all photos by the author, except where otherwise noted
Masks have long been used in religious and communal ceremonies concerned with spiritual transformation, disguise, fertility rites, or amusement. They are usually worn over the face, but in some societies masks are worn on other parts of the body. For example, Gelede and Egungun masks of the Yoruba people cover the entire bodies of their wearers (Lawal 1996, Drewal and Drewal 1990, Adepegba 1984). Inuit women wear finger masks during storytelling and dance performances (Feinup-Riordan 1996). Similarly, among Efiks, Okpo masks allegorically shape the complexities of sexual maturity with full body masks (Figs. 1a–b). To Efiks, masks are cultural objects intricately woven with other aspects of their communal life.1 They view their world as a continuum, composed of the living and the dead, with the ancestor(s) ever-present in the lives of individuals, families, and the wider society. Efiks believe that religion and life are embodied in the art of masquerading—masquerades are dynamic. Thus, the power of Efik masks and masquerades reside in their ability to synthesize several sociocultural elements to achieve a variety of purposes.
Efik people are inhabitants of Calabar—formerly Old Calabar—which lies along the Calabar River that flows south for about five miles into the Cross River estuary. The people speak the Efik language—a Cross River language of the Benue-Congo family. They settled in their present locale sometime about the end of the sixteenth century (Latham 1973:3). From the mid-seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, Calabar developed into a major trading center because of its strategic location at the intersection of Calabar and Cross Rivers. It first became a major slave-trading depot, with Efiks as middlemen in all trade between Europeans and local inhabitants throughout the slave-trading period. These roles caused the obong or king to impose and collect a trading tax called comey for trading privileges on the river. After the abolition of the slave trade in the late 1880s, it quickly made the transition from the slave to the palm oil market. In 1849, Calabar became the first headquarters of the British consul on the Bights of Benin and Biafra; by 1891 it became the first capitol of Oil Rivers Protectorate. In 1846 Reverend Hope Masterton Waddell of the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland established a Christian mission there with the help of Jamaican catechists. Thereafter, Calabar became the first center of missionary expansion on the Bight of Biafra, and many Efiks professed Christianity.
This is a sociocultural study that examines the meaning, aesthetics, and functionality of Okpo in Efik society and how cultural forms of knowledge and expression shape and are shaped by Okpo performances. It investigates the character and social values of Okpo in Efik society, while analyzing various symbolisms of traditional and foreign materials used in making Okpo's attire. It also examines the effects of evangelical Christianity on Efik visual culture and practices. In these contexts, it integrates the conceptual nature of the Okpo mask within the rich mosaic of Efik culture to inform our understanding of Okpo's complex, enigmatic meaning. Okpo as an Efik word has two meanings. On one hand, it means “the uninitiated,” and on the other, “a billy-goat” or Okpoebot.
While this study acknowledges Okpo's sexual allusions, it will also attempt to explore sexuality among Efiks as informed by the Okpo mask through the symbolism, aesthetics, and functionality of the mask and its costume. Approaching Okpo from this angle paints a larger picture of its genre. The histories of Okpo are not recorded in any text, but rather as oral accounts and thoughts expressed in its performances. Accordingly, much of this analysis is shaped by oral accounts from informants, field notes recorded at various times between 2002–2012, and the author's own experiences behind Okpo masks in Calabar.
One purpose of Okpo's existence is to celebrate the sexual maturity of boys and girls from pubescence into adolescence. (Throughout this study, “Okpo” is used interchangeably as a person, a spirit, or a mask.) Therefore, Okpo flirts petulantly, pursuing adolescent females to fulfill its sexual fantasies—with adult approval. At the sight of any adolescent female, Okpo goes into a state of infatuation, completely carried away by unreasoning passion and emotional drunkenness and thus loses his sense of being. It is important to note here that no physical sexual contact ever occurs in the course of Okpo pursuits or performances; rather, Okpo's acts are dramatized desires. In its view, every adolescent female is a living beauty that ignites burning sexual desires.
Okpo as a symbol of spiritual force validates the acts of its bearer. It serves as a visible expression of a spiritual manifestation that affirms society's values while reinforcing acceptable social modes of conduct. It communally celebrates the transformation of boys and girls into an exuberant, vigorous adolescence. Okpo's performances represent an attempt to make sense of what it means to be human amid the social issues in Efik society. In an attempt to understand, confront, and solve problems that beset Efik sexual life, Okpo discourse provides a means of addressing issues of sexuality and morality, paradoxically setting up moral boundaries among Efik people. However, overbearing evangelical Christian preaching forefronts issues of sexuality, morality, and other Efik cultural objects as ungodly and evil.
In Efik folklore, the expressions and characteristics of Okpo's sexual allure and the sexual behaviors of the carefree, virile billy goat2 (Capra aegagrus hircus) are analogous to any man pursuing a woman (Ita 1974:11). Okpo masks dramatize the sexual life of a billy goat that relentlessly pesters nanny goats to sexual submission for its self-gratification. Ita (1974) describes Okpo as the Efik god of love—a symbol of sex that evokes multiple messages and complex visual metaphors and makes Okpo an often-misunderstood mask with complex paradoxical meanings.
Okpo's origin is complicated and closely entwined in Efik history. Its discourses include complex engagement with questions of individuality, spirit manifestation, and community. Because there are no historical records dating Okpo's origin, I can only hypothesize that Okpo must have originated some time in the mid-eighteenth century, about the same time as Ekpe (Latham 1973:36; Anwana 2009:78). The Ekpe Society is an all-male fraternity that takes the spirit of the leopard for its ferocious persona (Fig. 2). It transformed into a graded society with initiation rites open to all Efik men and women, bonded or free, of all ages that could afford it. Among Efiks—indeed, in most African societies—there was no distinction between the religious and the political. Ekpe essentially constituted the legislative, executive, security, and law enforcement branches of Calabar. Thus, it fulfilled both religious and social functions in Efik society.
