Culture according to Encarta 2007 dictionary is enlightenment and sophistication acquired through education and exposure to the arts. In another context, culture means the beliefs, customs, practices, and social behaviour of a particular nation or people. Culture is necessary for a healthy society. On 31st January, 2009 marked the climax of the three days cultural extravaganza that started on 29th at the seat of the traditional stool of the Kalabaris, Buguma in Rivers State of Nigeria. On 29th January, it was termed night vigil to commence the dancing and masquerades display while on 30th January, 2009 it was purification and cleansing of the land from every impurity and unclean acts. On 31st January, 2009 great masquerades that include Tari Oboko was displayed with 35 others to the amazement and pleasure of the mammoth crowd that includes both young and old that were in attendance The colourful edition of the festival brought together both the government officials, traditional rulers, elderly and young to sing the ballads of oneness. It was a genuine demonstration by the Kalabaris to preserve their culture heritage.
King Prof TJT Princewill, Amaechree xi, the Amanyanbo 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 as the festival being witnessed by the mammoth crowd and array or personalities who graced the event shows. The King after dancing through the square majestically described the Owu-Aru-Sun 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. This is premised on the fact that in the then days this 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. The 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. As the Amanayanbo of the Kalabari Kingdom, the custodian of the culture and owner of the Kalabari Ekine Sekiapu Society, I am here in my full regalia to accord dignity and respect to the festival"
Sauntering into Buguma City the Traditional Headquarters of the Kalabaris' and the venue of the famous Owu-Aru-Sun Alali on 30th and 31st January, 2009, a first time visitor will mistake it for the Honston Texas, for its cultural heritage from its founding fathers performed by the Ekine Sekiapu Society.
For the Kalabari man which includes his women folks, culture is a way of life and forms part of their daily life. The Owu-Aru-Sun Alali is a series of masquerade display by the Kalabari people of the Niger Delta Region of Nigeria. Oral Tradition has it that the festival is usually performed after the exhaustion of the various masquerades owned by both the community and the groups or compounds which usually last for between 15 to 20 years.
Tracing the Genesis of Ou-Aru-Sun, it can be 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. The Ekine (it's 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 between 15-20 years as said earlier. 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 it's people on how to put up it's best performance and sometimes also involves services of experts in the assembling of headpieces and costumes.
On 29th January, 2009 the Sekiapu hosted some special sacrifices made up of white male fowl, an egg, a split finger of plantain and a piece of white cloth at strategic points such as the waterside of the national deity of the people (Owameso), the entrance of the Ekine house, the entrance of Adum (head of the local water spirits) Oferema Etele (an ancient sacred path in the North-West part of the town) and Ebe Boko, (an inlet off the main River leading towards the Ocean). The essence of this sacrifice is to appease the deities and also plead with it to ensure total peace and to eradicate evil forces and disturbances from obstructing the going down of the water spirits.
On 30th January, 2009 the headpieces of all masquerades are set up in the ancestral shrine of the various owners where the head chiefs and male members of the group performs the necessary purification and sacrifices, this also gives an opportunity for smaller houses to come up with request of favours, protection and provisions from the spirits while the women folk sings praise songs of the masquerades in front of the ancestral memorial hall (Inkpu). In the midst of all these, the Igba Alabo (purification pries) positions by the shrine of Obiana (Owame Akaso's daughter) holding in his hands a glass of gin, and an egg in the other hand and libates to the seven founding fathers of the Kalabari (Amabiame, Endeme, Korome, Ituruame, Akialame, Igodome, Bukume). He invokes by inviting all the water spirits in Ekine to come out tomorrow and return to the Ocean after the Owu-Aru-Sun celebration after which the egg in his hands is placed on the Obiana's shirne. On 31st January, 2009 the D-Day of all celebrations, all the colourfully dressed masquerades of the various groups and compounds lines up in front of their ancestral halls and are being escorted to the town square amidst cheers by members of it's house. On reaching the square each masquerades is greeted by the Chief drummer (Akwa Alabo) and shows a little display of its distinctive dance step before taking a bow into the Ekine hall.
When all the expected masquerade groups gathered at the King Amachree square, the patron goddess of the masquerades (Ekine Alabo) libated to the Amatemeso with a bottle of gin and glass on the completion of the series of plays of the water spirits and the journey back to the Ocean. The Ekine Alabo asks for journey mercies back to the spirit world and also assurance of their return in the next festival. After which, the Akwa Alabo summons the masquerades and Sekiapu for final procession with the Ikikroko drum with Igba Alabo taking the lead and closely followed by the Opu Edi (Head of Sekiapu) and Ekine Alabo. Following this procession is the masquerades Tari Oboko (First paddler in the water spirits canoe). Then comes all the masquerades that had participated in the last series of play with the masquerade Ofor (helmsman) in the water spirit canoe taking the lead. It is worthy of note that Tari Okoko and Ofor do not feature in the series of plays, they appear only at Owu-Aru-Sun. The masquerades calmer (The Owu Koribo) who must be a Sekibo escorts the masquerades and are on a line with unmasked sekiapu dressed in elaborate traditional attire of Donne or Woko and capped with either Ajibulu (head dress) or Bolar Hat.
The procession moves around the Amachree square in the usual anti-clockwise direction moving slowly to the special rhythm for Ofor the helmsman, the Akwa Alabo calls the names of the various deities and ancestors with masquerades and Sekiapu of the mentioned houses responding by pointing towards their various shrines, after which they return to the Ekine meeting house for a rest having completed the third round of dance.
