Masquerades today are seen as emblems of certain cultural festivals, but in pre-colonial Igbo society, they were part of the sociopolitical makeup and had duties that included acting as law enforcement agents. The onslaught of Christianity and Western civilization did not only demonize the masquerade tradition, but also denigrated it.
One of these is the Owu-Okoroshi masquerade society of the people of Oguta, in Nigeria’s Imo State.
In her 1994 documentary film, Owu: Chidi Joins the Okoroshi Secret Society, Sabine Jell-Bahlsen had an Igbo elder and griot narrate this legend. A woman named Ojeru goes fishing in a stream only to come up with an Ofo, a staff that is the Igbo symbol of truth and justice. Her husband Okonya consults Otugwa, a diviner, who informs him that the Ofo is the Owu and instructs him to prepare the Owu masquerade, in order to bring him wealth. When the Owu gains popularity in the community, Ojeru’s father Akunegbu contends with her husband over the ownership of the Owu, since the discoverer was his daughter. The case is settled when the community reminds Akunegbu that the husband had paid for his daughter’s bride price and now owns the woman and all that she possesses.
Director Abba T. Makama’s striking surrealist sophomore feature The Lost Okoroshi, which was first released in 2019, fictionalizes this legend. Makama’s film is also a satirical critique of modernity and its degradation of cultural traditions and practices. Makama debunks Western-influenced misconceptions of traditional masquerades, presenting ancestral spirits as superheroes who shouldn’t be feared but venerated.
His protagonist, Raymond Obinwa (Seun Ajayi), a man disenchanted with city life, is plagued by recurring dreams of masquerades dancing and chasing him. When he speaks to an elderly friend, Okonkwo (Chiwetalu Agu), about the dreams, he’s advised to welcome the masquerades—that they are spirits of the ancestors (in fact, the Igbo word for Masquerade, Mmanwu, loosely translates to spirit of the dead/ancestor) who bear good fortune. On the surface, this is the film’s thematic message, but it goes far deeper than that.
Through animated illustration and narration by Okonkwo, the legend of the masquerade is retold. The Okoroshi is presented as an ancestral spirit of the Igbo people who bears fortune for the good and bad luck for the wicked. In Makama’s exploration of this, Raymond transforms into the terrifying Okoroshi, and we see him perform the cultural duties of the masquerade—punishing a thief and being financially generous with a sex worker.
Masquerades do not exist in isolation in Igbo culture. The Owu masquerade is part of a sophisticated institution known as the Owu-Okoroshi Secret Society, whose ranking of members has the Osere, the gang of leaders, at the top. And at the bottom of the hierarchy are the Okoroshi—young boys who are initiated into adulthood during the New Year festival. It is the initiated Okoroshi who act as law enforcers of the community—exposing and punishing evildoers. In The Lost Okoroshi, Makama takes creative liberties and merges the duality of the Owu masquerade and the Okoroshi of the Owu-Okoroshi Secret Society, portraying the Okoroshi as a masquerade on its own and having his young protagonist transmogrify into the masquerade, rather than be initiated into the Society.
Just as in the Owu-Okoroshi legend, there’s a contention over who or where the masquerade belongs in the film. In the legend, Ojeru’s father and husband contested the ownership of the masquerade by virtue of their relationship with her. While this raises questions about the displacement of women in the Igbo patriarchal society—being torn between their patrilineal and matrimonial identities—Makama’s film takes up a different conversation: the identity of the Igbo or any Nigerian in an ethnocentric Nigeria.
The Okoroshi having appeared in Lagos, a secret society, IPSSHRR, dedicated to the restoration of Igbo culture, claims ownership of it and soon gets into a heated argument over where it belongs. One member believes that the Okoroshi should be returned to its ancestral home in Igboland. Another asserts the masquerade’s right to remain in Lagos, stating that its appearance in the city was divine and ordained by the ancestors, and insisting that “any land where a whole community of Igbo people have gathered, is Igboland.”
The subliminal message passed in that scene can be understood by many Igbo people. The Igbo are by far Nigeria’s most migratory group, settling and doing business in communities and towns all over Nigeria and beyond. This kind of industriousness has often been met with sentiments that allude to an Igbo domination of Nigeria. The IPPSHRR vice president’s suggestion “let the masquerade return to the east” becomes symbolic of the recent fervent calls for many Igbo people in the diaspora to return home and contribute to the development of Igboland. But Makama’s larger argument in that scene is that land and boundaries are essentially a social construct, and people should belong where they exist.
The conversation becomes ambiguous when you consider that Raymond, prior to his transmogrification, was psychologically displaced living in Lagos: he preferred the agrarian life in the countryside. As an ancient Igbo masquerade in Lagos, it became a question of geographical displacement. The metaphoric destruction of the Okoroshi, by a band of touts, lays bare the film’s main concern: the spiritual-cultural displacement in the Nigerian urban setting that has enabled the debasing of spiritual-cultural traditions. One wonders if the Okoroshi would have survived, had it been returned to its ancestral enclave in Igboland, a little more removed from the evils and demerits of modernity.