Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Culture vulture

In many parts of Europe that I can think of, 'culture' refers to bricks and mortar. Whether it be castles, museums, churches or simply historical buildings, cultural activities usually revolve around visiting places.

Nigeria is incredibly rich culturally speaking but, as last week's Abuja Carnival demonstrated, its wealth is in its people. From the entrepreneurial and energetic riverine peoples of the southern states and their traditional dress reminiscent of Herge's Thomson Twins (from the Tintin books) to the proud and more serene Hausa and mainly Muslim horsemen of the North, and all points in between, each of Nigeria's 2,000+ of tribes have their own culture, personality and in most cases, language. Best of all - representatives of virtually all of Nigeria's 36 states were due to be present in one form or another, at the Abuja Carnival, a national event since 2005.

Once the carnival timetable became available (thanks to the VSO office: it couldn't be found online) it promised an action-packed weekend including the Grand Masquerades in Abuja's grand Eagle Square, the regatta on Jabi Dam to celebrate the southern states, the Royal Durbar taking place in the shadow of the great Aso Rock or the final closing celebration - once more back to Eagle Square. These headline events were interspersed with side-shows such as poetry readings or music celebrations.

Getting around Abuja, whilst not too difficult, is extremely expensive (well.. compared to Kafanchan). Ocadas (motorbike taxis) are banned in the city and, unless you are extremely knowledgeable about the pick-up and drop-off points of the informal public transport system, you must resort to 'drops' - private taxis that charge anything from N200 - N400 (£1 - £2)around the city (compared to N50 for a long bus ride), and even that is subject to demand and your own haggling skills.

For this reason, the unseasoned (and even highly salted) Abuja VSO visitor or resident could spend half a month's salary travelling from one location to the next, unless you happen to have friends with cars (thanks Thessa). Therefore my Abuja host David and I limited ourselves to the really big events. Once again, I'll let pictures do the talking. Although unfortunately I can't attempt to describe which states each of the acts come from - signage suffers from the same problems as described in my earlier 'File, Print' blog and, when apparent, will be somewhat 'Heath-Robinson', or should I say illegible? in presentation.

The Masquerade: Rumour has it that over 30 states participated in this event however its start at 3pm on a Thursday afternoon meant that many of us were working and only managed to catch the tail-end of what by all accounts was a highly vibrant and colourful occasion. Those batauri that did make time were the focus of numerous TV teams.. setting a trend that was to continue for the rest of the weekend!

Thanks to Thessa Brongers, who made it there on time, for the selection of pictures below:.

Esther and Thess are interviewed by the press

The last - but by no means least - of the performers
The Regatta: only four states were represented: Rivers, Bayelsa, Niger and Kwara. Unfortunately the Bayelsa boat sank (renamed by the MC - the Titanic) however their dance troupe was excellent and is available internationally for weddings, christenings and bar mitzvahs..

The boats were not overly spectacular however their occupants' enthusiasm made up for any lack of extravagant trimmings, from the drummers to the paddlers and the ubiquitous bailers (except in the case of Bayelsa where the latter was clearly not quite enthusiastic enough).
The crowd was colourful - in both skin and dress, although the batauri as always attracted an unequal share of attention with all of us being called upon to expound the wonder of Nigerian culture to advertise to international audiences everywhere.

Thanks to Thessa again for the pictures

I have former VSO Thessa Brongers to thank for the pictures above. After some years in Nigeria, she knows to make the most of a photo opportunity until someone tells you not to, and calmly plonked herself and her camera in front of the VIPs' stand for the best view of proceedings. Happily, by Saturday I had learnt from her experience so most of the Durbar pictures are my own!