At intervals, the comical trickster Ikaki (the tortoise masquerade) entertains by keeping up the interest of spectators and keeping the arena lively. After about 20-30 minutes of rest the que of masquerade lines up again for another three rounds of display as usual and as it completes this season, the chief drummer changes to the "sending down of the spirits drums" (Owu Iderima Akwa) which special sound means the embarkation of the spirits. At this stage, the purification priest retrieves the egg, with his left hand holding the egg, and his right hand holding his irony purification horn, takes the lead of the procession to its final trip. As soon as he approaches the entrance to the southern part of the main street, he backs off from the line and speeds down to the waterside (Owu Sera) with a group of young Sekiapu rushing ahead of him and with their canes, driving women away. All the masquerades following him also back off at the approach of the main street and follows suit to the waterside.
On arrival at the waterside, the purification priest reminds the Gods in an incantation of his request of the previous evening of "a safe journey to the spirit world pleading with the spirit to pilot them safely to the ocean, after which he throws the egg into the river and also passes his ivory horn anti-clockwise round his head and dips it into the water, this action he repeats 7 times which ensures that any evil force among them that may cause disruption of the journey to the spirit world is defeated.
After this purification rite is finished, the masquerade players striped themselves off their head pieces and costumes and each after the other, dives violently into the water which signifies the water spirits are on their journeying back to the ocean, and the masquerades are escorted by the masquerade calmers back to their various memorial halls where they change into their regular cloths. A few days after this once in a lifetime event, the Ekine Sekiapu rolls the Ikinko drum into the replica of the ancient town well (Ama Sube) which signifies the official closing of the masquerade season.
Alabo Tobim Diamond-West the Head of the Ekine Sekiapu Society of the Kalabari Kingdom stated after this great and awesome event, "we are happy to note that we have through this event unify our people, demonstrate and present the cultural heritage of the Kalabaris and prove to the entire world that peace reigns in the Kalabari Kingdom. Today for a very long time our people are in a joyful, celebrative and jubilation mood and have danced and enjoyed the serene atmosphere, the unique and enviable cultural heritage and tradition of their land".
Rt. Hon. Tonye Harry the Speaker of the Rivers State House of Assembly and a great son of the Kalabari Kingdom who represented Governor Chibuike Amaechi of Rivers State during the festival "This festival epitomizes the absence of violence but represented by peace. Today those that see Kalabari Kingdom as a place where violence, uproar and all forms of criminalities holds sway will be shocked of the event-taking place in the Kingdom today. That today all the sons and friends of the Kingdom are gathered here without any form of molestation shows that peace has not only returned but that that ugly remembrance of the past will become a thing of the past. That through the collective efforts of both the King, stakeholders and government officials peace has become the hallmark of the people of this area; to God be glory.
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.
Dr. Jonathan Goodluck the Vice President of Federal Republic of Nigeria who was represented by Hon. Braeyi Ekiye, the Special Adviser to the President on Parastatals, Statutory Bodies and inter-Governmental Affairs expressed happiness for been invited as the Guest Of Honour to this great 'Owu-Aru-Sun Alali' celebration of the Kalabari Kingdom. He described the event thus "This festivity you are celebrating today, 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. Thus, being invited by His Majesty, King (Prof.) T.J.T. Princewill (Amachree XI), the incumbent Amanyanabo of Kalabari to serve as the SPECIAL GUEST of this event is indeed a great honour and privilege. I, therefore which to thank you for this great honour done to me as one of your sons.
In the days of yore, our youths often participate in this kind of festivity as a way of engaging their youthful drive, creativity and enterprise. Ostensibly, this could explain the relative peace in our communities before the exploration of oil and other industrial related activities, which tend to divert the attention of our youths from such meaningful cultural activities. My keen interest, therefore, is that we begin to revive such rich cultural festivities in our communities so as to cement the bond of social relations and enhance our unity, peace and progress.
It is such a laudable and progressive-minded activities that propelled our forebears to take giant strides in promoting and protecting our common cultural heritage. One historical reference point was the heroic struggle of the Rivers Chiefs and peoples conference (with the late Chief Harold Dappa-Biriye as their sole representative), which in their submissions to the 1957 London Constitutional Conference, demanded not only the creation of a Rivers State, but also the need for the creation of House of Chiefs in the former Eastern Region. This bold effort, led to the attainment of five out of the eight traditional first class chieftaincies, namely: Amanyanabo of Bonny, Amanyanabo of Kalabari, Amanyanabo of Opobo, Amanyanabo of Nembe and Obong of Calabar in that territory in favour of minority groups of the region. This is no mean achievement by our forebears, who over the years kept custody of the Colonial treaty rights and obligations, which they entered into for protection of their interest; and that the Kalabari Kingdom benefited from this first exercise in a colonial era, is worthy of commendation. Today, we are proud to use our rich traditional heritage to create more chieftaincy stools that would bind us together.
So, it is for the knowledge of such a rich past on the Amanyanabo of Kalabari Kingdom that we have all come out to join you today in celebrating your Kingdom's Owu-Aru-Sun Alali'. It is all an embodiment of your past and present cultural heritage, which once more reminds us of the labours of our heroes past. We should, therefore, use this opportunity to reflect on the past, reclaim and reconstruct our history in our own image so that generations coming after us would have a legacy to quote and lean on as we are so privileged so to do.
For the above reason, I would like to encourage our Traditional Rulers, Chiefs, Elders and Youths to work in harmony for community benefit through dialogue based on mutual understanding and cooperation. We should say no to violence; and yes to peace in our communities".
As the crown Prince of the Kalabari Kingdom, I am pleased and happy to be associated with the rich cultural heritage of my people and after what I saw of it these three days, I am ready to do whatever that is within my powers to sustain and improve on it.
Prince Tonye TJT Princewill is the Leader of Rivers State AC Leader and Chairman of the Publicity Committee of the 2009 Owu-Aru-Sun Festival.