all photographs by the author unless otherwise noted
Tracing the history of masking traditions in the broader region of southeastern Nigeria and adjacent areas of southwestern Cameroon may seem like an exercise in futility. Formal properties of masks, masking genres, names of individual and types of masks, and various combinations of elements such as carved masks or headdresses, costumes, and hand-held objects may seem to appear in a bewildering mix that changes from place to place and even coexists within the same community. Similar complexity can be observed when we examine the music and dance that accompany masquerade performances and the institutions that govern them. The picture that emerges can easily give the impression of intractable chaos. In an earlier article, I suggested a big-picture view of this complexity by tracing masking genres from the Cross to the Niger Rivers (Bentor 2002). A major conclusion of that study is that a spatial analysis of the current distribution of masking genres and styles is only the tip of an iceberg whose larger mass lies in the depth of time. Only a diachronic analysis of the history of population movements, intergroup relations, trade, pilgrimage, and other such factors can begin to explain the current map. In other words, what we need is to move from a “geography of style” to a “history of genres.” A similar attempt was made by Ute Röschenthaler for the area east of the Cross River and Cameroon (Röschenthaler 2006, 2011). In this paper, I attempt to trace the history of a single genre (or a group of closely related genres) of masking throughout the larger region to try and tease out the history of warrior masquerade traditions as an example of such cultural dynamics. I will do so through the lens of one locality, the historically important center of the Aro people in Arochukwu in current Abia State of Nigeria. A critical part of my argument is that, while historical perspective is crucial to the understanding of the present, a synchronic view of the way masking performances are done today provides important clues as to that history. Moreover, the transformation of warrior masking in Arochukwu from an expression of masculine warrior ethos to a vehicle of age associations during the colonial and postcolonial periods has echoes in similar processes in the larger region. It proves that artistic practices are sensitive barometers of social and political changes.
The area of southeastern Nigeria and the adjacent parts of western Cameroon is known for its cultural diversity. The region is home to speakers of several language groups, ethnicities, and social formations. Today, there are over a dozen ethnic groups of various sizes in this area, the largest being the Igbo, who number well over 20 million people. However, it is an open question as to when a distinct sense of ethnicity emerged in this area. As the prevailing social order is that of small-scale, noncentralized village-groups, each area and even village-group possesses distinct cultural patterns. In the absence of large-scale kingdoms or empires, each village-group is free to adopt and adapt new patterns either from a neighboring place or from far away. This is reflected in the great variety of artistic traditions and masquerade genres.
The Aro people emerged by the eighteenth century as the result of the coming together of several ethnic elements including Igbo, Ibibio, and groups from the other side of the Cross River, known as Akpa by the Aro people. They established the new community of Arochukwu following a war known as the Ibibio War. Aro oral tradition relates that the area between the Cross and Enyong Rivers, close to today's meeting points of Abia, Akwa Ibom, and Cross River states, was a no-man's-land sparsely populated by Ibibio and Igbo speaking people. Different Aro segments argue strenuously about the specific details and sequence of events that led to the war and its consequences. One version claims that Nnachi, an Igbo medicine man from Edda to the north, wished to gain control of this region. He secured the help of an Akpa warrior called Osim, who brought his younger brother Akuma to fight the Ibibio. Osim died during a battle and after the war Nnachi, Akuma, and an Ibibio leader called Eze Agwu settled down to create a multiethnic community called Arochukwu. This version represents the view of the descendants of Nnachi known today as the Aro segment of Okennachi. A counter version challenges the identity of the Eze Agwu section as Ibibio and claims that they were an Igbo group who brought in both Nnachi and Osim to fight the war and thus deserve to be considered a senior clan.