Locating Okpo in its historical context informs the understanding of its evolution. However, a discussion comparing Okpo and Ekpe will be fully articulated later, drawing parallels to the cross-fertilization between the two masquerades. Unlike Ekpe, Okpo does not require initiation rites for those interested in participating in its affairs. Ekpe does not engage in sexual overtures like Okpo. It is plausible that those who could not afford the very expensive cost of initiation into the Ekpe fraternity might have introduced Okpo masquerading (Waddell 1863:313, Aye 1967:71, Butt-Thompson 1970:16).
THE CONCEPT OF OKPO
Efiks negotiate sexual matters through metaphors and symbols that permeate many aspects of their lives. This holds true of the Okpo mask and billy goat analogy that illustrates Efik sexual matters. Not only does this construct a metaphoric model for mapping sexuality and social norms, but the Okpo mask has also come to symbolize Efik sexuality. By this premise, the use of metaphor and the significance of the Okpo institution become useful conceptual tools for analyzing Okpo as a broad sociocultural phenomenon in Efik society. The Okpo genre provides an acceptable medium for communicating sexuality and morality, shifting it from private into public spaces. These coded communications of Efik sexuality are decipherable by adults but go over the heads of children.
The compelling questions raised here are: What is the conceptual definition of Okpo? How does Okpo apprise sexual matters despite the code of silence cultivated by Efik adults? Okpo celebrates adolescence, marking an important social and physiological rite of maturation in the life of every Efik, male and female, and defines the biological period of transition from puberty into adolescence. The gap between biological sexual maturation and social maturation is generally a source of many problems associated with adolescent sexuality. Biological factors are essential for the development of adolescent sexual behavior, but their effects are dependent on social influences. Biology also defines the limits on sexual interactions, while social context shapes particular behavioral patterns and imbues them with meaning. The discrepancy between biological and social maturation is an issue that must be understood in its evolutionary, historical, biological, and social contexts among Efiks as manifested as Okpo. The point is that Okpo is iconic; it is also indexical, drawing upon dimensions of objects to signal its representation. In essence, it is no more and no less enigmatic than everyday representations of identity, yet it strikes a balance between family obligations and individuality, between adolescence and adulthood, and is responsible for an Efik's successful transformation in life.
They are several types of Okpo in Efik visual culture, but this study will focus on three of them: Okpo Ekak, Okpo Ekang, and Okpo Ntaga Ekpat. However, all these masquerades are broadly referred to as “Okpo.” These three masquerades are played by a group of middle- to late-adolescent boys between the ages of fifteen and nineteen. Within these groups there are ayara Okpo (dubbed Okpo Ekak) and uman Okpo (dubbed Okpo Ekang) (Figs. 3a–b). The sexual references in this work pertain only to Okpo Ekak, Okpo Ekang, and Okpo Ntaga Ekpat played by adolescent boys. They will be the focus of this study, and not the juvenile Tinkoriko (Fig. 4) played by boys between the ages of five and ten in groups of two or three.3 Although Tinkoriko is not viewed seriously in Efik society, it is respected and accepted for its whimsical, entertaining nature. Despite Tinkoriko's less weighty nature, no-one would dare unmask the wearer, or any other masker; doing so is sacrilegious and would lead to stiff reparations by the elders of the community. A visible thread that runs through all Okpo is anonymity, as with any other mask or masquerade in Efik society. Anonymity serves to protect the identity of the masker through the transformation process, bearing in mind that it is the mask that transforms a human into a spirit. Thus, the mask is carefully crafted, not as a literal representation of the subject, but as the transformed spiritual identity or manifestation of the masker. The implication is that anonymity is the state of lacking individuality, unique character, or distinction, caused by disguise. It informs the change in character and physical appearance that presents a different apparent identity. The spirit-associate of transformation cancels the wearer's identity and superimposes a new form on the wearer. Together, anonymity is an integral part of the allegory of Okpo, and indeed of all Efik masquerades. To gain a better perspective of the paradoxes in Okpo masquerading, the following section will describe the two types of Okpo focused on in this study.
Okpo Ekak's costume is a knitted body mask, or esik, in one or more colors, similar to that used by Ekpe masquerade. Although the costume itself is deemed a spirit, the tight body costume makes it easy to identify its wearer as a human. The ayara Okpo is considered wild and is restrained with a rope during his performance. He is adorned with various sizes of ekete over his head and shoulders—a frequent accouterment of the Okpo genre. Ekete is a basket woven from the tender palm frond shoots (Elaeis guineensis) used to make sacrificial offerings to ndem Efik—an aquatic spirit that serves as a tutelary deity of the Efik people, principally perceived as a female of immense beauty (Figs. 3b, 6, 7, 9). She is believed to protect the people of Calabar and to grant blessings, fortunes, and children to those who consult her (Haddad 1985, Hackett 1989).
Around Okpo's chest are hidden thorns from lime and orange trees, padded with layers of jute and mkpatari or fern (Seleginelia canaliculata) to prevent injury to the masker (Fig. 5). These thorns are intended to inflict infatuation-pricked wounds on any girl Okpo embraces, which will induce in her uncontrollable desire for the Okpo. Figuratively, the sharp points of the thorns cause the pleasure-pain experiences of infatuation—the essence of Okpo, which revolves around desire, attraction, and affection. The expression of “desire” is caused by a complex biological and physiological change that awakens sexual interests in adolescents. Symbolically, Okpo is construed here as blindfolded and described as blind, not so much in the sense of sightlessness, but rather blind instinct, for the sight of the beloved can be an urge to desire.
