One event that never fails to make a massive impression on the uninitiated - be they citizens or foreigners - is the well orchestrated Lagos Eyo Masquerade festival.
Celebrated since the 19th century, the Eyo Festival stands out from the many different Festivals held in Nigeria, because unlike the others, it is NOT celebrated for only entertainment purposes. Every Eyo festival is held in honour of either a deceased Oba (king) or a prominent "Lagosian" recognised for making significant contribution to Lagos, and its people.
In addition, the Eyo is generally not held at specific or regular intervals. Instead the decision to hold the event is usually influenced by an occurrence of some sort e.g. the death of a highly reverred personality.
Even though I am Yoruba, raised for the most part here in Lagos, I cannot recall attending an Eyo Festival until the one held in April 2009. My parents tell me they took me and my siblings, to see the festival when I was eight. For some reason, I have no clear memories of that Eyo Festival in 1978. Maybe that's due to the trauma I experienced when on our way home, someone ran into my Dad's brand new Volkswagen from behind! I can still hear my mother screaming "Omo mi O" (Yoruba for "My Children") as she reached out to the back seat where we sat, to draw us all closer!
The Eyo Festival: A Tourist Attraction Revived By The State Government
Living in Lagos, it is impossible not to know about the Eyo. Statues of this highly reverred masquerades can be seen in strategic locations across the state. Travellers coming into Lagos by road are greeted by the Elders dressed in white, and also by a statue of the Eyo. On the Lagos Island, where the Eyo originates, its statues will be seen at places like Tafawa Balewa Square.
Certain sources suggest that the festival used to be held every four years. It is however instructive to note, that until the Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola led state government came into office about 6 years ago, the Eyo celebration had not been held for a long period of time.
As a matter of fact, the 2009 Eyo Masquerade celebration organised by Fashola's government can be said to have marked a revival of the festival. The government made it clear that it considered the festival a crucial element in its tourism development drive. It was therefore not surprising to see the lengths to which they went, to promote the event locally and abroad via various mass media.
Preparing For (& Starting) The Event
Preparations for the celebration begin many weeks before the actual festival day. What the public gets to see close to the event day, are mostly the less sensitive and final preparations. Before then, certain sacred rites have to be performed behind closed doors, by (and ONLY by) members of the senior Eyo group, called the "Adimu".
The Eyo have hierarchies among their ranks, based on their levels of seniority or importance. Eyo groups can be differentiated by the "hat" they wear. Its colour indicates the group to which an Eyo belongs. The hat, along with a perforated fabric covering the face (the Iboju), and a patterned wooden staff (used to greet other Eyo, or to punish people who break the festival rules), comprise the regalia of the Eyo. The Eyo groupings determine the roles different Eyo play, prior to, and during the celebration proper.
For instance, once it is a week to the festival day, specifically on a Sunday, the most senior Eyo make a public appearance carrying their staff. This serves as a formal confirmation that the festival will actually hold. The next most "important" Eyo will then commence making similar public appearances on subsequent days (starting from Monday to Thursday).
On the actual festival day, a section of the Lagos Island main highway from one end of Carter Bridge to Tinubu Square is sealed off, from vehicular traffic. The affected area, which falls right in the city center, is closed in this manner, to facilitate movement of the procession of Eyo masquerades clad in their white robes, through Idumota to the Oba's (i.e. king's) palace at Iga Idunganran. Here, homage is then paid to the king by all the Eyo.
Rules/Norms Guiding Participation
Tourists and news reporters from different parts of the world are always present at the festival venue. They take pictures, and record videos of the smaller Eyo in procession, of dignitaries present, and also of the participants. This is allowed to continue, until the most powerful Eyo - called Adamu Orisha (which strictly enforced tradition forbid sANYONE to take photos/record videos of) - is brought on to the grounds.
On the 2009 Eyo Festival day, in what would be my first conscious participation in an Eyo festival, I drove with my 3 pre-teen sons to Lagos Island, and joined the massive crowd at the Tafawa Balewa Square (TBS) venue. The stands were almost filled up. Security agents dotted the areas leading to, and inside the arena.
Before we got out of the car, I told the kids about the most important rule I knew about the Eyo: "You are not allowed to wear sandals or shoes in the domain of the Eyo". This meant that all who came to see the Eyo, whether locals or foreigners, had to go barefoot. What most did was to take off their footwear before getting out of their cars and hold them in their hands, until they returned to their cars or a safe distance from where they could run into an Eyo.
Those, who out of ignorance or foolish bravery, failed to heed the warning not to wear shoes, would (if discovered by an Eyo) typically earn severe beatings with the "Opanbata" (a long, decorated staff carried by every Eyo).
Other rules guiding participation in the Eyo celebrations are prohibition of smoking, and wearing of certain hairstyles by women e.g Shuku.
Again, offenders would rarely be let off easily. I still recall an incident during the 2011 celebration I attended with my wife and kids, when a stubborn young man - who had tried to walk past them with his shoes on - earned multiple beatings from about 4 Eyo masquerades. They repeatedly chanted in unison "Bo bata e!" (Translated: Take off your shoes) as they hit him on his legs, and back. He could not get around them, and eventually had to take off his shoes. Once this happened, the Eyo stopped hitting him and continued in the direction they had originally been headed!
It is important to note that no malice is involved in the Eyo's actions described above. According to tradition, the Eyo are to be regarded with reverence. Indeed, they are considered "spirits". Therefore, to defile their presence by failing to remove one's footwear is considered an affront that must be swiftly addressed.
Dignitaries And Souvenirs
It was a particularly moving experience, to watch the brightly coloured processions of over 2,000 Eyo masquerade dance round the TBS arena, for hours and hours. The different Eyo groups were called out one after the other by an elder, from his position on a VIP platform mounted in the center of the TBS.
Dignitaries - Obas, High Chiefs, key government officers, were introduced on arrival, and seated on the platform. As the day progressed, speeches were delivered by some of them, in line with the programme of events. However, in a move that caused major excitement in the arena, Governor Fashola arrived the venue, fully dressed in the Eyo regalia, and joined the procession round the square, waving an Opanbata in his hands. He delivered his address afterwards.
Souvenirs sold like hot cakes: For instance, T-shirts, Face caps, kid's clothing, and other gift items branded with home made Eyo art impressions, were briskly exchanged for money all through the festival day (from morning till evening).
Although nothing compares to the experience of being physically present, to watch the LIVE proceedings of the amazing Eyo Festival, this review has attempted to paint as vivid a picture as possible, for the reader to appreciate.
The Eyo masquerade symbolises an elegant mix of well preserved Yoruba culture and tradition. If you want to make your visit to this part of the world truly memorable, I would recommend, very strongly, that you make plans to stop over and experience the amazing Eyo Masquerade Festival in Lagos!