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Female Power: Corner Stone or Central Subject in Igbo Mask Performance

(Pages 431-446 of Emergent Themes and Methods in African Studies:
Essays in Honor of Adiele Eberechukwu Afigbo
Ed., Falola, T and Adam Paddock. Trenton: Africa World Press, 2008)


Chinyere G. Okafor



This paper on how the omumu concept of begetting informs Igbo mask performance activities largely draws from field work in Igbo communities and an earlier research “The Rejected Corner Stone: Women In Igbo Mask Theater” (Cornell University ASRC Newsletter, 1992B) that focused on the contribution of women to masking.  Mask performance is a composite art that centers on the action of figures regarded as spirit characters. It is usually organized by secret cults of privileged men, and presented to the public during festivals. This paper engages the place of female power in mask performance ideology, cult activities, and public presentations.

Women’s significance as spiritual guides, heralds, choruses, and spectators as well as conceptual ideas for characterization and origin of many mask theaters are linked to omumu concept of gynecology and begetting. Issues of omumu in traditional psychology are discussed in order to elucidate how they inform female energies in the masking experience and how omumu concept that engineers women to the masking arena is central in understanding the maneuvering of female power in male-centered and male-privileged spheres. Omumu is delineated as an empowering quality and concept from which the fascination for woman and politics of gender control originate.


The position of women in Igbo tradition has been a contentious subject and one expects the issue of female power in masking to be equally or more controversial because of the mask’s implication with cultism, mystery, and secrecy.  There are notions of Igbo women’s disempowerment (Okeke 2006: 26, Achufusi 1994: 173, Ifeka-Moller 1975), assertiveness (Sofola 1998, Davis 1986: 242), and complementality with men  (Nnaemeka 2003, Ezeigbo 1997: 93), as well as delineation of rights that surpass those of Western women (Leith-Ross 1939: 230-233). Chukwuma’s notion that men and women share notions of inferiority and superiority “in varying degrees and circumstances” (1994, ix) concurs with Achebe’s findings about male priestesses, female kings and warriors (Achebe 2005), and Amadiume’s analysis of women’s power and its transformations from pre-colonial to imperial period (Amadiume 2000).  These ideas demonstrate that there is no unilateral women’s position in Igboland. There are multiple gender structures that have not been static, and there are transitions and transformations such as the colonial and postcolonial (Chuku 2005, Okonjo 1976) that influence gender positions in varying degrees across communities.

One recognizes the uniting notion of onu na asu nno1 that refers to all Igbo groups identified by their use of forms of nno greeting practice, but argues that Igbo is not a homogenous entity.  There are differences between communities and social organizations with diverse gender systems. Patriarchy, as institutionalized male dominance and privilege, is largely entrenched in systems of parilineal inheritance, patrilocal marital residence and malecentric lineage systems, yet female assertiveness dominates some important spheres of the structures such as birthing rites and osukwu “mother-born” tradition.2  Woman-centering and assertiveness are also ingrained in traditional matrilineal communities and matrifocal arrangements as found in parts of Abam, Afikpo, and Ohafia communities where female centering intersect with aspects of male dominance. Thus, different traditional systems and organizations program power for both genders in varying degrees and particular contexts. To use an example in one community or in one sphere to generalize diminishes the complex.

Steady’s observation that the restriction of gender analysis to “male/female power relations only” (2005 319) is problematic in viewing the totality of women’s lives is important in our discussion of gender as a nonessentialist complex that includes gender and other axes of power and power relations that yield diverse degrees of suppression, equality and assertion in particular social and historical contexts. Gender is part of a multipart web of class, group, affiliation, community, family/lineage and other power relations that intersect in the lives of women and men in Igbo spaces; a complex that becomes more intricate in its postcolonial and global intersection with ethnicity, race, religion, westernization and western education. Gender in this paper will be seen as a meandering complex that draws from the omumu center as it maneuvers in the male dominated activity of masking.

This paper focuses on masking that is regarded as male activity, so it appears incongruous to think of female power in a masculine preserve. The seeming exclusiveness of masking to men is the raison d’etre for examining it, in order to see how gender works in a male centered structure. Igbo critical dialectic offers us a guide for studying masking through multiplicity of perceptions that reveal the complexity of a phenomenon. Anaghi eguzo ibe onu ene anya (one does not stay in one position to view something) and anaro ano ofu ebe ene mmonwu (one does not appreciate the masquerade from one angle) denote the epistemological stance of this essay, which is to see the subjects of this essay through their multiple manifestations. The complex notion of gender and the equally complex but also inscrutable phenomenon of masking are the subjects that are engaged through omumu female concept. Views of omumu and masking are largely informed by, but not limited to, field work in Arochukwu (Abia State), Arondizogu (Imo State), Ajalli (Anambra State), Isiokpo (Rivers State), Izzi (Ebonyi State), Amokwe, and Uvuru (Enugu State).

