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Okay, I am not even trying to scare you but for real, this story I am about to narrate is one that will evoke a lot of fear. And this is for all the right reasons. By the time you are done with this piece, you will have a thousand ideas going on in your mind concerning the Egungun Oloolu (Oloolu Masquerade). A masquerade cult has a particular family attached to it and the name of the family is usually the same with that of the masquerade. So what is under the masquerade?
Well, although the myth is that what is under the bizarre clothing of a masquerade making all the extraterrestrial noises is a spirit but we all know the voice is emanating from a human being. Now, this is the peculiar cultural practice here: you will assume the ‘being’ underneath the clothing is actually a spirit. The person does not become the masquerade until it wears the official costume called eku. It is the eku that confers the spiritual and mythical powers on the wearer. In traditional Yoruba beliefs, these are two different beings i.e before and after wearing the eku. Let’s roll proper now.
The Oloolu masquerade is an individual masquerade. It has its unique attire which looks like an elongated pyramid made from different pieces of clothes and a net. The most bizarre piece of the Oloolu masquerade is that it has the skull of a woman as its crown. This you can see in the pictures below. That is not all. The Oloolu has its own attendants and one of these attendants is the bearer of the Oloolu’s insignia of office. Guess what that is? It is the thigh bone (femur) of a human being. As the Oloolu dances round the city in its strange rhythm with a female skull dangling on its head, the bearer proudly displays the human bone while accompanying the dreaded cult figure.
EERIE: This is the Oloolu masquerade in 1972. At the very top of the dress is the skull of a woman. Some people have never seen the Oloolu before despite its immense fame in Yorubaland, this is it.
CUSTODIAN: The Oloolu in 1972, Ogunjumo Oguntade
Casually called a masquerade , an egungun in Yoruba religions, traditions and cultural practices is believed to be a spirit or a soul from the realm of the dead. For this reason, egunguns (masquerades) are also called AWON ARA ORUN meaning the ‘guests from the after life’ or ‘visitors from the hereafter’. See photo of a typical egungun below:
So how did we get to the stage of using the skull of a woman and a femur as items of fashion? What is the history behind the Oloolu? Before that question can be properly answered, some important points have to be highlighted. Ibadan is a city teeming with masquerades. There are nine war masquerades in Ibadan and are called thus because they were all captured during the various intertribal battles and internecine conflicts before they were brought to Ibadan. So these war masquerades are actually captives of war. All these war masquerades feature prominently in the popular annual Egungun festival. These nine war masquerades are as follows:
1. Atipako
2. Alapansanpa
3. Afidi Elege Abogiri
4. Olunlade
5. Gbodogbodo
6. Oyilaluba
7. Durokokika
8. Alapapo
9. Oloolu (This is the supreme head of the Egungun cult in Ibadan and is the most dreaded, that is why it is the topic of this article).
In June 1972, the Oloolu then (pictured), a 60-year-old man named Ogunjumo Oguntade with two wives and several children one of whom was studying in England explained the history behind the notorious masquerade. He said:
‘ My great, great, great grandfather was an Ibadan warrior. His name was Aje Ayorinde. On his way to Benin during the Ogbagi War, he captured the man who used to carry what is today known as the Ololu. His eyes caught the Egungun’s outfit and were attracted towards it. But as he moved towards the shrine where the outfit was kept, the war captive warned Mr. Ayorinde not to go near it because it could put his life in jeopardy. Hence the name Ololu, that is, O-LU-NKAN, meaning ‘you will put your life in peril. Ayorinde took the advice but ordered his captive to take the outfit along with him back to Ibadan. He also ordered the wife of the captive to accompany her husband to Ibadan. The woman refused. In his annoyance, Ayorinde beheaded her and ordered the captured husband to carry the woman’s head along to Ibadan in addition to the Ololu outfit. That woman’s head is what you have just seen on the masquerade. It is the original one. It is because of the head that every woman is barred from setting eyes on the Ololu. Any woman who sees the real Ololu – not his pictures – will surely die. It is also true that the first person the Ololu sees on his first day will die. The Olubadan usually warns the populace to take precautions. The Ololu brings peace and prosperity to Ibadan if performed properly and annually. It drives away smallpox and civil unrest. Recently there was a drought in Ibadan. I made a certain sacrifice at the request of the Olubadan, his chiefs. There was rain on the very day of the sacrifice.’ ’
‘ Ifa chose me as the Oloolu. No one is allowed to contest for the honour. When an Oloolu passes away, the family present the name of each qualified male to the Ifa who picks the right man for the honour. The Olubadan, his Chiefs and the entire people of Ibadan appreciate the need to celebrate the Egungun festival every year. ’
‘ It is not that true that the Oloolu festival involves human sacrifice. But it is true that no other Egungun must be seen on the streets whenever the Oloolu is out. That Egungun will certainly perish. During the reign of Olubadan Dada, and Egungun called Iponri-Iku tried it. I was then a small boy. Iponri-Iku came out on the same day the Oloolu was out. He challenged the Oloolu to do his worst. Oloolu then dropped a special cowry on the ground and challenged Iponri-Iku to pick it up. Iponri-Iku bent down to pick the cowry. He could not. His backbone was broken instantly. Iponri-Iku could no longer stand up. His followers had to carry him home. Iponri-Iku died on the same day. Since that day, no other Egungun has dared to challenge the Oloolu.’
