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What is the "egwugwu ceremony" of the Igbo?

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The "egwugwu ceremony" of the Igbo, or Ibo, people, a cultural group in the Umuofia region of Nigeria, is a judicial process whereby initiated males of the clan masquerade as the "egwugwu," or ancestral spirits, to pass judgment on other clan members for wrongdoings. The ceremony takes place in a special house that women are forbidden from entering.

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A description of the ceremony is given in the novel "Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe. In the story, which is based on Achebe's own personal experiences, a dispute arises when a married woman leaves her physically abusive husband, in turn prompting the husband to demand compensation from her family. The egwugwu hear the man's case and order him to go to his wife and beg for her forgiveness. In addition, the husband is forced to offer gifts to her family, by way of atonement.

The Igbo's administering of justice in this way is presented in the novel as more effective and less corrupt than the supposedly more civilized brand of justice enforced by European colonists later on.

Nevertheless, it has been suggested that, in spite of this particular trial's outcome, the institution of the egwugwu is fundamentally misogynist. Not only are women forbidden from entering the egwugwu house, but at the end of this trial, one of the village elders wonders why such a "trivial" matter, that is, of a severe wife-beating, should have come before the egwugwu at all.

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