Mask performance is a theatrical action that uses the mask-character or masquerade as a major technique of representation to form a composite performance that employs various arts and sciences such as sculpture, music, dance, poetry, metaphysics, and psychodynamics in the action of mask figures regarded as spirit characters. The mask character has different names in parts of Igboland such as mmonwu, maa, odo, and ogbodo in parts of central and northern Igbo as well as ekpe, eru, okonko, and ekpo3 in parts of southern Igbo. The mask is made of material such as wood, net, or cloth as the major disguise that imbues the performer with supernatural essence, which is necessary for role-change. The masked character therefore represents another reality; the supernatural that links the performance to the chthonic realm of ancestors and other spirits. A mask character is an authentic spectacle that is seen as the highest form of art in Igboland because it incorporates all the arts of the society to produce a kind of total theater that is more than the modern total theater, because of its metaphysical content and communal input. Together with members of the group, the masquerade can engage in different presentations such as song, dance, or short play, or mixture of all.

In addition to entertainment, the mask also concretizes the connection of humans with the spiritual world since the mask-characters represent spirits from the chthonic realm. There are mythical masks based on historical sagas, ancestral ones that represent lineage forbears, satirical ones that lampoon social miscreants, as well as those that perform police and judicial functions. Masking activities empower participants by giving them authority, influence, and skills in the artistic processes. Elsewhere, I have argued that the experience is important in providing “opportunity for power relations, reflecting power, and maintaining stability through display of an ordered world” (Okafor 1992A: 9).

Parallel masking arrangements, whereby men and women’s mask cults exist simultaneously are found in many parts of West Africa such as among the Shebro of Sierra Leone where women have Sande mask cult that produce soweisia masks also called bundu (Phillips, 1978), and the Wuli of Senegal and Gambia where women produce and wear kurukupaa masks during initiation activities (Weil 1998). Except for the few examples of women’s masking cults in Izzi (Okafor 1994) and Nsukka (Achebe 2003), mono mask cults of men predominate most Igbo communities. These are cults where men organize, control, and produce the masquerades even though select women are sometimes inducted in some cults.  This is part of the reason for generally regarding masking as men’s affair so that suggestion of female power in it appears incongruous. This study, however, wades through the seeming incongruity to delineate a significant female input in the activities of men’s cults. If a male-dominated activity like masking cult of men can be perceived as a microcosm of patriarchy, examination of female power in the activity can be a pointer to the maneuvering of gender in patriarchy. This paper will argue that female power rooted in the traditional conception of female energies is both abstract and real in men’s masking as will be appreciated in a discussion of the following:

                  Women’s Non/Involvement and Omumu theory of begetting
                      Mother-figures and creative mothering
                     Women and mask characterization.
                     Women audience and Masking illusion.

Women’s Non/Involvement and Omumu theory of begetting

Female power is viewed in terms of the physical woman, the conceptualization of her energies, and contribution of these to society. The ideology of woman power is created by traditional thinking, influences societal psychology, and informs social dynamics. There is a remarkable manifestation of this power in ways that are often veiled by masking illusion and politics of recognition. Rather that think of masking solely as a repressive force for keeping women down, as some scholars have argued, we shall later see in this essay that the mask interaction with women is an enabling force in the symbiotic relationship between mask spirits and the community. The community includes members and non-members of mask cults, as well as active and non-active participants who contribute to the meaning of performance. Thus, many Igbo persons, initiates and non-initiates, have cultural appreciation of the masking phenomenon and can articulate this if they choose to.

Some people are offended by any suggestion of women’s participation in masking and vehemently refute it or try to subvert discussions of it. At the presentation of my research at the University of Nigeria in 1985, a scholar insisted that women were totally excluded from the activity, and that as a gender-outsider, I should not research on it. Although this minority view was rebutted by the Chair and other committee members, it helped me to review my research methodology. White men who were outsiders to Igbo culture and language (examples include G. T. Basden, Simon Ottenberg, and Herbert Cole) had successfully carried out research in Igboland, so I did not perceive the “outsider” position as an insurmountable impediment. Their success motivated me to adopt the caution and meticulousness of a gender-outsider to masking, who was also an insider to Igbo culture.  This is a kind of combination that is similar to what Kishwa calls “inoutsider” position that thrives on the unity of research positions (Kishwa 2005: 2). I was also encouraged by an encounter with a white woman, Carol Lorenz, who did not have my Igbo cultural advantage, but whose field experience intersected with mine.  Her prior knowledge of denial of women’s part in masking did not prepare her for the contrary during her field work. According to her, “It was with considerable surprise that I noted, while witnessing numerous masquerades in Anambra State in 1988, the widespread involvement of Igbo women not only behind the scenes, but in a variety of very public roles” (Lorenz 1989:5).

Researchers are surprised that the popular oso mmmonwu involves all genders. Basically sketched as a conflict in which the mask-spirit and human runner play protagonist and antagonist, the oso mmonwu scenario portrays the willingness of mask spirits to play with all including the uninitiated. It has a bi-play that illustrates gender inclusiveness even while asserting the superiority of the mask. In 1983, a masquerade waylaid two of us women on our way to Ndiakeme square in Arondizogu to participate in the Ikeji masquerade festival. His intention was to chase us and strike us with his whip. The encounter can be an interesting material for feminist critique of misogyny, but the flogging of men can also make misandric reading. The issue is not gender oppression but the place of the chasing game as a re-enactment of the festival theme, which is the archetypal conflict as well as the survival of human forces in the festival of transition. Centering on recreation and fun, the oso-mmonwu scenario is an enjoyable sport with rules that govern the game of running, jumping up to avoid the mask’s whip that must be directed below the waist, and ensuring that your buttocks is padded in order to absorb any pain. It is a sport for the willing and is not limited to any gender even though it is more popular with men.

