Talk about one of the few places on earth that prides itself with a historic tradition of an “unmasked masquerade”, then you’re definitely talking about Okemesi, a rustic and serene town located in the heart of Ekiti State, Nigeria.
Okemesi said to have its origin from Ile Ife, the ancient seat and ancestral home of the Yoruba race is known for its unique scenic terrain, low land which is rich in fertile soil, and its festivals, particularly, the Oladunwo festival. Oladunwo is the name of the most revered Egungun (masquerade) in Okemesi. It is highly respected because of its importance and the role it played in the history of Okemesi and her people.
Bounded on the East by Ikoro-Ekiti and Ijero, on the South of Efon Alaaye, on the North of Imesi-Ile and on the West by Esa-Oke both in Osun State; history has it that Okemesi, Imesi-Ile, Ile-Ife and Ijesha are all related by blood. Okemesi and Imesi-Ile (in Osun State) were once a single town. However, a drive for adventure and desire to settle in a valley that protected her from neighborhood hostility brought the people of Imesi-Oke to what is now known as Okemesi.
It is said that the progenitor of the town was an Ile-Ife princess called Ooyelagbo, the first daughter of Oduduwa. History records that, after the death of her father, she distributed the Royal crowns among her siblings and kept the best crown for herself.
In a chat with a newspaper media, Daily Sun, the current Owa (King) of Okemesi, Oba Michael Gbadebo Adedeji said that “When Ooyelagbo’s father was ill, she moved to Ilesa in the present Osun State, waiting for her younger brother, Owa Obokun of Ilesa, who went to fetch seawater to cure their father’s eye problem.
He added that, when she got to Ilesa, she met some aborigines led by an okro farmer called Babaonila. She instituted Obanla, a chieftaincy title. Later she became the Prime Minister of both Okemesi-Ekiti and Ilesa.
“Her brother later joined her in Ilesa and became the Owa Obokun there. However, Oyelagbo decided to leave her brother to go to another place since both monarchs could not stay in the same place.
“She eventually got to Apole or Ipole which she ruled, died and was succeeded by many children, some of who ruled the town after her,” Oba Adedeji added.
However, history further records that before finally settling down in the present location, the people migrated to other places. The people left Ipole for a more conducive land and due to the feeling of oppression from their Ijesa neighbors. They kept migrating until they arrived at the present Okemesi.
Also, a sixteen-year conflict known as the Ekiti parapo war was another major contribution in the migration of the people of Okemesi.
The war which broke out because of the unaccepted policies and type of administration Ibadan established after her significant role in the 1840 Osogbo war and her victory over Ijaye in 1962 saw the constant oppression of the people by Ibadan.
Ibadan had stationed its administrators in other parts of Yoruba land, especially in Ekiti and Ijesha which upset both towns who were not ready, like every other town, to accept Ibadan as the stronghold of the Yoruba nation.
History records that when Ibadan soldiers were about to attack the people, the people ran to a place called Oke Agbonna for safety, meanwhile, this was a night before Oladunwo festival.
Oladunwo festival which is usually held for two days involved a lot of activities such as cleansing and sanitizing the environment, carefully selecting and preparing of the Oladunwo masquerade’s costume and the gathering of people irrespective of their gender, age or status to watch Oladunwo and other masquerades display.
The celebration is marked by preparations of drumming, chanting, and other rites. These preparations scared the Ibadan soldiers away with the thought that the people of Okemesi were ready for the attack which was supposed to be launched clandestinely. This is why the festival is highly respected and celebrated most of all Egungun festivals in Okemesi.
Ekiti parapo war was unarguably the most protracted war that plagued the Yoruba nation and it saw to it that the people never had rest. They kept migrating. During these migrations, they usually took the main crown with them.
Chief Adebowale Adepoju, Osolo of Okemesi-Ekiti in a chat also revealed that on the appointed time for the final migration, only 37 people and a dog followed Oba Adeniyi Agodogbo Iyun to the present Okemesi. They however had to replicate quarters, which included Odowo, Ito, Odo Ese, Okerena and Ijana.”
About how the name, “Okemesi” came about, some claim that the name emerged from the hilly terrain of he town. There is a particular hill that when people climb it they get tired and are disgraced. Getting disgraced in Yoruba is ‘mesin’, so the town’s name is Oke imessin.
“So, people used to say come to Oke where you would be disgraced or ‘mesin’ in Yoruba tongue, that is where this name Okemesi come from,” Racheal Adeyanju, a community leader said (cited from Sunnewsonline)
He added that the most plausible meaning of the name is the breath of the mountain: “ You can see that the town is a valley, beautiful and carefully enveloped by hills, the breath of which provides fresh air for the inhabitants of the land. Our land is Okeminsi, meaning a Mount that inspires and not Okemesin, the one that disgraces.”
Presently, no one dares unmask a masquerade as the punishment for such daring act is banishment from the town. This is why the town is also regarded as the town with the tradition of the “unmask masquerade”.
Women are also not permitted to see the masquerades when they come out without mask in the night. Any woman who violates this rule also gets her family in trouble by drawing the ire of the people of the town. Another unique feature of the town is that it a community with high number of professors.