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

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

by John Thabiti Willis


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253031464
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 01/15/2018
Series: African Expressive Cultures Series
Pages: 210
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 13 - 17 Years

About the Author

John Thabiti Willis is Associate Professor of African History at Carleton College. He is an associate editor of the Journal of West African History.

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The Early History of Otta and the Origins of Egungun and Gelede

Otta is the capital of a precolonial Yoruba kingdom and a modern-day local government area, as well as the home of the second-largest concentration of industries in Nigeria. Geographically, this community lies at the convergence of a flat, low-lying savanna and a forest belt with well-watered soil that has nurtured agricultural, commercial, social, and political activities. Before the sixteenth century, a group of Awori people moved from Isheri to settle in Otta, where early economic activity included farming and trading. Otta is located to the north and west of another Awori settlement, Lagos, where a large lagoon that opens onto the Bight of Benin in West Africa proved conducive to fishing, water navigation, and canoe-based warfare (see map 1.1). To the west of Otta's early residents were Gbe speakers (Aja, Fon, and Gun people) and to the northwest and east were Yoruba speakers (Egbado and Ijebu people, respectively). People from near and far have made important contributions to Otta's political and cultural institutions.

This chapter reconstructs the early history of Otta and links the migration of Awori and other Yoruba speakers to the development of its political and cultural institutions. It draws on oral traditions documented by missionaries from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and unearthed archeological evidence to reconstruct the origin of the Egungun and Gelede masquerade practices and organizations. An analysis of this evidence reveals that Egungun and Gelede stemmed from political and commercial alliances between families from distinct ethnic groups and that these groups developed the capacity to control the material and human resources needed to organize and enact these events that served the interests of their patrons.

Otta, Its Founders, and Their Critics

Otta's exceptionally fertile soil and location between the forest and the coast attracted generations of settlers who either joined existing kin groups or established their own. Early inhabitants provided some later generations of settlers with land in perpetuity, free of annual rent payments. During the wars of the nineteenth century, other more recent settlers offered alcohol or military service in exchange for land and political, military, or ritual offices. They even founded their own lineages and elected and paid tribute to their own leaders.

The basic unit of social and political organization in Otta has been and continues to be the family. A lineage, or large family comprised of the patrilineal descendants of a single man believed to be the founder of the lineage, typically lived in one or multiple compounds. The baale was head of a single compound or a lineage comprised of multiple compounds, and although this figure was generally the oldest male, the baale was sometimes the most influential male — or female. Yoruba households were often polygamous, so many men of means had multiple wives, and the senior wife of the baale was (in theory) accorded the same degree of respect as her husband. All of the men under the authority of the baale demonstrated their respect for him by prostrating (dobale) themselves on the ground; women kneeled (kunle) to show respect to the baale, as well as to their elders or someone of higher standing. The baale also received periodic gifts of fish, produce, labor, and support from those living under his authority. The individual families mostly carried out their own economic activities independently, but received ritual, social, economic, political, and even legal support from the baale. Organizing and officiating rituals in honor of a lineage's ancestors or other guardian spirits were also among the responsibilities of the baale. The heads of the most prominent lineages in a town often held chieftaincy titles, which empowered their holders to wield authority in the day-to-day administration of the town. In this regard, the town operated like a federation of lineages.

Otta contained several wards, each comprised of a group of adjacent compounds. A resident chief, often the most powerful baale of the lineages that comprised a ward, represented the ward in the town government. The size and wealth of his lineage, along with the number and size of the compounds acknowledging his authority, determined who was the most powerful baale, as well as who among them represented his ward on the council of ward chiefs that governed the town. He maintained order and settled disputes. Power was not only vertical but also horizontal or, one might say, fluid. Compounds, as well as lineages, could transfer their allegiance from one chief to another, fueling competition between the major chiefly lineages to provide the gifts, protections, and favors needed to keep the allegiance of the smaller lineages.

Otta's earliest known ward structure featured two wards, Otun and Osi, which were populated by Awori settlers. The first individuals to represent the interest of their wards in governance at both the town and kingdom levels assumed the titles of Onikotun in Otun and Onikosi in Osi. Generations of other Yoruba and non-Yoruba settlers later established other wards in Otta.

The Ileshi, the Ikowogbe, and the Ijemo-Isolosi families settled in the Otun and Osi wards, claiming descent from the progenitor of the Awori people. It is based on this claim that Otta's status as a kingdom was established. According to oral tradition, before departing the palace in Ife, a prince named Ogunfunminire — the first Olofin — led the Awori migration. Two of Ogunfunminire's children, Osolo and Eleidi Atalabi, migrated to the location of present-day Otta. The elder brother, Atalabi, settled in the Otun ward, and his younger brother, Osolo, did the same in the Osi ward. Atalabi was a member of the Ijemo-Isolosi family and held in his possession the beaded crown, which legitimized his claim to the office of the oba, or king. The oba of Otta is known as the Olota. However, due to old age, Atalabi decided not to be installed as king and instead passed on the duties of the office to his son, Akinsewa.