Bunches of ekete are draped along webs of mkpatari strung around the head, shoulders, and chest—these are comparable to the mane of the Ekpe masquerade (Fig. 2). In recent times, ekete has been further adorned with pieces of white and red cloth and at times synthetic materials are used. On the hood of the body mask are two openings to enable sight.
As part of his attire, Okpo is also adorned with a dilapidated lantern (Fig. 6). The symbolic meaning of the lantern is unknown, but speculation will be offered on it later. However, it shows that the diversity in Okpo attire is limitless and unregulated. Attached to Okpo's hood and resting on his head are insulated pads that absorb heat from an earthenware pot that bears an ember of smoldering coal from nkwet eyop (the center husk of a palm fruit) and dried mkpatari, which produces a smoky, long-lasting ember with fumes similar to burnt red peppers—ntokon (C. frutescens ‘African Devil’). This peppery fume announces the arrival of the Okpo. Occasionally, during the early morning hours, attendants will toss a handful of ntokon into the smoldering coal to produce more fumes (Fig. 7). Burning pepper purifies the air from any lingering evil force as the Okpo approaches. It also conveys a sense of mystery and awe and adds a feeling of solemnity to the Okpo masquerading. The smoke symbolizes the burning zeal of youthfulness inherent in all humans, while the fume symbolizes Okpo's virtue.
The irritating fumes cause the audience to choke and cough as the Okpo passes, forcing anyone who perceives the fumes to yield to Okpo.4 The heat produced by the ember is generative energy, likened to the pheromone produced by a nanny goat in heat, whereas the peppery fumes mimic the musky smell of a billy goat that excites the nanny goat. The masker and his audience walk against the prevailing wind to avoid the effect of the peppery fumes on themselves. To counter the effect of the pepper fumes, the entire troupe ingests secret medicine prior to performance.5
As part of Okpo's typical movements, Okpo will occasionally pat his head with his ayan in an expression of exuberance while he tiptoes his way to perform. His followers sing songs in strange vocal tones while continuously exclaiming and inciting for performance to boost morale. Responding to the rhythmic beat of an empty tortoise shell, Okpo gracefully gyrates. With an impetuous attitude, he heads straight to any adolescent female in his line of sight in amorous pursuit. The girls flee as the Okpo approaches but, seemingly at odds with their flight, they are enchanted by his wit and presence and return to witness his performance. According to Ita (1974), “the girls are scared, but they cannot elude Okpo and are immediately pulled back into his magnetic field—their pretense of innocence is part of the fun. They want him, drawn to his harassment and his familiarity.” Without young females, Okpo performances have little or no purpose. The small entourage of two or three young boys who accompany the Okpo are an essential part of Okpo performances. These boys receive gratuities from the spectators, provide music from an empty tortoise shell, and occasionally speak on the masker's behalf.
Uman Okpo is less aggressive and more graceful towards her audience, with a smaller and simpler headpiece compared to her male counterparts. She personifies womanhood with strong maternal instincts. Unlike ayara Okpo, she is considered pretty and captivating and a fine dancer. She does not burn red pepper; her costume demonstrates wealth, prestige, and beauty. She wears a mane of mkpatari around her chest without the hidden thorns, while ekete prodigiously covers her head and shoulders. Webs of linen with red, white, and yellow anchored ends hold the ekete in place, reminiscent of the flamboyant costume of the Ebonko or Ebongo Ekpe—the fifth of ten grades in the Ekpe fraternity, whose costume, according to Jordan Fenton (2011:146), “integrates all these things … into a multilayered performance that addresses flamboyance and status and thus attests to the many regional and global influences across time and space” (Fig. 8). The fusion of synthetic materials, fancy, and flamboyance in today's Okpo costumes was not present forty-five years ago.
Like ayara Okpo, uman Okpo bears Ekpe eyop in her right hand and okono leaves (Dracaena Marginata) in the left.6 These leaves represent her maternal instinct to nurture and protect her offspring. Uman Okpo, as in other Efik masquerades and even other African societies, speaks to the links between past, present, and future generations, just as her costume creates the link between present Efik values and spirituality. She conveys iconic themes of womanhood, beauty, and gentility. Efik society recognizes beauty as residing within oneself, not as a visible physical attribute. Her refined features are meant to exemplify self-control and wisdom. Wrapped around her waist is a red loincloth, covering the masquerader from exposure. On each knee, ekete is attached as a kneepad. She is adorned with cowrie shells, snail shells, and miniature gourds. An animal skull (most likely a monkey) is carefully placed below the groin. The symbolic meaning or explanation for its use is unknown, and none of my informants could offer an opinion. I speculate here that the use of an animal skull might have found its way into Okpo attire from Nnabo—an Efik war masquerade whose costume displays human skulls as trophies of war victory.
OKPO NTAGA EKPAT
Okpo Ntaga Ekpat is a derogatory designation that originated from the communal response to this Okpo's mismatched attire, or old tattered clothing—like the Yiddish schmatte. Occasionally the costumes are also made with jute fiber (Figs. 1b, 3a), or include out-of-season clothing such as a raincoat in the hot-dry season to get the public's attention. This Okpo is usually played by an adolescent male, who performs alone. He is also known as “Okpo Record” because part of his costume includes a cassette player that he plays and swirls along the streets to attract attention and gratuities.
This Okpo is a jester, poised to entertain and amuse the public as it flirts with girls. He carefully disguises his identity, all the while idealizing the essence of the billy goat by flirting with and harassing young girls in the community. Since Okpo Ntaga Ekpat performs alone, he must work hard to draw attention to its performance; thus, he goes out of its way to exaggerate every move of his performance. It is within this framework that the following section will attempt to analyze the meaning in the layers of unusual, enigmatic forms in Okpo costumes.
