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Enugu community where masquerades rule the night

Traumatize victims, impose fines, demand appeasement

Raphael Ede, Enugu

Some residents of Ugwuaji Awkunanaw community in Enugu South Local Government Area of Enugu State, have recounted the ordeal they suffered in the hands of members of masquerade groups who dealt with them, leaving them in pain with the added psychological trauma of paying heavy fines in these hard times.

communityMasquerades, which are supposed to be physical representatives of spirit beings, have been accused by their victims of highhandedness almost seeming like extortion.

It takes a 10-minute drive from most parts of Enugu metropolis to get to Ugwuaji community. For this reason, civil servants, businessmen and women, whether indigenes and non-indigenes, reside in the community because of its proximity to the state capital and the markets. These residents move to and fro the community to their various work and business places in the coal city. Despite the presence of over 30 churches of different denominations in the community and increased urbanisation, certain traditional practices, such as masquerade ceremonies still hold sway. The observance of such traditional practice does not recognize whether one is an indigene, sojourner or visitor.

Sunday Sun gathered that during the masquerade festival, which usually holds every three-years, the masquerades rule the night and it is a taboo to see the night masquerade unless one has been initiated into the masquerade cult.

To leave your house doors open in the night when the masquerade is out on parade is a grave offence and such person is made to pay a penalty. It is also sacrilegious to challenge a masquerade, whether big or small, even in the day time when it is preventing people from fetching water from the stream or forcing people to sweep the village market or town halls, a tradition that dates back several ages. Even the coming of the missionaries could not stop this.

Sunday Sun investigation revealed that any person, man or woman, that is found to have gone against the masquerade rules is liable to payment of a fine or a goat in like sum to appease the land and the masquerade cult.

The tragedy in this fine is that the followers of the masquerade or the traditionalists will take a goat anywhere in the community in the name of the offender who will then be compelled to pay the person whose property was taken in his name. This law is said to be binding on everyone irrespective of whether the person is a Christian, traditional worshipper, Muslim, foreigner or a native. Once a person breaks the rule, one is liable to pay the fine.

Sunday Sun investigations showed that some non-natives residing in Ugwuaji, one of who is a lawyer, escaped the wrath of the masquerades by the whiskers, at various times, when members of the cult descended on them like a mob for daring to walk about while their masquerade was operating.

In one such incident that happened on March 10, 2018, some residents were accused of breaking the masquerade rule by leaving their doors open, not minding that the occupants only needed fresh air to cool their rooms because the night was hot.

It was learnt that a young commercial tricyclist returned late, not knowing that the masquerade had started operating. He was accused of seeing the masquerade and immediately the cult members descended on him. They beat him with every object available to them. Afterwards he was asked to pay a fine of one goat to appease the gods.

Another young man, a native of Ugwuaji, who had gone out for recreation and unfortunately ran into the masquerade group was given several lashes for staying late but was exempted from paying fine, because he was an initiate.

However, another young man who gave his name as Chukwuemeka, a non-indigene, was not that lucky as he had to pay N15,000, which is the price of a goat.

Narrating his ill-fate, Chukwuemeka said he was in their compound that very night but left his door open to receive fresh air because there was no electricity that night: “It was around midnight and I heard the voice of a woman shouting, ‘God of Elijah, God of Elijah,’ as her voice rent the air. We were forced to come out to know what was amiss but surprisingly, when I came out, the youths that followed the masquerade started throwing stones at us. We quickly shut our doors but later they told my landlord that I had to pay fine for desecrating their masquerade. They threatened that if I didn’t comply, they would do worse things and I had to pay them N15,000 so that they would not come to disrupt our shop.

“My crime was that my door was open when they passed by and it was assumed that I looked at them. This thing happened on Sunday and on Friday they sent a message that if I didn’t come to see them, I would not like what they would do. To avoid trouble, I had to pay them N15,000.

“As I am talking to you now, one lawyer has not been seen in the area since that day. I heard that he is still in the hospital because of the beating he received in the hands of the masqueraders.

“They actually intended to hurt because they usually give notice before ever they do their night masquerade dance so that we will close our businesses in time. This time, no prior information was given.”

Another victim, Mr. Jerry Enoja, told Sunday Sun that he was in his house with the family when he started hearing his neighbour, Saviour Ekanam, from Cross River crying.

“I opened my door to know what was happening. Immediately I opened the door, I discovered that they had seized him and were taking him outside the compound when I saw one of the masquerade’s followers who was coming down from the staircase. He shouted, ‘see another person here.’

“Before I could say a word, they had descended on me. While some were beating me with sticks some while the others were holding me. They broke my head as you can see blood in this picture,” he said.

