Kalabari Kingdom- Celebrating a unique culture
By Eze Chukwuemeka Eze,
The Kalabari are Ijaw-speaking people comprising three Local Government Areas of Asari-Toru, Akuku-Toru and Degema with Buguma as its traditional capital in Rivers State. They live on 23 islands in the Niger Delta of Southern Nigeria. Their traditional economy is based on fishing and trade. They traveled in large canoes to trade with inland peoples, including the Igbo to the north, the Yoruba to the west and the Ogoni and Ibibio to the east. In line with the thought of Mahatma Gandhi, “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 from the 15th century onward, 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 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 Kalabari people in fear of the realization of the great Mao Zedong thought that, “An army without culture is a dull-witted army, and a dull-witted army cannot defeat the enemy” developed traditional kin-based lineages into large corporations known as Houses, each with an elected Head and a war canoe team that controlled commerce and warfare. At the height of this trade, the delta became an important economic center. Today, Port Harcourt the State capital of Rivers State is the major urban center of a local economy strongly linked to petroleum within western Africa.
In Kalabari society, wealth is measured by how many people a man has in his House, defined both as a place of residence and as family, including living relatives, ancestors, adopted members and, formerly, domestic slaves. Every powerful House had a war canoe as well as paddlers and pilots to navigate the Niger delta, the inland rivers and the estuaries along the Atlantic coast. Both the boat and the house in this headdress are symbols of wealth. The pregnant stomach also alludes to the importance of people as wealth.
The Kalabari people of South-South Nigeria, like other West African coastal peoples, see swamps and creeks as the home of spiritual beings that may form all kinds of relationships with 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 dance in the town.
It was as a result of the above that Buguma, the traditional capital of the Kalabari Kingdom within 8th to 9th March, 2013 played host not only to great sons and daughters of Kalahari Kingdom, important dignitaries across the country including International Tourists but hosted the famous and most outstanding Masquerade in the history of the Kalabari Kingdom the Algaba. The Buguma city is made up of fifty-two families. Sauntering into Buguma City for this great event of the historical outing and display of the glamorous Alagba Masquerade performed by the Ekine Sekiapu Society, a first time visitor will mistake it for the Houston Texas, for its cultural heritage from its founding fathers.
For avoidance of doubt, it becomes imperative at this juncture to state that the main attempt of this piece is to bring before the interested public the Alagba Masquerade that must be played before another type or rather lesser masquerades are played to usher in the celebration of the Owu-Aru-Sun Festival. 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 serves as the head of these groups. The Ekine Sekiapu are the custodian 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 among all unites natives of Kalabari in 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. 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 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”.
According to 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 for her, but only men can belong to the Ekine society, wear masks or perform in masquerades.
What is principally displayed at Kalabari masquerades is a 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.
King Prof Princewill the King of the Kalabari Kingdom is in love with the famous Marcus Garvey thought that, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots” when he maintained that, “if I as the custodian of the culture of our people fails to upheld them it will die like the culture of other great Kingdoms”. Based on this, the Kalabari man including the women folks, culture is a way of life and forms part of their daily life. On the other hand, culture is regarded as the beliefs, customs, practices, and social behaviour of a given nation or group of people. This is an essential act for a hale and hearty society.
King Prof TJT Princewill CFR, Amaechree XI, the Amanyanabo of Kalabari Kingdom whose eminent presence captured the beauty and significance of the festival used the occasion to declare to the entire world that the Kingdom is peaceful and safe for investment and development as the festival being witnessed by the mammoth crowd and array of personalities that graced the event shows. The King after dancing through the square majestically described the Alagba masquerade festival in the words of Swami Sivananda, “Moral values, and a culture and a religion, maintaining these values are far better than laws and regulations”.
The great King of the Kalabari Kingdom, who is the first Professor King in Rivers State and the first King from Rivers State to be decorated by the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as Commander of the Order of the Federal republic, CFR. He is also the first Kalabari King to Chair the Rivers State Council of Traditional Rulers among several other first went further to describe the Alagba masquerade festival as the “summation of the age-long belief and tradition of the Kingdom, a true symbol of the unity and peace in the Kalabari Kingdom”. The King stated that without the Alagab displaying that other masquerades will not display thereby delaying the historical Owu-Aru-Sun Alali. This is premised on the fact that in the then days, the Owu-Aru-Sun cultural festival was held once every thirty (30) years. This in fact was later reduced to eighteen years. The last festival was held in 1991 before the present King ordered that of 29th January, 2009.
