Origin of Alekwuafia: Masquerade that’s a Poet


Idoma communities annually dedicate three days to celebrate ancestral spirits, honoring their role in ensuring plentiful harvests for the outgoing and incoming agricultural seasons.

During the festival, ancestral spirits manifest as Alekwu afia masquerades, weaving through genealogies in poetic tunes, a spectacle cherished across various Idoma localities, notably Ado, Otukpo, and Okpokwu in Benue State.

The Eje Alekwu Festival is a tribute to ancestors, revered for curbing vices like adultery, theft, and murder. Held between late March and early April, it commences with rituals by the land’s chief priest for purification, protection, and abundance, seeking prosperous yields for the community. This event draws one of the largest gatherings in Idoma land, featuring communal hunting, with the most significant catch offered to the gods.

According to Idoma scholar Amali E. Odumu, Alekwaafia represents the reincarnation of an ancestral father into a masquerade, symbolising life after death. The profound significance attached to the masquerade and its poetic traditions preserves Idoma’s cultural values and identity during the festival. The chief priest performs pre-festival sacrifices, invoking blessings from the gods.

On the event day, able-bodied men hunt for games to prepare meals for the festival. Thousands converge at the Och’idoma’s palace to honor and present gifts. The entrance of the Och’idoma, accompanied by an entourage, involves a cock drinking from local gin, offered as a sacrifice. Praises shower the king as he addresses the people.

For example, in Ugboju, a three-day celebration unfolds, starting on a Friday. Worshipers and Alekwu custodians pay homage through sacrifices—drinks or agricultural produce—making requests for their families and land. The climax occurs on Sunday at the Chief’s palace playground, marked by dancers, captivating music, delicacies like pounded yam and okoho soup, and games caught during the hunt. The Och’idoma confers titles and receives numerous gifts. As the festival peaks, the king’s absence signifies a belief that he transcends to a realm of glory in a whirlwind.

Research by Chief Akpallah Okenyodo suggests the Alekwuafia masquerade’s initial diffusion from Apa, possibly through the Igbira commoners, linguistically linked to the Nupe, predating Panda and Igu’s foundation. The Igbira’s masquerade cult, associated with ‘OPA’ cloth, strengthened political power, diffusing the Idoma settlement. Ugboju’s royal kindred integrated the ritual, enhancing their political influence since about 1625.

Another account by Chief Obogo D Alapa narrates the mystical origin of Alekwu from the Odeh and Ogwuche kindred of Otukpo. Odeh’s children, mourning their father’s early demise, prompt Ogwuche to seek a solution. Seeking aid from Ochobo village, elders assure them they’ll summon Odeh’s spirit as Alekwu masquerades. Mandated by the elders, Ogwu fetches Odeh’s representation as Alekwu Afia. Witnessing ‘Odeh’ as Alekweya Afia, the children rejoice, praising their father, and receiving blessings and ancestral stories.

This multi-faceted origin tale reflects the rich, intertwined cultural heritage of the Alekwu Afia masquerade, symbolizing reverence for ancestry and tradition in Idoma land.               

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