MEANINGS OF FORMS
The meanings of the objects used on Okpo costumes are important elements in understanding the role Okpo masquerading plays in Efik society. For example, the shell and ekete are incorporated as part of the Okpo costume because past Okpo used them (Fig. 9).
The woven esik body mask is designed to encase the masker from the head to legs, occasionally covering the wrists and ankles in a bushy ruff reminiscent of the Ekpe costume. Tied underneath both ruffed ankles are strands of nyok that jingle rhythmically as the Okpo performs (Fig. 10).7Nyok is composed of hard seed shells strung together to make a rattling sound when shaken. The loosely threaded ruffs on both ankles symbolize the billy goat's reckless, persistent demand for sexual favors from any nanny goat. Depending on the color and the tightness of the knit, the masker will sometimes wear a loincloth around the waist to prevent self-exposure. In his right hand, he holds a stunted ayan or broom with a red band tied around the broom's head. According to Nya,8 the broom possesses mystical powers that, when waved around, wards off the effects of any lingering charms in the air as Okpo straggles along the street. The broom is used figuratively here as an object for cleanliness, to sweep away all evils. Broom has several contextual meanings throughout Efik society and many other African societies and is feared for its efficacy. It is as visual warning sign on properties, farmlands, and personal goods to ward off trespassers and thieves.9 Occasionally Okpo pokes the smoldering nkwet eyop10 overhead with the broom and uses it to threaten girls who reject his advances. In his left hand, he holds a smoldering Ekpe eyop11 that glows whenever it is waved in the air.
Drums are prevalent in other Efik masquerade performances, but they are noticeably absent in Okpo repertoire; instead, an empty tortoise shell is Okpo's only musical instrument. The use of the tortoise shell is informed by Efik folklore that associates the tortoise—a trickster figure—with wit, cunning, and mischief—strategies Okpo employs to attract attention, adding to the enigma of Okpo masquerades. Okpo therefore glorifies the tortoise's secular symbolism in Efik society. On one hand, Okpo deems the tortoise as an emblem of longevity, wisdom, and stability. On the other, it is seen as a symbol of feminine fertility, its sturdiness revered despite its slow movement and wrinkled appearance.
The tortoise is associated with the river where it dwells; this parallels ndem Efik, whose messenger the tortoise is—a slow, yet steady-paced and easygoing creature. Efik mythology is full of such allegorical references, as are the mythologies of other African societies. Efik folklore associates the tortoise with wit and wisdom, and thus the animal is a primary mode of transmitting knowledge and cultural experiences, and the messages it carries are assured accurate delivery.
Cowries are the shells of the cowrie snail, a conch mollusk of the Cypraeidae family. They are native to the Maldives in the Indian and Pacific Oceans (Johnson 1970:17). Historically, cowries are one of the oldest known forms of currency in Nigeria, and as such played an important role in daily Efik life throughout the precolonial period (Jones 1958, Hopkins 1966, Kirk-Greene 1960, Eyo 1979, Aghalino 2002).
The cowrie is a symbol of fertility and a religious accessory among Efiks and in many other parts of the world. Accordingly, in Efik folklore, cowrie shells represent destiny with the strength of the river and ocean, which can drastically affect human life and personality. Pubertal girls wear waistbands strung with cowrie shells around their hips to increase their prolificacy, granting them fecundity and sexual potency. As vessels of life forces and regeneration, cowries ensure life's continuity. Therefore, in Efik folklore, cowrie shells are the dwelling place of the deity that fertilizes crops, women, and men. To Efiks, women play a profound role in the spiritual, social, and educational life of the family (Hackett 1989).12 Efik people claim that women possess the secret of life itself, having the power to nurture life. In these contexts, cowrie shells are also seen as the representation of spirits within all natural things; their hard and durable qualities speak to longevity and life.
Cowries are also associated with divination. The purpose of divination is to discern the patterns of the world and their intersections with spirit as they relate to human lives. It is helpful to know of upcoming difficulties or opportunities so that we can adopt an appropriate attitude towards them. Utilizing cowrie shells as a divination tool fosters a deepened connection with spirit and can be a means of aiding others in bringing greater meaning into their lives.13
Ekete in Efik mythology also embodies ndem as a deity—a beautiful, sexy woman who bestows fertility on barren women. She is a natural force who does not follow human ideals of good and evil. Okpo's costume and posture adequately convey her status, power, and adherence to societal norms.14 To Okpo maskers, ekete symbolize dignity and beauty, lending uniqueness to Okpo attire.15 Okpo pays homage to ndem for according him strength during his performance.16 In the end, ekete is the badge of distinction for Okpo's costume; without it, he is incomplete.
According to Nya,17 Okpo identifies with the giant African snails (Archachatina Marginata and Achatina Achatina) as a steady-as-it-goes symbol of nature. Slow but steady, the snail eventually gets to its destination. One can draw an analogy between the steadfastness of the snail and Okpo's unrelenting pursuit of any female as a steady progress on a life path. The spiral shape in the snail symbolizes continuity, involution, cycles, mysteries, and changes that are the natural result of all that is past.18 It also symbolizes the expanding consciousness of life linked to the cycle of life that Okpo exemplifies. Like Okpo, snails are associated with new beginnings—specifically, the growing season energies, as snails are the first creature to emerge from the earth at the beginning of the rainy season, gently coaxed out by occasional rains. In sum, snail shells represent the providential protection and perseverance of social values—ideals that are at the core Okpo's meaning.
Lanterns strung on Okpo's body mask represent illumination—the light for seducing a female. This underscores the process of transformation from adolescence to adulthood; it also speaks to the foundation of a family that a woman brings into marriage—for she is deemed the light and the hope. It serves to remind all persons that every dark path has a light at the end. Implied here is that the light shining from a lantern is a force that illuminates from every young girl and attracts Okpo to her like artificial light attracts insects at night.