Women’s involvement in masking largely derives from the philosophy of being and begetting whereby existence is subliminally attributed to female beings. This notion largely derives from a unifying ideology of omumu in Igbo communities. Based on the idea that everything has a mother, a source that gave it life, many rituals, events, and structures revolve around omumu, which is the conceptual abstraction of the gynecological dimension of the body. This idea intersects with Chiweizu’s notion of the significance of the womb in men’s mentality (Chinweizu 1990). One may query his idea of patriarchy as women’s system of managing men through their control of the womb, child, stomach, and sex as well as feeding the psychological immaturity of men (1990: 171), but one hesitates to dismiss all his ideas as “a male riposte targeted to nullify the women’s cry of marginalization and dominance” (Ozumba 2005). Cheweizu’s focus on the womb supports our argument about the place of omumu as the primary seat of female power and assertiveness, but it does not articulate its disempowering aspect.

 The concept of omumu is best appreciated through its expression in architectural design, ritual performance, and construction of identity. The position of omumu shrine in front of the compound indicates its place in Igbo thinking. Explaining the concept of fertility and birthing represented in the shrine as the reason for its frontline position in the compound, Anezi Okocha, 4 a veteran healer and devotee of Ani (the earth spirit), maintains that obunu  omumu ka anyi kwo biri na uwa (it is because of omumu that we are living on this earth).  The theory of art and cognition propounded by Ayn Rand in 1975, and supported by Torres and Kamhi who maintain that art is a “recreation of reality in accordance with metaphysical value-judgments” (Torres and Kamhi 2000) is illuminating. It helps us to appreciate Okocha’s explanation of Omumu as an ideological construct through which the primacy of woman is naturalized in the design of Igbo compound. The centrality of the omumu shrine is supplemented by its rituals and public performance aimed at fertility. The performance intersects with that of the Nimba mask-figure (Baga, Guinea) that represents the female principle seen in fertility, maternity, and nurturing. Women and men with fertility issues seek divine intervention through omumu rituals performed and controlled by women whose chorus emphasizes their intention in enje.

Oscar Mokeme, the Ozo-Dimani of Oba, 5 explains that the word enje from the verb “to go,” delineates the purpose of omumu in the continuity of the society. Omumu performance is valued for its place in the sociopolitical and ritualistic ecosystem whereby ihe na eso ihe (something follows something) in a continuum that is linked by begetting. Omumu principle is associated with blood, fertility, strength, mystery, maternity, endurance, and energy that are evoked by gynecological presence and capacity. Discussing the primacy of gynecology, Opara and Ebo argue that “the African man places human investment above material wealth” and that woman is the pivot of that investment (Opara and Ebo 4). The idea of gynecology and its promise resonates in Flora Nwapa’s notion of women’s location in an elevated pedestal because of their fundamental role in the survival of and progress of the society (1998: 90). Leith-Ross’ view about Igbo men’s respect for women that is “so original and so modern that Europeans have only just begun to think of it” (1939: 231), expresses the depth of female valuation in traditional psyche. These ideas concur with Nzegwu’s idea of the significance of ‘mothering’ in Igbo psychology because of its function as the cohesive glue that binds siblings:

Every usokwu is a nodal point of power that derives not from the spiritual ofo (authority) of a mother’s husband but from her own natal family. It is the center of child socialization activities . . . Mother’s blood provides the cohesive glue that binds siblings, which men’s blood oaths attempt to mimic. . . The basis of a mother’s power is her provision of the critical organ that housed all children during their most vulnerable state of life (Nzegwu 2005). 

The reproductive principle in omumu finds its bearing from the bio-logic of nne or mother, which is so vital in Igbo mentality that its expressions are not difficult to find. Many communities trace their origin to a historical mother, couple, or father with his mother. In fact, a number of towns are linked to female progenitors through naming. Nnewi, Nnobi, Nnofia, Nnofija, Nnokwa, and Nneni readily come to mind because of the combination of nne with a suffix. Freudian notions of the oedipal complex might make an interesting reading of patriarchal relationships and men’s recreation of mother images through wives, but cannot fully theorize the Igbo concept of mothering. The Igbo notion of nne is not limited to the biological notion of mother even though it originates from bio-logic. Mother-being is conceptualized in terms of function-performance as well as spiritual and creative terms or what Opara and Eboh regard as the  “palpable panegyrics of creative mothering” (2005). They argue that biological mothering is similar to creative mothering which is artistic mothering and that both are vehicles of transcendence and freedom. This partly explains why creative groups such as dance ensembles and mask cults frequently require mother figures that provide the binding principle of identity and oneness. The idea of blood binding that is innate in mother’s blood is so essential that it is often simulated through the provision of blood oaths in the mask cults, and this is usually augmented with the mother-figure principle.


