Moniwata

By Carl Terver
     naked I stand,
before your watery presence . . .
                          
                                              —Okigbo
HER FACE NEARLY REMAINS THE SAME anywhere you see her: a carved wood Mona Lisa, otherworldly sirenic. Yet, her origin is deceptive to even the Tiv whose masquerade it is. In fact, when tracing the origins of this dancing masquerade called mami wata, or in its more tonal-inflected Tiv pronunciation, “moniwata,” one finds that she has almost succeeded—if not done so already—in effacing her primal origins.

She is mostly seen during the yuletide season, or at festive gatherings where she has been invited to perform, unlike in the not-too-distant past, when she came out at night in open spaces and in the streets to entertain people. The obvious reason being that it is the only the time of the year that bears a strong character of festivity, which she comes out to celebrate. If not so, the immediate question surfaces: what is the connection between a traditional masquerade and Christmas? Nevertheless, since the Tiv have almost lost all connection to traditional festivities in preference for the abundance of ritual in Christianity, the moniwata masquerade adds its colour to the season and has become irrevocably a part of it as many people, in mostly rural communities, expect to watch her dance.

As a Tiv person this is very curious to me, this anticipation of the moniwata. I perceive it, and the celebration of the masquerade, as a kind of passive Tiv spirituality, hinting at a desire of affinity to what is traditional and maybe sacrilegious, since, especially, contemporary Tiv society is devotedly Christian, so much that the religion has eaten deep into original thinking. If the moniwata masquerade wasn’t simply theatrical in persuasion, but had any slight religious bearing, it possesses the aura and being of easily becoming deity. To avoid something like this is exactly what happened to the foremost masquerade known in Tivland, the Akume, which was “a very powerful religious masquerade . . . mainly a ritual associated with the death of aged men who were initiated into the Akombo rites of the land.” This is according to Mnena Abuku, a lecturer in the Theatre Arts Department of Benue State University, in an academic paper as recent as 2008, tracing the evolution of the moniwata masquerade to as late as the 1920s.1 But when the incursion of Christianity via colonial administration deemed it idolatrous, it was replaced by the Ajigbe, the first ancestor and forerunner of moniwata, which was purely for entertainment and part of the Tiv Kwagh Hir Theatre. Closely following this masquerade was the Ijov-Mbakuv.

The first time I saw a moniwata was in the Christmas of 1998 or ’99, in my village, Tombo, in Buruku Local Government Area of Benue State. The memory is very obscure, so that I cannot remember if I saw her dance. But what remains with me is the fanfare she created in my grandfather’s big compound, which was somehow apportioned in two by two giant almond trees, as some people came out to see her, and a song that was sung for her, which I can only remember its melody for I wasn’t yet versed in Tiv language. And until I returned to Benue many years later, I wouldn’t see one again. What is proximate to my experience of it were the kwagh hir videos I recall watching on VHS in my childhood, 90s Lagos. The next time I saw the moniwata masquerade perform was in Benue State University, sometime in 2017, almost two decades later, during a bonfire night. And a few other times thereafter. But I didn’t really pay too much mind to her as I already suffered ethnocultural attrition, not born in Tivland, to be enamoured by it.

My conscious attention to her began in the boredom of the pandemic lockdown, a year to rounding up studying for a BA in the same university that reintroduced me to it. I have stayed back after graduation in the capital Makurdi, which has given me the idea of a flâneur novel. I’d say staying close to home made me more conscious of my Tiv identity than I’d have imagined. A lot has been lost with the passage of time. I wouldn’t want to resurrect any Western versus tradition discourse, but it suffices to note that, as a people, we have gravitated away from our true native identities—which I believe is important in shaping worldview in a more wholesome manner than the contemporary scenario hitherto—and keep adopting and assimilating a Western idiom. So that I realise, for example, my spatial consciousness to my native identity, which I am supposed to belong to but then know nothing of, thinking I can escape this shortcoming by excuses which are availably many but which being at home, in my state, I learn, that there are many people whose native identity isn’t an accoutrement. 