The ikim or gourds (Cucurbitaceae) of various sizes strung over the Okpo costume are essential parts of his regalia (Fig. 7). They are used as a storage vessel for charms. In early times, beside its utilitarian role, the gourd occupied a significant place in Efik folklore because of its physical and ritual peculiarities in divination. The symbolisms of the gourd belong to a multireferential, “open-ended analogical system”; only the diviner is capable of decoding and disclosing the secret meanings of their juxtapositions (Peek 1991:12). Miniature gourds contain charms that ward off evil and ensure energetic Okpo performances. Also adorning Okpo's costume are animal bones that symbolically mean delicious ndien, ready to be offered to any young female as a treat.
Sexuality is intimately connected to a person's wellbeing and humanity. Understanding one's sexuality is a life-long process of acquiring information and forming attitudes, beliefs, and values about identity, relationships, and intimacy. It encompasses physical development, interpersonal relationships and affection, body language, and gender roles, with biological, sociocultural, psychological, and spiritual dimensions. Sexuality is a major motivating drive for all humankind, but there is a strong cultural component in how individuals conceptualize erotic stimulation, beliefs, desires, behaviors, and sexual roles (Katchadourian 1990). Human sexual behavior is an obvious manifestation of not only our gender, but of our very essence; human survival depends on reproduction. Accordingly, sexuality is an important aspect of adolescent development. It not only transforms relationships between adolescents and their peers but also between adolescents, their parents, and society at large.
No other mask or masquerade in Efik society overtly flaunts lewdness or sexuality to the extent Okpo does. Efik culture regulates sex, yet permits some sexual freedom that is even counter-normative, as in Okpo masquerade. Among Efiks, sexual matters are not openly discussed, particularly with children—a strong code of silence surrounds these issues. They are forbidden to discuss issues pertaining to sexual matters in everyday discourse. Even in adult discussion, words used to describe sexual matters remain ambiguous, imprecise, or are referenced through adages. Despite the controversies regarding Efik sexual matters, behind closed doors sexuality is seen as the basis of a harmonious relationship between couples, culminating in a satisfying experience. For Efiks, a harmonious or fun environment (which Okpo provides) and good food—cooked with love and served with care—contributes to a gratified sexuality.19
The Okpo mask brings into focus the fact that humans are created in two body types—male and female—whose differences are designed primarily for sexual reproduction. Humans choose to emphasize other goals, aims, and reasons for our existence, but the physical development from puberty to adolescent has to do with sex. Okpo celebrates this adolescent stage of development, bringing with it a clear definition of one's female or male body, with the notion that the physical changes are inescapable, and the differences between the sexes are more obvious at adolescence than any other stage in human life. Thus, Okpo brings to bear three consistencies to these developments: separation, transition, and incorporation.
Prevailing Efik norms of childhood and adolescence encourage young people to be silent and innocent about sexual matters. Contrary behaviors are typically taken to indicate moral problems, emotional disorders, or waywardness, particularly in girls. Traditional Efik dialogue on parenting and socialization is predicated on the belief that young people should abstain from sexual intercourse until they are married. Talking about human genitalia is deemed tasteless and, if unavoidable, should be disguised.
It is important to understand that Okpo's lustful pursuits of girls are critical sources of information for Efik adolescents as they grapple with culturally closeted sexual issues. It is upon this premise that Okpo as an institution celebrates an important social and physiological milepost in the lives of maturing adolescents, as young males and females undergo extensive hormonal changes that trigger curiosity and fuel their sexual desires and drives. Socially, it marks the period of emerging adulthood and impending marriage. As an embodiment of youthfulness, the body and costume of Okpo provides the medium for artistic inventiveness and creative expression—turning male bodies into Okpo virtues.20 To impersonate idem—the generic name for a masked representation of a masquerade's spirit, or the spirit master—Okpo disguises himself in a knitted body mask, adorned with other accessories. Okpo, as an embodiment of youthful spirits, possesses a virile attitude and clearly intends to impress and captivate young girls with sexual overtures, because of the aforementioned social barriers on sexual matters among Efiks. He takes an evident delight in females acknowledging and recognizing his presence and performance. Like other Efik masquerades, Okpo stresses nonverbal communication, as opposed to everyday speech and normal kinetic activity. With this in mind, it is important to examine any similarities or differences between Okpo and Ekpe, because each one informs and augments the other in many ways.
The Ekpe fraternity has a well-organized, structured, graded membership. Okpo masquerade, in contrast, is acephalous and loosely structured, with no initiation or grades to attain. This looseness permeates Okpo's activities, appearance, and performance, although its role in Efik society is highly valued and respected. Its masks, like other Efik masquerades, share many commonalities with Ekpe masquerade; here I will highlight the logic that underlies the similarities between the Okpo and Ekpe masquerades. This will better inform our understanding of Okpo within Efik visual culture. The performances of the two are open to the public, who crowd both sides of the main street in admiration during their performances.
The Ekpe fraternity has been described as a mysterious and stealthy inhabitant of the forest (Aye 1967:70). Like Okpo, its masquerade is represented in a multicolored body mask costume made of a raffia fiber called esik. There are three sources of fiber used in the knitting of an esik: nkarika ekpo (Ouratea flava, uvaria sp.), plantain (Musa paradisiaca), and banana (Musa acuminata). According to Ikwo Ekpo (1978:73), fibers are extracted from fresh fronds of the banana and plantain, pounded to remove their fluids, and then washed and dried. The dried fibers are then twisted into ropes for knitting. The preparation of fiber from the nkarika ekpo plant takes a different form. Fibers from the straight branches of the plant are stripped and cleaned with a knife and then dried before they are twisted into ropes. Weavers prefer the fibers from the nkarika ekpo because they are stronger.