 Mother-figures and creative mothering

The role of Nne Ijele, mother of Ijele, in the Ijele mask-performance of Northern and Central Igbo communities illustrates the significance of the mother concept in an artistic phenomenon. Ijele is huge and represents a great spirit. After witnessing a performance in 1974, my little nephew, Okechukwu, described Ijele with the fascination of a child: “It is bigger than this house.” Indeed, Ijele is big but its symbolism is larger than a house and as large as the Igbo cosmos. The icons on the massive gliding figure include representations of humans, activities, animals, and even items of change such as cars and airplanes. Cole and Aniakor rightly describe it as a microcosm of Igbo history and social cosmos (1983). It is costly in production and represents prosperity, joy, and celebration. It is ife nkili, a great spectacle.  This great mask cannot move without its mother, Nne Ijele, who is believed to have tremendous spiritual powers capable of warding off evil and protecting the mask. On a metaphysical level, the Ijele performance encapsulates ino n’enu that denotes the pre-natal condition. In traditional psychology, pregnancy is perceived as a mystery and an unsolved condition with an expectant outcome.  The Ijele masquerade is like the pre-natal condition in its massive stature and oneness with the mother. Henderson and Umunna view the Ijele headdress as a representation of a pregnancy which is full of promises (1988:32). There is anxiety for the outcome of the ritual experience even as the spectacle represents prosperity.

The role of Nne Ijele performance is comparable to that of Nne Maa, mother of spirits, in the Njenji theater of Afikpo. While Nne Ijele is the un-masked mother symbolically leading the mask, Nne Maa is a masked character whose symbolic presence equally represents the Madonna (Ottenberg 1975:178). Nne Maa has been described as the “conceptual mother of all males who embody and dance the spirits” (Cole and Aniakor 1984:220). Similar mother figures do play roles in other mask-theaters outside Igboland. For example, a mother-figure is the spiritual leader and cult-head of the group that produces Efe masks of the Yoruba (Drewal 1974:58). Another example from Yorubaland is the case of ashe (shrine) where the Mother-mask or Abo-Igi “is always on a high pedestal in relation to other masks” (Layiwola 2000). Among the Okpella of northern Edo in Nigeria, the ancient Mother-mask is a Madonna figure that commemorates diseased titled women who are the conceptual mothers of mask spirits. On the head-dress is a tableau of statues that represent her children. Her breasts are flat “signifying the many children she has nourished” (Borgatti 1976:30). These Madonna figures help us to illustrate the focus on the ideology of begetting in mask characterization.  

Another striking influence of omumu in the masking tradition is portrayed in oral literature that attributes the origin of some mask cults to human and supernatural women. The earlier discussed idea of biological and creative mothering helps us to appreciate the need to substitute concrete mother figures with creative female originators. There is a plausible semantic explanation that the term mmonwu originated from the combination of mmuo (spirit) and onwu (death) to denote its essence as spirit of the dead.  However, oral literature of Arondizogu links the origin of mmonwu to a woman. Presented as historical fact, some may view it as myth without truth-value as is common in Faucauldian thinking (Hallen 2005). Whether real or imaginative, the story helps us to appreciate the psychological need for mother-figures. Collected from Arondizogu, the story has various versions with the same plot outline that can be summarized as follows:

Ugodinya and her husband, Okoye Mmonwu, were in the farm when she took ill with fever. She decided to go home. Later, Okoye returned home from the farm but did not see his wife. He went back to the farm to look for her and found a ‘spirit.’ He ran home and told his friends. They led him back to the farm. Then, they unraveled the mystery of the ‘sprit’ by discovering that it was Ugodiya ‘disguised’ with her wrapper that she used to cover herself from cold.

This story locates the origin of mmonwu in the unintentional masking of a woman. Once discovered, the mask assumed the name of the originator’s husband, Mmonwu, instead of her name, Ugodiya. In addition to this, she and majority of women were largely excluded from membership of the mask clubs where men of privilege used the image of Ugodiya’s model to produce mask figures. Just as in the Arondizogu example, the oral tradition of Ozuakoli also links the origin of Ekpe mask to a woman. A man was traveling to Arochukwu when he was captured by Ekpe maskers. The man’s wife offered her life to them in return for her husband. Impressed by her devotion to her man, the maskers taught her the Ekpe performance. On returning home, her husband’s people learnt the performance from her. Then they killed her so that no other group could learn it from her. Her fate is comparable to that of the artist who carved the heroic Ikoro drum of Umeze (Imo State). He was killed so that he would not be alive to carve it for another community (Basden 1966:360). The injustice and violence against the originators and the appropriation of their work connects with the exploitation of the ‘mother.’

Similar stories of appropriation of women’s creativity are found in other African communities. According to the oral tradition of Ugo, near Benin (Edo State), it was the king’s grandmother who revealed the secrets of Ekpo masking to King Agboghidi in a dream, and it was his wife who advised him to suspend the war and institute the cult as directed by the woman of the dream (Omoregie 1969:10). The Ekine masking of the Kalabari people (Rivers State) originated through Ekine Ba, the goddess to whom the cult is dedicated. She had learnt the art of the theater from water spirits (Horton 1981:94). The Chi-Wara mask of the Bamana (Mali) represents the spirit that taught the people how to farm. The male and female versions usually appear together in masks, and sometimes with Mousso Koroni (the mother figure), to represent ideas of nurturing  by invoking the elements such as earth, sun, and water that are necessary for cultivation and plant development.  As in the Igbo example, women are largely excluded from membership of the cults that produce these masks even though their images are characterized in the performance.


