By Fidelia Ben-Udi
Festivals in Africa have severally been described as a re-enactment of the people’s communal experience in terms of occupations, victories in times of war and histories of origins. These are exemplified in their songs, rhythm and dances during celebrations. Hence, it is a big deal in Africa and more so in Nigeria which is rich and diverse in culture. From one kingdom to another, festivals abound set aside to showcase and display the unique beliefs, customs and traditions of the people. This is what gives them their identity and makes them different from other kingdoms. It is therefore our responsibility as a people to strive to preserve our culture and traditions. The question however is, how many are passionate enough to go out of their way to preserve this identity?
Like the saying goes, likes attract, so has our quest to preserve Culture at the Directorate of Culture and Tourism, drawn us to the beautiful people of the Akugbene Mein Kingdom in Bomadi Local Government Area who happen to be the custodians of the 40ft high wonder masquerade.
Though it hasn’t been sighted in years, the masquerade remains a major part of the cultural history of the Akugbene people and a major feature of the Kalanama Seigbein festival. It holds great significance in relation to the festival which is believed to usher in fertility for the barren, peace and prosperity for the Community, and serve as a unifying factor for indigenes.
The story as told by His Royal Majesty, Pere Stanley P. Luke, Kalanama the 8th of Akugbene Mein Kingdom, gives a vivid description of the process of the festival. It begins in November which is three months to the actual date for the festival, with the Kalanama Seigbein festival meetings comprising of the members of the Opu-owubou (the big masquerade cult) who are charged with the responsibility of fixing a date for the festival slated to hold in March of the following year.
Once the date is fixed, the members present including the Azoma, Iyesere Adologbor, Awubia and Okugbolu with those who sit on the mat at both sides of the Kalanama dibi (the tomb of the ancestor kalanama) will arise to inform the Pere at the palace of the date for the festival. The Pere in turn would inform Kalanama (the ancestor/founder of the Mein Kingdom at his tomb).
The Pere’s journey to inform Kalanama the ancestor of the fixed date for the festival is also accompanied by some rites which include abstaining from women the day before. On the Pere’s arrival at the tomb, the Adakpokpo serves the Pere drink so he can pour libation to Kalanama the ancestor when he arrives. Then three flags of red and white are hoisted at the Kalanama water front and three canon shots fired at the same spot, then the Pere is escorted back to the palace that same evening.
At this point, the Awowo (town crier) in the midst of the members of the Opu-owubou officially announces to the town the date of the festival with the attendant dos and don’ts regarding the period preceding the date of the festival. These include; no shouting, no fighting, no crying, no public burial or wake keep, no playing of music on the main road in form of celebrations except in residential buildings.
The date of the festival which is usually either in early or mid-March, is fixed with the intention of avoiding the rains. This is to ensure that the masquerade which is the major feature of the festival, does not collide with the wind which may cause it to fall as it is believed that if it falls down in front of any of the five quarters which make up the Mein kingdom while on display, the inhabitants of the said quarters will die.
To avoid the rains, certain modalities are put in place as follows; adult males go into the forest, get a rope, climb a palm tree, tie the end of the tree and drag the rope down till the tip touches the ground, then they tap it, after which, the tree is released. If it breaks on returning, it means the festival will not be successful, hence cannot hold. But if it returns standing firm, then the festival can hold.
Assuming, this ritual is successful, then the main festival begins which involves the participation of young men who must be full citizens of the community i.e father and mother must be from the Akugbeneme community. This is so to avoid a half breed stealing the show or replicating it in his other community.
The Masquerade which features once in three years is said to have many names, the most prominent being “amebo” meaning ‘a jealous wife’. This festival began by being rotated from one clan to another, however, since the constructions for the ceremony was very capital intensive, it was agreed that all the clans come together to fund it.
Oral history states that the first time the festival was done was sometime around 1922 under the reign of Pere Ogewu Kalanama the 5th, the longest reigning Monarch in the history of the kingdom. He reigned so long that his first son became the oldest man in the kingdom at the time (which was no younger than 80 years of age). Hence when prayers are offered, it is said “reign and get older like Pere Kalanama the 5th”. He died in 1932.
The next time the festival was celebrated was in 1964 during the reign of Pere Kalanama the 6th. It was also celebrated in 1967 during which time, taking photo shots of the masquerade was prohibited. Wearing of Shoes and caps on the day of the festival were also prohibited except for the Pere who will be at the Kalanama play ground to receive the masquerade.
Upon its arrival, the Pere would embrace the masquerade three times after it has made its rounds of the five quarters of the Mein kingdom. Once this is done, prayers are offered for blessings, and vows which were made in the previous festival are redeemed. The festival was last observed in 1989. However, to keep the unity of the kingdom, the sitting Pere pays a visit to the five branches of the ruling house; Dunoubebe, Onurun, Obrikpo, Amonpere and Akpanaka on the 1st of January every year. Being a holiday season and naturally a time for families to bond, members of the kingdom turn up in their number for this event. The sole purpose of this event is to unit the kingdom, giving opportunity for the Pere to felicitate with his people, amidst the exchange of gifts and ideas and the making of merriment.
With the spread of Christianity, some of these festivals have become a passive part of the people’s tradition however, there are many who strive to maintain culture and traditions like HRM Pere Stanley P. Luke who assured that Christianity will not be the death of customs and tradition in the Ijaw community, rather an avenue to create more unifying factors, a meeting point for the people to be able to mix up, participate and retain culture no matter their religious backgrounds. He disclosed that modalities are being worked out to revive this all important festival in a way to ensure it embraces both Christians and traditionalists alike.
In order to preserve our culture and traditions in a westernized and fast paced global community, in order to keep our people united, finding common grounds for people of the same Community to participate in activities that bring them together as well as a proper documentation of those activities, is vital.