So keen on re-introducing myself to what has been lost, I began with listening to songs by legendary Tiv oral poets such as Obadiah, Golozo and Tondokubu, the latter two I realised, I used to hear their songs at the Tiv end-of-year parties my father took me to in Lagos when I was a child. A line from Tondokubu, which remains a lasting impression, rousing nostalgia, is “Nepa tôô usu ken Najiriya cii, ka Benue tseghe ga,” sang with a vowel elongation at the two points, cii and tseghe, the latter stretched longer to arrive at a perfect closure, for the next word ‘ga.’

Earlier in my first year in university, a fieldwork trip where we (me and my group mates) interviewed oral poets who also sang their songs, or ‘imo,’ to us, had, prior to this time, rekindled a desire in me to return to nativity or seek its vestiges, which I turned to these Tiv singers. Then came my gravitation towards Tiv dances as well. The Tiv dances I presently know and have found out number up to seven; they are the ihinga, begha, tsuwe tsele (or ‘ama a kpatuma,’ the cat dance), swange, ikpingi, girinya, swem, all wonderful dances, which I have now often come to ask myself: what is it about this dancing that intrigues my people to have so many of them? However, as a result of my individuality—no thanks to Western orientation—which working on this essay reminded me again, the dances that enamour me most are the tsuwe tsele, and the moniwata (which incorporates a few of the dances with freestyle), both performed by an individual dancer.

Some fifteen years ago, in his village in Korinya, my university roommate Filip Ikyegh, now a BA English graduate from Benue State University, Makurdi, was training to be a moniwata dancer. I found this out when I reached out to ask him if he knew a dancer I could talk to. “After training, there was a competition,” he says. Obviously the best dancer got promoted to the next stage of becoming a professional moniwata dancer. As I have come to learn, about many traditional things not observed closely, but with the flippant, Western-trained eyes—I bet, to even the modern Tiv spectator—it is easy to imagine that the masquerade dance, as one may imagine in relation to popculture, is less methodical. But this is not so. (In fact, all Tiv dances, performed in their actual ritual sense, are all methodical, following an established choreography.)

Firstly, there is an orchestra of instrumentalists who double as singers who play drums, ilyu, tambourines, led by the orhemen icam (song leader), and the ultimate ormyar (flutist), whose fluting the moniwata dancer is most reliant on for her body movements. Filip explains further, which I have observed to be true from the few moniwata performances I have seen or viewed online (YouTube; see
here and here), that the moniwata dance begins—as the music and drumming starts—with ‘tembe u nyôron’ (entrance; more like “making an entrance into a square”) done with a freestyle dance; then salutation, where the masquerade recognises its audience (also done in freestyle, the dancer is allowed to be creative enough to display their dancing prowess; sometimes they make actual military salutes to the audience or shoot their horsetail forward at various directions to the audience). Then comes the ‘dibi u tsorough’—meaning ‘shaking the dibi,’ (‘dibi’ is an anklet made of numerous beverage crowns). This is a dance performed by creative leg movements (a showoff), so that the sounds the anklet makes syncs with the drumming. This is accompanied by a freestyling dance, too. Then comes the ultimate phase of the dance, which is trancelike.

In every moniwata performance, this trancelike phase is like the pièce de résistance, where the ormyar’s dexterity is utmostly tested as he has to sustain a number of musical notes for longer breath stretches, when the dancer enters the trancelike dance which boneless body movements—properly called to ‘tirigh isho’; English fails me in explaining this, but directly translated would mean ‘to massage the dancing’—where the dancer twists and turns, mostly involving a stunt of going down on the knees and slowly falling backwards in a semicircle move, making sure the back of the masquerade doesn’t touch the ground (this last detail is thoroughly emphasised to trainees; it’s like the holy grail of the performance), after which the dancer, still on the ground, might repeat the same semicircle movement forward and begin to turn or move like a coiled millipede or snake, at which point the ormyar’s flute is intense, as the tempo of drumming mounts, and the women singers in the orchestra hail the dancer with an encore ‘caa isho, or wam caa isho,’ a go-ahead or cheer, best explained colloquially as to “scatter dance, my man, scatter dancing,” as the atmosphere becomes heightened and charged, best described by Chinua Achebe in a passage in Things Fall Apart, “The drums were still beating, persistent and unchanging. Their sound was no longer a separate thing from the living village. It was like the pulse of its heart. It throbbed in the air, in the sunshine, and even in the trees…” the willing spectator induced into a brief moment of euphoria.