Although there is an agreement in Arochukwu that the warriors came from across the Cross River, the exact location of Akpa is in dispute. Different sources point to locations as far south as Calabar all the way to the upper reaches of the Cross River. Colonial officials, who noted the crucial role played by the Akpa in the establishment of Arochukwu, speculated about their possible origins in Egypt and connection with the legendary Kwararafa kingdom. A common claim is that Akpa is across the river from Arochukwu in the middle Cross River area of Biase (Jones 1939: 102). Two arguments make it difficult to accept this location. Although Biase oral traditions recall violent skirmishes over land (Iyam 1995: 60–61), the Biase are not known as warriors and their age grades are not associated with combat. A critical part of Aro oral tradition relates that the Akpa came from an area where yam and the cultural practices associated with it were unknown (Bentor 2011: 286). The Biase area is known as a yam-growing and -exporting area. Yams are also the most prestigious farm product and the center of elaborate rituals (Iyam 1995: 87, 188–96). The area farther east inhabited by Ejagham and related groups, known both for their warrior prowess and where plantain rather than yam was the main staple food, may be a more likely origin of the Akpa. Given the frequency by which Akpa is mentioned as a place of origin by different groups throughout the region, it is also possible that it is more of a mythical than a real location.
This is not the place to present the nuances of Aro traditions of origins and the debates regarding chronology (Bentor 1995: 71–82), but the basic outline is central to the understanding of the history of masking genres among the Aro. The death of Osim is regarded as a pivotal event that prevented the Akpa warriors from returning to their home across the Cross River and facing the wrath of Osim's father. As the Akpa, Igbo, and remnants of the Ibibio decided to settle down, the new community of Arochukwu was established. At its formation, the constituent groups spoke different languages and possessed very distinct cultural patterns. While heterogeneous origin is common in communities throughout the region, other communities usually adopt a fictitious idiom of kinship that bind the segments into a unitary group and establish an internal hierarchy. Crucially, the emerging Aro community did not obliterate their cultural differences to create a sense of homogeneity. To this day, the Aro people keenly maintain a separation into their various groups of origin, and much of their ritual, political, and even social life is still determined by what “segment” one belongs to. The annual Ikeji festival is a complex event that provides an arena for the reenactment and renegotiation of the tenuous bonds that tie this heterogeneous community together.
Aro prestige was based on the veneration of the powerful Ibiniukpabi oracle known to the British as “The Long Juju.” The oracle attracted clients as a court of last appeal and brought in people seeking solutions in times of crisis. In a region lacking centralized authority, a religious center of such repute played a particularly important role (Ottenberg 1958).
Based on the prestige of the oracle, the Aro people developed an extensive trading network throughout the region. With the emergence of the transatlantic slave trade, the Aro specialized in slave dealing, recruiting slaves from the interior and trading them for imported goods with the coastal trading states Calabar, Bonny, and Opobo (Afigbo 2016).
To facilitate their oracular and trading activities, the Aro forged a complex system of alliances with neighboring warrior groups including the Abam, Ohafia, and Edda, who could impose the Aro will on reluctant partners and fight competitors. They also established a network of agents and alliances with leaders of other communities that allowed them free movement and access to trade and a steady stream of clients for the oracle. As they gained foothold in the larger region, they also helped disseminate cultural institutions such as Ékpè and Okonko societies that furthered their commercial interests (Oriji 1987: 154–57)
With the decline in the slave trade in the early nineteenth century and the development of the “legitimate trade,” the Aro continued to use their slave conscription ability to establish an extensive network of settlements throughout southeastern Nigeria. These settlements specialized in the production of palm oil for export.
As the new community of Arochukwu emerged following the Ibibio war, the Aro developed shared institutions to bring the different segments together without obliterating their separate identities. An early form of government based on sacred attachment to their places of origin known as Otusi was later replaced by a triumvirate of leaders of the three major sections with the Eze Aro as first among equals supported by the Aro Clan Council. The most important institution that brings the Aro together is the annual Ikeji festival. The Aro adopted and adapted a regional agricultural festival celebrating the harvest of a new crop of yams. However, since they were primarily traders rather than farmers, they reconstituted it as a celebration of their preoccupation with trade and as an expression of their intricate history. The festival is a complex affair lasting twenty-four days with different activities marking different historical relationships (Bentor 2011, 1995). In this paper I will limit my discussion to the specific contributions of the Akpa descendants and especially their Nwékpé masquerade genre to the annual festival.
The Akpa warriors became known as the Ibom Isii segment of Aro and maintained their role as defenders of the community by settling in six villages along the eastern and southern frontiers facing the Ibibio. During the Ikeji festival a special day, Nkwo Ekpe Ibom, is dedicated to the celebration of the Ibom Isii section. The main event of the day takes place in the village square of Ibom village, the head village of Ibom Isii. On that day, the leaders of the other two major sections (Okennachi and Eze Agwu) are guests of Eze (king of) Ibom Isii. This is the only time during Ikeji when wrestling (m'gbá) takes place, with the explanation that it was the old way of training young men to become warriors. Each of the six Ibom Isii villages performs one of the dances or masquerade genres owned by the village. The most popular performance, often selected by more than one village, is that of Nwékpé.