Women and mask characterization.

Traditional ideas about women are depicted in mask icons and used to portray theatrical models of the ideal daughter, wife, mother, or other categories. Called Agbogho-mmonwu in Anambra areas, Ikorodo in parts of Nsukka, Okoroshi-oma in some southern Igbo areas, and Nwamma in Afikpo, female mask-figures show variations in details of their costume and appearance but essentially their imagery is the same. Female characterization illustrates the significance of woman as material and concept. Finding woman fascinating and threatened by aspects of her essence, the maskers conceptualize a comfortable ideal, on which they invest attributes of beauty, peace, gentleness, and chastity. They castigate threatening traits by putting them to ridicule as illustrated by Akwunakwuna masquerade that depicts sexual excessiveness in women. They invest male mask-characters with ideas of masculinity such as aggressiveness, boldness, bravery, and courage. Women share these traits with men in real life but in the realm of mask production, only male masks are stereotyped as aggressive and controlling. This is a theatrical way of maintaining control in the society for when women uphold the admired norms and the men do the same, relative stability is retained through harmonization and complementality. This kind of theatrical maneuvering is similar to nineteenth century European construction of “the cult of true womanhood” (Dubois and Dumenil 2005, Fox and Hesse-Biber 1984:19) whereby ideas of purity and domesticity were prescribed for women in contrast to men who were expected to roam the public sphere. This cultural maneuvering is part of a large system of societal control of women, “by giving them a well-defined but circumscribed position within society, to which some status, honor and respectability are attached” (Brink 1990:271).  

In terms of female characterization, maskers usually pay attention to physical details that reflect the desired figure. The hair often consists of a stylish head-crest and the face is usually white, yellow, or pink.  The breast is another area of focus. Most masquerades that depict young female spirits usually have breasts that resist the law of gravity, although we occasionally find some with levels of downward inclination, just as in real life. Mother masks often have baby components that enhance their beauty and represent the oneness of women and their families. An example is Omelu-nne-na-nwa of Oba–Idemmili that usually appears with her husband, Aku-ezu-ozo, and their child, Obang-Ijele. Agbala-nwanyi represents a female spirit that stands for achievement and experience. Icons of authority, power, and wealth such as horse-tail, giant ivory bracelets, anklets, and corals are unmistakable in her adornment. Female nature spirits such as Ani (Earth) and Mmili (Water) are rare, but sometimes incarnated in mask spirit forms.

                             Agbogho-mmuo (Arochukwu)

Mask-figures often reflect particular contexts and are used to transmit societal ideologies from the perspective of the mask producers. This is illustrated by the Agbogho-mmonwu mask of the Ikeji performance in Arochukwu introduced from the Mmuo tradition of northern and central Igbo through Aro-Diaspora people in those areas.6 The maiden mask is typically tall, slim, and agile in her origin in central Igbo, but her adaptation in Arochukwu reflects Aro sensibility and particular awareness of mgbede7 bridal-nourishing concept associated with full-body. Real life megbede maidens are the special attraction of Ikeji performance, so the producers of Aro Agbogho-mmuo try to create a competitive spectacle. The face of the mask-character looks well fed like that of mgbede maiden that reflects the fullness and happiness of pregnancy or promise of it. A significant aspect of the costume is the waist‑structure with colorful wrappers that produce the effect of gyrating hips. Very prominent in the arrangement is the omu-Aro8 cloth that stamps Aro identity on the figure. Her steps are short and she maintains an elegant posture like a maiden carrying a water pot on her head. This is because of the way the wooden mask fits on the actor’s head keeping the neck straight and the eyes cast down thereby simulating the admired innocence of a maiden. Her movement is graceful and her flexible waist gyrates to the rhythm of her movement. When she dances, she stretches out her hands and vibrates her huge waist by the subtle manipulation of her feet.

The producers' idea of female beauty is depicted through the mask character's physical appearance, gentle movement, and maiden dance. Sometimes the representation of the female aura is so effective that the character provokes a comic by‑play in which a male character expresses amorous interest in her through pantomime. She usually ignores such public expression of interest in order to portray the expected ideal behavior. Sometimes a Law-enforcer mask guards her and wards off admirers, thereby enlarging the symbolism of the mask, creating more acting space and adding to the fun of the performance. Although the character is regarded as a spirit, there is great effort to simulate reality through the facial mask, costume, gestures and action. This focus on realistic portrayal is comparable to the Mwana Pwo of the Chokwe of Zaire. Mwana Pwo is the incarnation of a female ancestor whose face is sculptured with ancient scarifications that represent her status. Like Agbogho-mmuo, Mwana Pwo is overtly feminine in appearance and her performance is regarded as a symbol of fertility.