I mentioned ‘Tiv spirituality’ earlier in describing the anticipation of the spectacle of the moniwata masquerade; the dance phase described in the last paragraph comes very close. After this, when the dancer rises from the ground, they perform a few more dance steps, then exit.

It now occurs to me in my speculation, that this masquerade, so accomplished as a cultural identity, is an epitomic culmination of the Tiv’s love for dance—the average moniwata dancer is supposed to know almost all the Tiv dances as their performance relies on freestyle—than any arbitrary expression I bring to it. Nevertheless, even before I had the thought of writing about her, I was drawn to figuring out her meaning beyond dance, any ritualistic character she bore, especially the image of her mask with a foreigner’s face and her aspects of religiosity that aren’t very Tiv. What I mean by the last thing is that the old Tiv religious system which consists the trio of Tsav (magical powers, forces of the universe), Akombo (charms and fetish), and Adzov (spirit beings living among men) did not involve the knowledge of marine spirituality, which involves the mammy water (a water spirit or mermaid), and as these religious practice was already practised in the Swem hills (one of their first original settlements, believed to be either the Obudu hills region or one of its surrounding areas) before the early Tivs migrated and found the Benue River, and since the word “mummy water,” which the masquerade derives her name, has no word closely related to it in the Tiv lexicon.

Firstly, my findings surprisingly, but confirming my judgement of the foreigner face of the moniwata mask, informed me that the concept of a mummy water dancer was introduced to the Tiv from eastern Nigeria, especially through the Igbo, linked to a long-practised worship of water spirits, especially a sea goddess, like Idemili, or a feminine deity of the sea (as the Yoruba have Yemoja) whose powers come in contact with man, attracting a number of worshippers and members, largely female, their leaders regarded as mummy water priestesses who mediate between the water spirits and their worshippers.

(Many myths and legends trail the mummy water, often used to describe an alluringly fair-skinned attractive woman, one of the legends involves her giving herself to men in bed, where she demands sexual fidelity from them, which in turn she blesses her chosen man with wealth, but with the threat of harm if he breaks his vow of fidelity.) Not to delve too much into mummy water worship—but usually, as these things go—the priestesses often involved in parades and dances (usually trancelike) during ceremonies and displays, which hints at the dancing rituals of the Tiv moniwata masquerade. And the carved mummy water goddesses and deities have a face which is a near replication in the Tiv moniwata masquerade, but even more beatified.It is obvious, as my research found, that what has become the iconic moniwata mask, copied from the face of the carved water goddess of the religious cults of the Igbo and Ibibio (and among other worshippers along West Africa’s coast, the Yoruba and Togolese, for example), has an Oriental origin, in fact, one of the many drawings of a Hindu snake charmer, probably first made by an African sculptor who copied it from somewhere, and by another sculptor who copied it from them, and so on. Because one of the prominent features of this snake charmer image is the concept of a snake wrapped in the arms and around the torso of the goddess, still present in the mask of the Tiv moniwata, where on top of it is a small effigy of a person shown carrying a snake. But today many meanings, far from what the snake charmer represents, is now given to this snake, and which are mostly speculations.

