It stops us. It stands in front of the taxi and shakes its raffia attire. I’m seated at the backseat, left-side window of the taxi, and I put my head out the window and see an endless number of masquerades stretched down the road, all of them donning wooden white masks punctured with holes. The driver gets money from the glove compartment and, through his window, drops it to the floor. A boy in shorts and a t-shirt comes around and picks the money. The masquerade gives way. We drive through.
“The whole month, it’s been like this,” the driver says.
It is early afternoon, August 9. We had left from Owerri, heading to Egbema, the rural community where I’m from. Usually, the journey takes only an hour, but an hour has gone by already, and we are no more than halfway there. Agwa is the village we’re driving through now.
The road we’re on is a single lane, wide enough for two cars to pass through at once, its edges serrated like the blades of pinking shears. Scattered by the roadside are teenagers teasing the masquerades for a run. Adults amble by or sit on wooden benches in front of their yards.
The Okoroshi masquerades are water spirits believed to come from clouds. When the rainy season peaks, they come out to dance for six weeks. The maskers come with blessings for the ripening of yam crops, in preparation for the New Yam Festival, which takes place during the August break, a time in the rainy season when the sky holds back the rain for at least seven days at a stretch.
One other Okoroshi sights our taxi approaching and stands in our path. It raises one hand to the air and points the palm of the other hand our way. Our driver takes the cue and brings the car to a stop.
“I don’t have much change,” the driver says to no one in particular. “These people want to finish my money.”
I ply this road occasionally, especially on the weekends when I visit my parents. Sunday travels along this route are usually stress-free: no traffic at the busy Agwa market square; no village boys filling potholes with sands and asking the drivers for compensation; no policemen breaking the drivers’ journey at numerous checkpoints and collecting money from them. I imagine the oddity of this Sunday unsettling the insides of the driver.
Our car idles before the Okoroshi in front of us, its engine sputtering and threatening to stop. Another masquerade appears from a bend and joins the one blocking our path. It walks to the driver’s window and talks to the driver. I look closer at the masquerade’s attire: It is made from dry palm fronds, woven to form a short shoulder cape stopping just below the chest, and underneath the brown cape, an Akwete robe pours to the ground, hanging above the masquerade’s ankles – an attire redolent of a Catholic priest’s cassock. I take my eyes to its mask. It is smooth and ageless. A face carved from wood and polished to this magnificent sheen. Its white surface gleams under the early afternoon’s glare, the facial features, circular and small, are soft on the watcher’s eyes. Inscriptions adorn its forehead, writings I imagine to be the Nsibidi script.
“Does anybody have small money here?” the driver asks. “Abeg, help me.” He turns to face us at the back. I turn to him. Tired lines bunch across his forehead, and splotches of sweat dot his face.
I check my pockets and give him what I have, and he adds it to what he has and hands it to the masquerades’ boys. The Okoroshi beside us looks into the car and, for a moment, we lock eyes. Its eyes are as human as mine, and there’s nothing spiritual about their soft wetness, their droopy redness. I look away. As our driver readies to drive, the masquerade takes a finger to my head and pokes.
“Troublesome people,” the lady beside me says as our car moves away.
I say nothing.
The Okoroshi masquerades are spread across several Igbo communities, having slight variations in name, attire, and ethics. For some it is called Okoroso, for some Okorosha, but in my village, Okoroshi.
My grandfather was a member of the Okoroshi masquerade cult. In his time, men were required to join when they came of age. The ritual was hidden from the public’s view, so only the initiates knew the details, which they never shared. Those who shied away from the initiation were called weak and never fully accepted into the folds of real men. In my hometown, they were a very secretive group. Only a few things about them nonmembers could know. When the Okoroshi masquerades appeared for a performance, uninitiated men were meted the same treatment given to women: they couldn’t look at the masquerades’ activities, and those caught watching were chased and mercilessly flogged.
When my grandfather died, the Okoroshi masquerade cult, in accordance with their rites, demanded a goat and kola nuts. If a family failed to notify them about their member’s death, cult members from the kindred of the deceased bore the consequence: they were denied benefits other members enjoyed. My grandfather was seventy-nine when he died. We held the usual traditional ceremony for him: canopies were mounted and age grades, kindreds, friends and well-wishers gathered; a local band sang, and cultural dancers danced; everyone jollied and danced into the night. Later, at 2 am, after the crowd dispersed, in the frigid breath of the dark morning’s air, the Okoroshi cult members gathered around my grandfather’s grave. Only his sons – my father and his younger brothers – bore witness. After the rites and mandatory rituals, the cult members, with their hands, covered my grandfather’s grave. They buried their own.
However, those traditions are dying now. The power such traditional groups wielded waned with the passage of time.