What remains silent in the tradition is whether there was a human presence at Otta when the Awori people arrived. Local traditions date the founding of the town to 1500 and the reign of its first king to 1621. Painted on a building that sits a few blocks from the palace of Otta's king are the words, "Iledi Osugbo Ibile Ile Nla Ota, Seat of Traditional Osugbo Chiefs, Established in 1500" (see figure 1.1). This building serves as the meetinghouse for Otta's Osugbo: the Osugbo, more commonly known as the Ogboni in other Yoruba towns, is a representative body of chiefs who govern the town. Decisions made during Osugbo meetings establish and enact law. As the dating of the Osugbo meetinghouse suggests, the Osugbo represents the earliest form of Otta's government, preceding the establishment of the ward chiefs and the monarchy. Hence, the members of the Osugbo are typically regarded as having been the "real rulers" of towns during the precolonial era.

Oral traditions known as Irete Oworin, Irete Olota, and Osa Eleye in Odu Ifa offer an alternative account of the founding of Otta. According to these traditions, the "Mothers," who also are commonly referred to as "witches," founded and have since dominated Otta. I interpret these traditions as offering mythological support for the notion that a human community preceded the Awori migration to Otta and that the Aworis' arrival signals the origin of the monarchy, but not of the town's first inhabitants. These traditions chronicle the mythological journey of the orisha (deity) known as Orunmila to Otta (Ilu Aje, typically translated as the "City of Mothers"), where he encounters the "Mothers," who appear as birds — the most common animal form of witches. Orunmila wanted to learn their secrets; he consulted the Ifa oracle to determine the sacrifices required to ensure the success of his journey. Ifa prescribed that Orunmila offer a white linen sack, a white pigeon, four white kola nuts, four red kola nuts, oil, chalk, red powder from the wood of a camwood tree, and a calabash. Orunmila adhered to Ifa's instructions, and Ifa in turn revealed the secret powers that "witches" possess.

The tradition contains elements of allegory and history, as is typically the case in Ifa divination poetry. The references to Orunmila and the birds represent either the encounter between the founders of Otta's Osugbo and the town's original inhabitants or between the followers of Olofin, who introduced the institution of the kingship, and the earlier inhabitants, assumed to be Osugbo members. Historian Lorelle Semley offers a persuasive framework for interpreting myths about the founding of towns. Semley claims that founding myths tend to favor elite men, and accounts of Olofin's followers and of Orunmila present men as masters of supernatural resources that they use to assert their claims to power and authority; these men adhere to the instruction of "higher authorities," embodied by their elders or an oracle. Even the plate that features in the Awori migration account described in the introduction functions like an oracle, offering instruction to Awori settlers. Semley casts women leaders and "witches" as "relics of a long-lost matriarchal order." These groups are absent from the Awori migration tradition, but "witches" are present in the tradition from Odu Ifa; they revealed their secrets to Orunmila at Otta. Drawing on Semley's analysis, I interpret the dating of the founding of Otta's Osugbo and of the reign of the first monarch of Otta as marking two stages in the development of the town's political institutions. Furthermore, the sharing of secrets reflects the conferring of power and authority (along with sacred knowledge), whether from "witches" to Orunmila or from Osugbo to the monarchy.

Ritual Life

Much of what is known about ritual life in Otta comes from nineteenth-century missionary accounts and more contemporary (i.e., twentieth- and twenty-first-century) ethnographic evidence. Oral traditions and material culture offer vivid portraits of ritual life in Otta. For the Awori people, and for most others who spoke a variant of the Yoruba language and claimed descent from a monarchy that emerged at Ife, the world included both visible (human beings, plants, animals, and inanimate objects) and invisible (spirits) beings.

Ritual life was pragmatic and eclectic. Relations between human beings and spirits, whether ancestral or orisha, were interdependent. The realms of humanity and of the spirits mirrored one another and overlapped, and rulers attempted to reign over both humanity and the spirits. Birth, death, and ritual marked movements between these realms. Offerings, which included sacrifices, and divination were among the means of communicating between humans and spirits. In one respect, the relationship was reciprocal. Placating the spirits with offerings and other acts of service was believed to invite fortune, whereas neglect or failure to meet the desires of the spirits yielded misfortune. However, if an individual were to find one spirit more efficacious than another, he or she could neglect one ancestor in favor of the other if the latter was believed to be more powerful or accommodating. Like malnourished human beings, spirits that are neglected grow weak and die — which may seem ironic because it suggests that the dead may die twice. Yet they may also be brought back to life, in a sense, by another person's acts of service.

Ritual life in Yoruba kingdoms framed the struggle to centralize power and garner protection against threats from rivals and other usurpers or challengers to the king's power and authority. Orisha comprised a category of spirits that the people of Otta revered in hopes of obtaining their blessings and avoiding, and even redirecting, their wrath. Some orisha, such as Shango (the deity of thunder and lightning at the center of an Oyo royal cult), it is said, were once human beings who upon death became revered as ancestors before becoming honored as orisha. Many orisha were associated with forces of nature (as was also the case with Oya, the human wife of Shango and goddess of tornadoes and the Niger River). Divinations have long been performed to determine the will of ancestors and orisha, and offerings have long been made to placate them and win their blessings. Rituals honoring ancestors and orisha link kin and non-kin. The most popular orisha had devotees far beyond the community in which they were believed to have lived. Whereas rituals honoring ancestors were organized and performed by the living members of a lineage and led by the lineage head or senior priest, rituals honoring orisha fell under the domain of the cult organization and its priesthood, whose leading members formed a hierarchy of ranked officials.

