By Obike Ukoh
THROUGH the previous arrangement was modified, the 2023 Annual Igbere Cultural Festival, in Bende Local Government Area of Abia, still maintained its trappings.
Unlike before where the troupes converged on Camp Neya, the country home residence of Senate Chief Whip, Sen. Orji Kalu, the 13 autonomous communities, staged their dances in their respective village squares.
The Jan. 2, 2023 edition was the first after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just like before, the festival sponsored by Orji Uzor Kalu Foundation, also attracted foreign visitors, including the Speaker of Djibouti National Assembly, Muhammad Ali Humad, who accompanied Kalu and the judges who came from abroad to move round the communities.
The people of Agbo, the first port of call of the team, welcomed Kalu and his entourage with a dance procession called the `Ala Mmam Dance’ (Land of the dead). Agbo occupies very strategic position in Igbere culture history.
The people of Eziama community, staged their `Ogudu War Dance’ with the actors bearing a wooden sword and dane guns. Is a celebration of their forefathers victorious battles.
A well organised traditional wrestling followed later.
At Amaukwu community, the guests were welcomed with a dance procession called `Egwu Itu Ota,’ consisting mainly of women, wielding beautifully designed palm fronds, known traditionally as `Ota.’ They also performed the `Uma Nwa Dance,’ which is used to celebrate the birth of a new baby.
In all the communities visited, the people staged dances peculiar to them.
Many of the younger ones, that thronged the venues to watch the dances admitted that this was their first time of seeing many of the displays.
On why the festival was decentralised, Kalu said the event was deliberately shifted to the communities to allow more people to participate and have access to the festival, as previous editions were held at Camp Neya.
The former governor described culture which the carnival epitomised as the string that has bound the people together in unity.
He assured that the festival would be sustained as a means of teaching the younger generation the value of unity and love.
“You can see the joy and excitement on the faces of the people, the young, the old, children and women. “When Camp Neya was the venue, only few people could attend, but now they are happy enjoying themselves and still dancing in their communities till now.
“You see, we didn’t speak in the 13 villages. It is not about politics, it’s about our people. It’s just to resonate our culture, the culture has to be brought back,” Kalu said.
He called on other Igbo communities to key into the carnivals which he said was the reason Igbere was peaceful.
He promised that the 2024 festival would be better organised because the presidents-general of the communities would be involved and enough time given for preparations.
On his impression, Humad said the festival is a unifying factor, adding that he would take the experience back to his country. He said culture has given Africa its true identity.
“As soon as I go back to my country, I will show them what I have seen in Nigeria. It’s an example of what Nigeria and indeed Africa should be, Africa should encourage cultural exhibitions. It is the culture that brings the value of Africans, judging from what we have seen today,” he said.
Indeed, Humad views were expressed by Pierre Verge, an eminent historian years back. In his article, “African Cultural Survivals in the New World: The Examples of Brazil and Cuba.’’
It was published in Tarikh 20, Vol.5, No.4-The African Diaspora, he wrote inter alia:
“ When these people(Blacks)arrived, they were naked, stripped of everything, free neither in their body nor in their actions, forced to knuckle under to an alien way of life, practice a strange religion and to speak a foreign language. How did they manage to resist such pressures to embrace and adapt to the social structures of the new milieu into which they were plunged, and all these without losing their personality, their culture and their religion?
The answer is staging of cultural festivals though in an informal way.
Unarguably, the yearly Igbere cultural festival represents an avenue to deepen and sustain Igbere culture.
The Executive Secretary, OUK Foundation, Mrs Jemima Ola Kalu, who also spoke re-echoed why the 2023 edition of the festival was decentralised.
“If they all came to Camp Neya, the children may not have the opportunity of coming, but we want to groom them so that as the old people are phasing out, the young ones will continue to uphold the culture,” she said.
Some community leaders that commented on the decentralisation of the festival applauded the innovation, stressing that it would encourage mass participation.
They said that it would encourage unlimited display of dances by cultural troupes, as against allotment of time, when the festival was staged at Camp Neya.
Chief Abel Onuegbu, who spoke on the issue, said the decentralisation was a welcome development.
Onuegbu of Okafia Autonomous Community, said though Igbere people have the same ancestry, each community has its own uniqueness in terms of dance.
He said that for example, Nja Okafia, is a dance staged exclusively by only Okafia.
Onuegbu said that unique dances should be highlighted, noting that staging the dances at the various community levels will enable the younger ones from the areas to master the dances.
He also suggested that the traditional rulers of the 13 autonomous communities, being the custodians of culture should be involved in the organisation of the festival.
Onuegbu, just like Sen. Kalu promised, further suggested that the presidents-general of the of the various autonomous communities should also be galvanised to enhance mass participation.
On his part, Chief Ukaegbu Kazi, commended Sen. Orji Kalu for sustaining the sponsorship of the cultural festival.
Kazi, a retired secondary school principal, said that there should be “ a marriage between the old and the new arrangement.’’
He said that “ under the previous arrangement, people come together and that enables one to see those they have not seen before.
“ Secondly neighbouring villages are invited. In previous editions the famous Nkwa Umuagbogo Maiden Dance Troupe of Afikpo, Ebonyi; Oji Anya Bialere of Amasiri also from Ebonyi, Umuhu Ezechi War Dance and Udunkuru Dance Troupe of Item, performed.’’
Kazi also said that because the carnival go on simultaneously in the 13 autonomous communities, it makes it impossible for one to holistically appreciate all the dances. He commended the resilience and commitment of the organisers, stressing that the annual festival has already place Igbere in national cultural map.
Sen. Kalu later announced the winners with Ibinanta and Eziama jointly taking the first position; Amankalu, Okafia and Umusi, second position, while Ibinaukwu and Ohumuola took the third position.
The next edition according to the organisers, holds on January 2, 2024.
Undoubtedly, Kalu is itching towards making the festival a revenue earner as he promised during the 2019 edition.
He listed Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago, Brazil and some European countries that used culture as alternative sources of revenue generation. According to Kalu, Igbere carnival is aiming to replicate that, we are trying to do exactly what those people are doing. “Igbere cultural carnival is a sort of tourism which could be turned into one of the revenue earners for this country, just as what obtains in South Africa,” he said.
He then appealed to the Federal Government to support the carnival by giving it the necessary institutional support to boost tourism and increase the nation’s revenue base.
With the calibre of visitors during the 2023 festival, that call made in 2019 deserved to receive the desired attention.