49 ABISI UGURZA DODO

A CULT AND A YOUTH CLUB

Drawing by Raga John Ibrahim
Ugurza is the Abisi name for what is generally called Dodo in Northern Nigeria.
Dodo is a Hausa term that refers to a costume (mask and clothing) of a dancer member of a secret association .
Africanist literature has often described the Dodo as a “cult”, a religious type of group or sect (a small section of a larger group) devoted to some sacred ideas and objects that put them apart from other people.
It focuses mainly on the use of animated mask costumes as the personification of ancestors or spirits.
They are often used as instruments of domination by those in power over young people and women.
In Abisi, the Dodo, named Ugurza and called “oka”, works differently than what is usually described.
It is a “Youth Club” or a “Secret Boy’s Club”, a voluntary association of young people using the “cultist“ aspects of Dodo for their common good.
It implies a wide variety of functions extending from getting food and drinks for the club members to controlling witchcraft sickness and interfering in “Men vs Women” politic.
I was forbidden to take pictures during the few Dodo expositions I could attend. The main reason rested on the need to keep the club’s secrets from being disclosed.
But observing and listening to competing views released enough basic information to describe some of their activities because they are an important part of changes in Abisi Cultural History.

Abisi Dodo Cult in Colonial Notes

British colonial observers as C.K. Meek in 1931 and Gunn in 1953 mention that the Abisi had a Dodo before 1925 but was banned by the administration in the 1930s and maybe even before.
Dodo was said to be an ancestor worship cult used to support the authority of local chiefs and to control women and children such as in Diryawa where :
“… the dodo is said to be one of the dead coming to chastise the refractory living (female and young)” or to supervise young people as among Kurama: “…chiefs … make use of the dodo to maintain discipline among their young men” (Gunn 1956: 45).
In Katab, the dodo was also a male secret society in the hands of seniors used primarily to discipline women and children or to prevent thefts (Gunn 1956: 79).
Some brief notes (Gunn 1953: 47-48) show that in 1937, the Amo had also been struggling with a Dodo cult association that later was prohibited because of the abuses committed their members.

New Abisi Dodo: A Youth Club Organization

Members who introduced the Dodo in Abisi say that the main reason was the desire of young people to have an association of their own where they could sing and dance.
They said that their actual Dodo was borrowed from the lkulu people in the early 1960s.
It was a son of the Abibi Mogaji who was part of the “reputed powerful and dangerous” lkulu Dodo that founded a Dodo house in his section.
The Dodo being like the ferocious beings living in the bush, it is logical for the Mogaji’s family to get it first, having the Leopard Chief powers to control strong wild animals.
Young Abisi men gathered with Ikulu emissaries who instructed them of their secrets. Their alliance was closed by the gift of a goat.
It later spread in other Abisi villages where youth groups of the same patrilines or section were initiated and built special Club Houses.
In 1973, it was present in all sections except the Igallik where the Sarkin Piti comes from and who forbid it.
Despite this restriction, many of their own young people were involved in some Kurama Dodo associations.

Dodo Members

In fact, the dodo association recruits only /ayira/, young men of fifteen to thirty years old when they have to leave the association.
Children, boys and girls, who were brought to be cured of diseases become de facto members and these girls are the only women admitted in the house.
Initiation is required to become members who must pay a small contribution of a hen.(Irigwe paid a goat, six shillings , and two hens. Sangree 1974 )
They have to take a solemn oath to never reveal the secrets of the dodo.
The initiate must jump over a bow, an arrow ,and a hunting knife and repeats:
“May these weapons kill me if I reveal anything.”
Only those initiated members can participate in their secret activities and see the ritual objects.
Secrecy is not only about what is going on inside the clubhouse and about the group’s hidden projects.
It’s also about the sacredness of their ritual in which secret invisible beings communicate through unseen sound instruments and are shown in public by dancers hidden by their mask and costumes.
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