John Thabiti Willis, Masquerading Politics: kinship, gender, and ethnicity in a Yoruba town.
Masquerading Politics is an impressive and meticulous study of the origins and evolution of the Egungun and Gelede masquerade traditions around the historical town of Otta in south-western Nigeria. The book's stated purpose is to rethink the social and political roles of these performative societies, with an emphasis on the influence of women, not only in the mythology and symbolism of the performances but more fundamentally on the underlying power struggles and societal transformations that these institutions have been intimately involved in shaping over the course of centuries. Considering the common perception of Yoruba masquerades as a heavily male-dominated sphere of social life, Willis's attention to the central role of female actors is particularly commendable and represents the book's most obvious potential for influencing scholarship outside the specialized field of Yoruba studies.
Drawing on a rich literature on Yoruba political and religious history, the analysis offers detailed reviews of classical works as well as oral histories, ethnographic observations and hitherto understudied archival material. On the basis of this eclectic material, Willis presents a chronologically structured account, covering five significant historical periods in the social and political lives of Egungun and Gelede masquerades, and a more summary consideration of the roles of masquerades in this part of Nigeria today in the book's conclusion.
Strategically located on a belt of fertile soil and an advantageous trading juncture between the forest and the coast, founded around 1500, the town of Otta expanded significantly with the arrival of Awori and other settlers during the sixteenth century and the expansion of the Oyo Empire towards the end of the eighteenth century. Importantly, while the town was governed as a monarchy, established in Otta in 1621, the town's polity was primarily structured into wards dominated by influential lineages, similar to other precolonial cities in West Africa. Within these lineages, masquerades were inherited through generations, with particular masks representing the lineage and/or ward at yearly processions, and performances were organized for audiences varying from the royal court to the town's commoners. Willis argues that performances and the symbolisms portrayed by individual masks were orchestrated to a large extent by powerful women from the dominant lineages, some of whom had public titles and functions as ward heads or chiefs, and by others with a less visible presence in Otta political life.
Despite their close affiliation with the monarchy, the Otta masquerades not only outlived the Oyo Empire but in fact flourished in the turbulent nineteenth century, during which time the town faced attacks and invasions from neighbouring powers and eventually became a battleground for confrontations between the British and the powerful Egba at Abeokuta. In this historical transition, the role of Egungun masquerades shifted from being an eclectic institution grounded in ancestor worship, overseeing lifecycle rituals but also confirming the authority of the king, to a more politicized role in relation to warfare and resistance against successive invaders, while also becoming more central to executive and judicial processes in Otta. Especially as an expression of resistance towards invading forces, Willis argues that the masquerades became one sphere that brought men and women together in a common cause, and this may have been the origin of Otta's reputation as being inhabited by powerful women.
With the onslaught of British colonialism in the late nineteenth century, Otta faced another major societal transition. In this transition from decades of warring and trade in other parts of the sub-region, large numbers of men returned to Otta, forcing women to renegotiate their positions as traders and ritual experts, at which they had excelled in the absence of their husbands. During the colonial period, then, women increasingly enacted their influence on social and political life in general, including the role of masquerades, through their positions as wives and daughters of the male custodians of these societies. This, Willis argues, has not been fully recognized in the existing literature on Yoruba masquerades, and is essential for understanding the continued influence of women on present-day masquerades in this context.
Masquerading Politics offers insight into the social and political significance of an institution that may otherwise be understood primarily in terms of its ritual and historical, or traditionalist, importance in Yoruba society. The narration and analysis bear the mark of an insider who has mastered the intricacies of Otta's complex social history, but who nevertheless approaches the contradictory historiographies of its masquerades with remarkable diligence. Anyone who has conducted empirical research on a contested issue will know how difficult that balance is to achieve. Even without the specialist knowledge required to appreciate its contribution to the field of Yoruba history, I have no doubt that Willis's work should be a must-read for students and established scholars alike. The study's level of detail and specificity does make the book less accessible to a generalist reader, such as myself, which in turn makes Willis's contribution to rethinking the complex roles of female actors in social and political life less obvious. One would hope that the author continues to pursue this important research theme in a more generalist spirit in future publications.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||May 1, 2019|
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