In the Efik society, the Ekpe masquerade represents an iconic visible spectacle to the people. With its ubiquitous Ekombi dancers, the Ekpe masquerade is celebrated by many and symbolizes the indigenous spiritual soul and socio-cultural philosophy of the Efik people.
However, one cannot understand the uniqueness of the Efik society or the Ekpe masquerade without having background knowledge of them.
The present-day Cross River Basin was formerly known as the Ekpe society. They were famous as born leaders of thought, administration, and establishment of societal morals. The Ekpe Society or Mgbe society as it is also fondly called is very reputable and covers a wider range of ethnic groups such as: the Efut; the Efik; the Qua-Ejegham, and the Okonko ( the Igbo-speaking areas).
An account from the Qua said the origin of the Ekpe people can be traced to Cameron. It posits that the Ekpe (Mgbe) people migrated from Cameroon. Another historical account claimed that Efik people pioneered the Ekpe between 1720 and 1729 during the initial migration of Calabar.
Most of the Efik oral historians ascertain that Efik acquired Ekpe several years ago from the Efut people, who were living at Isangele in the present-day Cross River State.
Although, the actual history of Ekpe people is baptized in mystery with varying accounts, often deepening its myth and secrecy.
The Ekpe Secret Cult
The Ekpe secret cult consist of various lodges; each lodge is spearheaded by the highest title-holder known as ‘Eyamba’. Nsibidi is one of the image of the Ekpe society, which literally means ‘the preserve of the society’ is of secret nature. This watchword is only known by the initiated members of the Ekpe society. These restricted language of Nsibidi is learned only through initiation.
However, in recruiting, the core criteria are Respect, and Modesty for the institution. While the two instructions that new initiates must keep are to Keep your eyes open, and Your mouth shut.
In other words, the Ekpe society is composed of different titular levels of which the highest levels are occupied by the elders of the society. Some of the titles are as follows according to hierarchy, primary titles -Obong Mkpe, Obong Ebonko. Secondary titles – Obong Oku akama, Obong Okpoho, and tertiary – Obong Isu, Obong Murua Obong et al.
The head of Efik Ekpe shrine is often referred to as Obong Eyamba, while the Ekpe masquerade remains the most sacred diety of Ekpe. The major function of Ekpe masquerade is representing the spirits of gods, and generically ceremonial.
The Ekpe masquerade establishes and preserves every local lodge, and is always manned by a member with an undisclosed identity to non-initiates. Culturally, Ekpe ritual, non-initiates and women are forbidden to witness Ekpe masquerade.
The Ekpe attire is created with an all-fitting net material sourced from a tree bark, with a wig-like hat and a raffia attachment to the head, though nylon is often in use presently. It holds the sacred ‘Oboti’ leaves which symbolize spiritual power to heal sickness and infirmities. It is also used to pay homage to the chiefs of the Ekpe society.
Thus, the emergence of civilization has influenced the Ekpe society. As the Ekpe people no longer practice and showcase the Ekpe masquerade. Also, what was referred to as a taboo decades ago, has become obsolete, as women, non-initiates now participate.