Ekpe masquerades are adorned with ruffs of raffia fiber around the chest, like a lion's mane, and around both wrists and ankles. Around the waist is a bell that tolls occasionally to announce the approach of the masquerade. According to Aye (2000), Ekpe evolved to be the supreme judicial authority in Efik society, acting as a police force to enforce Ekpe laws and orders of its courts. The strength of Ekpe and its value to the community lies in the discipline it can exercise over its members. Ekpe fraternity functions were useful in Efik society prior to the advent of colonialism. It provided societal stability while creating classes and castes whose existence were justified by the functions it provided.
Ekpe performances are graceful and captivating, mimicking the dexterity and flexibility of a cat. The customary poetic salutations to the audience that go with its ceremonials are expressions of charm and delight in nsibidi mime. Nsibidi are the abstract or geometric signs from the secret ideographic system, believed to have developed from Ekpe society activities, associated with both the Ekpe society and the Southeastern Igbo people (Kalu 1980:6–20, Campbell 1983:33–46). Nsibidi assumes two very distinctive characters: mime and pictograph. Nsibidi as pictographic marks are intelligible only to initiated Ekpe fraternity members. However, as a mime, nsibidi is performed in (public) Ekpe activities and the mime and gestures have been adopted by other masqueraders, such as Okpo.
These tenets were rehearsed in fragments of histories expressed, amplified, defined, and refined into Okpo masquerading. The performances of both Ekpe and Okpo masquerades provide public entertainment, but the pleasure provided is not trivial; rather, it forges psychosocial and social benefits. Simultaneously, it brings aesthetic experiences into the community and disseminates social values. Okpo masquerade, on the one hand, provides informal sex education as a socialization agent. It evokes a variety of responses from the audience—annoyance, humor, awe, and admiration of skill—as the audience ululates, claps, sings along, and gives gratuities. On the other hand, Ekpe always appear at funerals of initiated members; this is associated with solemn life-cycle events, while Okpo does not engage in wakes and funerals or other Efik social events. In the end, both masquerades provide entertainment, considered a good omen that benefits society in various ways.
Okpo's costume is loosely regimented compared to Ekpe. Costume variations are common in the modern Okpo repertoire. The fabrics, headdresses, and props of Okpo attire were traditionally made of indigenous materials. But the prevailing trend now in costume-making is to simply use suitable visual materials from any local and global culture to produce the spectacle of the mask. The social context of these materials is not traditional, in the sense of costume makers acknowledging what might be intrinsically Efik traditional material in their costume making. Material diffusion is now prevalent among many Efik masquerades. Accordingly, the ambivalent and ambiguous visual result enables individuals to show how far they have traveled or how knowledgeable they are about faraway places. The diverse materials display the maskers' own aesthetic undertaking, represented by the exotic global materials they have drafted into their costumes from various masquerades.
It is plausible that contemporary Okpo costume makers may not understand the symbolism of the costumes they make. Today, the infusion of foreign materials in Okpo mask-making stems from the abundance of imported materials and the convenience they avail to the makers. Okpo masks are now adorned with synthetic and natural materials fused; the result is a very brightly plasticized Okpo costume, far from the natural-looking costume. Formerly, the costumes were adorned thoughtfully, with inherent symbolic meanings in the choice of materials—these meanings are debatable today. One could conclude that today's Okpo costume makers, as compared to earlier Okpo craftsmen, attach less importance to the meaning of the materials; they rely on readily available materials driven by trade.
SOCIAL LIFE OF OBJECTS IN OKPO
A society's assumption about the value and nature of objects is socially constructed and varies over time. Discerning such assumptions is a complex, multilayered task, even for a cultural insider. Therefore, objects shape history, and history in turn transforms objects (Appadurai 1988). In recent times, Efik cultural objects have assimilated foreign materials into the making of costumes so that their masquerades create new “life stories.” Since objects embody unique information about humans in society, new elements in Okpo costumes become entangled objects (Thomas 1991) that are assimilated to play new, culturally diffused roles imbuing new aesthetic meanings and appearances to the costumes. There is a tendency to think that an Efik object has a place of origin, an “original” context that is more “authentic” than any other. Yet among Efiks, as elsewhere, the contexts of objects are always shifting, as are owners, users, viewers, and producers. The authenticity of cultural objects is as negotiable and relative a concept as value itself.
Accordingly, some objects are best understood not by reconstructing their “original” context, but through the contingencies of their careers. Other objects change physically over their lifetimes through continued accumulative diffusion and assimilation, or cross-pollination of cultural objects. An example is the use of traditional raffia along with synthetic fabric (Figs. 11a–b). While objects can undergo radical transformations without exchange, others may not change much physically, but undergo metamorphoses of function and meaning. These influences have, I think, espoused the cultural diffusion of foreign material and cultural values into Efik culture. A case in point is the introduction of flamboyant and brightly colored Trinidadian costume designs into the Calabar carnival festival. I argue that an influence such as this undermines Efik visual culture, which formerly flourished in traditional masquerades during festive holidays. According to Amanda Carlson (2010), “Calabar Carnival is a large-scale import and adaptation of a foreign tradition into a new localized space where it fuses and celebrates the local and the global.” In the same perspective, Fenton says of Efik cultural diffusion, regarding the Ebonko Ekpe masquerade,
[C]ostume demonstrates how art forms are temporal repositories that reveal influences from West and Central Africa, the Americas, Europe, and Asia. These ensembles suggest sophistication which individuals actively choose from an assortment of local and imported ideas and materials, incorporating them into local nations of aesthetics, use, and meaning (Fenton 2011).