The Origin of Egungun

Between the time that Otta established its Osugbo and its monarchy, the practice and priesthood of Egungun originated in the lowland savanna and bordering woodlands that would eventually become the capital of the Oyo kingdom and later spread to Otta during the era of Oyo imperial rule. The Oyo capital was bordered on the northwest by a group called the Bariba, the rulers of the Borgu kingdom — renowned for their network of merchants and for their warriors, who had developed a formidable cavalry as early as the fifteenth century — and on the northeast by the Nupe, who controlled the Niger River crossing at Jebba Island. Interactions between these three ethnolinguistic groups — the Yoruba, the Bariba, and the Nupe — led to the genesis of Egungun. The three groups struggled to gain control over the material resources of this region, forging alliances that resulted in a tradition that transcended their differences: this priesthood was the product of encounters between the Yoruba people of Oyo and their Nupe and Bariba neighbors. Egungun's history is intertwined with that of Shango worship, both of which have been the subject of much debate. The institutions of Egungun and Shango became entrenched in Oyo's political culture in ways that parallel some of the processes that led to their migration to Otta.

Although there are no written records of these rivalries, there exist relevant oral traditions pertaining to early or pre-imperial Oyo that were collected and documented by nineteenth-century missionaries and subsequent generations of scholars. These records of those traditions are the first written accounts of early Oyo history and the importance of Egungun in that context. They have been handed down for so long that the line between history and myth has proven difficult to limn. It is also likely that, at times, these oral traditions were intended to serve as propaganda, to make the past look more glorious than it actually was. Finally, such oral traditions as documented by nineteenth-century missionaries passed through the filters of the scribes' Christian sensibilities and biases, so in the search for the origins of Egungun, we must read these records very carefully for the clues they contain. Other sources have surfaced that deepen our understanding of the religious, political, economic, and gendered aspects involved in the rise of Egungun. Here, however, I present in detail the account of one Christian missionary, Samuel Johnson, and discuss narratives that emerge from other sources.

Central to Johnson's account in History of the Yorubas is the story of exile. After the Oyo leadership rejected the sage advice of the Alaafin's mother from Otta and did not adopt the practice of Ifa divination as the sacred oracle for the entire kingdom, a Nupe army invaded the Oyo capital. The Oyo court was then forced to spend a number of years first at Kusu (where the Egungun priesthood was established) and then at Igboho before returning triumphantly to its ancestral capital.

Johnson identifies Egungun as a masquerade practice that the Nupe imposed on the Oyo people during the reigns of Alaafin Onigbogi and Alaafin Ofinran, who ruled consecutively in the sixteenth century, before the kingdom's rise to the status of an empire in the seventeenth century. According to Johnson's sources, after the Oyo leadership rejected the advice of the Alaafin's mother, she departed from Oyo. Soon after her departure, a minor rebellion against Alaafin Onigbogi began in a nearby town. The Alaafin sent his war minister, the Bashorun, to suppress the rebellion. The king of the neighboring Nupe community learned of the Bashorun's temporary absence from Oyo, and, perceiving the town as defenseless, attacked Oyo Ile (Old Oyo) with a masquerade at the head of the invading army. The Alaafin was overthrown; he and his supporters fled to Gbere, the birthplace of his Bariba wife. However, when relations between the Alaafin and Borgu's rulers deteriorated, the Alaafin and his followers moved to Kusu. There, during the reign of Onigbogi's son, the Alaafin Ofinran, Oyo's political elite made two significant innovations: they adopted Ifa as the official oracle of the state, and they established the practice of Egungun as a state institution. The first decision was made in the belief that Oyo's misfortunes had been caused by the rejection of Ifa that was promoted by the Alaafin's mother from Otta. The second decision was made in collaboration with a group of immigrants from Nupe communities who became the first Egungun priests.


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Table of Contents

1. The Early History of Otta and the Origins of Egungun and Gelede
2. "Children" and "Wives" in the Politics of the Oyo Empire during the Era of the Atlantic Slave Trade
3. The Emergence of New Warriors, Wards, and Masquerades: The Otta Kingdom during the Era of Imperial Collapse
4. "A Thing to Govern the Town": Gendered Masquerades and the Politics of the Chiefs and the Monarchy in the Rebuilding of a Town, 1848–1859
5. Wives, Warriors, and Masks: Kinship, Gender, and Ethnicity in Otta, 1871–1928
Conclusion: Egungun and Gelede at Otta Today

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Babatunde Lawal

"John Thabiti Willis cites oral traditions, archival sources, and publications to draw attention to the link between economic development and spectacular and historically influential masquerade performances."

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"Important in its emphasis on the history of an art form and its specific cultural context; of interest to academic audiences as well as general readers."

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