For avoidance of doubt, the Owu-Aru-Sun festival show cases all the masquerades of the Ekine Sekiapu Society, their dance styles and steps. This is one festival in which the different regalia of the Kalabari people are displayed. The Amanayanbo of the Kalabari Kingdom is the custodian of the culture and owner of the Kalabari Ekine Sekiapu Society and unless he comes out the festival cannot commence.
Tracing the Genesis of Ou-Aru-Sun, the King recalled that it was celebrated in Buguma City previously in 1908, 1927, 1973, and 1991 by the Ekine Sekiapu under the leadership of the Opu Edi with the last performed on 29th January, 2009 under his watch. The Ekine (its proper name) and Sekiapu (dancers) are the custodian of the Kalabari customs and traditions right from the old shipping (Elem Ama) till date. The Ekine also formed the nucleus of the traditional Government of the Kalabari people which includes the maintenance of law and order, including matters of arbitration where punishment were meted out to offenders according to the laws of the land.
The Owu-Aru-Sun Alali is the festival of the highest cultural display that has ever been witnessed in the socio-cultural organisation of the Kalabari people. Where the masked players in these dances were said to represent the water spirits, (Owu), to whom the Ekine ministered. The unique beautiful scenario of masked masquerades in colourful outfits and dancing in the special steps and styles and styles of their compounds is a sight to behold after which the Owu is said to be returned to the Ocean where they are said to reside.
While some of these masquerades are owned and performed by the entire community, some are owned by particular chiefs and compounds such as the Alagba by the Abbi group, the Peri-gbo by Georges Compund, Bekinaru Sibi by Wokoma Compound, Gbasa of the Onbo group. The major masquerades are always played during the dry season with about three plays annually over a long period which ranges from 15-20. After the last group of masquerades have performed, the Ekine Sikiapu through the town crier intimates the people of the need for preparation for the next Owu-Aru-Sun Alali. The town crier (Kpo kpo gbo la bo) having done this, Head Chiefs of the various canoe houses and compounds who own masquerades harnesses with its people on how to put up its best performance and sometimes also involves services of experts in the assembling of headpieces and costumes.
In line with the ideal and principle of Herbert Read in his quote, “A man of personality can formulate ideals, but only a man of character can achieve them”; the Amanyanbo of Kalabari Kingdom promised of plans to play the masquerades more frequently to keep the culture fresh in the minds of the Kalabari people. He said that the advantages of sustaining the cultures and traditions could not be over-emphasized since they tended to bring the people together in unity and merriment. He explained that the masquerade was an age-long festival, which was, formerly, celebrated every 18 to 20 years but there was plan to make the festival more frequent because of its importance. According to him, ‘This Alagba Masquerade was founded by King Amachree 1V who distributed the masquerades to the three groups in Buguma, which are Abbey Karibo group, Omubo Gberimoni group and Horsfalls-West group. The masquerades are seven and were shared two each to a group and kept one for himself. Amachree I didnot come to Buguma but died at Elem-ama (Old Shippings)The kalabari Monarch also said that the Alagba masquerade does not in any way conflict with the Christian faith and beliefs, adding that he also is a Christian.
King Princewill further explained that the Kingdom used masquerade to welcome and entertain high place dignitaries, adding that in Kalabari, the highest honour we give to a stranger is to admit him into the Ekine society; we do not confer chieftain titles to strangers, He explained that the Ekine society served as the court of the people since traditionally; there was no court or police in the Kingdom. “Ekinei society serves as the custodian of the culture; matters are settled there; anything we want to do is from Ekine and you cannot be a Chief without being a member of Ekine society”, he said.
The highlight of the occasion was admitting Governor Henry Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa State into the society.
His Excellency, Chief Seriake Dickson the Executive Governor of Bayelsa State in a remark expressed happiness for being invited and initiated into the prestigious Ekine Society. “With this, I am now a true son of the Kalabari Kingdom with King Princewill as my King. This event reminds me of the Kalabari chieftaincy institution which is as old as the Kalabari Kingdom with very interesting historical background in its evolution as one of the ancient Ijaws of the Niger Delta. I am indeed very appreciative and grateful for the honour done on me by His Majesty, King (Prof.) T.J.T. Princewill (Amachree XI), the incumbent Amanyanabo of Kalabari by permitting me to witness this great epoch making event. I therefore wish to thank him for this great honour done to me as one of his sons.