 ‘As the Oloolu, I must not wear shoes, I must neither wear shoes nor carry any kind of load on my head. Also, I must not go to bed with my wife as from 30 days before I come out. In fact, a few days before the festival opens, all females vacate this area and return after the Oloolu festival is over. Besides, I must not carry a child on my shoulders with his feet slung round my neck. ’
Of all the egunguns worshipped in Ibadan and probably in all of Yorubaland, none is as dreaded as the Egungun Oloolu (Oloolu Masquerade). This cult figure is believed to have immense supernatural powers and one of these is the ability to mysteriously kill the first person man or woman who sets his or her eyes on the Oloolu (in his weird costume which is usually kept inside its own special shrine).
Because of this great fear, the Olubadan of Ibadan, the paramount ruler of the city always sends bellmen and criers round the city whenever it is time for the Oloolu to emerge. The message from the Olubadan is a warning to everyone, particularly the women to stay away from the route of the Oloolu or risk sudden death.
In July 2012, there was real commotion as Oloolu entered the police net and got arrested. Oloolu was arrested alongside members of his team. The case was so serious that the Oloolu was arraigned in court on 6th July on three-count charge of arms possession, assault and malicious damage. Oloolu and his followers were remanded in Agodi Prisons because they could not meet the bail conditions the magistrate had imposed on them. So what happened that the Nigerian Police had to nab the spirit of the dead Ibadan ancestors? Well, there was a street fight between the Oloolu team and some Muslim youths.
On the 3rd of July, 2012, the second day of the outing of the Oloolu, some Muslim youths attacked and removed the mask of Oloolu along Popoyemoja, a very busy commercial street in the heart of the city. When a furious Oloolu arrived Popooyemoja from Ode Aje and sighted some Muslim clerics holding a memorial ceremony for the late Chief Imam of the Irepodun Mosque, Alhaji Rafiu Fasasi, violence erupted. The clerics had ordered Oloolu not to pass through the street but when Oloolu insisted he was going to pass, some irate Muslim youths armed with machetes, cudgels and knives launched at the Oloolu and his entourage and left them with severe machete wounds. The sacred Oloolu was also beaten to the extent that the traditionalists of Ibadan could not believe what they were seeing.
But that was not the end of the show. On the very next day, when the Americans were busy celebrating their Independence Day, members of the Oloolu cult organized themselves, strategized for a reprisal attack and stormed Popoyemoja Street and all terror rained down. Armed with broken bottles, guns, machete, daggers, broken bottles, charms and amulets, the followers of Oloolu became unstoppable. They attacked virtually anything in sight, as they were smashing the windscreens of cars; they damaged buildings and looted shops. Alarmed residents placed distress calls to the police and they got a response. The vandalizing mob melted when the police forces arrived onto the scene.
That very day, the police arrested the famed Oloolu and his masquerade gang. But the traditionalists did not find it funny, one of the supporters of the Oloolu cult said:
” It is an affront to our traditional religion and belief system that Egungun, not just an ordinary one, Oloolu, for that matter, would be attacked and molested in the public. It has never happened before, and something must be wrong with our people. Have they forgotten that it was this religion that their forefathers practised before the advent of these foreign religions we now have around here?”
But the Muslims had something else to say. Madam Amudat Fasasi, widow of the late Imam of the Irepodun Mosque explained that they had made attempts to offer Oloolu and his followers with gifts so they could take another route because women were present at the mosque ceremony and it was taboo for women to see the Oloolu masquerade during his annual outing. She said:
“Our visitors, who came from far and near, mostly women, sat on the road at Popo-Iyemoja observing the prayers. All of a sudden Oloolu and his men stormed the venue of our prayers stoning us and scaring the women who must not see him. They started stealing purses and bags and other valuables, though we had given them money when we heard they were coming. Our youths rose against them and sent them away. They, however, returned the following day damaging vehicles and shooting sporadically. A young girl was shot at Sakapena by them and was later carried away. We never expected this. It took us by surprise.”
But the traditionalists brushed this aside saying it was nothing but a lie crying out that they were being victimized by the Muslim majority in Ibadan. But the Oyo State Police Command said of the allegation and pronounced it is the duty of the police not to:
“allow anyone to hide under religion or tradition to perpetrate criminality.”
