All over the world, the month of December is known to be the yuletide period for Christians. A month the birth of Jesus Christ is always celebrated. For the Ebira people in the central senatorial district of Kogi State, Nigeria, there is more than one festival celebrated in December. This festival ushers in the last month of the year, and it is called the Ekuechi festival. And guess what? Without mincing words, 99 of every 100 Ebira women never liked and still do not like this festival from its inception to the present time. Why? Because it is a period where they would be locked inside the house usually between the hours of 7pm to 7am of the following day, and that repeats itself everyday for as long as the festival lasts in the district. Again, the question is why? This is where the myths come in.
Growing up as a very young male child in a house having almost an equal number of males to the females, I recall that my father, my brothers and I will always be filled with the inexpressible joy of having the power to be outside in the evening while our mother and sisters would be under lock and key, restrained from the realities we enjoy outside the house. That was what I met, and the popular answer to the begging question is that even an old woman would be spiritually affected by this reality that a boy of 2 years old is immune against. Oh! If you even ask most of the women folks why they are usually partially enslaved during the Ekuechi festival, they have no answers. Over the years, it became dawn on me that it was a gimmick or rather a strategy to demonstrate the patriarchic nature of the African traditional system, that is, a way of manifesting the preponderance of this all powerful man over the women folks. But there is more to it than meets the eye, which is why no feminists’ activity can halt the century old tradition.
In his work “Women as Iconic Paradox, the Ebira-Ekuechi Facekuerade Performance Example, Enessi Ododo (PhD) gave an insight on the all men – dominated event. He interrogated the origin story of Ekuechi and the vital space women occupy in it as well as their iconic essence in the performance design of the festival. Although there are few accounts of how Eku concept started, however the differential gaps in these accounts are just not wide, in essence, not fundamental.
Popularly believed myth has it that after creating man and woman as husband and wife, one day God sent for the man, but he was too busy to honour the call. In his stead, God opted for the wife. God gave the wife Irakwo (an egg-like object that contains the secrets of life and has the capacity to manifest supernatural powers) for her husband. On discovering the contents and being fascinated by them, she did not give it to the husband, but hid it in her uterus and later swallowed it. Whooow, she thereafter became powerful, performing supernatural feats like turning into any animal and changing back to a human being. She could instantly grow wings to fly around in astral travels, and also capable of all sorts of mysterious transformations. Her husband became envious of her powers, and in sympathy, God enabled the husband to create the Eku masquerade cult from which women membership and participation is greatly discouraged, as a counterforce to the power women possess.
In line with the above account, the Chief of Eika clan in Ebiraland in an interview was quoted as positing that Eika is the senior clan in Ebiraland and Ekuechi originated from them. The real origin of the festival is a tradition secret which originated as a necessity. These are his words: “When Witchcraft crept into Ebiraland, it was the women who reigned supreme in the cruel craft and they cheated us men by it. Many people were being killed by them especially men. In retaliation, we men also set up the Eku cult to dread the women. Women are made to believe that Ekus who perform during Ekuechi are ancestor spirits raised from the dead to come and admonish, warn and punish evildoers in their songs and rituals.” (cf Adeiza, 1994).
From both accounts, the central point is that the concept of Eku was purposively initiated as retaliation, a counterforce and a clap-back on the women folks for the supposed witchcraft they practiced eons ago. A critical look would suggest that a woman who surreptitiously peeped on the masquerades at night only have the tendencies of being spiritually attacked if the cult members of the masquerade can identify the woman. This implies that the identification of the ‘culprit’ makes the job easy. However, developments have it that most of the masquerades have so much endowed their clothing spiritually, such that even without knowing they are being peeped on, the spirit does the work. The work is to jealously turn the skin colour of the woman into pale white, before she dies finally, especially if the spirits are not appeased on time. There is then an exemption to some special women folks known as the Onokus, more like the guardian angels of the Eku cult. Onokus are born, not made. So only few get to become Onokus, a talk for another time.
There is therefore no gainsaying the fact, that with current experiences, Ekuechi is one of the traditional festivals of the Ebira people that will never go into extinction, despite the civilization and the rate at which the majority of the Ebira people have embraced Christianity and Islamic beliefs. The mystery behind the sustained and unalloyed firm hold on what some people would call barbaric, primitive and devilish cultural belief has remained a bone to crack. This is a festival where rich Ebira men would travel home from wherever they are to grace; the military folks would come with their combatant colleagues to guide; and youths would keep timetables of the celebration distribution according to districts, so as not to miss.
Thus, the question a lady asked me while interacting on the subject matter is this. “Adeiza, are women witches?” So I ask you, are Ebira women witches? This is logical. If your answer is a yes, it means my mother is a witch, and your mother is the head of the coven. If your answer is no, it means there must be a way out of this. I am definitely not the one to get us out of it (you know what I mean). But I believe in conscientizing the incoming generation that would take dominance on the decisions that would affect our appraisals of the Ebira culture generally. This is a time where we look at tailoring our culture towards the river bend of modernization. Like the Ebira proverb, “Okuha orara, doza rara sasa” (when the river bends, we bend alongside). Edward Jatto in his 2016 song, “Eze Arigede” could not hold back the feats which Ebira women have achieved within these years in view. They are now top echelons in the labour force, and even politically. Some are even the breadwinners of the family, singlehandedly footing family bills. Witches?
More disheartening is that these ill-perceptions of women abound in most cultures, such as the Bantus group in South Africa, and even in Sierra-Leone. To set the record straight, like the Bible has it, give unto Caesar what’s his, and unto God what’s God’s. So, we should know where everyone belongs.
Funny enough is that the modern time has given women the ample opportunities to pick information on the secrets of masquerading without being participant. One who has been around home for quite sometimes would truthfully agree with me. So what the men have to boast of cannot be compared with times past. The bad news for the women is that in a typical African society like ours, they have little or nothing to do about the cultural system. Time shall really tell.
I hope the essence of this piece is not defeated in any way, since it is primarily geared towards driving home the origin of the festival which we will soon be celebrating for the year 2016. I hope we are getting somewhere. Wishing you all a peaceful Ekuechi festival, Christmas and New Year celebration in advance.
– Alex Adeiza