Another feature seen on the moniwata mask is the accompaniment of mirrors on it. I found solid-enough meanings for this. According to Henry John Drewal, most cited among academics writing about mummy water worship, he claims it is drawn from the “concept of the mermaid, whose most characteristic depictions show her emerging from the water combing her long luxurious hair as she gazes at her reflection in a mirror,” her mirror which she “consider[s] . . . as one of her most prized possessions, and thus an instrument essential for communication with her.” In a long breath of postulation, he continues:
But more than this, the mirror surface is like the surface of the water. It is the boundary between the cosmic realms of water and land, a symbol of the permeable threshold crossed by Mami Wata when she enters the bodies of her mediums and they go into possession trance. At the same time, it is the threshold crossed by those troubled by Mami Wata when they voyage to her watery underworld in their dreams.2
Or as a paraphernalia of mummy water worship, it is used in rituals by the priestesses to attract and call on a water spirit. For the Tiv for which the moniwata masquerade, I can boldly state, is mostly ceremonial, the mirror is merely ornamentation and an offhand replication from the original material. Nevertheless, there are preternatural evocations that the moniwata exudes when it dances that suggests a path-crossing between the physical and another realm it communicates, something chthonic, clandestinely seductive, and deviously removed from the seeing eye.  

To check my conclusions, I met John Orshi Osu, when I heard he carves moniwata masks, to ask him what making such a mask means to him. He’d belonged to a kwagh hir troupe when he was about ten to fourteen years old, he says (which should be in the 1980s; he is now in his late 50s), and was curious about the carvings and puppets used in performances, which inspired him to learn how to make them. Although, sculpturing is his gift, back then his troupe members asked for a renown sculptor to teach him how to sculpt but they couldn’t afford to pay the fee of one hundred naira they were charged. Thereafter, Orshi says, the sculptor began to hide whenever he was at work to avoid young Orshi from learning his craft. Orshi says whenever the sculptor finished a particular job, he (Orshi) often picked up the carved work and studied it, and thereafter used his imagination to sculpt his own works.

Orshi had no illusions about anything spiritual concerning the mask in the manner he spoke of it, and when I asked him the inspiration behind the face of the mask, he answered confidently that it is derived from “mummy water,” which people believe is a very beautiful woman. Mnena Abuku alternatively suggests that the introduction of such water spirit images “arose from the belief that early European sailors who landed in Calabar and Bonny . . . in the sixteenth century brought ships that had figure heads of mermaids which in turn had influenced local beliefs.”

This transcultural history and exotic origins are generally lost to the Tiv today. The Moniwata belongs to them; if you ask many of us, we might insist she is an ancestrally Tiv thing, and it seems, to me, all that matters now. She isn’t an entirely imported concept, after all, and had her predecessors—the Ajigbe and Ijov-Mbakuv masquerades, with similar costume—which made it natural for her to become an incorporated idea. And not entirely new to the Tiv cosmology, as we already had stories of the Ayu (the manatee) which were constructed into a legend of a beautiful water creature, hard to find, which brought wealth to any man who could capture it. How far, then, has the moniwata masquerade come as an emblem of the Tiv culture and what does it mean to dancers and troupes? It has evolved into a different symbolism; its practice today exudes more of a showmanship of dance as the dancers engage in stunts and overkill to impress an audience. As I asked one female dancer, she answers, it is just the joy she derives from it.

However, I believe residues of its cosmological significance abound in its semiotics and dance philosophy. But sadly, and as usual with the erasure industry of Christianity so favoured by the Tivs, it is lost on the people who cannot use it to navigate their sense of place as Christianity already fulfils this. She, however, for those who are still at a crossroads with their cultural identity, provide some intersectionality of spirituality between the worldviews of Christendom and the question of destiny. To me, her celebration remains a form of performative traditional worship—to borrow TS Eliot’s words, my people clutching onto an old god.