The following day is Èké Ekpe, the main day of masquerade performances when each of the nineteen villages of Arochukwu brings one of its dances or masquerades to Amaikpe Square, the communal arena owned collectively by all the villages. Standing on the edge of the arena on this day, one can observe troupes performing many different dancing and masking genres from throughout southeastern Nigeria and beyond. Amaikpe Square functions as a “place of memory.” It is the place where Osim, the Akpa war leader, bled to death—the spot marked by a stone shrine and an ogrisi tree. In the past, it was the place of judgment and execution. It is the site of all major public community-wide events. It embodies what Michel Foucault (1986) called heterotopia or heterotopic space.1
Each of the nineteen villages of Arochukwu owns several different masking and dance genres. The specific genres depend on two factors: the area of origins of the group and their main areas of settlements. A prominent masking genre in all six Ibom Isii villages is Nwékpé.2 Today, Nwékpé is a benign type of masked dance associated with age grades. It appears wearing a tight off-white body suite with raffia frills, holding a machete or a broom. A live cock is often tied to its waist. Chains made of dry oil bean seeds are tied to the masquerader's legs to accentuate the rhythm of the dance. A lifelike carved human head sits on top of the masquerader's head. A chain or a rope ties the masquerader to one or two people who attempt, somewhat unsuccessfully, to constrain the aggressive outbursts of the dancer (Fig. 1). Before Nwékpé appearance, two young men with large colorful flags announce its arrival. A group of young men and women, some playing drums and claves, follows the masquerader. It is the only type of mask in Arochukwu that is followed by a mixed-gender group. The masquerader moves quickly and from time to time stops in its place to perform a short dance consisting of vigorous leg stomping. This elicits an intense reaction from the audience.
Students of masking in the larger region will recognize Nwékpé affinities with a broadly distributed complex of masquerade genres associated with masculinity and warriorhood. We can find variations on this type in some of the many acephalous groups from the forest area of Cameroon, to the Cross River area, on to the Idoma and Igede of the Benue Valley, and into the southeastern Igbo area. Talbot was the first to cluster those into a group of related “headhunters societies” (Talbot 1926, 3: 788–89). The literature on these warrior associations repeatedly suggested that membership was restricted to those who have killed an enemy in battle or, occasionally, a ferocious wild animal, especially a leopard. Early sources often connect these associations with head hunting and even cannibalistic practices. One should take such claims with a grain of salt, but more recent studies, including my own, suggest that among the functions of these societies was furnishing human heads for the burial of notable men.
Sidney Kasfir investigated the appearance and history of an Idoma version of warrior masks known as Oglinye or Ogrinye (Fig. 2) that, in her words: “encapsulate the Idoma idea of masculinity in both the biological and social sense” (1988: 85). Her description of the headdress, performance, and dance steps is very close to my records of Nwékpé. The costume is a tight body suit, the dancer carries (or used to carry) a machete, and the performance includes vigorous foot stomping. Most critical to this discussion is that the Oglinye sport a headdress in the form of a human head. Both types of masquerade are associated with age grades. However, there are several noticeable differences. Kasfir recorded a mock battle as part of Oglinye performance that does not take place at Arochukwu, and the accompanying musical instruments are different. While the headdresses among the Idoma are identified as feminine, those at Arochukwu are decidedly masculine. Idoma Oglinye masqueraders mainly perform at second burial ceremonies (Kasfir 1988: 87); in Arochukwu Nwékpé primarily appears during the annual Ikeji festival. It is to be expected that related masking genres of such wide distribution will show both similarities and differences due to multiple influences that impact differently the two distant locations. Based on the use of headdresses rather than face masks, slit drums, and other clues, Kasfir traces the origins of Oglinye to the Middle Cross River area—as I suggested earlier, this is also the area of origin of the Akpa warrior segment of the Aro. Kasfir points to the closely related Igede people to the east of the Idoma as the corridor for the transmission of masking genres including Oglinye (Fig. 3). Those findings are supported by Robert Nicholls's research among the Igede, where he noted the importance of “Ogirinye [due to its] deep roots in most parts of Igede and its great antiquity as a warrior institution common to a much wider ethnic area” (Nicholls 1984: 72 and n.12). The Igede have a related association called Onyantu using Janus-face skin-covered masks that are clearly related to the Ejagham skin-covered warrior masks of the middle Cross River (Nicholls 1984: 72 and n.12). The Tiv people farther east are another Benue-region group who may have played a critical rule in cultural transmissions from the Cross River to the Benue area as they trace their origin to the middle Cross River and are known as fierce warriors. However, Tiv cultural history is poorly understood.
