It has been described as one of the most colorful cultural celebrations in Africa. Celebrated among the Yoruba people found mainly in the South Western parts of Nigeria, the Egungun festival is marked to give assurance to the dead that they are remembered and still have a place in the land of the living. The festival kicks off in November every year and ends in April before the annual rains set in.
Featuring masqueraders and flogging, the Egungun festival is based on legendary folklore. It is said that a mother who had many children suddenly began losing them one after the other until she was left with a five-year-old son. She named him Oju, meaning ‘My Eyes’. Oju, at one point in time, wrapped himself up in his mother’s clothes, covered his head and face to look unrecognizable, and started to dance without rhythm.
He subsequently asked his mother to create a drum from any object she finds and beat it for his dance. His mother agreed but because she was not an expert drummer, she could not produce any rhythmic beats from the calabash she used as the drum. Oju, nonetheless, continued to dance. He wished he could dance every day while his mother played the drum, but this was not possible. His mother had other duties to attend to.
Before long, Oju fell ill, and this was because his mother couldn’t help him dance. His mother, fearing she might lose him, went to see a herbalist who consulted the local oracle for treatment. The herbalist gave her some medications but added that if Oju is to get fully healed, he must be given whatever he asks for.
Thus, as soon as Oju’s mother got home, she made clothing out of a sack for him. The clothing covered Oju from head to feet, leaving only two small openings for him to see through. Oju’s mother told him that he could now dance whenever he wished, assuring him that she would always be available to play the drum to accompany his dance. As the dance continued for days, Oju suddenly got better.
After growing up to become a prominent member of his village, he lost his mother. And to show appreciation for her care and love, he decided to commemorate her death in a unique way. On the first anniversary of his mother’s death, Oju invited his friends to his house and served them with the type of food his mother made for him while she was alive — akara (bean balls), moin-moin (bean cakes), and eko (coagulated corn pap), according to one account. When they had finished eating, he made his friends wear the same type of sack clothing his mother made for him when she was alive. He subsequently asked his friends to dance with him. They went round the village dancing. They had a drummer, who was an expert, but Oju asked him to beat the drum without rhythm as his mother used to.
Every year, Oju remembered his mother this way. As time went on, other families in the village and surrounding towns started doing the same to memorialize their ancestors. Later, families in towns and villages joined to have one festival in remembrance of all their ancestors. The festival became known as Egungun, meaning masquerade. To date, masqueraders raid the street during the festival, dancing to the tune of drummers. It is believed that the masqueraders are chosen by the gods, who give them special powers of communicating with the dead and pleasing the ancestors. The masqueraders are dressed in elaborate and colourful masks and costumes and dance to traditional Yoruba drumming and singing.
The bata drum used during the festival is beaten without rhythm while the masquerades also dance without rhythm. The meals eaten are also similar to those Oju ate from his mother. Young men are also seen flogging each other on the chest, arms or legs to show their bravery and strength.
Every year, towns and cities which take part in the festival host a lot of tourists, helping boost their economies. All in all, the Egungun Festival is not only to worship ancestors but also to help strengthen unity among people in communities.