Our drive out of Agwa is far from over. We’ve spent around thirty minutes on this rural road that usually takes, at most, ten minutes to drive through. And we’re still about forty kilometres away from our destination. The crowd we see in front informs us it will take a while. The young lady beside me notices them and says, “They’re still plenty o.”
“Today is their last day,” the driver says, “and that’s why the masquerades are out in heavy numbers, collecting the last money they can.”
The car stays quiet. Just the engine’s hum and the buzz from the roadside ringing in the cochlea of our ears. The driver, breaking the silence, adds, “They usually hire the masks and the attire, and they need to make enough money to pay for it.”
A masquerade from the throng runs towards our taxi and the driver brakes.
The driver puts his head out his window and hails the masquerade, his hands raised above his head, palms fisted and punching the air. He says in Igbo that he has served kola, “Echielam orji.” He begs; he has no money again. The driver leans into his seat and attempts to drive through but the Okoroshi rests its buttocks against the bonnet of the car. Seeking helpful intervention, the driver turns to the villagers in view. Following the driver’s gaze, I look left.
A young man sits on a bench in front of his yard, his chest bare. Two women perch beside the bannisters of a porch, the eaves shading them from the sting of the sun. None of them stirs. A man walks past our taxi, his hands in the pockets of his cocoa-coloured trousers, and he hails the masquerade as he saunters by, the sun illuminating the rich-brown of his youthful skin. The driver makes to reverse his car, and the masquerade staggers and turns. It points to the driver, and another masker walks towards us. The boys accompanying them come around to the driver’s door, and one of them says the driver has injured their masquerade.
The spiritual has bled.
The bare-chested man on the bench stands and approaches the road, his jeans trousers sagging below his waist, his steps thudding as that of a man approaching a fight. The driver kills the engine and hops out of the car. I brace myself for trouble. I begin to sweat, and I wipe the trickles off my face.
The bare-chested man stops at the edge of the road, before the gutter, his torso lit by the fiery yellow of the sun, and, from there, he shouts at the driver. Then he turns to the masquerades and their boys and, in Igbo, says, “Do not let them leave this place, they must pay before they move.” He turns and walks to his bench and sits, elbows on his laps, eyes drilling into the spot our car is parked.
The passengers with me grumble, but none of us moves or leaves the car. We’re strangers in this land.
Another young man walking by stops and asks what the problem is. The driver explains. The man speaks to the maskers and their boys; then he turns and tells us to go, that he will settle with them. The driver thanks the man, and he returns to his seat. He kicks the engine to life and continues our drive.
“That guy didn’t injure anything,” the driver says, agitated. “They just wanted to use that one to trap me.”
“See some are still in front,” I say, pointing.
We reach them and the driver brakes, careful this time in his dealings with the maskers. Before they ask, he calls the boys accompanying the masquerades and asks them for change. One of them dips his hand into his purse and retrieves a fistful of cash. Beside the road, a tree as large as history towers above us, its thick stem, myriad branches and leaves cast shadows onto the roadside. The tree is slanted left, and its adventitious roots rise above the land. A group of people sit on these roots, and as if poked by the tree, the seaters abruptly rise. The ambience takes a sudden turn and the air tenses. Murmurs swell. Everyone runs. The masquerades in front of us disperse in a hurry. I put my head outside the window and look behind; a throng marches towards us.
A masquerade surrounded by men holds a machete in its hand, a chain circles its waist, and one of the men clutches the rein in his hands. The masquerade’s regalia are woven from fresh fronds, with a shade of green deep and rich as the forest. Its mask is black and carved with rugged edges; fangs shoot from its mouth, and two horns rise above its head. The black maskers are vicious and dreaded. Their threatening look represents the mystery of the forest. They are rumoured to sometimes lose control and cause harm to onlookers. I turn to my front and lean into my seat. The road before us is clear. The driver peels away, and in minutes we exit Agwa.
It stops us. It stands in front of the taxi and shakes its raffia attire. I’m seated at the backseat, left-side window of the taxi, and I put my head out the window and see an endless number of masquerades stretched down the road, all of them donning wooden white masks punctured with holes
First of all, they are Nigerians. Who wouldn’t be happy to be Nigerian? I am totally enthralled to be a privileged citizen of a country that works perfectly well.
I am leaving Nigeria for the first time and Lagos is that last rehearsal before my final departure. Lagos does not pretend to be anything else or care that I have been journeying since morning on a slow moving bus from Nsukka. Even at 9 pm, it bristles with sizzling energy in the twinkling dark.
I read that it takes at least 25 years for the human brain to fully develop. Exactly when and where I picked up this information has become unclear. All through my secondary and tertiary education, I had always thought of myself as having a good perception of the world around me.
Students became detectives. They were assigned by senior prefects to catch anyone whose mother tongue rolled out of her mouth like a broken secret. Names were secretly written.