The cover of this book shows an Egungun mask. The Yoruba people of West Africa practise a unique cultural tradition called the Egungun, which celebrates the spirits of departed ancestors who each year revisit the human community. The festival goes on for several days, strengthening the bonds that connect families and communities with their ancestors. These spirits come back to bless, protect, warn, and punish their earthly relatives – depending on how their relatives neglect or honour them.
As soon as as the drums start, the Egungun masquerader begins to dance, his cloths streaming and swinging around him, displaying “spirit in motion”. The appearance of the Egungun in the community is dramatic – involving pageantry, drumming and dancing, singing and celebration. These masquerade performances are dominated by the swirling of fabrics and colours, set in motion by intricate body movements and carefully orchestrated dance steps. The essential elements of Egungun are the cloth (mostly red, believed to have spiritual powers to revive the dead), wind, and power.
The costumes are made of many kinds of fabrics, both locally woven and bought; and also metal, beads, leather, bones, and potent empowering materials. Today the fabrics chosen are the best that money can buy, and include damask, velvet, silk, Indian madras, and printed cotton.
According to the old stories told about the Egungun, this tradition began with Oya, a mother of nine sons. None of them could speak. After she had consulted a diviner, her last son was born and she named him Egungun. He could speak – but not in a human voice. Praise songs are sung about Oya during the masquerade:
Oya, whose husband is red
Wind of death
The powerful gale that flattens the tree at the gate of the in-laws
Rumour hurling thunder from above
Oya, the whirlwind that sucks up leaves
And makes them dance in pairs.