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The Importance of the African Masquerades in the Determination and Control of Society

In every culture, there are central ideas that promote the interaction of people and guide their way of life. In the traditional African setting, several beliefs and myths were considered to have both control and guidance of how the community was to live. Among this beliefs were the enshrined in the complex structure of spirits and ancestors that the society believed to have important roles in the community. The spirits and the ancestors were used to define the complexity and the wholeness of the universe by highlighting the usefulness of the living and the dead. However, the introduction of Islam and Christianity in the African society introduced a new relationship between the living and the dead. This essay argues that the African Masquerades were important in the determination of and control of the society. To support this, it will draw attention to the Esan people of Southern Nigeria, the Senufo of Ivory Coast and the Mende of the Sierra Leone.

The African society is very rich in traditions whose expression highlights the ideal beliefs about the living and the dead. Among the unique expression of culture and belief is the use of the masquerade. Masquerading is a cultural tradition involving dance in which dancers (mostly men) wear masks and perform at the community level. Such performances have cultural significance. The appearance of masquerades is not a daily phenomenon, but rather their appearance signifies the return of the ancestor to the human form or when the society requires the use of the masquerades power to control an aspect within the society.

The concept of masquerading involves the use of masks in addition to the holding of objects, music and dancing moves that signify a specific spirit. The masquerades show a range of behaviors; human, animal that can either stimulate the audience or create fear in the people. The spirits being masqueraded can exhibit power at extreme ends; weak and very strong. In most cases, the strong spirits have been accorded a living place called a shrine. The performances of the masquerades are designed to call people to action, affect them and induce the need to change certain aspects of the society.

According to Okoye (2010), there is a differing view of the masquerades between the Europeans and the Africans. Whereas the Europeans consider masquerades as anything under the mask with the role of entertainment, Africans consider the masquerade as part of their daily life. The African context of the masquerades is the embodiment of the ancestors among the living with the belief that life does not end with the physical death. Succinctly, the African view of the masquerade is that at the time of death, the spirit continues to live in an indescribable place and continues to commune with the living.

The masquerades in the African perspective have different roles that support a healthier society through linking the dead and the living.

Among the Esan people of Southern Nigeria, the Elimin (spirit masquerade) was difficult to comprehend since it was considered secretive and even prohibited from discussion among the women. These spirits are considered to belong to the ancestors who controlled the destinies of the living and had powers to control events that could otherwise compromise the security of the people. Therefore, they were called upon to offer both legislative and executive functions. However, it is imperative to note that the spirits carried out the functions in conjunction with the different groups of people; the Edion (elders), the Ohen (priest). These masquerades also supported and presided over the transformation and initial of different groups within the society. The spirits are believed to be present during the initiation of young men and women ushering them into different cadres and roles within the society. It supported their learning of new roles and guided the initiates as they supported the community.

Another role of the masquerade (spirit) in the Esan community was socio-political control. Traditional African societies were plagued with socio-political conflicts, and the spirits were required to preside over negotiation and arbitration of such cases. Since the Esan community had different groups of people, the young initiates, and the elders and the masquerade working in conjunction, it was easy to deliver judgment to the people who went against the set society norms and values. Given that societies understand the concept of peace, the Esan people were also faced with hostilities arising from boundaries between neighboring communities of people. During such situations, the agreements were done at the Okoven; the boundary under conflict.

Among the Senufo people of Ivory Coast, the masks were danced mainly by men. However, their types of masks were symbolic (Olupona, 2014). Some masks were small while others were large with peculiar features that described different powers. However, the masquerades performed during initiation and even at funerals.

Fig 1. A typical female mask, Senufo, Ivory Coast, late 20th century, Musee Barbier-Mueller, Geneva.

During funerals, the dancing of the masks closer to the corpse was symbolic to the expulsion of the deceased from the community. In some instances, several masquerades converge to perform at a festival especially during a prominent personality funeral. The masks with the peculiar symbols of crocodiles, hyena, and open jaws on their masks were an imitation of the ancestors and their bush power that could expel the wondering spirits using their medicines. There are instances when men wear and dance female masks during ceremonies. Such female masks are decorated to indicate the societal recognition of feminine creatures and order therein.

The Mende society of the Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea among the masqueraders, are unique since the masks are mainly danced by the women. In addition, their festivals are unique since the females alternate their male counterparts in a three-year period (Okagbue, 2013). During the female season, the females perform various functions. As the priestess, they represent the spirits of the dead and support the community in understanding the connection between the living and the dead. Second, since the no society is devoid of conflicts, they act as judges in arbitration, negotiation, and settlement of disputes. Third, the female maskers initiate, mentor, and educate girls by teaching them the norms and the values important during marriages and a result transforms them into marriageable girls.

Fig 2. Female mask, Mende Sierra Leone, mid-to-late 20th century, Painted wood, Fowler Museum of Cultural History, University of California, Los Angeles

Among the Mende people, the mask above is a representation of the role of women in societies as mothers, wives, and providers. The beauty of the mask is the ideal completeness of women while the plaited hair is symbolic to the order in households.


The African concept of the masquerade differs with the European view of the same. However, in African traditional societies that embrace masks and masquerades, several functions are associated with them. There is no doubt that the African societies that embraced masquerades had few cases of societal crimes since the masqueraded were revered and sometimes they could expel or kill an individual. Although deeply rooted in some societies, their roles are now diminishing with the introduction of Christianity and Islam that are changing their beliefs in the dead and their role among the living.

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