In the same vein, Uchendu best summarizes this concern by arguing that “… culture implies … change—adaptation and readaptation” (1965:16). Today's Okpo maskers' costume design makes explicit the change in the human condition inherent in Okpo masquerade culture. Okpo is not the only case that informs how Efik visual culture has drastically changed through time and space. These changes are because of the globalization effect—a process of interaction and integration between people and cultures of different nations, driven by international commerce. While I acknowledge the integration and change of foreign material infusions into Okpo's attire, I argue that these infusions have changed the aesthetics of Okpo.
OKPO IN SOCIAL CONTEXT
The socioreligious ethics of most African traditional societies, seen in Efik society, center on the community. Individuals benefit from the community's ethical codes in so far as its welfare and interests are sustained. Contextually, one can surmise that the welfare and interest of the individual are direct functions of Efik society. This notion holds true of the performances of Okpo masquerade. The society tolerates Okpo's lewd acts, while enjoying its pranks and flirtations with the girls; in return, the community supports Okpo with gifts.
Okpo in Efik spiritual context is the outer, visible aspect of an inner reality—a visible representation of “vital force,” which motivates and propels the essence of the Okpo mask, itself a symbol of that inner potency. Within Efik culture, this force is identifiable as a spirit force known as obot (the nature or essence that controls an individual's life)—the energizing spirit. People seek to recapture obot, believed to be responsible for life's essence, with the intent to nurture it and use it to achieve specific goals that benefit the community and the individual. This configuration is manifested in the flirtation, pranks, and ambiguous character of Okpo. It is the force behind the mask that speaks, acts, controls, and directs its actions. The spirit transforms this person, thus assuming an outward form and communicating with the circle of living and visible onlookers. Ideally, the ritual of masking oneself and flirting with the girls is not an expression of individual identity, but a veritably spiritual act of devotion to supernatural power. It is not the adolescent adorned in Okpo attire who harasses and flirts with the girls, but the Okpo spirit manifested in him. Accordingly, the Okpo mask serves as a force for community in change that displays Efik cultural norms, behavior, and values. It also functions as a socializing agent satirizing Efik deviations from ideals. In the end, Okpo is a timeless way of transcending oneself and engaging with the spiritual dimension of Efik culture.
In summary, Okpo masquerading is a game between the sexes, a maintenance of illusions that mirrors male–female relationships. Males have anxieties about wooing females that Okpo expresses, while the females play hard to get. This game between the sexes involves psychological as well as social aspects of life. This may explain why females place more value on emotional connection as a spark of sexual desire (Regan and Bersched 1996, Baumeister, Catanese, and Vohs 2001, Levine 2003). While males in general are more physical than emotional and straightforward about sexual drive (Regan et al. 1995; Baumeister 2000, Baumeister, Catanese, and Vohs 2001), it may also inform the flirtatious aggression of Okpo toward any approaching adolescent female. These features suggest that Okpo's spiritual manifestations are intimately linked to the psychology of male–female relationships among Efiks, as seen in a larger complex of revelatory practices that enable passage between worlds—the physical and spirit world. The common thread running through every Okpo is neither the mask nor the costume, nor even the theatrical performance, but rather, the relations of power that constitute the social realm and the means through which those who interact within that realm perpetually negotiate relations.
In Calabar today, there is a strong evangelical Christian presence with an over-zealous ambition to conquer all evil (Hackett 1989). While Ekpu Oro figures are not directly related to the Okpo mask, they help illustrate the adverse effect of Christian values on a visual cultural object. Ekpu figures were carved as metaphorical repositories of the Oron consciousness that represents family or lineage heads in the afterlife, but Ekpu practice met its demise in the mid 1800s under coercion from the Primitive Methodist Missionaries in Oron (Onyile 2005). Even the social events of the Calabar Carnival are deemed anti-Christian and thus evil in the view of born-again Christians. As evidence of social and religious change, this development has had a negative effect on Efik society because it directly affects Efik social and cultural developments at all levels, as artistic production and consumption are forced to decline (Ajibade, Omon, and Oloidi 2011). So-called born-again church pastors and their parishioners in Calabar have imposed their negative valuation on Efik visual cultural objects like Okpo masquerades, based on their distorted interpretations of the Christian episteme—an episteme that differs from traditional values and beclouds the appreciation of all Efik visual culture, promoting so-called Christian views of Efik cultural objects as evil. I argue that the importance of Okpo visual culture has diminished over the years as a result of the infiltration of imported values shaped by over-righteous Christians.
Socially accepted religious values, especially patriarchal forms of Christianity, stress uncleanliness and inherent sin in human sexuality. Efiks and indeed other African societies that converted to Christianity have been encouraged to reject their traditional beliefs and values and adopt the “civilized ways” of Christianity. These new ideals reflect moralistic edicts that continue to be inscribed on the sexual values of the converted societies. The advent of Christian religious values has clouded Efik traditional values in sexual and cultural matters. Hence, Okpo performs with a blithe indifference to the feelings of besotted Christians regarding sexual matters. This highlights Okpo's attitude to fanatical Christian opinion of Efik social and cultural values; simultaneously, it informs the paradoxical nature of Okpo. In the Efik scheme of thought, sexuality is intricately intertwined with morality, since societal wellbeing and progress set the standard for good character. Incorporating sexuality into a still-developing sense of the adolescent self is complicated by the need to resolve questions about sexual values.
Okpo's costume is scrupulously observed and aesthetically evaluated by onlookers despite its aggressiveness. It allows young adolescents the opportunity for publicly sanctioned display and exploration of issues about their bodies and sexuality. These actions go beyond the contexts where they are learned and performed to provide practical guidelines for adolescent males to organize these realities of life. The concept of the sexual script is important in understanding the social and educational functions of Okpo's flirtatious performances. I maintain that among Efiks, the crucial phase of psychosexual socialization and learning occur during adolescence, under the disguise of the Okpo mask. This learning takes the form of a sexual text that contains sensual meanings, practical guidance, and conventions about behavior in Efik society.