Kasfir suggests that Oglinye and related masks developed out of dances performed by warriors returning from battle with trophy heads. With the decline of warfare and headhunting during the colonial period and the spread of Oglinye into Idomaland from the Igede people and the Ogoja area to the southeast, it gradually lost its clear association with warfare and became a more general embodiment of aggression and masculinity (Kasfir 1988: 93–94). Kasfir and others propose that the headdress gradually transformed from an actual skull, into carved heads covered with human skin, to a carved wooden headdress without skin. Different localities adopted different variations along this trajectory (Kasfir 2011: 75). The ritual use of human skulls was outlawed by the British, a prohibition that is, at least nominally, still in effect. However, human skulls are still sometimes used (or, perhaps, their use has resurfaced) by powerful masks in the middle and upper Cross River areas.
A decline and later resurfacing of the use of skulls as part of masking costumes is also evident when comparing Daryll Forde's information from his Yakurr (Yakö) research in the middle Cross River area in the 1930s with the recent studies by Gitti Salami. Forde could not observe any activities of a warrior society called Obam, and members were reluctant to give him information. Colonial authorities banned Obam following an alleged ritual murder. Forde proposed that
Obam had generally a reputation for cannibalistic practices and there were suggestions that in the past it regularly undertook to provide victims for human sacrifices … its ceremonies included performances by two dancers wearing masks in which skulls were incorporated (Forde and International African Institute 1964: 160).
In contrast, Salami, who has studied Yakurr since 1998, documented several masking genres using human skulls. Among them is a mask with a tight bodysuit and a skull used as part of a hunter and warrior society called Obam (Fig. 4). The male Eblami mask appears with a female masquerader called Mna Oban using a skin-covered headdress. “Obam members are said to be the first to go to the warfront.”3
Eblami manifests a fierce spirit that symbolizes the people's confidence in their ability as warriors. To intimidate threatening forces, it wears a head crest made of a human skull. Because it is dangerous, it is controlled by chains (Salami 2005: 80–81).
Interestingly, like the Idoma and the Ibom Isii segment of Arochukwu, the Yakurr people also trace their origins to a place called Akpa that they locate in the Oban Hills near the Nigeria-Cameroon border.
In the middle Cross River area populated by the Ejagham and related groups on both sides of the Nigeria Cameroon border, warrior societies are primarily noted for their use of skin-covered masks. However, not every skin-covered mask is used by a warrior society. The basic type is a single-head headdress often tied to a concave basket base for attachment to the masquerader's head. However, there are also variations such as Janus-face headdresses, helmet masks, and face masks that are skin covered. No clear correlation seems to exist between the type of mask and its significance except that skin-covered masks shaped in an animal form are usually associated with hunter societies (Nicklin 1983: 70). It also appears that the simple single-head headdress is primarily used by warrior societies. Talbot, whose first book is devoted to a detail study of the Ekoi (an earlier term roughly corresponding to the extent of present-day Ejagham people), noted that “wooden masks covered with skin are used, in lieu of the freshly killed heads of enemies formerly borne by the victors” (Talbot 1912: 261). He describes a chief's funeral used by a club (his term for an association or society) called Igumi established to wage war on a neighboring town using a skin-covered mask together with a mask fashioned out of a human skull (Talbot 1912: 223). Nicklin, who surveyed the distribution of skin-covered masks in Nigeria (Nicklin 1974) and Cameroon (Nicklin 1979), mapped their distribution and recorded their connection with warrior associations whose membership was restricted to those who killed in battle. Performances were primarily done during burial ceremonies of members and often involved the masquerader brandishing weapons. He also documented human skulls overlaid with skin, a possible transition between the use of actual skulls and their replicas in skin-covered wood (2000: 202).