 The signed release issued by the Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), Mrs. Olabisi Ilobanafor, police officers from the Mapo Division had to be deployed to quell the crisis between the Muslim youths and the followers of the Oloolu masquerade cult. The police statement hinted that after receiving several calls that the masquerade was under beating from thugs, officers swooped in and rescued Oloolu then took him to the hospital for proper treatment because he was bleeding profusely from the machete injuries he had sustained. The police said the next day they received intelligence reports that the Oloolu team was planning a bloody revenge. The police statement read:
“When the Oloolu and his followers stormed the place and saw the police, they quickly beat a retreat, but not before some of the followers were arrested with dangerous weapons, including a locally-made gun.”
While all this was going on, some observers said it was all about a disagreement and power tussle between the Alaafin of Oyo, Olubadan of Ibadanland and the Soun of Ogbomosho over the chairmanship of the Oyo State Traditional Rulers Council
Because the masquerade is believed to be spiritual, it is still considered a taboo to violate it, it remains sacred. You can get into trouble for even trying to take a photo of Oloolu, when a journalist tried it, this was his response:
As I dug into my pocket to bring out my phone to take photos, fiery thugs appeared from nowhere. These thugs were in the habit of taking advantage of the commotion usually created by the Oloolu’s presence, to beat and rob unsuspecting persons.
I saw the usual violence and returned my phone to my pocket. But I still didn’t want the moment go without capturing it. Thus, I looked around for a safer place to take the shots. As I put on my phone camera, a thug charged towards me before I could make a move out of there. He was shouting, “bring that phone!”
I asked, “why should I give you my phone?” But that question infuriated him. He slapped me and raised the alarm that I wanted to snap the Oloolu.
Immediately, other followers of the masquerade swooped on me, beating me mercilessly with all kinds of weapons. I almost passed out when I sighted policemen who came to my rescue. For few moments after police got me out of their clutches, some of them still continued hitting me with all manner of objects including what I suspect were charms.
Afterwards, one of the policemen asked why I took the picture of the deadly masquerade and I told him that I am a journalists. The police took me into their patrol van and drove away. The police asked for my ID card, which I showed and they promised to protect me.
The cops warned me never to pull such a “stunt” again as I could have been lynched if they had not intervened.
Even while I was in the police van, one of those leading the masquerade came to me and I saw that he was heavily fortified with charms. He asked me to produce the phone for him to check what I had already snapped. He even asked the police to seize it from me.
He said I should confess my mission or he would use the charm on me and I would die. I told them I was just doing my job and had no intention to expose any secrets. The police later told him that they had checked my phone and that it had no picture of the masquerade.
But because of the fear of the mob, I was told to wait till the crowd dispersed. They later dropped me at a safe place to go. After I was released, my body ached badly until I used some drugs to alleviate the pains and later went to hospital for treatment.
The Oloolu masquerade is known for its abhorrence of women. Anytime it appears, you will see women running helter skelter. A historian, Chika Okeke-Agulu wrote of what he saw during one Oloolu outing in 2011, he wrote:
Well, you see, the inaugural Toyin Falola Annual Conference hosted by the University of Ibadan ended two days ago (more on that in another post). To complete the Ibadan experience, a party of conference attendants went on a really nice tour of the city of Ibadan, famed for its, well, rusted roofs…On our way back, along a major street, we encountered a massive commotion. Young men with unfriendly gestures were running amock, as this male-only crowd surged, like ants, more or less swallowing up two open-roof security vans in which sat several menacing, heavily amoured police men. There was no time to ask what this was about, except that our driver, an Ibadan native, quickly swerved our van into a side street for safety. In our van were several women who–instinctively obeying a riotous command from the male Ibadan grad students we were traveling, and from shouts of terror outside–ducked under the seats. Ayo my colleague from Dartmouth realized later that such incidents require action first and then questions later. Welcome to paradoxical modernity. It happened so quickly. By the time I had the composure to pull out my camera, we were already in the side street. This woman trader with a heavy head load in the picture, miraculously jumped down from the Okada (commercial motorcyle) taking her to the market and fled the scene (the bike seat is visible in the left lower corner). And what was it all about? It happened that the Oloolu mask was out that afternoon and no woman dared look at it. Whether or not you were in a car or out and about. What would be the consequence of such sight? Would such unfortunate woman turn to stone–like the poor Greeks who turned to stone under the Medusa’s gaze? No. One graduate student in the van, and our driver pointed out that the woman who looks at Oloolu will just dry up until she died! But I figured that even before such perhaps slow dessication commenced, the woman would suffer a quicker punishment in the hands of the thousands of sweating, excited men. Isn’t that why the police vans rode with the crowd. To help support the tradition that authorizes the aura of Oloolu that must walk the streets of one of Africa’s most populated cities. And by the way, although the Oloolu is described as a mask, everyone seems to know that it refers to a male character bearing a power calabash, but without any face covering or any kind of distinctive costume!
Despite all the setbacks, the Oloolu still maintains its prestige and every year around July, its colourful festival is carried out with many Ibadan sons and daughters trooping out for the celebrations.

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