In some parts of the Efik country, men do not consider their social standing sufficiently high unless they are members of the Ekpe Society.
The word Ekpe means Leopard. The name perhaps originated from the belief that a leopard being the most ferocious animal in this part of the country is the king of the beasts. This maybe one of the reasons why a dead leopards face is always covered so that women may not see it.
Membership is open to all irrespective of birth, rank and (in certain cases) sex. Slaves in the olden days could be initiated into the society if they could afford the membership fee. Eldest daughters of parents from respectable families maybe initiated members, but may not attend meeting and ceremonies of the society. Their only privilege is that they can walk and work out doors when the Ekpe game is played, and can walk past any Ekpe masquerader without being molested.
The membership fees vary from twenty to fifty pounds I understand that in poorer localities the fees are lower. Although the membership fees are different an initiated member in one locality will be recognized as such in any other locality provided that the he uses the correct watchword, or wears an emblem signifying his rank and section.
A son of a deceased slave wishing to become a member had first of all to pay for his fathers membership before he was allowed to pay his own. This meant paying one hundred pounds where a membership fee was fifty pounds, but, of course, this is not so today. Any person who dislikes paying this heavy membership fee should remember that amongst the other advantages, which members enjoy, there is a kind of insurance amongst them. Anything happening to a member always arouses concern of the society, and if help is required it rendered ungrudgingly.
Two or three days before a prospective member takes the preliminary orders, he has to be in hiding so that no initiated member may find him. If he is found he either has to bribe his finders or be ready for a heavy fine from the society for appearing in public. Even if the man is discovered in the inner most part of his house the result is the same. Some members leave their work and go round the village in search of prospective members with the objective of getting the bribe.
Some parents may tell their members to give their naughty sons lashes on the back, the usual whip for executing such orders is the tail of a stingray; in certain cases a whip prepared with piassava but similar to horse whip is used.
|Ekpe Masqueraders - Messengers of the Ekpe deity. 1956|
As in other African societies, there are sections and grades in the Ekpe society. There are 12 such sections, the names of which need not be mentioned. Each section has its own president. It is possible for a reasonably rich person to compound a fee for all these sections. A poor person has to begin with the lowest section and gradually work his way up and he can afford the fees of the higher grades. Once a person has been initiated into any one of the sections, he enjoys the privileges of the society, except that he does not attend the functions of the other sections.
After the preliminary ceremony and seven days before the day appointed day of initiation, a prospective member goes in for fattening. He is fed and treated in much the same way as fattening girls: he has to paint his body with white clay, ground cam wood, or a yellow substance obtained from a plant. This yellow material is similar to the pollen dust of the Gloriosa Superba Flower. Unlike a fattening girl, a prospective member is allowed to move outdoors. He goes on his daily round of visits. He carries a gong which he beats as he goes to attract attention. Following him about is a boy – an initiated member – with a mat, for during the whole period of fattening he must not sit on anything but the mat. Occupants of the houses he visits have to give him presents.
During the eleven days the prospective member has to observe very strictly to the following rules. A breach of one may result in a fine or the cancelling of all arrangements and preparations.
1. A candidate on meeting an initiated member must greet him with the watchword of the society. If he fails to do so he is liable to a reasonable fine by that member.
2. He must sit on nothing other that the Mbit Ekpe (The mat of the society)
3. He must neither wade through nor take a bath in a stream, and must not walk in the rain. If he does any of these things he said to wash off his body the mark of society, and it means the termination of membership.
4. During this period he must not sleep in another village.
5. He must not hand over his gong to a non-member.
6. If during his round of visits food is offered, he must not taste it until an initiated member has tasted it first. If no such person is at hand he must refrain no matter how appetizing the food may be.
The final initiation ceremony is an affair for two people. There is a member who takes care of the society shed; he does the necessary cleaning up, and is called Okporo Efe (Sweeper of the Shed) it is an honorable position to hold. On e of his duties is carrying out the final initiation ceremony. On the day appointed he takes the recruit to the stream at a time when no people are about – it may be very early in the morning or late in the evening, for it is feared that if people observe the recruit while he is going through the bathing ceremony he may be unlucky for the rest of his life. Every initiated member believes this strongly.
In places like Calabar and Okoyon, if there is to be an Ekpe game, leopard skins will be tied at various places to show boundary limits. A non-member going into that special area after having seen the emblem is understood to be there for a quarrel, and has to be treated, as he deserves. At Oron, cloth is substituted for leopard skin.
As rule non-members must kept indoor when the society masquerade is going round the village. In Oron this rule does not bind visitors. The Ekpe society in Orun allows women to walk and work outdoors provided they turn their backs to the masquerade when he passes. Other section of the Efik country does not permit this.
The presence of a member at a deceased members burial is compulsory, whether relatives invite them or not they must attend and demand all the necessary things for the burial rites. They are at liberty to destroy anything but life if their demand is not registered.
Sometimes member orders in his will that certain of his sons and daughters be thrashed for their naughtiness. When he is dead the will must be carried out brutally and mercilessly; and it is not uncommon sight to see a bleeding skin after a funeral. The Efiat people – the fishermen at Tom Shot at the mouth of the Cross River – do not bury deceased Ekpe members in the absence of other members. What they do is prepare two coffins, put the body in one and take it to the grave where they leave it uncovered. When the members come back they take the second coffin, perform the necessary ceremonies, and after breaking it up and throwing it into the grave, the grave is covered up.
In any locality it is an unwritten law that no Ekpe member should be buried unless some other members are present.
It is interesting to note that if one of the heads of the various sections gives his walking staff to a non-member whom he sends on an errand, the non-member automatically becomes an initiated member. He continues to be a member until the staff is delivered up. Another this is that, only reliable young members, who can be trusted with secrets, are allowed to know what is going on in the inner circle. Such young members are few.
|Ekpe Masquerade and young boy 1957|
- From the Nigeria Magazine 1938