Enoja further explained that the masqueraders used machete to hit his neighbor whom he said was not an Igbo man, adding, “After the beating they took us to one of their leaders who asked me whether Nsukka people have tradition. I replied him that Nsukka people have tradition and he said I had defiled their tradition and took us to our landlord who pleaded that they should leave us that night and come back in the morning to collect their fine.

“In the morning, we went to the police station at Awkunanaw Police Division to report what happened. At the police station I received a call from my landlord who asked me where I was and I told him that I was making a statement at the police station and he switched off his phone. When I returned to the house I was told that they emptied a Geepee tank of water belonging to another tenant and rolled it away, which they held until I paid the fine”, he narrated, noting that since then, he has not slept in the community.   

A community leader and a politician from Ugwuaji community, Hon. Chime Ifeanyichukwu Ede, acknowledged that what happened on March 10, 2018, was true.

He gave this explanation: “Normally before the night masquerade comes out, notice is usually issued in advance that masquerades would run so that the uninitiated would know, but something happened that changed the usual way things are done. A notable man, Chief Ndubisi Ogbodo died and during his lifetime, he was a staunch traditionalist. He later embraced Christian religion and he was said to have told his children that when he dies, he should be buried by members of his church, which is the Catholic Church that he embraced.

“When he eventually died, the funeral was conducted by the Catholic Church who prevailed on his children that their father should be buried according to the dictates of the church.

However, the tide changed after interment, when his children and extended family members decided that the deceased was a staunch traditionalist before he embraced the Christian religion and as such all the funeral rites/ceremonies befitting a man of his status, who was over 80 years old, should be observed. Hence masquerade arrangement was made later and that was why there was no prior announcement that there was going to be a night masquerade.”

He said that they don’t joke with their culture which was handed down to them by their fathers. He added that they were trying to modernize it so that no one will feel offended when fined for breaching their custom like desecrating their masquerade.

He said that though he is a Christian and member of the Assemblies of God Church, he still observes the culture of their land insisting that Christianity did not abhor culture and traditions except ones that are sinful.

Ede, who is the organizing secretary of the All Progressives Congress, APC, in Enugu State and a one-time chairmanship candidate for Enugu South Local Government Area, told Sunday Sun that in as much as they maintain their culture, they would not use it to offend people. “So, we make sure that somebody is actually guilty before they levy the fine which we call in our dialect, Igba uke.

He explained that they have three types of masquerades that operate in their place, namely, Achikwu, Agaba and Ijele which they don’t joke with, “Christianity or no Christianity.”

The community leader maintained that though the masquerade appearance was not announced as they used to do earlier, he was not aware that people were beaten by the masquerade or the masqueraders.

“The only place where there seemed to be a problem was with the tenants of one Sunday Chime, who were said to have broken the custom by leaving their doors open at the time the night masquerade appeared.”

Speaking in an interview, the Traditional Prime Minister of Ugwuaji Awkunanaw, Onowu Dennis Ani, told Sunday Sun that what happened on March 10, 2018 was regrettable, however, anybody who left his/her doors open when the night masquerade appeared committed a grave offence regardless of the person’s  position.

Ani said: “It is deemed that you have seen the masquerade and you pay a fine of one goat to appease the gods. When I was younger, the night masquerade was usually used to catch people especially women that prostitute and the uninitiated who use night hours to do funny things. Those caught pay certain amount of money for running afoul of the law.

“In the beginning, before the night masquerade starts operating, the followers who must be a certain age grade will go round playing masquerade music for close to two hours indicating that the night masquerade would come out to play that night. But because it doesn’t dance without giving signs, anybody that sees the masquerade in the night after it has started dancing will be fined. Such person will provide a goat for appeasement; however, the dangerous part of somebody breaking the rule is that the people accompanying the masquerade will go out and get the goat anywhere they find one in the name of the offender. This fine doesn’t know who you are whether a resident or indigene, once you commit the offence the fine applies,” he explained.

The Onowu, further said: “Due to civilization and increasing level of urbanization, as leaders we have advised that night masquerade should be restricted to a particular area. Before now, night masquerades usually moved round the community. Although, some people might also fall victim because those who travelled and were not in the know about the happenings in the community might be returning in the night and meet the masquerade or outsiders who might not know anything or the time the night masquerade would dance. Such people might not have heard the announcement which is usually commenced by playing the masquerade music few hours before the commencement of the night masquerade,” Chief Ani disclosed.

He insisted that so far as a person’s door was open whether a tenant or landlord when the masquerade appeared, the person is taken to have committed an offence and because of that, the individual is assumed to have seen the masquerade and would be fined.

The traditional prime minister advised that members of the masquerade group and the residents should respect each other noting that their traditional and cultural practices are still being observed.

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