The Ekpe Masquerade


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A short description of the ancient Ekpe Masquerade and its cultural and spiritual significance, in the life of the people of the Cross River basin.

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The Ekpe Masquerade

  1. 1. The Ekpe Masquerade- Ed Emeka Keazor 2014
  2. 2. The Ekpe Masquerade is one of the most iconic spectacles in Efik society, the subject of numerous Tourist Board photo campaigns and post-card’s. The splash of red, black and yellow raffia and fabric of the Ekpe in full cry has come to represent in the minds of many non-indigenes, the characteristic face of Efik culture – alongside the equally ubiquitous Ekombi dancers. In reality the Ekpe Msquerade represents significantly more than a mere Tourist spectacle, but in fact embodies the very socio- cultural and indigenous spiritual soul of the Efik people. The Ekpe Masquerade is one of the symbols of the ancient Ekpe Society of the Cross River Basin and to understand the sacred importance of the Ekpe Masquerade, it is important to have a background understanding of the Ekpe Society, which embodies the over-arching philosophy of the Ekpe Masquerade. Origins: The Ekpe Society is often described as an ancient Secret Society in the Cross River Basin, with paramount responsibility for the administration and organisation of the society. Its singular responsibility being Governance, with functions ranging from establishment/formulation of societal mores, regulation and enforcement of those societal mores, through the administration and Judicial means. The Ekpe society and its members were the leaders and directing minds of the community. The Ekpe or Mgbe Society is wide-spread throughout the Cross River basin, covering several ethnic peoples from the Efik’s, the Qua-Ejegham and Efut people, amongst others through to the variants in Igbo-speaking area’s (known as the Okonko). The origins of the society are steeped in mystery with differing accounts, further deepening its myth and secrecy. Whilst the Qua claim to have introduced the Mgbe (Ekpe) from Cameroon ( from where
  3. 3. where they are said to have migrated), whilst there are two accounts of the Efik origins of Ekpe- some stating that it was formed between 1720 and 1729, another stating that the Efik’s introduced the Ekpe during their original migration to Calabar from the west of the Cross River. Another account by Efik oral Historians, being that the Efik acquired the Ekpe from an Efut people who occupied a site at Isangele (in present day Cross River State). External origins deepen the myth, with an account being that the Ekpe was brought from the Congo by Asibong Ekondo, who gave it to King Eyo Ema II as a gift. Structure of the Ekpe: The Ekpe Society was organised into various Lodges, which consisted literally of a building in the centre of the community, at which the Lodge’s activities were centred, from meetings, to Judicial activities. Each Lodge is headed by the highest title-holder Eyamba. One of the key symbols of the Ekpe Society is Nsibidi. Nsibidi Is more commonly known as the ancient form of Script, formulated by the Ekpe Society. Whilst Nsibidi writing is of deep importance, however Nsibidi as a concept goes beyond just the Script, which is in fact an operational symbol of the over- arching philosophy of Nsibidi, which is primarily as a communication platform of the Ekpe Society. The script being one method of communication. Nsibidi being the preserve of the society, is of a secret nature, known only to members of the Ekpe Society, membership of which is open only to men. The language of Nsibidi is learnt by initiates, in tandem with the other secrets of the Society. The fundamental requirement of new initiates being – modesty and respect for the Institution. Two key instructions being, for initiates to “keep your eyes open and your mouth shut” as well the adage “the more you look, the less you see” the latter requiring the initiate to explore in depth the tenets of which he is being instructed. The Ukara cloth worn by members, is an important medium of expression of the Nsibidi language and script form. The Ekpe Society consisted of several titular levels, of which the highest levels are occupied by older members. These levels being:
  4. 4. Original titles: Obong Mkpe Obong Mboko -isung Mboko Obong Mboko-Mboko -isung Mboko-Mboko Obong Mbakara -isung Mbakara Obong Ebonko -isung Ebonko Secondary titles: Obong Nyamkpe -isung Nyamkpe Obong Oku akama -isung Oku akama Obong Okpoho -isung Okpoho Obong Nkanda -isung Nkanda Tertiary titles: Obong Murua Obong Murua-Okpoho Obong Isu At the very top- Obong Eyamba is head of Efik Ekpe shrine. The Ekpe Masquerade: Alongside Nsibidi, the Ekpe Masquerade is one of the most important sdacred symbols of the Ekpe Society, with its functions being generically ceremonial and representative of the spirits of the ancestors. It is important to note that in Ekpe tenets, deceased elders of the society are still regarded as participating in the rites and activities of the society and hold the highest titular respect in the society. The society itself seeing a continuum between both the living and departed spirits of the ancestors. The Ekpe Masqquerade is thus an important manifestation of the spirit of the ancestor’s, which is not taken lightly by the Society and its members. An Ekpe Masquerade is the creation and preserve of each local Lodge and is manned by a member, whose identity cannot and must never be revealed to non-initiates of the society. In particular, in classic Ekpe ritual, women and non-initiates were not permitted to encounter an Ekpe Masquerade. The Ekpe Masquerade physically consists of an underlying all-fitting net material tight-fitting body-net costume made from fibrous material sourced from a Tree bark, though Nylon is more commonly used today. On top of this is a raffia mane worn around the chest, Also raffia attachments are worn around the wrist and ankles. Whilst Nsibidi patterns are worked expressed in the mane and wrist and ankle attachments. On the head of the Masquerade is a raffia attachment. All these completed by a wing- like hat attached to the back of the neck. The Masquerade would also hold in its hands, the sacred “Oboti” leaves which are said to have the spiritual power to cleanse ills and are also used as a means of paying homage to the Chiefs of the Ekpe Society. The deep ritual symbolism of the Ekpe Masquerade is further signified by homage which is paid during appearances of the Ekpe to the father of the Ekpe Masquerade “Nkom Ekom Nkom”. The Ekpe in its movements communicates with secret signs of Nsibidi, which could consist of expression of respect to the Obong, or to other Chiefs of the Ekpe Society present. Ekpe Masquerade in the present In modern times, a significant number of the rules surrounding the display and practice of the Ekpe Masquerade have been modified in line with the dynamic nature of history. Significantly Ekpe Masquerades now proceed publicly and can now be seen by non-initiates and women, unlike in the past. Another significant development being the participation of the Ekpe at public ceremonial events- “Nyoro”. An Nyoro by strict definition was a ceremony pursuant to the funeral rites of a deceased Eyamba or Lodge Head of the Ekpe. In recent times, the Obong of Calabar has hosted an Nyoro to mark the anniversary of his coronation, in addition, the State Government has organised an Nyoro, through the Botanical Society since 2005. These events consist of competitions between the various Ekpe troupes. The most important Nyoro clearly is the Obong Nyoro, which is an annual event hosted which witnesses fierce competition amongst the Ekpe.
  5. 5. In conclusion it can be said that inspite of the seeming openness and Touristic appeal of the Ekpe Masquerade, it still remains a deeply significant and revered symbol of one of the most important and respected Institutions of the Efik people. References: Some notes on Nsibidi- J.McGregor- 1909 Masked Plays of South-Eastern Nigeria- G.I.Jones- 1945 Cross River Religion- Rosalind Hackett- 1987 Take it to the Streets: Performing Ekpe/Mgbe power in contemporary Calabar- Jordan Fenton- 2009 Images: