Masking is an artistic and social activity of men who are privileged to be members of the cult. They use sacred masks to produce mask-figures often called masquerades that perform songs, dance and skits. The exclusivity of masking to men created a huge problem to my research. Women are not allowed to join the mask cults or even come close or touch  masquerades in many of the case studies. Moreover, the affairs of the cults are supposed to be secret. How could a woman even think of trying to study a secret cult of men especially one  shrouded in mystery and sacredness? Call it stubbornness. Call it crazy. Or maybe scholarly curiosity. You'll probably decide on what to label me with when you hear some anecdotes that I will narrate later. For now, just know that this is my research area.

As a traditional cultural expression, masking raises the issue of gender not just for me as a woman researcher, but more importantly in the maintenance of patriarchy. The construction and engineering of masculinity and femininity are implicated in the artistic production and communication of ideas through mask performances. Masking contributes to how men and women view gender, masculinity, and femininity. I discovered that Agbogho-mmonwu (maiden mask) is implicated in femininity in ways that are comparable though not analogous to the role of Barbie doll image in global popular culture.

To know more about this statement, see “Global encounters: 'Barbie' in Nigerian Agbogho-mmuo mask context” 
(Journal of African Cultural Studies, Vol. 19, No. 1. (June 2007), pp. 37-54). 

My research on African masking centers on the Ikeji festival of Aro people. Aro is a sub-Igbo group in southeastern Nigeria. all Aro clans, towns, villages, wards and groups trace their origin to Arochukwu, a pre-colonial kingdom in Abia State, Nigeria. I carried out research in Arochukwu in Abia State, Ajalli in Anambra State,  Aro-Amokwe in Enugu State, Arondizogu in Imo State, Aro-Igrita and Aro-Isiokpo in Rivers State (Nigeria). From these locations, the research extended to other Igbo areas, to Nigeria, Africa and African Diaspora. I will share a few mask research anecdotes so that you can have a feel of the danger, fun, and reward of the experience.


My parents, because of their career as teachers, were supportive of my research and tried to facilitate it in many ways. However, there are family members who have shown concern for my “safety.”

 “Nwata-a. I naghi anu nti!”  One of my loving aunts said this to me implying that I “do not hear,” meaning a kind of headiness or stubbornness. She called me a child (nwata) to emphasize my lack of understanding. Her language especially body language was meant to annoy/shock me to think critically about my pursuit.  Her concern was that since women were excluded from masking, the masquerade dancers would get angry at a woman nosing around their secret preserve.

Wo ga efe ghi aju – o!” This suggested that they could use mysticism to harm me.


The whip

In 1983, I was walking to Ndiakeme square of Arondizogu (Imo State) with my hostess. We wanted to participate in the Ikeji festivities. Unknown to us, a masquerade was hiding behind a shrub and just sprang on us. I took to my heels. My hostess felt the tip of his whip. I was flustered. Luckily, I saw Professor Nwanna of  the University of Nigeria. He too came to enjoy the Ikeji festival performance. I complained to him and reminded him that from what I had gathered in that community, a masquerade was not supposed to strike a non-indigene of the place. He laughed and told me that the maskers did not regard me as a non-indigene because I had learnt a lot about their community in the two weeks that I had been interviewing people and that my identity as an Aro woman was well known. Moreover, my hostess was a community member and her husband what an adept in the masking cult..

I did not stop. I complained to Mazi Nnanna Obioha, the village elder of my hostess’ neighborhood. He took it easy, sat me down, offered me kola nut and fanta-orange. He asked me how far I had gone with my research and praised me for doing such a work. He was concerned that elders like him die with their wisdom and traditional knowledge, and was pleased that someone was recording them. He asked how else he could help with arranging more interviews for me. Finally he addressed my immediate concern by saying:

Umurima ohu. Wo na egwusara gi egwu. Wo vuru gi na anya. To-o mmeji.” 
(Those children. They were playing with you. They just like you. Cool down”).


Woman! Go back!