Speaking of old gods or tradition, it was until recently that ladies began moniwata performance, so much for a masquerade that is clearly feminine all-round. What I learnt from my findings, as opposed to me thinking beforehand that the special preserve of men being moniwata dancers could give me something to think about fluid sexuality was an error. For a long time among Tiv, masquerade dance was the preserve of men—traced back to the masquerades Ajigbe and Ijov-Mbakuv—and, in fact, the Tsuwe Tsele dance (Cat Dance), the most difficult and professional Tiv dance, which has more resemblance in its choreography to the moniwata dance, is a specialised male affair till date. This tradition trickled down over the years, unlike in other Tiv dances like the swange and begha where it is common to see men and women dancers performing together. The Akume masquerade I mentioned earlier, steeped in religious ritual was, in fact, an all-male affair; and being a progenitor of Tiv masquerade (and its dance) practice, one can easily understand why even up till the introduction of moniwata, the dancers were only male.

For me, beyond dance (I like dance a lot, don’t get me wrong), or any spiritual importance, this masquerade which is a merely passive cultural artefact today—and maybe even threatened by extinction, its irrelevance growing by the indifference of the “socially-advanced and civilised” Tiv man (a culture philistine) elevated from tradition, and God’s people (the religious) across the border—it represents a progressive spirit, a trait which has always been Tiv but today suppressed by religious stiffness. A progressive spirit in the masquerade’s ability to have adapted from its predecessors and to continue adapting. There are no straitjacket rules about its performance, as long as the basics remain the same. The decoration of its masks is fluid and follows no rigid rules.
Curiously even, while the effigies atop the masks are mostly someone sitting on a chair carrying a coiled snake, or a carved animal (sometimes eagle), I was stunned to see on top a Moniwata mask I came across on Twitter, a carving of the crucifix flanked on both sides by angels. I believe this was done to mitigate what might be its perceived pagan persuasion to the target audience. While it appeared misleadingly syncretic, it shows that the Moniwata is not intolerant, but simply a forward-moving organism.   

So I was, one afternoon, caught up with an accumulated consumption of Tiv music and dance, practicing the tsuwe tsele dance in my apartment. It’s always about the moniwata mask, her facial demeanour, a constant reminder of Mona Lisa that always strikes me; what has she been staring at? And so, caught up as I was in my room, doing a mimesis of moniwata dance steps I watched online, I found that my facial expression, staring coldly blankly into space, which moniwata does, giving the illusion of her ability to stare at what is miles and miles away, to even what is unseeable to naked eye, was incapable of capturing that grotesque beauty.

So I have been toying with the possibility of acquiring a mask (the sculptor Orshi says he makes them for between N10,000 to N15,000) and probably getting its full costume too. Maybe I will take some personal tsuwe tsele dance classes. But I do not want to perform in the tradition of its already-practised theatrology but to be experimental and cross into possible spaces. (Maybe I won’t. but I see the possibility.) So as I said, caught up one afternoon in my apartment, in an accumulated consumption of Tiv music and dance, I found that moniwata performance could be done to Rolling Stone’s “Sympathy For The Devil,” and I wrote down a possible choreography of thirteen movements.

It begins with 1. Stares movements/slow footwork. 2. Hunter moves (this is actually borrowed from a pose in tsuwe tsele dance). 3. Hands tied back (I think this is the part when the Rolling Stones sing, “I was around when Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt and pain”). 4. Put sword to earth. 5. Rising fast footwork/then genuflection. 6. Slash throat after lyrics, “Killed the Tsar and his ministers…” Halfway into the song, guitar riffs throw the dancer into a psychedelic embrace, similar to when the ormyar (flutist) elongates his breath on single note, thus 7. Freestyle to first guitar riff, then collapse at the lyrics, “nature of my game,” and start craw-like twists. 8. Prepare to do a tsuwe tsele back-leg move at “nature of my game” again. 9. Follow with cat moves. 10. Break-dance. 11. Freestyle to second guitar riff, drunken moves to the scream and blend into a 12. Legwork. And finally 13. Freestyle.
Notes
1.  Mnena Abuku, “Masks and Symbols in Masquerade Performances among the Tiv of Central Nigeria,” in African Performance Review, Vol 2, No. 1 

2.Henry John Drewal, “Performing the Other: Mami Wata Worship in Africa,” in TDR (1988), Vol. 32, No. 2, The MIT Press