Academic journal article Africa

Rationalising Culture: Youth, Elites and Masquerade Politics

Academic journal article Africa

Rationalising Culture: Youth, Elites and Masquerade Politics

Article excerpt

Morton-Williams (1956) outlines the cult structure of the egungun masquerade societies of the Awori and Egbado territories of south-western Nigeria. He describes the various roles and status attached to each position in the formal structure of the masquerade cult. He goes on to describe the different masquerade types in the area, and finally outlines a political understanding of the position of the cult. His major concern is that of the masquerade cult as a contribution to the political process in lineage-based society. This article loosely follows the structure adopted by Morton-Williams.

Forty years later, masquerades are still being performed in Yoruba towns and masquerade is still fundamental to political contestation even within the changed environment of modem Nigeria. The Yoruba town of Ikole Ekiti, in the north-eastern marches of the Yoruba region, is no exception.(1) Amongst the young men who remain in Ikole masquerade is one of the activities that most engage their attention. The Ogun festival, although nominally dedicated to the Yoruba deity associated with iron, is increasingly a fete in celebration of the town's prowess, and the biannual egigun festival continues to have a large following of masked performers despite attempts to control the appearances of masquerade from the palace and the opprobrium from local born-again Christians. The involvement of the young men in masquerade is increasingly leading to a repositioning of the aims and position of the masquerade cult in relation to the town in general.

This article is about one aspect of masquerade. It intends no more than a description of the various groups that organise the masquerade festival and the politics that exist within the festival. Perceptions of ownership and control over the event are, I argue, congruent to a set of local debates about notions of culture, Importantly, however, the way in which the masquerades are being reorganised by young men is reminiscent of other associations within the town.

In general the literature upon `home-town' associations has focused upon their use in accessing economic and developmental resources from the state (for example, Barkan et al., 1991) or their position in political negotiation with the formal state (Lentz, 1995). While it is clear that many of these associations rely upon a relationship with the home town or place of origin and that membership often defines itself around `sons or daughters of the soil', the way in which specific cultural traditions have been mobilised and developed is largely unexamined.(2) Certainly the background to my argument derives from the periphery, but, I suggest, it allows access into the way in which cultural identity in the periphery is negotiated into the wider sphere of elite groups in Nigeria.

In general terms the contention about ritual expressed here is that while it contains a set of communicative practices and a conjunction of different symbols about ideas, it is also the site around which different social identities are defined and confirmed (Cohen, 1980). More particularly it is a view of ritual which suggests that in this case the political structure that surrounds the particular event of the ritual, the performance of the masquerades, is the structure that determines perceptions of what masquerade is about for the people of Ikole. It is apparent that Ikole masquerade festival, which outwardly displays a certain uniformity of identity within the process of masquerading, is in fact an arena of competing interests. It is clear that certain masks acquire a value function, and this may be because of inherent powers residing in the mask itself, but more particularly interest in the ritual is about an insider's right to compete for a role in the event itself.

Negotiations over the control of the festival illuminate the way in which new idioms are established. The new idioms promote the festival as being a part of a cultural identity of the town of Ikole. …

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