                                              Eru-wa-mgbede  (Aro quarters, Isiokpo)

The Eru-wa-mgbede mask-character of Aro-Isiokpo offers a rounded personality exhibiting characteristics of omumu beauty that includes qualities of gentleness and strength as earlier discussed. She is a female mask accompanied by both men and women. She displays gentleness in her subtle movement and dance, but strength and vigor are evident in the amazing dashing movements as well as the extraordinary ‘flying feats” regarded as supernatural. Preparation for the part is a big challenge for the male actor who must perfect his portrayal of feminine and masculine actions as well as supernatural feats. Acrobatics hardly pose much problem for actors in the community where the sport is a major pass-time. However, extensive rehearsal and preparation are required for the extraordinary actions that appear supernatural. Preparation includes seclusion, absence from sexual contact, plantain based vegetable diet, chewing of medicinal root called ugbugbo, and spiritual communion. Although I tried to explain his seclusion and concentration on his theatrical goal, abstainance that helped to conserve his energy and the vegetarian diet that kept him agile for female dance, the actor insisted that metaphysics was largely responsible for his actions. 

Like female masks, male masquerades are also models of social behavior. Male mask characters such as Akataka and Ojionu that are common in Central Igbo ensembles depict masculine traits such as aggressiveness, boldness, strength, and dominance.  The masquerades are judged on how well they depict the characteristic traits and actions. Cole and Aniakor emphasize the importance of audience-reactions (Cole and Aniakor 1994: 124). The populace internalizes the images, and even though people may not consciously strive to be like a mask-character that is regarded as a spirit, the visual representation and reactions to the representations can influence social conduct. This kind of process regarded as informal or latent learning (Bandura 2004), whereby individuals learn through observation without being aware that they are learning, is one way of internalizing notions of masculinity and femininity portrayed by the masks, and these function in social engineering.

The influence of Mask Theater on social norms is comparable to the impact of popular culture on technological settings as found in upscale areas of Nigerian communities with cable television and other media. This compares with Western contexts where people appreciate societal ideology through popular media that influence their identity as they internalize the images and act on them as their “cherished values and assumptions” (Jhally 2003, 249). People are immersed in the media images from cradle without knowing that the images educate them on “how to behave and what to think, feel, believe, fear, and desire… how to be men and women” (Kellner 2003, 9). Unlike the mask culture where female images are varied depending on the sensibility of the cult producers and the ideas of beauty in different contexts, female images in the Western media have almost approached  a kind of uniformity in their representation of the ideal woman through a singular narrow image of very thin, tall, and white woman  that help to promote “the cult of thinness” (Hesse-Biber 2007: 3). Research shows that only five percent of women fit that narrow image (Siebecker 1999: 125) and that even super models who are supposed to be the ideals do not always fit the shape. They often go through extensive dieting and cosmetic plastic surgeries in order to approximate to the popular image (Killbourne 2000).

In addition to female mask characters, non-mask choruses also contribute to the validation of societal ideology. This can be appreciated through the role of Umu Ada, a chorus of lineage daughters that take part in the Ekwe performance of Uvuru near Nsukka (Enugu State). Ekwe is a huge wooden mask that depicts various aspects of the community’s conception of the universe: human, animal, and spirit. My field-work in Uvuru (1984) shows that the lyrics and action of women’s choral prelude helped to create the joyful atmosphere for the mask’s action. The mask-figure’s appearance was brief, lasting about six minutes, but the choral epilogue continued to extend the imagery of the experience long after the mask had departed. Ekwe chorus is comparable to the mmaringo described by Ugonna as female chorus of unmarried daughters in the mmonwu performance of central Igbo areas. Together with a male chorus called okuigba, the mmaringo provides a vital aspect of the performance (Ugonna 1984:107).

Women audience and masking Illusion

The majority of women are usually part of the audience of mask performances and their presence is very important although sometimes misinterpreted. In his analysis of the Okumkpo theater of Afikpo, Enekwe notes the segregation and seeming passivity of women members of the audience that the men “totally ignored” and “who remained mum throughout the performance” (Enekwe 1987:121). From the same field area, Ottenberg reports the importance of women in the audience:

Much of the tension and excitement of the masquerade lies in the fact that the performance deals with male sector society or masquerade society members displaying before female non-members. The females may respond with presents or through singing, like mothers with an infant. The masking has little meaning without the presence of women (Ottenberg 1982:167).

Whether they are active participants as reported by Ottenberg or “mum” people as observed by Enekwe, women’s presence is important in communal performances that need the presence of the community to validate the splendor of the mask. Women’s presence especially their “silence” helps their performer sons, brothers, and husbands to express their machismo through a seemingly exclusive male activity nursed in cults where natural dominant mother figures are physically excluded or marginal. Research has shown that African masculinity is based on anxiety about manhood and fear of the female image (mother) that dominated the childhood psyche (Sayagues 2004). Studies by Ryan (1985) and Awason (2005) show that fear is translated to masculine activities geared towards the exclusion of women and expression of independence from the dominant mother images.  Although female power is significant in the theoretical and spiritual concept of masking, the human female is largely marginal in cult activities such as cult initiation, mask production and participation in the organization and control of the masks. The predominance of men in masking may thrive in the cult but it needs a female audience to play out its ebube or splendor during public performances.

Exclusion from membership of the cults raises questions about gender struggle and power sharing in the theory and practice of male dominated activity that is a window for viewing the larger patriarchal communities. It is alleged that women tend to gossip and may reveal the secret of the mask if they join the cult. This prejudice is easily dismissed by the fact that women have always known the secret but always acquiesced with masking expectation by denying their knowledge of it. A study of Ekpe mask in Ngwa indicates that “women not only know the individuals who inhabit the masks, they also know that the masquerades are not spirits as such” (Amankulor 1977:384). In the same vein, Ottenberg’s study of Okumkpo masking in Afikpo reveals that although women “may know secrets, the individuals involved, the ritual done – where they should not – they behave as if they do not” (1982:159). Before these researchers, Chinua Achebe, who portrayed pre-colonial life in his novel, Things Fall Apart, had inadvertently contributed to this discourse. Describing a mask scenario in a fictional Igbo location, he clearly indicated that women knew the secret of the mask but maintained the expected official position by pretending not to know:

Okonkwo’s wives and perhaps other women as well, might have noticed that the second egwugwu had the springy walk of Okonkwo. And they might also have noticed that Okonkwo was not among the titled men and elders who sat behind the row of egwugwu. But if they thought these things, they kept them with themselves (1959:85).

The above excerpt portrays the official posturing and the reality of women’s knowledge. Achebe credits Igbo women with that capability of perception, which is often ignored in arguments that take women’s support of masking make-believe as real lack of knowledge of the secret. Secrecy is necessary in the maintainance of mask illusion, and pretending to be ignorant of the mask secret is not limited to women but to everybody in the society who must react to mask-figures with the reverence that supports theatrical illusion of mask as spirit. Perhaps, the description of Nw’ekpe as a communal mask in the Ikeji festival of Arochukwu, and how its meaning as a returning heroic spirit is supported by male and female spectators, might illustrate the importance of make-believe in mask performances. The Ikeji festival is the most important event in Arochukwu in the sense that nothing, even the death of Eze-Aro, the king of Arochukwu, and intervention of early colonialists could prevent its performance.9 It is not surprising that nobody, of either sex, can have any excuse for not participating in the festival. The ninth day of the festival called Avo‑ndunasa-Nw’ekpe centers on the ritual of Nw’ekpe mask’s homecoming. He makes a grand entry with his retinue of musicians and followers. As they enter each village, they are greeted with gun‑shots by men and ululations by women as all chant the welcome song.

Nw’ekpe represents a historical character, Osim, who played a major role in the origin of the town by making the ultimate sacrifice for the life of the community. His place in the society is steeped in symbolism of sacrifice, peace, love, and continuity. Nw’ekpe is tall, broad, and brown in color with a small wooden mask-head. His costume consisting of a sack-like garment earned him the nickname of Akpa‑mkpaghara, referring to fish-bag, and underscores his playful relationship with the people who are culturally allowed to tease him and play with him. He looms large because of his exaggerated physique, deep symbolism, and historical relevance. He is believed to return from the world of the spirits to purify the society and shower the people with blessings, so he goes to the villages and interacts with people through dramatic performances, songs, or simple exchange of greetings. The following scenario between Man, Woman, and Nw’ekpe illustrates gender inclusive communal interaction: 

Igbo                                              Translation

Man:  Akpa nkpaghara!               Fish‑bag!
Nw'ekpe: Ee‑e.                             Yes.
Woman:   Nw'ekpe, ndewo.          Nw'ekpe, welcome.
Nw'ekpe: O!                                 O!
(Nw'ekpe looks around for the woman)
Man (mimicking the female voice) Onye nga‑nga!  The proud one!
Nw'ekpe: Ee‑e.                             Yes.
Man:        Enyi umu agbogho.      Lover of maidens.
Nw'ekpe: Eh! Eh! Eh!                  Yes! Yes! Yes!
       (Nw'ekpe is beginning to realize that a trick is being played on him.
       His reply of “Eh!” actually means "What?" in this context).
Man:        Bia sutu mu; onu.         Come and kiss me.
       (Nw'ekpe charges at Man trying to knock him with his wooden mask-head,
        but Man escapes and Nw'ekpe is restricted from continuing the chase).
Woman:  Onye nga‑nga.              The proud one.
Nw'ekpe: Ee‑e.                             Yes.

This episode indicates the inclusion of both genders as characters that interact with Nw'ekpe as the chief protagonist. The actors and spectators contribute to the make-believe that gives the performance its meaning as the interaction of spirit and humans. It is a joyful exchange that complements the serious dimension portrayed in the philosophical songs of the mask. Both the playful and serious aspects of the mask relate to the archetypal conflict between the opposing concepts of life and death represented in the festival of transition from old to New Year. Nw'ekpe is comparable to the communal mask characters of other traditional communities where women’s presence constitutes a complementary part of the communal audience. In Ngwa, the festival mask performer called Ekpe represents the communal hero who performs the ritual of the New Year. Choruses of elders and young people of both sexes, as well as the whole community connect with the mask-character that “enjoys communal patronage and participation with women and children forming part of its choric force” (Amankulor 1981:113). 

