Ekpo society in Igbo land
Ekpo is an ancient society that originated from the Ibibio ethnic nationality of Akwa Ibom State. Due to cultural interactions, the society spread into neighbouring Igbo tribes; Aro, Ohafia, Abriba, Bende, Ohuhu, Ikwuano, Ngwa, Ndoki in Abia State, Obowu in Imo State and even up to the Ikwerre areas of Rivers State. Ekpo in the Ibibio language means "Ghost" or "Corpse".
The society is based on the belief in life after death, hence the masquerade is believed to be the ancestors' ghosts who visit to the land of the living to involve in the affairs of men.
The masked Ekpo are believed to be messengers who conveyed both instructions and warnings from the ancestors to the living and protected them from enemies.
The Ekpo society replicates the underworld, where law and order is believed to be prevalent.
The masquerades are actively involved in festivals, farming, rites of passage and in the judicial and administrative systems of the land.
Membership of the society was restricted to only strong hearted Males of good standing.
The society began with the boy stage, known as the "Ekpo ntokeyen" in Ibibio or
"Ekpo nwata" as it is called in the Igbo areas which a boy could be initiated from age 8. The second stage was the "Ataat" stage, the young adult stage while the last stage was the "Ekpo nyoho" stage. One must have been fully initiated into the society before marriage before being promoted to the Ekpo nyoho stage.
There were many types of Ekpo masquerades. They included Aboikpa Ekpo or maiden , Ekoon Ekpo or warrior, Ifed Ekpo or naked ghost, Ikpe Ekpo or judgement Ekpo, Ekpo Ndok or scary Ekpo, Inyoon Ekpo or lame, Akpok adok akom or the climbing lizard, Idion Ekpo, the diviner, Inuen Ekpo, the bird, Ayara, etc. With the introduction of the Ekpo masquerades to Igbo land, Igbo names were given to some of these types of Ekpo. For example, the Aboikpa Ekpo is the Agbọghọ Ekpo in Igbo land, while Iwayi nnono, Nkita Oku and Inum nyaga are types of Ekpo in Igbo land.
There were different ranks or grades of the Ekpo, led by the Ete Ekpo or Eze Ekpo in Igbo land . In Ibibio land, the ranks of the Ekpo hierarchically were: Ete Ekpo, Eka Ekpo, Akpan Ekpo, Adiaha unak, Nkubia, Udo Ekpo and Ukpaka Ekpo.
In Igbo land, especially Arochukwu, these ranks are known as "Uke Ekpo". They include: The Nne Ekpo (equivalent of Eka Ekpo), Ekperem, Mmama (Equivalent of Amama Ekpo in Ibibio), Aja or Uzuzu, Uro, Ntu, Nchara, Unyiri Okpa ovuru and Unyiri Okpa Ochie.
Onye Ebi Ekpo is the Igbo equivalent of the Akwa Ekpo who gives commands to the Ekpo nyoho at displays.
Like the Ekpe, the Ekpo had its own secret codes and system.
A male who wished to be initiated into the society must first go to the village head's residence to declare his intention. If after he's screened by the Eze Ekpo to be of good standing, he's required to bring some items including palmwine, money, animals before he's being initiated.
However, a non initiate could be forcefully initiated if he disobeyed the law during the Ekpo Season by going out on restricted days or to restricted places. He was arrested, forced to provide the items and become a member of the society.
The Ekpo Season was held between July- December, depending on Community. In some Ngwa and Ohuhu clans and Ikwerre clans like Isiokpo and Rumuji, the Ekpo festival is held in late December.
Before the Ekpo Season begins, the Ekpo masquerades spend time in the designated Ekpo hut or forest known as "Akai Ekpo" in Ibibio, "Ovia Ekpo" in Arochukwu and "Obu/Ovu Ekpo" in Ikwerre, where they are costumed, fortified and instructed by the Eze Ekpo..
When the masquerades were set, a gong was beaten to signal the beginning of the season.
The mask is decorated with palmfronds and raffia at the start of each Ekpo season but hung in a shrine at the end of the season and would only be used again after the appeasal of the mask's spirits.
At the commencement of Ekpo festival, farming is usually put on hold.
Movement is limited for women and noninitiates.
