Festival is one of the oldest traditions and the most widespread cultural practice in the world. It has often characterized human existence and quest for the extraordinary. The use of masks in festivals are common among the vast ethno cultural groups of the world, from the ancient Rome, Italy, even down to the remote regions of Arondizuogu in Imo state Nigeria. Some of the notable festivals in Nigeria includes; Calabar festival, Durbar festival, Eyo festival and Ikeji festival. In authentic African cultural belief system, masquerades are believed to be a representation of the dead. The intricate rehearsed dance steps of the masquerade in African festivals, accompanied by symphonic tunes, colourful costumes worn by the masquerade and its entourage heralds the effect of this amazing festival.
A festival is a series of public events connected with a particular activity or idea. On the other hand, a masquerade is a type of a special mask worn over the face, to hide an identity. We shall discuss the brief history of Ikeji masquerade festival, concept of Ito Ebule, the significance of Ikeji masquerade festival and challenges facing Ikeji masquerade festival.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF IKEJI MASQUERADE FESTIVAL
Arondizuogu (Aro-ndizuogu) is a town inhabited by the Igbo subgroup, the Aro people in the Imo State of Nigeria. The Arondizuogu community is believed to have migrated from Arochukwu in the present Abia State to their present settlements which span across three Local Governments Areas in Imo State, which includes; Ideato North, Onuimo and Okigwe. Arondizuogu lies within the tropical monsoon climatic zone. The people of Arondizuogu have mixed origins, culture and dialect.
The origin of Ikeji Festival in Arochukwu is as old as the history of the Kingdom. It dates back to over five centuries ago which makes it one of the longest reigning festival in Igbo land and the biggest pan- Igbo cultural community festival. Ikeji masquerade festival marks the end of the farming season, arrival of harvest, and beginning of a new season. It is usually celebrated annually in Arondizuogu during the twilight of Easter season which is usually March to April. It is a seven days event, where the masquerades will perform at each of the four market days in Igbo culture. It attracts people from far and wide. The festival features seminars on Aro cultures, pouring of libation, exchange of kola-nuts, paying of homage to Aro traditional institutions, masquerades, traditional dances, diverse cultural displays and general togetherness.
THE CONCEPT OF ITO EBULE
The most popular activity in Ikeji is a competition named Ito-Ebule, which translates to “untying of the ram”. It is held on the last day of the Ikeji festival. The Ito-Ebule is characterized by the display of traditional charms and powers. The competition is highly restricted and solely self- acclaimed sorcerers can partake in the competition. During the Ito-Ebule competition, a ram is tied to a tree and sorcerers who have entered the competition are asked to untie the ram.
Coincidentally, the most successful sorcerer, who had won the Ito-Ebule contests on numerous times, was the then traditional prime minister of Arondizuogu, Late Pericoma Okoye. Some of the notable masquerades that showcase their crafts during the Ikeji includes, Agbomma, Ajikwu, Oji Onu and Ijele. These masquerades play different roles in the society.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF IKEJI MASQUERADE FESTIVAL
The following are some of the significant roles of Ikeji masquerade festival:
a. Law Enforcement. Masquerades serve as the means for maintaining peace and order. It is primarily used as law enforcement agents. While entertaining through dances and exhibiting extra-human feats, the masquerades also aid in the collection of fines imposed by the Council of Elders.
b. Brotherhood. Ikeji promotes a sense of connectedness among the people of Arondizuogu which extends to their neighbours. A good number of brothers and sisters return home for the festival and during the visitations, their brotherhood is rekindled. Ikegi festival also reconnects the people with their ancestors.
c. Tourism and Revenue. The Ikeji festival serves as a source of revenue for Nigeria through tourism, as foreigners, as well all the Igbos in diaspora travel back to Arondizuogu just to witness this festival. It is pertinent to note that, some folks have claimed they found their spouse during this festival.
c. Yam. In the Ikeji festival, one observes a cosmic connection between god and man, land and crops. Yam is very important; it is the only crop which warrants an annual elaborate festival throughout Igbo land. Yam is not just a mere crop to an Igbo man, in short it represents life. Thus, Ikeji festival is the yearly celebration of life.
CRITICISMS OF IKEJI MASQUERADE FESTIVALS
A modern African man is often plagued with a dilemma on how to co-exist with his faith and some cultural festivals. This has indeed brought about a huge chasm between the people who once shared everything in common. Some see Ikeji festival as an occultic manifestation and ritual. Some tag these festival as a celebration of sorcery, occult powers and black magic due to the Ito-Ebule competition.
The great author, Late Chinua Achebe captured the above in “Thing Fall Apart”. He author said “The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”
Globalization has influenced the Ikeji festival negatively. Some Igbos in the diaspora have lost the touch of home. The indigenes and people in diaspora are becoming less enthusiastic in coming back home and the cost of such travels has only aided in discouraging them further. Also some attribute their lack of interest to poor planning of the festival which usually lacks government support.
In conclusion, festivals are vibrant part of every culture and has continued to serve as a cultural space and time for people to publicly celebrate communal identity, values, history, norms and promote cultural continuity. Ikeji retells the story of the Arondizuogu people and rekindles their values each time it is celebrated. In every festival, there is always an echo of who the people are, what they have, what they can do and all they can become.