ZANGBETO = Enforcement & Order…

 Zangbeto Masquerade Have Supernatural Powers

Zangbeto are the traditional Vodun guardians of the night in the Yoruba religion of Benin and Togo which are known as the “Night- Watchmen”. As a nominal, it represents a group of men who are involved in policing the community and who also double as members of Zangbeto as a cultural masquerade group during public performances. Zangbeto is also used to convey the notion of a socio-cultural phenomenon made up of a series of beliefs and practices. As an institution, it is backed by an oral history that accentuates its origin as an Egun concept, not an alien or imported one. Sources consulted on the origin and history of Zangbeto asserts that it has existed before we were born and was handed down to us by our forefathers .

In centuries past, The Zangbeto masquerade provided security for the community and ensured discipline among the Egun society (the people of Badagry), and although it is no longer relied on to play these roles, it is still a cherished cultural icon in Badagry, particularly in Ajido-Zangbeto festival is celebrated every three or four years, during which the Zangbeto appease the gods, pray for the immediate community and generally offer good wishes for all households, after which the people expect to reap a plentiful harvest, farmers and fishermen alike. The Zangbeto masquerade is clothed in Asho-Gbeto, made from locally sourced palm fronds and is dedicated to breathtaking showmanship, dazzling its audiences with spirited and ‘magical’ displays. During a Zangbeto performance, you are likely to see fire burn in dry sand or white cloth sprout from underground!. Watching the Zangbeto wade through the water, spinning and shuffling is a rare thrill in itself. Zangbeto never walk alone and are always accompanied by minders know as Kregbeto, whose role it is to guide the masquerade’s every step.

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Zangbeto is believed to have supernatural powers, and is communal, rather than the initiative of private individuals or a self-defined group. Its origins lie in the pre-colonial history of the Egun people of Badagry and the coastal region of PortoNovo in neighbouring Benin.

*** One of the responses given by the head of the group in Yeketome, Badagry, is that Zangbeto dates back several centuries to when an Egun man was said to have been pursued by his enemies and needed to flee from his hometown unnoticed in the night. Using supernatural powers, he disguised himself by covering his body with dried leaves and raffia and by making scary sounds with the horn of an animal. Thus he was eventually able to leave the town unharmed and undetected by his enemies. He later founded a settlement, which he named Hugbonu (Porto Novo, Benin) and subsequently had the men with him dress in a similar manner and keep watch over the new settlement by night to ensure that his enemies did not attack him in his new home. Since then, Zangbeto has been used to keep watch over settlements and towns of the Egun community.***

As regards traditional precolonial ‘night watch’ institutions, the Oro and Egun cults of the Yoruba are the closest masquerade groups to Zangbeto. Earlier studies of both institutions have shown that in precolonial times, in addition to other cultural and religious functions, they were also security outfits mandated to guard the community against foreign or enemy invasion. They are also both regarded in their respective communities as personified representations of ancestral spirits, and their presence is an assurance of the ever-protective and supportive help of the ancestors for their descendants. The Ancestral spirits have collective functions that cut across lineage and family loyalty. They collectively protect the community against evil spirits, epidemics, famine, witchcraft and evildoers, ensuring the well-being, prosperity, and productivity of the whole community generally.

Form and Content of Zangbeto In contemporary Badagry, including the Egun villages surrounding the coastal town, the Zangbeto society is headed by the Zanga, a highly respected elderly man who is well tested and reliable. The Zanga occupies a position of responsibility in dealing with sensitive issues affecting individuals, families and the larger community. Zanga is not just the head of the Zangbeto group, but is also a representative of the people. The Zanga is in effect a traditional chief who functions within the Zangbeto group and in the larger community.

Traditionally, the Zangbeto were the policemen of Benin and were the main guardians of law in the country before the official law establishment. They are said to form a secret society which can only be strictly attended by Zangbeto, and when in a trance are said to have magical abilities such as swallowing splinters of glass without coming to any harm and scaring away even witches.

Zangbeto as spirit and messenger; Zangbeto as peacemaker, moral spokesperson and custodian of Egun culture; Zangbeto as an indivisible whole; Zangbeto as a non-religious group; and Zanga as the honorable one. It is important to note that Zangbeto songs are contributed at different times by members of the group. As with most songs in African oral literature, no single person can claim sole authorship: songs are considered as creations of the group. Moreover, these songs do not possess a singular theme, but themes that underline the circumstances of the creation of such songs and their performance.

The appearance of Zangbeto masquerades during cultural festivals or public performances is usually announced by short but pungent praise. This is a kind of formulaic verse that is not so flexible, in the sense that the words and phrases used retain their structure and content in most performances. The chanter, usually a woman, stays at a distance neither too close nor too far from the masquerade.

The opening chant is translated thus: He wishes to be heard, But the horn would not let him, The horn that makes sounds, the horn that breathes. This introduces Zangbeto as a being with a ‘horn’ and a desire. The horn, located at the tip of the mask and is used to symbolise the position of Zangbeto as a leading group in the community. The masquerade is only a constitutive part of a whole. Zangbeto is a group, an institution, and even a way of life that is represented in physical form by the mask. ‘He’ is then used to represent the form under this mask.

*** Zangbeto may be chiefly about social order within traditional Egun society, using oral forms of art, rituals and cultural practices, some of which have been adapted to the security needs of the town’s inhabitants in the face of the state security agencies’ inability to satisfy the demands of law enforcement and order.

2 thoughts on “ZANGBETO = Enforcement & Order…”

  1. Fascinating read. I’m so greatful to have discovered this site with such prestige and accuracy. Thank you Chief Yagbe Awolowo Onilu.

  2. The information is vital to our progress in understanding tradition…knowing the origin of ritual/practices helps me a great deal. I am not a scholar, but I am a learner. That said, I found interesting similarities between this tradition and Egun as I know it through the Lukumi/Yoruba tradition. The raffia and palm frond dress reminds me of how I saw Babaluaiye represented in Brazil. Thank you again… There is so much to learn!

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