I turned up very early in the morning to observe the women’s ritual at the shrine of Uke.  I sat with my crew consisting of a photographer, video person, recorder, and two research assistants from the village. I sensed anger in some of the young men who came round to chat with us. One of them addressed me directly. He told me that he had a diploma from my university and that was why he had some respect for me, but he nonetheless warned me not to pursue the research. “Woman! Go back where you came from.” The Assistants told me to ignore him. We were waiting for the women to turn up when our driver alerted us to danger. We were already driving out of the village when we saw the group of young men marching from the side road. They made threatening gestures and some of them threw their clubs but nothing touched our car.

I took this matter to the judge in Abakiliki, Hon Justice Eze Ozobu. He said that I was lucky to have escaped. I did not pursuer the matter with litigation or anything like that – just lost all the money and effort. The judge helped me to redirect my research to other communities in 1990.


In 1985, I presented my research proposal at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. A lecturer expressed his shock that my supervisors, Professor Obiechina and Dr. Amankulor, did not advise me to identify a research area that was conducive to a woman. He said that women did not have “anything to do with the Ikeji,” which was the main festival of my study. He advised that I should study women’s songs or satires. I was shocked by his reaction and attitude to my research. The departmental Chair, Juliet Okonkwo, and other committee members disagreed with him. The experience,however, made me more determined to succeed.



In 1992, while I was at Cornell University, I met Carol Lorenz who was at Colgate. She had visited Anambra State in the Igbo area of Nigeria to see mask performances. She had heard that women were excluded so she was quite surprised to see women turn up for the performance and performing a number of public roles in the performance. Sharing mask experiences with another woman researching men’s masquerade cults was a treat for me, because it was the first time that I had the opportunity.

Publications on Women, Masking & Theater

   (2010)  Womanhood in Igbo Cosmology: Intersections in Chinua Achebe’s Thing’s Fall Apart.” In Achebe’s Women: Imagism and Power Ed. Helen Chukwuma Accepted for Publication (Trenton: Africa World Press).

(2009) Female Power: Corner Stone or Central Subject in Igbo Mask Performance.” Emergent Themes and Methods in African Studies: Essays in Honor of Adiele Eberechukwu Afigbo Ed., Falola, T and Adam Paddock. No compensation.  (Trenton: Africa World Press): 431-446.

(2007) “Global encounters: Barbie in Nigerian Agbogho-mmuo mask context.” Journal of African Cultural Studies. Vol. 19, No. 1.

(2006) “Terrible Beauty of Masks From Around the World.”  MASKS from Around the World by Garth Darl. Vancouver: Granville Island Publishing. button

(2006)Female Power: Corner Stone or Central Subject in Igbo Mask Performance.” Accepted for publication in a book, A Survey of Igbo Nation edited by G. E. K. Ofomata (University of Nigeria, Nsukka). 

(1997) “Gender Politics in West African Mask Performance.” Writing African Women: Gender, Popular Culture and Literature in West Africa. Ed. Newell, Stephanie (London: Zed Books), pp. 157‑169.

(1996) “The Dramatization of Heroism in Igbo Festivals.” UNISWA Research Journal (Univ. of Swaziland), Vol. 10, pp. 56‑68.

(1994) "From the Heart of Masculinity: Ogbodo Uke Women's Masking." Research in African Literatures,
Vol. 25, No. 4, pp. 7‑17.

(1992) "Power and Empowerment in African Mask Performance." Africa Notes (Cornell University), pp. 8‑9.

(1992) "The Rejected Corner Stone: Women In Igbo Mask Theater." Africana Studies and Research Center Newsletter (Cornell University), Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 19‑23, and 27‑31.

(1991) “Behind the Inscrutable Wonder: The Dramaturgy of the Mask Performer in Traditional African Society.”
Research In African Literatures
. Vol. 22, No. 4. pp. 39-52.
 (1990) “: The Man, the Playwright, and the producer on the Nigerian Theater Scene.” World Literature Today  Winter  (1990):24-29.button

Amankulor, J. N. and Okafor, Chinyere G. (1988) "Continuity and Change in Traditional Nigerian Theatre among the Igbo in the Era of Colonial Politics." Ufahamu (University of California, LA), Vol. 26, No. 3, pp. 35‑50.

(1986) "Aro Diaspora: A Cultural and Historical Overview." Arochukwu History and Culture. Ed. Ijoma,  J. O. (Enugu: Fourth Dimension), pp. 113‑137.

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Page title: Research on African mask
Last update: March 3, 2011
Web page by C. G. Okafor
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