The Odo Festival, Nigeria
Based on an article by J. N. Ndukaku Amankulor
(Amankulor, J. N. Ndukaku. The Drama Review.
Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982.)



J. N. Ndukaku Amankulor, who teaches at the University of Nigeria, has written extensively about a Nigerian festival that features the mass return of the dead.   Among the Northern Igbo, this unique masked festival takes place every two years.   Similar to most African cultures, the Igbo believe that "one`s dead are neither gone nor forgotten" and that they help the living by protecting them from evil spirits and foreseeing the future (47).   The dead posess the power of rebirth and play a strong function in the everyday survival of the tribe:

The dead are reincarnated into their families, where they continue life a second time.  In the cyclic world-view shared by the Igbo, the living eventually become the dead, and the dead become the yet-unborn (47).

Odo is a term used to describe the returning dead who spend up to six months with the living during the festival.  They appear as male and female masked figures played by men who are members of the death cult society, and whose identity it is required to keep secret.   The Odo are first welcomed back with celebrations, and then make visits to their former homes, which result in more entertainment and gift giving.  Their departure is a sad one, and engages the community in an emotional leave taking event before the Odo`s journey back.

This long festival is a celebration that requires extensive preparations and sacrifice for the community.   Women are heavily involved in food preparation and performances as chorus members as well as audience.   The creation of costumes and masks with plant fiber, leaves, beads, and feathers, and the development of music groups and plays, are all done in a sacred area outside of the central village, where the Odo performers reside and help train new initiates to the cult.  Tribal relatives from distant communities will renew their contact with their roots by spending long periods with their family while enjoying the dramatic presentations of the Odo characters.

The transformation of the dead in Odo characters involve guttural speaking and large movements.  The masks are often huge, like a crocodile mask of bamboo and cloth that is carried by several people, the Ijele mask which towers over the crowd and is only used every seven years, and the Onyekulufa mask, made entirely of grass.  The characters are easily identified by their archetypes.    As in the world of the living, the dead are organized into a hierarchy with "six categories: elderly, titled odo, youthful, masculine odo, female odo (young and old types), child/infant odo, spirit odo, and animal odo" (48).   The elderly and titled odo reflect old age, honor, respect and wealth, and use walking sticks, fans, and beads to show their status.   One such character, Okikpe, is an ancestor who stands eleven feet high and parades into the performance circle to cheers and elephant-horn bursts blown by the living titled men of the village.   He inspects the performance area and sits in a throne from where he will preside over the events.

There are many youthful masculine characters, because they are responsible for maintaining order during the show.   The youth who performs the character of Ovuruzo must possess great physical endurance.  Each village chooses a runner who is chased by Ovuruzo until the next village, and it is a great humiliation for any of the village youth to be caught by him.

Though not many female characters are involved in the Odo festival, the character of Ogolimaluihe, the ideal wife, is central to the purpose of the festival, to help instruct the young in the ways of the Igbo people, and most specifically, to advise the women to remain obedient to their husbands.   She later sings to the chorus: "Women/One who is wise/Let her stoop for her husband/If a woman is intelligent/She stoops for her husband" (53).

Children odo are everywhere dancing during the festival, but always wary of the malevolent odo roaming around the performances, and occasionally trying to disturb them.   These odo, who symbolize evil, engage in battle with the good odo, and always lose in the end.  Spirit odo, who are benevolent characters, also keep the malevolent odo in check by their surveillance.   In addition to these six types, many other odo characters like foreigners, dead soldiers, and the unborn also participate.

Music for the Odo festival is an important feature.  Odo characters themselves play OBILENU music, which means "that which lives above" because they play their xylophones, drums and rattles on the upper floor of the obilenu house, and their gentle rolling melodies sound distant and delicate, as if coming from another world.   Many of the songs used during the performances are praises and teaching instruments that help to join the community together.  But many are satiric numbers that even feature political attacks and contemporary events.

One of the dramas, the Akawo Odo Play, highlights the family nature of this unusual festival of the dead.  After the entry of the chorus who perform their songs to the jubilant shouts of the gathered crowds in the afternoon, Ogolimaluihe dances for her husband, Ezembo, who is greatly pleased with her.  However, their son, Akawo, who is known for his eagerness for women, sees a beautiful young maiden and runs after her, frightening her.  Ezembo has his son captured and brought back to their hut, but it is not until Ogolimaluihe scolds him that he realizes the seriousness of his error.   A final scene shows how Akawo has learned manly discipline and respect for the family.