By Emeka Maduka
Christmas and New Year in Enugu in the ’50s and 60s are indelible childhood memories, surpassing any reflections on escapades in primary school.
Apart from cup cakes, chin- chin, jollof rice or white rice with goat meat or chicken stew, there were new clothes and new pairs of shoes not to mention the once-a-year stylish haircut and plastic sunglasses.
Our eyes would sparkle in anticipation of wearing the new outfits to visit other families. During the visits, we would gorge on rice and stew, eat cake and chin-chin, drink Krola and receive small amounts of money as gifts.
Yuletide in those days were also the time of year when discipline was eased off. Even strict parents looked the other way as we sneaked out to watch masquerades that performed along Ogui Road, Zik Avenue and in Coal Camp.
With adrenaline pumping, we ran from the stinging whips of Ulaga masquerades and laughed until our sides hurt at the ribaldry of Onuku clowns.
The antics of machete-wielding Okwomma masquerades frightened and intrigued us. So did the fabled juju of Mgbadike masquerades especially those from Akpugo, Coal Camp and “Urban Area”.
We cannot forget the Ojionu masquerades. Their deft dance steps that synchronised the melodious sound of flutes and rhythmic drum beats of their troupe. The verses of the songs from their guttural voices were sexual in nature and threatened our innocence.
There were also the colorful Atumma and Agbogo Mmonwu. Their chiselled wooden masks with heavy make up, multicoloured tight outfit with jingle bells, pointed breasts and stilted effeminate gestures tickled us silly.
We envied children that were members of Kokoma troupes. Chaperoned by adults, they sang and danced with grace to the beat of drums and trumpets and went home with their share of money collected by the troupe.
Watching the roof-high Izaga masquerades as they pranced around, awkwardly, on wooden stilts put us on edge. Sometimes, they pretended to miss a step and about to crash just to elicit gasps from the crowd.
In our mind’s eyes, we see Abam war dancers. Fierce looking young men, bare-chested, muscles rippling, moving in step with their leader. With a basket of effigies of human heads perched precariously on his head, he waved an unlucky cockerell as he advanced and retreated with others to the rhythm of dry sticks knocked against each other. The intermittent lugubrious sounds of a shofar and blood-curdling shrieks completed the remake of a battle scene.
The Ekpe masquerade was in a class of its own. A pair of white circles passed for eyes, and the body-hugging black outfit made of woven net had colorful bands of raffia around the upper part of its torso, wrists and ankles. A bell tied loosely to its waist with yards of cotton cloth and a pair of wings on its back completed its ghostly look.
We were not afraid of Ekpe masquerade despite the ghostly appearance and the long staff it carried. It minded its business and merely swayed around the hip and took graceful steps to the monotonous chorus of its followers.
Memories of Yuletide in the 50s and 60s in Enugu will not be complete without the urban myths about masquerades. We used to let our imagination run wild as we tried to outdo each other with tall tales on the exploits of our preferred masquerades. How the Mgbadike from Coal Camp “pinned” the one from Ogui and it could not move. How the Okwomma from Akpugo carried water in a basket. How the outfit of an Ulaga was permanently glued to its body. The myths were many and subject to changes except the one that masquerades came out of ant holes.
Fights often broke out between fans of one masquerade and another. Arguments over whose favorite masquerade was more powerful started such fights. A winner hardly emerged and we remained friends and went on other escapades until the next Yuletide.
The halcyon days in Enugu will never come back. The street displays are no longer held and the urban myths have long been forgotten. Thankfully, we have the memories of the sights and sounds, and our silliness of long ago to hold on to.