Governor of Bayelsa state, Chief Sierike Dickson used the opportunity to state that the government of Bayalsa State will continue to work with Governor Chibuike Amaechi the Rivers State Governor and other constituted authorities in Rivers State to ensure that the people have better security and development. The Governor vowed not to allow anything to cause disunity between Rivers and Bayelsa, stressing that the two states would continue to work together to promote unity, development and cultural heritage of the Ijaws. According to him, we shall continue to maintain the peaceful co-existence and development among the people and the two states. “For this to happen, then you must work and support your Governor, Rt.Hon. Chibuike Amaechi”, he said.
He however commended the Amanayabo of Kalabari, His Majesty, King Theophilous T.J.T Princewill, the Amachree XI, the people of Kalabari and the Sakiabo club for the honour they have done on him to become a member. He noted that he accepted the membership of Sakiabo club to underscore the importance of their culture. “Whatever we do, those of us who are in government have duties to support and promote our culture and traditions, preserve and transfer them to succeeding generations”, he said.
The Governor joined some of the dancers to dance the Alagba Masquerade which was last displayed 20 years ago.
Prof Robin Hutton a Professor for over 60 years a Briton and now a Kalabari man married to a Kalabari woman and a member of Ekine Sekiep Society who was very visible during the festival expressed his happiness that peace has finally returned to his people and development will now flow as the Asari River flows. He told this writer that he has being in the kingdom for over 30 years and it has been long since one saw this type of love, unity and peace among the people of the kingdom.
Alh Asari Dokunbo the Leader of the Niger Delta Peoples Frontier Force NDPFF and the edi-abali of the Kalabari Kingdom stated “The Federal Government of Nigeria can no longer use lack of peace in Niger Delta as a perquisite to deny the people of the region the needed
development that is lacking in the region. The Kalabari Kingdom with over 33 Communities is the largest section of the Ijaw Nation and with peace being celebrated through the Alagba Masquerade festival today; peace is assumed to have returned to the region so we expect immediate and sustainable development in the Niger Delta region. We are proud of our culture as without culture the people ceases to exist. With what has happened today the Kalabari Kingdom will now take its rightful place among the great cultural centres in Africa. I am involved in this event not minding that I am a Muslim due to that with my position in the Kingdom as the Edi-Abali, I am the custodian of culture of our people!
Other notable figures that attended the event apart from Gov Dickson and his large entourage from Bayelsa were Rt. Hon. Amachree Otelemaba the Speaker of the Rivers State House of Assembly an indigene of the area, Hon Horsfall God’Stime member of the Rivers State House of Assembly representing Asari-Toru constituency 11, Alh. Asari Dokubo the leader of NDPFF, Hon. Ojukaye Flag Amachree the Executive Chairman of Asari-Toru Local Government Council, Chief Joshua Fumndoh former Ijaw National Congress INC President, Hon Fred Agbedi SA Political to Bayelsa Governor, Hon. Douye Dirir Principal Exective Secretary to Bayelsa Governor, Mr. Patrick Erasmus, SA on Ijaw Affairs to the Bayelsa Governor, Mr. Daniel Markson Iworiso CPS to Bayelsa Governor, Dr. Indabawa Akilu former PDP Youth Leader and fmr SA to the President of FRN. Others are HRH Alabo O.C. Harry,Hon. Alabo Diamond Tobin-West, Alabo Erekeosin Idoniboye, Alabo Adokiye C. Harry, Alabo Daa George, Alabo Emmanuel CJT Princewill, Alabo Cornerstone Pepple Amachree, Alabo Lavender Longjohn, Alabo Akaodu Princewill, Alabo Yola Batubo, Alabo Jemina Amachree among other great Nigerians in attendance including Prof Hutton a Briton who has spent over 30 years in the community.
Let me therefore conclude this piece by quoting Herbert Read the great mind where he stated, “The worth of a civilization or a culture is not valued in the terms of its material wealth or military power, but by the quality and achievements of its representative individuals – its philosophers, its poets and its artists”.