ONE popular festival, apart from Eyo, that holds in Lagos and Republic of Benin, similar to North American festivals of Mardi Gras, is Gelede.
The fesitival, which incorporates dance, arts and music from all parts of Yorubaland, pays tribute to the female creative and mystical power (Iyawa Osoronga).
The celebration has so much meaning to every individual within this sub-culture, allowing each to love and laugh and honour the feminine contribution to Nigeria's rich cultural heritage.
Gelede has a storybook origin that involves a transition from matriarchal into a patriarchal society and targeted to reach out and soothe the anger of mythical mothers and ancestral spirits.
It is believed that the Yoruba woman possesses the secret of life itself with an intimate connection to almost being godlike (Iyawa Osoronga). The celebration is specifically tied to rituals pertaining to the great mother earth, serving to protect and honour women within the community as treasured for their talents and healing powers.
The celebration holds during the rainy season to ensure the land fertility and bumper harvest.
The Yoruba also perform Gelede ritual if there’s epidemic or drought so as to bring succour to the community in time of need.
Speaking with The Guardian, the Baba Egbe, Chief Akinola Akintunde who is in his 40s, said, “the festival is one unique feature that we treasure most in all our daily dealings. It has been in existence before I was born, our parents introduced us into it and we will forever keep the landmark. Its existence in Lagos is over 90 years because our Baba Lashe is over that age.”
He lamented the situation where so many youths have lost touch with their culture because their parents failed to introduce them to the belief system that should guide their activities.
Some of us who were born into it have been encouraging others to come and experience it. What really shies away many, especially the youth is the impression that it is made for the elderly alone, but that is no longer the case. Now, if you enter the shrine, you will see youths, which goes to say that whatever you are doing, you should show your children so that the legacy will not die because if you don’t, when you die, that is the end of it.
“The shrine is open to all and more dominated by the youth now, that is the difference between Gelede and other cultural group. In the Gelede shrine, there is no basic rule. The major rule is that at the front of the shrine, you won’t wear your shoe. It is not restricted to members alone. Any time we are having our nine days prayers, everybody is allowed to come in, unlike other shrines, if you are not initiated you can’t come in, is like a mother that welcomes all children.
“Unlike Eyo festival that is mostly targeted at burial ceremonies, Gelede is a social performance that is open to all without restrictions and with a soft rule.
“You don’t pull your shoes while the masquerade is dancing and we are open to invitation for celebration of any kind that our presence is needed.”
On the response of people to the festival, he said, it is yielding fruits now, as people are becoming conscious of going back to their roots. “The response of people towards the festival has been very positive. Our last festival was with the theme of Let’s join hand to celebrate our culture and preparation is in top gears for next one, which holds in April.”
On why our culture is on the verge of extinction, Akintunde said, “is due to our commitment to other ventures for development. The solution is exposing our children to the beauty of our cultural heritage, which is not the responsibility of the government alone. The parents have a major role to play in all of this.”
Though the government has a role to play in the culture promotion and preservation, Akintunde insists, this seems not to be the case. “Our government, over time, played down on our culture to make money, which to a large extent, is having an adverse effect on us. Before the involvement of the government in Eyo, it had been practiced for a long time. What the government does is to use culture to make money. They are not interested in building anything,” he said.
According to him,“before Gelede festival holds, a particular date is set with male priests notifying the community regarding the festival location and time. Messengers are sent across the community to inform singers, drummers and maskers about the event. Masks are specifically made for the celebration while masks previously used are retouched and embellished with a variety of motifs.”
On the afternoon of Gelede, a priestess will prepare a meal with the hope that the offerings will bring good fortune to the community. The festival begins with a concert held in the market place, lasting all through the night called Efe night. The celebration consists of many masked actors who perform a call to the gods (Falola). The performance also includes an orchestra that keeps the beat for actors, including intricate dance steps and drumming that give rhythm to the dances all done in honour of ‘our mothers’, female ancestors and female orisha (goddesses).”
The Gelede dancers are men, yet represent both men and women in their performance; the dancers are hidden under a costume of brightly coloured fabric composed of borrowed women's head ties, skirts as symbols of the cultural theme, ‘Our Mothers’.A four or five year-old boy's performance first, older children go next, followed by teenagers and then adult men. The dance always ends when the sun sets, with a special celebrated mask, which closes the festival (Occasions 4). Though the festival ends, the warm spirit of the celebration remains with people throughout the year.