Koloss conducted an exhaustive study of different associations in the central Ejagham community of Kembong in the Manyu Division of the Southwest Province in Cameroon. He observed that skin-covered masks belong to secret societies called Nchebe and Mkepe, which appeared infrequently during second burial ceremonies. However, he could not get a clear sense if those masks were primarily ancestral or war trophies (Koloss 2008: 112–24). It appears that by the time of his studies (1980–2005), the masks and their associations became marginal and any association with warfare has been lost (Fig. 5).
As we move to the western side of the Cross River and enter the Igbo area, skin-covered masks are only sporadically used. They were replaced by wooden headdresses that sometimes try to emulate the texture or color of skin. Jones (1984: 74) and Cole and Aniakor (1984: 176–78) identify a southeastern Igbo masking genre among the Ngwa, Ohuhu, and Bende Igbo they call Ékpé (not to be confused with the more famous Ékpè or “Leopard” society) that they claim has been defunct since colonial times. Ékpé “were danced in contexts about which we know almost nothing” (Cole and Aniakor 1984: 176). While they do not claim any connection between these headdresses and warrior societies, their visual appearance suggests that Ékpé either originated as a warrior association or diffused into the Ngwa area as a form of dance without the association with warfare. This is similar to the way we can trace the origin of the Okonko society in the Ngwa and Ohuhu area to the Ékpè secret society brought by Aro traders and settlers but without the judicial and executive function of Ékpè elsewhere (Bentor 2002).4
The most famous war dance in southeastern Igboland is the Ikperikpe Ògù or the Ohafia War Dance. As already mentioned, Abam, Ohafia, and Edda are village-groups to the north of Arochukwu whose men often fought on behalf of the Aro. Their willingness to fight was based on their warrior ethos, characterized by the colonial authorities as that of headhunters. They resent being characterized as mercenaries of the Aro, asserting that they were not motivated by material profit but by the cultural norm of proving their valor in battle (Uka 1972: 76). Thus, it is no surprise to find that warrior ethos and war dances are central in those communities. Ikperikpe Ògù consists of male dancers led by an expert dancer carrying a plank with three heads on top. The side heads can be actual skulls, skin covered, or fairly naturalistic wooden ones—suggesting once again that, at least in recent years, the three are interchangeable (Fig. 7). The central head is usually covered by a red and white cap associated with warriors. The cap hides the content, suggesting that in place of a carved head, it contains a skull. Although not a masquerade in the conventional sense because the dancer's identity is not hidden, he holds a palm leaf in his mouth to signal his transformation (Mbah 2013: 299). Studies by Chukwuma Azuonye (1990), John McCall (2000), and Ndubueze Mbah (2013) of Ohafia war dance demonstrate how the lyrics of the songs, the costume and headdress, and the dance itself embody Ohafians’ notions of masculinity, honor, and military prowess. McCall relates that when warfare was more common, the dance celebrated either the return of warriors from a battle or the burial of a notable warrior. At that time, the dancer carried “a large pot, blackened with sacrificial blood, upon which were tied the prepared heads of particularly formidable victims” (2000: 66) (Fig. 8). With the decline of warfare, the pot and skulls were replaced by a board originally used in dances celebrating leopard hunters.
Ikperikpe Ògù has become very popular in burial and other ceremonies throughout Igboland. A semi-professional troupe is often brought to a second burial ceremony by relatives or friends of the bereaved family (Fig. 9). Although deemphasized today, the Ohafia war dancers are believed by many spectators to provide human heads to be interred with the deceased. This is obviously a sensitive issue, but I have witnessed troupes showing burial attendees a bag made of a knitted warrior cap. At some point they discreetly leave the performance area and inter the bag next to the burial place. Although the assumption is that today it is just a mock-up, the content of the bag is not revealed. While warfare and headhunting are now in the distant past, the war dance has become “an embodiment of Ohafia identity” in a changing world (McCall 2011: 76).
The Ohafia origin tradition claims that the dance originated in Ohafia, and other communities accept Ohafia as the birthplace of the genre (Udensi 1988, Mbah 2013: 297). While Ikperikpe Ògù is distinct from the other genres already discussed in both appearance and style of dancing, its cultural role and use of skulls or skin-covered heads suggests an affinity with the broader complex of warrior dances and masquerade.
The warrior masking genre is not universal throughout the region. It appears among those groups who have a history of involvement with warfare and who cultivated a warrior ethos. At the risk of arguing from a lack of evidence, it seems to be absent among the Nyang (Banyang) people of the upper reaches of the Cross River. Ruel (1967: 207), who provided an exhaustive description of “traditional associations” did not find any warfare association or masquerade. He describes age groups, who were largely defunct since the 1930s, as primarily recreational. He also suggests that warfare did not play a major role in Nyang life or ethos (Ruel 1967: 181–86). The neighboring Bangwa to the northwest at the foothill of the Cameroon Grassfields have a history of wars with their neighbors and have two warrior societies. One of them, Ngkpwe, required a member to kill in battle and bring a skull home. Brain suggests that the society and its masks are modeled after those of the Ejagham. They use a headdress that is sometimes skin covered, but their costumes are billowing rather than body-tight. Brain's description of the dance suggests that it is very similar to that of both Oglinye and Nwékpé (1980: 147). However, Ngkpwe appear to be of lesser importance than the Gong, Royal, or Elephant societies (Brain and Pollock 1971: 32–37, 92–100). Similarly, among the neighbors of Arochukwu, versions of warrior dances appear among the warlike Ohafia, Abam, and Edda but not among the primarily agricultural groups of Ihechiowa and Ututu.
Returning finally to Arochukwu, we can now examine Nwékpé as an instance of the larger regional complex of warrior dances. In Arochukwu, Nwékpé is the preferred name for the masking genre discussed here as Ékpé (Nwá Ékpé or “son of Ékpé”). The connection between Arochukwu and groups on the other side of the Cross River was clearly demonstrated during the 1988 burial of the legendary Eze Kanu Oji, who ruled Aro for over seventy years. As a demonstration of their historical connection, a non-Aro group from the middle Cross River area brought their Obam society masquerade, consisting of two female and one male characters. This trio of masqueraders has been documented by Gitti Salami among the Yakurr people. The female masks had wooden headdresses, while the male displayed a human skull (Fig. 10). When I saw the same type of masquerade again during the Ikeji of 2005, it was performed by Ibom, the largest Ibom Isii (Akpa) village in Arochukwu. In that event, the female masqueraders were accompanied by a Nwékpé with a wooden head (Fig. 11). This proves that, at least in Arochukwu, Nwékpé with a carved wooden head is equivalent to and even a substitute for a human skull-sporting mask. This observation lends support to Kasfir's more hypothetical trajectory of change from skull, to skin covered, to wooden carved headdresses. It also suggests that skulls that were clearly used in precolonial days went underground during the colonial period only to resurface when the colonial and postcolonial eras’ prohibition on their use has relaxed.
The close affinities of Nwékpé to the broader regional complex of warrior masquerade is clear from its formal appearance, stomping dance steps, rapid movement, and menacing performance style. Aro people often compare it to the Ohafia war dance and claim that it has its origins in headhunting practices. However, while other performance genres in Arochukwu, notably Ekpo and Eketensi, continue to cultivate violence in character and performance, Nwékpé has not. Instead, it has become one of the more benign masking genres. It is the only Aro masquerade that is followed by a mixed gender group. To understand this transformation of Nwékpé we must return to the Aro tradition of origins and the way it has played out from the precolonial to postcolonial eras.
At the time of the establishment of Arochukwu, Nwékpé was an association celebrating the status of the Akpa as warriors. However, as the Aro people developed their oracular trading network, fighting by the Aro became rare. Written sources and Aro persons repeatedly state that the Aro developed a strong aversion to participation in fighting, considering their blood too precious to be spilled. As mentioned, the Aro preferred to recruit warriors from the neighboring Abam, Edda, and Ohafia communities to fight for them in promoting their commercial interests (Webber 1922, Dike and Ekejiuba 1990: 161–69). Thus, in Arochukwu, Nwékpé began to lose its association with warfare long before the imposition of colonial rule. In the process, warrior associations were transformed into age grades. In precolonial days, Arochukwu villages had separate male and female age grades providing the workforce for communal projects such as road clearing. Men's grades of the Ibom Isii (Akpa) section also provided warriors to defend the community. However, as Aro participated less and less in actual warfare, Nwékpé no longer celebrated actual warriorhood but a more general notion of masculinity.