Cult adepts maintain that survival and protection of the society is of prime importance in masking and that gender inclusions and exclusions should be discussed within that context. For example, they argue that the menstrual flow is mysterious, powerful and destructive, so it is necessary to work around it with taboos that aim at protecting the women and those around her. This was part of the reason for not allowing pre-menopausal women to get involved in mask cult activities replete with metaphysical powers that can conflict with menstrual power. Other studies corroborate the potency of menstruation (Messenger and Messenger 1981) as well as rituals, taboos and seclusions of the period (Amadiume 1987, Uchenndu 1987:74-77). Seclusion of menstrual women was believed to be necessary because of the power of the blood to attract, repel, and destroy. When it attracts strong psychic medicine, for example, it can harm the woman. Pregnant women are usually discouraged from watching powerful masks, because menstrual influence is believed to be extra potent during this period. When the power repels, it can destroy another power like that of a charm as used in masking. These two seemingly opposing qualities are part of female power that is revered and feared at the same time, and which informs women’s exclusion from cult activities. It is clear that since the traditional Igbo society is not yet exposed to modern scientific explanation of biological manifestations in women; it is fascinated and protective, and also suspicious and proscriptive of gynecology; an essence to which it owes its continuity as indicated in the enje notion cited earlier in our discussion of the Omumu performance.

The logic of gynecology is also the reason for validating mask figures through the symbolic personification of female power in other African societies. For example, among the Senufo of the Ivory Coast, the Poro men’s mask society invokes an ancestress when a new cult is being instituted (Glaze 1975:28). The ritual incorporates the female essence through the presence of an elderly woman. The essence of womanhood also pervades the Gelede mask spectacle of the Yoruba. The producers "believed that from the beginning, the creator‑God put women in charge of all the good things on earth" (Abiodun 1976:1‑2). They associate women with tremendous magical powers, which they celebrate and try to appease through masking. According to Gelede elders, “Women posses the secret of life itself, the knowledge and special power to bring human beings into the world and remove them. This knowledge applies not only to gestation and childbirth but also to longevity” (Drewal and Drewal 1990: 8). The Yoruba and other examples connect with the Igbo belief in female power and its potency that must be negotiated, harnessed, appeased, and excluded in traditional male-generated ideologies as delineated in this discussion.



This discussion cited few women’s mask cults that exist in parallel arrangement with men’s cults, but has focused on mono cults of men where one should not expect women’s involvement. This focus has enabled us to appreciate how female power works in a male-centered cultural activity like masking. We engaged how female power as concept and material pervades various levels of mask production and performance. From the conceptualization, simulation and use of mother figures, through the characterization and use of female characters, to women’s part in supporting mask-illusion and enabling male machismo in the performances, female power is varied and complex. It is clear that through the use of the omumu concept in spiritual binding,  the process of idealization in characterization, and through significant contribution in the performance; women constitute a veritable head-stone in the theatrical representations. In reality, this head-stone is largely subordinated. Women can give the mask spiritual guidance as in the case of Nne Ijele, constitute a character in the performance as in the case of the female Chorus, but they do not participate in the center either by wearing the mask, functioning in the control of the cult, or in producing the plays. This is the paradox of female power expressed through the female input in the conceptualization and production of mask performances in the male-dominated cultural activity. This is a situation that connects with patriarchal systems where women contribute enormously to the sustenance and strength of the society while they are  marginalized in political and economic power through constitutional, religious, popular culture and other ideologies and mechanisms.

As contradictory as it may sound, female power expressed in omumu as the ‘key’ to life of the society is not complete without the delineation of its paradoxical nature, that is, the completion of the matrix of that power by its seeming opposing but harmonizing qualities of sacrifice and service. It is a compelling matrix that derives from the psycho logic of begetting, which is rooted in the biologic of gynecology. Female power is about independence and control inherent in motherbeing, but it is also about submitting independence to another such as the childbeing. The confluence of control and submission inherent in the motherbeing psychology contributes to diverse arrangements of control, power-sharing, and exploitation that manifest in different ways  in diverse societal structures. Masking can be seen as a political and psychological space for engineering gender separation, management, control, and acquiescence. It is a space for studying patriarchal gender maneuvering.





1. Literal translation is “mouth that says nno.” It is metaphorical reference to people that use forms of nno (a kind of greeting).

2. Housing and nourishing of children in the womb continues in the hearth which is the woman’s parlance for cultivating the oneness of “mother’s children” already bound by mother’s blood.

3.  Introduced from Ibibio neighboring communities.

4. A cultist and traditionalist, who also goes to church because all her children are Christians. About 83 years. Ndiakeme, Arondizogu. 1985.

5. A veteran medicine-man, who among other things is the Director of the Museum of African Tribal Arts, Portland, Maine. U.S.A5.

6. This refers to people of the Aro sub-group (who trace their origin to any of the nineteen villages of Arochukwu) who have formed lineages, villages, wards, towns, and clans in parts of the Eastern, Delta, and Rivers States of Nigeria as well as parts of Western Cameroons and Northern Nigeria.

7. A pre-nuptial period of leisure and pampering designed to keep the bride fresh for the marriage ceremonies.

8. The insignia designed from fresh palm frond characteristically looped to reflect solidarity  of people of Aro origin is woven into the fabric.

9. See ARODIV, Jan. 20, 1915 at the Nigerian National Archives, Enugu, Nigeria.




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Page title: Female Power
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