Masquerading Politics: Kinship, Gender, and Ethnicity in a Yoruba Town

Masquerading Politics: Kinship, Gender, and Ethnicity in a Yoruba Town

Masquerading Politics: Kinship, Gender, and Ethnicity in a Yoruba Town

Masquerading Politics: Kinship, Gender, and Ethnicity in a Yoruba Town


In West Africa, especially among Yoruba people, masquerades have the power to kill enemies, appoint kings, and grant fertility. John Thabiti Willis takes a close look at masquerade traditions in the Yoruba town of Otta, exploring transformations in performers, performances, and the institutional structures in which masquerade was used to reveal ongoing changes in notions of gender, kinship, and ethnic identity. As Willis focuses on performers and spectators, he reveals a history of masquerade that is rich and complex. His research offers a more nuanced understanding of performance practices in Africa and their role in forging alliances, consolidating state power, incorporating immigrants, executing criminals, and projecting individual and group power on both sides of the Afro-Atlantic world.


In 1848, a young warrior from the West African town of Otta consulted a diviner because he was unable to conceive a child with his wife. the diviner told him that his ancestors were punishing him for his failure to honor them properly. To rectify the situation he needed to organize an ancestral masquerade figure and organization known as an Egungun. Otta’s chiefs had banned his father’s Egungun a little more than a year earlier. His father, the highest-ranking chief in the town—second in authority only to the king of Otta—was responsible for punishing criminals and leading the town’s defenses in battle. When it was called for, the father would appoint a new Egungun, a masked and costumed figure revered as an incarnate ancestor, to perform executions, and it was this violent use of Egungun that the chiefs had banned.

When performing an Egungun, the warrior wore elaborately decorated fabrics that covered it from head to toe. the feathers of birds, the fur of cows and hyenas, the shells of turtles and snails, and the bones of animals were attached to sections of cloth covering the arms, chest, and back of the Egungun. Bloodstains were visible on its sleeves and chest. the warrior’s father and other relatives used the blood and remains of animals to consecrate the mask, channeling the spirits of the ancestors into the Egungun.

The young warrior adhered to the diviner’s prescription, creating an Egungun masquerade named Ajofoyinbo, Yoruba for “we dance for the white man.” This name symbolized his father’s status as the chief who, in his capacity as a foreign relations officer, hosted and entertained guests, including white men, before they visited the king. the white men would bring gifts to his father, and the new Egungun that his son created was named in their honor. This Egungun masquerader, more entertaining than the violent Egungun that had been banned, danced in the presence of the whites with appropriate adornments. Then the chief took the Egungun cloth to the nearby village of Iyesi, the home of his mother, where his childless son further adorned the new Egungun with the hope of pleasing the ancestral spirits. He and his wife subsequently had two children, one boy and one girl. That Egungun became known thereafter as Ajofoyinbo Iyesi.

This episode reveals the power of masquerades in West Africa, in both civil society and political life. Using a range of historical sources and methods, I argue that such masquerades played critical roles in West African history. I center my . . .

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