A Festival of Unity

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Professor TJT Princewill, traditional ruler of Kalabari
Professor TJT Princewill, traditional ruler of Kalabari

Alagba masquerade festival draws visitors from far and near to the Kalabari Kingdom in Rivers State

|  By Maureen Chigbo  |  Mar. 25, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT

The Face of the Alagba
The Face of the Alagba

BUGUMA, the traditional capital of the Kalabari Kingdom was filled with pomp and pageantry on March 8 and 9, as the inhabitants celebrated the Kalabari historical Alagba masquerade festival. The Alagba masquerade is performed by the Ekine Sekiapu Society. The celebration attracted not only great sons and daughters  but also other important visitors across the country to the Kalabari Kingdom. There were also  international tourists who witnessed the  famous and most outstanding masquerade in the history of the Kalabari Kingdom.

The celebration of the event stems from the belief of Kalabari people of South-South Nigeria who, like other West African coastal peoples, see swamps and creeks as the home of spiritual beings that may form all kinds of relationships with the humans. Through masquerades, spirits periodically interact with the wider human world. In a seventeen-year cycle of plays, the Kalabari invite water spirits to take possession of performers and dancers in the town. The Alagba masquerades that must feature before  lesser masquerades, are to usher in the celebration of the Owu-Aru-Sun festival.

Asari Dokubo, leader of Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force leading Dickson to pay homage to Princewill
Asari Dokubo, leader of Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force leading Dickson to pay homage to Princewill

Oral tradition has it that, the festival is usually performed after the exhaustion of the various masquerades owned by the community, groups and compounds in the kingdom. The festival was celebrated in Buguma City in 1908, 1927, 1973 and 1991, respectively by the Ekine Sekiapu (traditional Group) under the leadership of the Opu Edi who served as the head of these groups.

The Ekine Sekiapu are the custodians of the Kalabari customs and traditions right from the old shipping (Elem Ama) till date. The Ekine also formed the central part of the traditional government of the Kalabari people. The Owu- Arun-Sun festival unites natives of Kalabari in a celebration. According to  Sokari Douglas Camp, a Kalabari sculptor who lives and works in London, “Alagba is a female masquerade and a water spirit that comes to perform for mankind. She is the beginning of all masquerades and starts off the Water Spirit Season.

Gov Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa State congratulating Princewill
Gov Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa State congratulating Princewill

The Water Spirit Season takes seventeen years to complete. Alagba is the only water spirit who wears a leopard-skin cape, a symbol of power coveted by every Kalabari House. Alagba is performed when she has completed her circuit of shrine pointing, unless something goes wrong, like if the performer fails to complete the circuit and has to be rescued by his compound because he can be undressed in public if he fails the test the drummer gives him.”

The Masqurades on display
The Masqurades on display

According to a Kalabari legend, a beautiful woman named Ekineba from Delta was abducted by the water spirits. When she returned to the human world, she taught people how to perform the masquerades, (called “plays” in Nigerian English) that she learned from the spirits. Today, Ekineba is the patroness of the masquerade society named after her, but ironically, only men can belong to the Ekine society, wear masks or perform the masquerades display.

The RS House of Assembly Speaker, Gov Dickson and a guest
The RS House of Assembly Speaker, Gov Dickson and a guest

What is principally displayed at Kalabari masquerades is the gift of special knowledge. As the masquerader makes his way through the town, the drums, through their ability to “talk” through rhythm, tell him to point to 33 shrines of state heroes and royal ancestors. Should he fail to understand the instructions or falter in the performance, the masquerader may be disgraced by the crowd. His costume maybe removed and his human face revealed.

The Kalabari are Ijaw-speaking people comprising three Local Government Areas of Asari-Toru, Akuku-Toru and Degema with Buguma in Rivers State as traditional capital in Rivers State. They live in 23 islands in the Niger Delta of Southern Nigeria. Their traditional economy is based on fishing and trading. They travel in large canoes to trade with the inland people, including the Igbo to the north, the Yoruba to the west and the Ogoni and Ibibio to the east.

Alaba West, Gov Dickson, Prof Hutton and Alabo Longjohn
Alaba West, Gov Dickson, Prof Hutton and Alabo Longjohn

In line with the thought of Mahatma Gandhi, that “No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive”, the Kalabari people were among the first tribes in Africa to be exposed to the Europeans. History has it that as far back as the 15th century, Kalabari traders were middlemen between Africa and the West, exchanging slaves, ivory, spices and palm oil for guns, gunpowder, brassware and Western luxury goods. In the course of the trade, they absorbed many immigrants who rose to positions of power but could not approach traditional ancestral shrines. New memorial forms, based on Western paintings and prints, were invented for these dead leaders.

The Great Masquarade
The Great Masquarade
Alabo Lavender Longjohn, the head of the Alagba Masqurade
Alabo Lavender Longjohn, the head of the Alagba Masqurade
High Chief Erikasime
High Chief Erikasime
Cross section of the crowd
Cross section of the crowd
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