Thessa's at the front with the best view of proceedings

VSOs - Dutch Esther from Akwa Ibom down south, Ugandan John Kizza based with us in Fantsuam and Irish David Mulligan working with SMEDAN in Abuja (and my host)

The evening was rounded off with an excellent fish supper at the Abachi Barracks - an experience that no visitor to Abuja should miss, except perhaps those with a delicate stomach and an aversion to the largest fish barbecue this side of Billingsgate. Unfortunately it really is in a barracks and I was reliably (and quite categorically) informed that any attempts to photograph this lively scene would be countered by unfeasible numbers of Nigerian military that, though not obviously present, would appear at the merest hint of a flash.

The Royal Durbar: the next day David and I woke early-ish in his luxury Guarinpa pad (marble floors, proper curtains, TV and fitted wardrobes but devoid of any running water, outside paving or privacy) to prepare for the Durbar ahead. The instructions were slightly sketchy - "by the IBB Golf Course under Aso Rock" but there was no missing the event as our 'drop' ploughed into stationary traffic whilst horsemen of all colours waited patiently in their 100s (we later discovered, 1000s) by the side of the road. We decided to get out rather than roast in the car to the relief of the taxi driver who hopped over the central reservation (they have big, four lane highways in Abuja) and headed off back to town for his next passengers. By doing this we got an exclusive close-up to the preparations behind the scenes and our first taste of the colour and extravaganza that lay ahead.

Once again everyone wanted to shake our (or in fact David's) hand and wanted to be snapped. I felt wonderfully at home when for the first time in a week in Abuja my greetings of 'sannu' (hello) or 'nagode' (thank you) elicited broad smiles from the predominantly Hausa northerners.

One of the largest contingents was from Minna in Niger State - or more specifically from former president Babangida where the splendour of the horsemen was only outshone by the white horse-drawn carriage and gold outfit of, we were told, Babangida's daughter. NB he's either an extremely spritely 80 year old or this was a grand- or great-grand daughter given her slight size.

After passing more camels, musicians and the odd transvestite (that bra doesn't fool anyone) we crossed the road into the main arena.

Again I followed Thessa's teaching, and with only slight concern for my own safety amongst the waiting cavalry, I started snapping at close quarters. Readers - please appreciate that for every one ornate horseman you see, there is a band of perhaps 40 others, equally finely attired that would parade in strict formation past the stands of great and good.. in the heat of the 35 degrees midday Nigerian sun.

We finally made it back to the 'grand stand' for the start of the parade where we stood/sat/squatted, enthralled for four hours as the procession, processed. In some cases a stately parade by horses, camels and indeed an elephant (from Minna... see reference to Babangida above), in others a charge by frenzied horsemen at break-neck speed towards the main stands and, for the foot soldiers - a march-past accompanied by the discharge of up to 40 muskets.

The crowd stayed in position for the complete event with breaks only to be interviewed by passing journalists.

As we left, burnt red (or in David's case, purple) by the midday sun, we passed the weary horses, now disrobed and appearing somewhat smaller than their previous regal status - tethered at regular intervals in the motorway's central reservation.

Towards the end our small group which had now swelled to include Janet (VSO based in Ilorin), Jane (VSO based in Akwanga), and Sandy (journalist friend of VSO Programme Director Liz) spotted three more VSOs in the distance who (rumour had it) possessed cars. I was sent to run ahead to meet up with them. However after the obligatory group shot we discovered that (a) they weren't interested in going to spend a week's salary at the glorious British Council cafe where we were headed and (b), even in Nigeria they were going to be pressed getting all eight of us into the newly acquired Golf.

So, we parted and waited at the roadside for a drop and then spent a lazy afternoon in wonderful (and extravagant) comfort with cold Star beer and excellent chicken shwarmas overlooking Abuja from the roof-top terrace of Her Majesty's leading cultural outpost in the colonies, the British Council (cameras once again unwelcome within the hallowed grounds). A fine ending to a very fine day of culture!

I would urge anyone even vaguely considering a trip to Nigeria to plan to visit the Abuja Carnival next November. Nigeria's cultural richness displayed in all its colourful finery in three short days. If that is you have the Naira and the wherewithall to negotiate your way around Abuja.