If you pass through Ojuelegba on a regular basis, you’ll certainly remember having to ward off some colorfully dressed individuals holding canes. These annoying individuals, who perch to your side, and mumble incoherently, are actually members of the Egungun cult. I did not know that before writing this article. I’ve successfully checked “learn something new today”” off my list.
The first time I came across these guys, was on my way home from school sometime last month. In unbelievable Yaba boy style, this guy suddenly attached himself to me, asking for money. That was the first and last time I ever acknowledged their existences, even though I lowkey observed them from afar. I wondered who they were, what they represented, and what festival was going on because masquerades only show up at Festivals, or so I thought. It was never a pressing issue though, so I mostly ignored it.
However, on one grey Sunday afternoon, them “guns” were out and about. I was on my way to wish a friend a happy birthday and my route took me through Ojuelegba. The first thought that came to mind when I saw them was “don’t these guys get tired?”. I casually snubbed the one that tried to catch my attention, as I tried to figure out how a man could wear such thick robes, in the heat, all day. From the marua I eventually entered, I saw one with really nice colors.
As a visual junkie, that was the final push my curiosity needed to spread its wings. I whipped out my phone, googled “Ojuelegba masquerades” and discovered the philosophical and cultural richness that lay in those costumes.
(Yoruba Egungun Festival)
(Egungun In Different Colourful Outfits)
(More Egungun in Different Outfits)
The Egunguns represent the ancestors of a Yoruba community. In a general term, the word means “masquerade”, “masked” or “costumed figures”. But when used specifically, it refers to the masquerades connected with ancestor reverence, or to the ancestors themselves as a collective force. (Wikipedia.)
The Yoruba worldview goes like this: life is a cycle and every individual, passes through this cycle on his or her own unique path. For people to stay in the cycle of life, they have to live good lives. The benefit of living a good life, is being remembered. That means you get to stay in the Sasa period; where the living, the unborn and the ancestors live. The forgotten however, go on to the Zamani which is where the gods, divinities and spirits dwell. These are the two parts of the, afterlife which itself is called “Ehin-Iwa”.
The special thing about being in the Sansa period is that you get to be “bi-lingual”, that is, you speak the language of men, and you speak the language of Spirits; of God. The people who make it into Sansa – a realm which is like the physical, but lacks any of its sufferings – make contracts with their living descendants. These contracts offer protection, in exchange for which the living perform certain rites in remembrance of the Sansa people.
There are many myths associated with the Egungun, but the one that called out to me, originated with the story of a King who died and was not given the proper burial rites by his sons. The first son ran at the sight of his father’s corpse, the second dressed the corpse up only to leave it behind. The third after trying to sell it in the market, finally abandoned it in the bush. (HJ Drewal 1991).
Many years later, when his eldest son became king, his wife couldn’t have any children. Each of the brothers consulted a diviner and learnt that it was punishment for their father’s incomplete burial. But, by then, their father’s remains were gone.
To make matters even deeper, a Gorilla raped the eldest son’s wife and impregnated her. She ran away ashamed, and gave birth to a child that was part monkey, part human, and abandoned him in the bush. The queen eventually returned to the Kingdom and told her husband the story. How he accepted such a story is beyond me, but he did, and he went to consult a diviner who then told him that the child did not die in the bush. It was a special child; that would grow up to be Amu’ludun (literally, ‘One-Who-Brings-Sweetness’ to the community).
The diviner advised the king to return to the place of his father’s unfinished burial and perform the proper rites, where his father would “materialize in a costume”. Thus, the Egungun was born. (HJ Drewal 1992) The Egungun masquerades since then, have served as a cultural symbol and a thread of stability in Yoruba land. They represent the ancestors, either individually as a particular ancestor, or collectively as a group of ancestors. They represent the roots, and thus the strength of the community. They stand in the otherworld for their communities. They are the foundation of Yoruba society, down to the level of the family.
The general structure of the Egungun myth is similar to a lot of other myths. However, it at the same time, reveals a level of cultural and philosophical sophistication matching that of any eastern or European culture. It is a well thought out plan that guided different Yoruba communities and supported their ways of life, for thousands of years. Such a feat is not to be treated lightly when you consider that Christianity has been around for only 2,000 years.
I like philosophy a lot, and have a growing interest in certain parts of culture and anthropology. Most of my curiosity trips have been directed towards cultures in other countries. Coming across this manifestation, of a history that is essentially mine, has a different feel to it. I certainly do not feel like I should adopt Yoruba beliefs entirely, but I do feel, like I should pay more credence to my roots, to the people and culture that make up a huge portion of my inherited identity. No matter how misrepresented they may be.
Wikipedia – History of the Yoruba People
A bit about the concept of Egungun festivals – Omo Oodua. Link: ooduarere.com/news-from-nigeria/breaking-news/a-bit-about-the-concept-of-egungun-festivals/#sthash.aq9rueF7.MBnOCB91.dpbs
Yoruba: Nine centuries of African art and thought. H.J Drewal, J Pemberton, R Abiodun – African arts, 1989 – MIT Press.
Yoruba ritual: performers, play, agency. – MT Drewal – 1992.