In 1901–1902, with the onset of the colonial period, Arochukwu was the target of an expedition to destroy the Ibiniukpabi oracle and bring an end to what the British saw as Aro dominance hindering their advance into the hinterland. Following the expedition, Arochukwu remained under surveillance out of fear of a revival of the oracle's power. Colonial authorities were hostile toward most of the associations that they lumped together as “secret societies” (Nwaka 1978). As part of their “civilizing mission,” they prohibited the use of skulls and any human parts in rituals and any form of public display. They also outlawed the use of machetes and other weapons in performances. However, as pointed out by Nwaka (1978: 191), there was an inherent conflict between the colonial and missionary zeal to reform Africans’ lives and the policy of indirect rule that called for the preservation of traditional institutions so that they could be used as instruments of administration and control. Complaints, often by missionaries and early converts, were more often leveled against Ékpè and its derivative Okonko, popular in the Ngwa area and seen as an instrument to perpetuate Aro control of their neighbors (Cheetham 1920). However, colonial authorities were very reluctant to intervene (Allen 1933). Colonial reports do not single out Nwékpé as a troublesome form of “club,” probably because, as already mentioned, by the early colonial period it has lost much of its aggressive demeanor. This is different from the fate of Oglinye among the Idoma, banned by the British in 1917 (Kasfir 2007: 73), or of Yakurr's Obam, outlawed by the 1930s (Forde and International African Institute 1964: 160).
As the colonial period progressed, age grades in Arochukwu gradually changed their emphasis and became associations devoted to self-help activities such as building schools and clinics. Starting in 1930, Western-educated men began to form modern associations such as the Aro Youth Committee (District Officer 1930). Simultaneously, the Arochukwu Youth League emerged in Aba and Port Harcourt, allowing Aro who moved to the emerging cities to continue their engagement with home affairs. Colonial sources often comment that many Aro living in urban areas would return to Arochukwu during the holidays, when a festive atmosphere would be felt throughout the community. In 1931, an assistant district officer commented that “The Aro Youth Society met in December to fan the flame of patriotism. There can be little doubt but that the Aro loves his country … At Christmas time the roads and waterways are crowded with Aro people returning for the annual festivities” (Warren 1931). At the time, Christmas rather than the Ikeji festival was the main event that brought home the increasing number of Aro living away from Arochukwu. Many Aro residing in urban areas were employed by the government and could only travel home during the Christmas period.
During the colonial period and into the early 1960s the Ikeji festival continued to play an important role within Arochukwu as a way of maintaining and renegotiating social relationships by reenacting Aro history. However, it did not involve the entire community and was not well attended. One aspect of the festival is that it reasserts the distinction between freeborn (àmádí) and slave descendants. Those of slave descent were the first to adopt Western education, convert to Christianity, and move to the cities. Thus, the modern elite consisted primarily of people who were not part of the traditionally privileged class and did not see the Ikeji as an expression of their identity, providing another reason for the sparse attendance of the festival and turning Christmas into a major time for meetings and celebration, including dancing and masquerade. Many Christians also frowned upon aspects of the festival that involved sacrifice and use of “charms.” During the late colonial period many Nigerians believed in a unidirectional movement from traditional ways of life into modernity, casting traditional festivals as a thing of the past.
Under these circumstances Nwékpé became a dance of a junior age grade performed primarily during the Christmas period. Some non-Ibom Isii villages also adopted it, but the Akpa descendants are still considered its experts. By the 1950s the Aro Clan Council decided to unify women's and men's age grades into age-related associations known as “Improvement Associations” to better serve their new functions. They developed a repertoire of dances using large colorful flags to signal their arrival. In the process, Nwékpé lost even more of its military demeanor and became an expression of a modernized age grade accompanied by a mixed-gender group. It is likely that, as part of this transformation, some Nwékpé masqueraders replaced the hand-held machetes with brooms. Nwékpé costume does not hide the dancer's legs and hands, and it is often possible to see his eyes as well (Fig. 12). This contrasts with the more powerful and secretive types of masks in Arochukwu. I was repeatedly told that Nwékpé is not a society and it does not have secrets.
