African societies. Esan societies had different groups such as young initiates working with the elders. Also, there was the masquerade. Esan societies are accustomed to peace and were therefore faced with conflict arising out of the boundary between two neighboring groups of people. In such cases, agreements are made at the Okoven, which is the border in conflict.
Men were the main dancers of masks among the Senufo population in Ivory Coast. Their masks are symbolic, however (Olupona 2014). Masks could be small or large, with unique features describing the power of each. The masquerades were performed at initiations and funerals.
Fig 1. A typical mask of a female, Senufo (Ivory Coast), late 20th Century, Musee Barbier Mueller, Geneva.
When masks are danced near the corpse, it is a sign of expulsion. Some masquerades perform together at festivals, especially when a prominent person is being buried. Masks with crocodiles and hyenas and open-jawed symbols were used to imitate the bush power of the ancestors, who could drive away the wandering spirits by using their medicine. During certain ceremonies, some men dance with and wear female-themed masks. Female masks of this type are decorated in order to signify the social acceptance and recognition of female creatures.
Mende, a group of masqueraders from Sierra Leone Liberia Guinea, is unique because they dance masks primarily by women. The festivals of the Mende society are unique in that they alternate between male and female counterparts over a period of three years. During their female seasons, women perform different tasks. As priestesses, they are the representatives of the spirits and help the community to understand the relationship between the living and dead. Since no society can be free from conflict, they serve as judges for arbitration, negotiations, and dispute settlement. Third, they mentor and educate the girls on the marriage norms, values, and traditions. This transforms the girls into marriageable ones.
Fig 2. Female Mask, Mende Sierra Leone. Late 20th Century. Painted Wood. Fowler Museum of Cultural History. University of California Los Angeles
The mask represents the women’s role in Mende society as wives, mothers and providers. The mask represents the perfect woman, while the plaited locks are symbolic of order and harmony in the home.
ConclusionThe African notion of a masquerade differs from that of Europe. Masks are used in African societies to perform a variety of functions. In African societies, masquerades played a major role in preventing societal crime. Masquerades were respected and could sometimes expel or even kill a person. Despite being deeply rooted within some societies, they have seen their influence diminish with the advent of Christianity and Islam.