Ekpo members who are not performing any function are also required to remain at home.
It is against the law to quarrel or fight during the period. Some Ekpo masquerades stationed at the village borders to screen people visiting the village.
An Ekpo member however was allowed to travel in and out of his village during the season, provided he uses the Ekpo codes and dance steps he learnt during initiation, as password when he met a masked Ekpo at the border.
It was believed that a pregnant woman who watched the Ekpo masquerade would give birth to a monster resembling it.
The Ekpo masquerades are usually given a code of conducts by the Eze Ekpo before the commencements of their activities. Members who breached the rules were sanctioned.
An Ekpo masquerade was not permitted to chase or whip infants, women who carried children, water pots or market commodities or pregnant women.
However, the masquerade was permitted to flog any woman who did not flee upon sighting the Ekpo masquerade as it was disrespectful.
The Ekpo masquerades were also used to enforce laws. People who didn't want to comply with the set laws of the village, were made to do so by the Ekpo.
The Annang people around Ikot-Ekpene were notable wood carvers who made great Ekpo masks.
The Annang exported their masks to far and wide, to their Ngwa, Ohuhu, Bende, Arochukwu, Ikwuano, Ndoki Igbo neighbours as well as Ogoni.
The Ekpo masks from Annang through a network of trade from across the Imo river and the Ogoni territory, got to the Ikwerre areas as Jones had pointed out.
According to Jones (1973), "The Annang, upon acquiring the beautiful female Ekpe and heads, sold some of their copies to the southern Ikwerri Ibo of the Ahoada division where they appear in the Okorosie (Owu) water spirit masquerades". The Ekpo masks were used in some other areas in Rivers State, even up to Bakana.
The Aro also as agents, took the Ekpo masquerade to other parts of Igbo land where they settled, just as they established the Okonko in their settlements.
The Ekpo society in the Ikwerre areas is traced to the immigration of the early Aro people.
Today, with westernization, the Ekpo masquerade society is fast declining. Many young men have taken advantage of the masks to molest and extort money from people, devaluing the masquerade society.
In some communities, the activities of the Ekpo society is faced with ban by the state authorities because of the misdemeanor of many of their members.
However in some clans, the masquerade society is still very active. In Ngwa, Ohuhu, Obowo and Umuahia areas, the Ekpo masquerade festival is observed during the Yuletide.
Similarly, in the Ikwerre areas, particularly Isiokpo and Rumuji,
the Ekpo festival is usually observed within the last week of the year.
"𝘕𝘬𝘪̣𝘵𝘢 𝘖̣𝘬𝘶̣" (𝘩𝘰𝘵 𝘥𝘰𝘨), 𝘢𝘯 𝘌𝘬𝘱𝘰 𝘮𝘢𝘴𝘲𝘶𝘦𝘳𝘢𝘥𝘦 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮 𝘈𝘳𝘰𝘤𝘩𝘶𝘬𝘸𝘶, 𝘈𝘣𝘪𝘢 𝘚𝘵𝘢𝘵𝘦.
𝘌𝘬𝘱𝘰 𝘮𝘢𝘴𝘲𝘶𝘦𝘳𝘢𝘥𝘦𝘴 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮 𝘐𝘴𝘪𝘰𝘬𝘱𝘰, 𝘐𝘬𝘸𝘦𝘳𝘳𝘦 𝘓𝘎𝘈, 𝘙𝘪𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘴 𝘚𝘵𝘢𝘵𝘦.
𝘌𝘬𝘱𝘰 𝘕𝘺𝘰𝘩𝘰 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮 𝘐𝘣𝘪𝘣𝘪𝘰 𝘭𝘢𝘯𝘥, 𝘈𝘬𝘸𝘢𝘐𝘣𝘰𝘮 𝘚𝘵𝘢𝘵𝘦.
𝘌𝘬𝘱𝘰 𝘮𝘢𝘴𝘬𝘴 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮 𝘙𝘶𝘮𝘶𝘫𝘪, 𝘌𝘮𝘰𝘩𝘶𝘢 𝘓𝘎𝘈, 𝘙𝘪𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘴 𝘚𝘵𝘢𝘵𝘦
By Akachukwu vitalis