Ijaw Online Encyclopedia







Festivals and Leisure Activities: Festival and entertainment were an integral part of Ijo community life.  At certain periods of the year (end of wet season, or middle dry season, beginning or ending of traditional new year), the Ijo held festivals in honour of the creator, deities and ancestors. It is at such festivals that the whole community strengthened itself against the hazards of the future by formally reminding its citizens of the achievements of the ancestors, and past mercies of the protecting deities. At these times a universal rest was declared, it was a time of peace and love, a time for having fun.

Some of the important festivals were the new yam festival, festival of the Supreme Creator – Tamarau (Tamara, Ayibara, Woyengi) and Amatemesuo, and various masquerade festivals, in honour of the nature (divine) forces Nunuma and Owu (Owuamapu). The festival of the nature forces or metaphysical intelligences, called Owu-Oge was celebrated all over the delta. Let us go into this festival in more detail, as this was one of the most colourful of the festivals and the one with the most excitement and fun. Each Ebe celebrated this festival in their own way, likewise each town and village celebrated it in their own way.

Ijo typical village masquerade dance see link


Various masks or head-gear, symbolising the nature forces, coming in all shapes and sizes ranging from animal shapes to abstract artistic representations of divine principles. The masks were not animate, but once a human being put on one of the heads (they were more than masks), they became alive when the drums and rhythms started to “talk”, and the dancer assumed the qualities which the mask represented, and was said to be possessed by the Nunuma or nature force. Ancient doctrine makes us to understand that these Nunuma were symbolisation’s of the impulses coming from the animal part of the brain or the primitive subconscious part of the mind. These subconcious impulses exert a powerful influence and control over our behaviour and can only be modified through the use of sound vibrations. Being the most primitive, hence most powerful part of the brain, in terms of formation, it was receptive to sound waves and rhythm and not verbal ideas. Hence the performing to the rhythm of the drum and the bass in order to tame or civilise the animal within. Hence the origin of the mask spirit dances, and drama in general. They were invented in order to tame and civilise society. It is through music, dance and drama that human beings are chiefly and swiftly inculcated with behaviour that allows them to function in harmony with other human beings. Music and dance talks to the primitive animal impulses such as sexuality, sensuality and emotionality in order to transform them into suitable vehicles for spiritual enlightenment.

The Owu had their own esoteric language understood only by the priests, drummers and those initiated into the Owu societies. It was used solely for initiation and ritual.

The house of the Owu masquerades was a secret dwelling in the   forest shielded from the eyes of the uninitiated (but later from the eyes of women and children).[1] Every effort was made to surround the Owu’s with a mystery aura, plus a fear and fatal attraction. This made people (especially young women) not only to be afraid of them but to have this magnetic attraction to them, inspite of their fear, to fully participate in the dances. The magnetic attraction was really caused by the expert drumming of the drummers, who generated highly provocative sound impulses (drum beats and rhythms), designed to stimulate ‘talk’ to the mind and the body of the individual. (positive sound vibrations aimed at that part of the spirit receptive to patterned sound waves). Here we are talking about the knowledge of the influence of sound waves (music) on the human mind. (mood alterations).

The Owu emerge from their esoteric dwellings, and proceed to town, the rattles tied on to their legs, warning the people that they are abroad. As they near the festival grounds, the drums start to ‘talk’ to the masquerade in esoteric drum poetry. They then begin to generate the sound patterns that will draw the people near, regardless of whether the individual was afraid or not. The Owu are now out of the forest, the drums go into full swing. Those weak of heart, once sighting the Owu would run in flight. They emerge on the town broad street. Initially people start to stampede as they catch sight of the Owu’s for the first time. Women shout to their young children to get out of the way. Young women and girls let out screams, partly in fear, but mostly in exaggeration. They near the dance arena, with the rattles attached to their legs. The Owu initiate simple dance steps as they go along,  and the drums lay on the rhythm. Swords clash and machete make contact, sparks fly, suddenly an Owu breaks away from the group formation and heads for the crowd. The spectators panic and run for cover. The renegade Owu is refrained, and it returns to its brethren.

This was the dangerous part of watching an Owu, for any accidental cut on a spectator was dismissed. Masks were not liable to any damage they did while performing their ceremonies. Once in the dance arena, a dancing priest would take the Owu through a series of dance steps executed to the rhythm of the drums. Each Owu had a name or title by which it was called out to dance by the chief drummer. “Cunningness is your name”, the chief drummer addresses the Owu with the tortoise head. “Cunningness is your name, according to your cunningness come out and dance cunningly”, the Owu responds, executing a series of dance steps demonstrating the cunning of the tortoise, and all those who have cunning personalities. Eventually one by one the Owu were called upon to perform their ceremonies. Also chiefs and titled elders would be addressed in drum language and drum poetry. The Owu after performing their dances, would retire to the house built for them in the arena. Some times they went on the chase.

To spice up the festival, the Owu were allowed to go on the chase, their favourite victims were young women or girls.

The young maidens stand at a distance, wary of going too near the dance arena, they know that they are the favourite victims of the Owu, maybe one of the young men who has put on a mask is that chap who has sought their love for the past year, he is out to seek revenge by humiliating them in public. With his heavy head gear he can never out run them.” But oh what superb drum rhythms, simple and yet complicated”, they move in closer, attracted by the drums. “Oh music of the drum why do you attract me so, it is dangerous to get to near the Owu, never mind they can’t catch me anyway”. From nowhere an Owu with its guardian springs out and goes after the girls. They run hard, but to no avail, One of them is eventually caught and brought back to the dance arena. The Owu has got a prize. Throughout the remaining evening of the festival she will be made to fan the Owu in the evening sun and cater to his every whim. Serves her right, she should have known better.

Young women and girls frequently boasted to the hearing of the Owu’s that no Owu was fast enough to catch them. It was damaging to their credibility as young women, to be caught by an Owu, and be made to fan all those egotistical males, in full glare of their friends and the public. It was the height of humiliation (in the playful spirit of the festival).

After the dance the Owu were required to perform ceremonies at the shrines of the deities in whose honour the festival was being held. Apart from that, plays and drama would be performed lasting well into the night. The whole festival lasted up to five days or more, and during that period, there would be night dances, wrestling matches, and story telling.

Another form of entertainment was the all female dance groups. These PENGE dances, as they were called in Izon, would rehearse the whole year round. At the end of the year, the dancing groups would invite the whole community to come and watch them perform provocative dance steps with sheer body fluidity. The guests where given a musical treat where they were taken to another world by well rehearsed drum rhythms and serene songs. All special guests were given special attention, but were at the same time expected to part with their money during the entertainment.

In the case of wrestling, different sections of the community would form themselves into wrestling clubs and challenge each other. The reward was the prestige of being good wrestlers or a champion adored in the eyes of the maidens. We also had travelling musicians, who were pure entertainment, travelling from village to village, playing music and having fun.

After the periods of entertainment and the performance of ceremonial obligations to the deities, the community settled down to work and prepare for the next seasons of festivals.

The Ijos continue to be fun loving people. We dance very well and our young ladies are  known for their entertaining provocative dance movements. We still maintain our love for fun and games, and most communities still have their times of the year when they can get down relax and celebrate the festivals of the deities. As yesterday so today.