Things began to change following the Nigerian Civil War (1967–1970). While prior to the war the descendants of the Akpa and Ibibio people did not identify themselves as Igbo, during the early part of the war, when Arochukwu was at the frontline, the Aro people decided to cast their lot with the Biafran side. Following the defeat of Biafra, the Igbo abandoned their belief in becoming Nigerian at the expense of their Igbo identity. They concluded that they can only find their place in Nigeria by strengthening their Igbo roots. This led to a resurgence of interest in aspects of “traditional life” including traditional rulers, masquerade, and the annual festival. For the Aro, the Ikeji festival that languished during the late colonial and early independence eras became a galvanizing event allowing them to come together to deepen their identification with home and history. In a wider context, this is also the time when disillusion with the project of modernity began to reawaken interest in aspects of traditional life. Starting in the 1970s more Aro came home for the Ikeji festival, especially for Èké Ekpe, and the main day of masquerade performances and dances was redesigned as a formal contest, with villages competing for the Best Dance award.
In this revitalized festival, the ritualistic aspects have been carefully maintained but are done mostly out of sight. The emphasis turned to pageantry and performance and the social gathering of Aro, most of them living far away from home most of the year. With all this show of unity, the different Aro segments did not leave behind their sense of distinctiveness. In fact, tensions between Aro segments intensified. The events of the Ikeji festival are grounded in the history of the Aro, and the flourishing festival became the arena for contestation between the different segments (Bentor 2011: 280). This very contemporary struggle is articulated as a reenactment of history. Under these circumstances, Nwékpé became a prime vehicle for the Ibom Isii section to assert its critical rule in the establishment of the community as warriors during the Ibibio war. One knowledgeable Ibom man told me that having Nwékpé is so central to Ibom Isii identity that possessing it was a condition set by the Akpa for joining Arochukwu.5
Thus, Nwékpé retains its currency not because warfare is part of lived experience but because it is a way for the descendants of Akpa warriors to play out their role in contemporary Arochukwu by emphasizing their critical contribution to the establishment of the community centuries ago. The result is a masking genre that harks back to the origins of the community while simultaneously bearing the marks of subsequent transformations (Fig. 13).
I can trace about a dozen additional masking genres, each with several distinct types of masks, that all find their way to Amaikpe Square on Èké Ekpe. Each of these genres represents another trajectory that hints at an aspect of the complex history that brought the Aro people together and shaped their subsequent history. The result is not just a dazzling, kaleidoscopic spectacle, but also a visual overview of Aro history communicated not through what each performance says, but through the style of their masks and the manner of their performances, demonstrating the importance of, as Richard Fardon aptly put it, focusing on “how masks mean” rather than “what they mean” (Fardon 2007: 23). In this paper, I used the example of one masking genre to suggest that the coexistence and simultaneous appearance of masks of different origins in the same time and place create an awareness of Aro collective identity and complex history that brought the Aro together not by obliterating but by underlining their differences.
“There are also, probably in every culture, in every civilization, real places—places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society—which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the often real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all place, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality” (Foucault 1986). Heterotopic spaces stand in contrast to notions of “homogeneity, sameness and uniformity” (Derrett 2003, Sohn 2008: 77).
Nwékpé or Nwa Ékpé (son of Ékpé) is not to be confused with the powerful and much better-known Ékpè society that played an important role in the region for centuries. While both were brought to Arochukwu by the Akpa warriors, they are distinct institutions of very different characteristics.
Gitti Salami, personal communications, April 2015, July 2017.
Talbot suggested the existence of an Ogarainye head-hunting club in southeastern Igbo that is directly connected to Benue Oglinye (Talbot 1926: 788). Kasfir cites Talbot using the modern spelling of Ogaranya (Kasfir 1988: 91–92) to suggest the extent of Oglinye diffusion. Among the Igbo, the word “Ógaranya” is associated with the idea of manhood. However, it does not refer to a society but to an individual of great accomplishments, prestige, and in today's world, particularly to a person of wealth rather than military prowess (Okpalike 2015: 10, Mbah 2013).
Interview with Mazi Okorafor Imoh, Ndi Okoro, Ibom Village, Arochukwu, February 11, 1989.