Undoubtedly, Okpo's lecherous performances contribute to the socialization of adolescent males and females into sexual subjectivity, relieving them of the frustrations and difficulties caused by the secretive nature of sexual matters among Efik adults. Therefore, Okpo performances are opportunities that provide ideal spaces for discovery. They enable young males and females to examine, engage, and rehearse their sexual gaze and inquisitiveness at an early juncture in their lives. Consequently, Okpo's flirtatious performances implicitly extol youth, female beauty, and sexual attractiveness. While Efik sexuality is the essence of Okpo masquerade, it is complementary to the idealization of youthfulness. These qualities enhance the enigma in defining Okpo—it is simultaneously mysterious and controversial. Okpo masquerade as Efik visual cultural objects have given the Efik world a peculiar appreciation of songs without singers and tales without narrators, wrenched from an exotic and unreal world (Onyile 2005).
I am grateful to Nkiru Nzegwu, Bruce Connell, and Jordan Fenton for their insightful comments and suggestions to earlier versions of this study. I am also appreciative to Jordon Fenton for sharing his photographs and the only known newspaper article on Okpo with me. Lastly, I am indebted to Obassesam Alobi and Andem Ekeng for cross-checking the information used in this work.
In this study, “mask” refers to objects that are worn to completely hide and disguise a person, transforming the wearer into the spirit or experience of spiritual manifestation, while “masquerades” are construed as the embodied spirit that mediates between the wearer and the transformation. Bear in mind that most African masks have social and religious significance within a specific society.
Billy goats in Efik folklore are notorious for promiscuity, pursuing any nanny goat they see. It makes no difference to a billy goat which nanny goat he mounts, constantly sniffing the air for pheromones. The sole purpose for his existence is to procreate.
In a personal communication with Andem Ekeng on March 18, 2012, she informed me that adult males in the community now indulge in Okpo performances. This is a new development that I never experienced behind Okpo masks. In the same vein, I had never seen or heard of uman Okpo or ayara Okpo until recently. However, together ayara and uman Okpo represent the procreation, continuance, and growth of the family. This duality of the sexes is not uncommon among Efik masquerades. While uman Okpo personifies female essences, the person behind the mask is always a male.
Anthony Nya (a.k.a. Olu), personal communication, March 29, 2012.
Anthony Nya (a.k.a. Olu), personal communication, March 29, 2012.
Okono is a rapidly growing tree of the screw-pine family used as a boundary hedge plant. New mothers use its sap as an enema to help with afterbirth blood and to prevent the newborn baby from being infected with tetanus. Okono leaves are also used as antiseptic doormats for the rooms of the newborn baby and mother to prevent the transmission of bacteria, disease, or illness.
Okpo's use of nyok is a new development. Growing up in Calabar, I do not recall Okpo wearing nyok nor did I wear one behind Okpo mask.
Anthony Nya (a.k.a. Olu), personal communication, March 29, 2012.
The fiber recovered from the palm fruit or kernel after separation of red palm oil from the fruit. This fibrous material is a good combustible, ready to fuel the fire in the earthenware pot.
Ekpe eyop is the center core of the empty husk that holds the palm fruits. The fresh fruit bunch consists of fruit embedded in spikelets growing on a main stem. Fruit-laden spikelets are cut from the stem with a machete. then separated from the spikelets by hand. This center core fiber is also a good combustible material, used as firewood for cooking because it burns slowly.
Efeffiong Otu Effiong (a.k.a. Efere Otong), personal communication, June 2012.
Efeffiong Otu Effiong (a.k.a. Efere Otong), personal communication, June 2012.
Anthony Nya (a.k.a. Olu), personal communication, March 29, 2012.
Efeffiong Otu Effiong (a.k.a. Efere Otong), personal communication, June 19, 2012.
Efeffiong Otu Effiong (a.k.a. Efere Otong), personal communication, June 28, 2012.
Anthony Nya (a.k.a. Olu), personal communication, March 29, 2012.
Efeffiong Otu Effiong (a.k.a. Efere Otong), personal communication, June 2012.
Efik people employ food as an invitation to sex and lure to sexual pleasures. Food and sexuality are intricately bound in many ways; like sexuality, food is essential to human existence. It is said that Efik dishes cooked by a skilled Efik woman possess appetizing and alluring effects so that food is transformed into a sensual affair—thus, this has become the hallmark of Efik women in Nigeria (Ikpe 2004:18). This stems from the fact that Efik women win the affection of their men through the stomach, with food and pampering. The famous edikang-ikong and ukwogho soups—delicacies of Efik cuisine—are presumed love potions, and thus dreaded by non-Efik wives and women. Accordingly, most women in Nigeria believe that any husband or boyfriend who eats these soups falls hopelessly in love with the woman who prepared it and forsakes his wife or girlfriend. Edikang-ikong, ukwogho, and other Efik dishes are said to be very delightful, exotically prepared with herbs and spices that would arouse sexual desires, culminating in a pleasurable and satisfying sexual experience.
While Okpo is all about ribald jokes, with no physical contact between the sexes, its intent is purely educational and entertaining. Hence, the concern for sexually transmitted diseases is very low. However, there are various public and sexual health awareness programs in Calabar and throughout the State, like the governmental agency Cross River State Agency for the Control of AIDS. Additionally, NGOs advocate polices of prevention of HIV/AIDS and other sexual diseases and provide sexual health education literature, along with other resources to ensure that individuals and communities have the knowledge to lead healthy sexual lives. Conversely, religious groups preach abstinence from premarital sex and faithfulness within marriage as the only solution to the epidemic.