"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
November 26, 2013
Folk Theater in Africa
by Imo Eshiet

In a very real sense, traditional African theater is something done to be seen, heard, and felt. It makes its appeal through arresting visual modes, music, song, dance and minimal verbal dialogue. Often staged in the form of a festival, it is intensely spectacular and total in its modes of dramatic attack and presentation of action.

I always looked forward with childlike glee to participating in it while growing up in my country home in Nigeria.

I did not have to manage my expectations for long because festivals kept unfolding almost round the year. Especially on moon-swept nights, there were festivals that imaginatively expressed salient aspects of our culture.

Some enabled maskers to bring back the spirits of deified ancestors to physically interact with the community. Others impersonated and invoked the spirit of children. Through this, it was believed, the barren would receive blessings and the land renewed.

There were also festivals that celebrated the main occupations of the villagers, such as farming, fishing, pottery, carving, and several other vocations. Some served to advance gender interests. Every festival had a message that appealed to some aspect of our cultural life.

To us, festivals were like a lighthouse. While they basically entertained, they also examined the course of our lives and sought to correct deviations from the norm. Thus they brought vital balance to communal life and helped to cleanse it from issues that invited divine wrath and cosmic disasters.

It was clear that the festivals were tied to various aspects of our traditional religion. This being the case, rites, ceremonies and rituals associated with the deities of the community were often enacted in the course of the festivals. So apart from the delight they afforded, the driving forces behind our festivals were to move the communal narrative from wrong to right, from abuse to wellbeing, injustice to justice, and despair to hope, love, acceptance and from vulnerability to validation and strength.

Festivals asked community members to nurture compassion and understanding for those facing adversities or struggling with issues that went against the grain of common acceptance. Essentially, our festivals sought to deepen spirituality and the power of community. They tried to help society to deal with its hang-ups, to speak to its deepest core and tether it to its mooring masts.

However, as we made contact with Western civilization, early Christian converts started perceiving these festivals as pagan and idol worship. To take part in the masking in these festivals, one had to belong to the cult group staging them. Members were recruited through initiatory ceremonies.

As early converts to Christianity, my parents renounced their memberships and forbade us from belonging. This inevitably led to a conflict at home. Many of my associates at school and in the village playground belonged to some of these cults. Some were initiated at birth or by their cousins and uncles as soon as they were six years old.

I remember an incident that happened early in my life. It was the season when the festival of the spirits of children made the land ready for rebirth. It was a time that barren women and farmers whose crops had failed or indeed anyone in need of youthful transformation looked up to.

Boys from age six through nineteen who belonged to the Ekpo Ntok Ayen cult were often rapturous at this time of the year. I was about a first grader, and the devotees who were my classmates taunted me mercilessly for my non-membership in the cult. But my parents ignored my misery.

However, someone noticed and acted. An uncle who had not given in to the new craze of Christianity thought my parents had overreached themselves by denying me the opportunity to take part in the masking, dancing, singing and procession. Secretly he counseled me to obey my parents’ objection while he did “something” about it.

He assured me I would participate in the festival, though he did not say how. To take part, one needed to be a member of the cult. One also needed the costume and the mask to go with it. I had none of these requirements, but since I and the uncle had pulled off many conspiracies before now I trusted his words (though not without some anxiety).

For one, my mother was whip-happy and brooked no disobedience. For another, there was no love lost between her and my favorite uncle. I had no idea how the uncle intended to outsmart my parents and get me into the cult.

When the day came for the festival to start and my uncle had not showed up, I was crushed and disappointed. I was crestfallen and about to start crying when I heard the throbbing drumming coming from the direction of the village square and my uncle stepped into the house. Neither of my parents was home, and so my uncle hurriedly whisked me away.

Though relieved, I still could not figure out how I was going to participate as one of the dancing maskers, being that I was not initiated, and had neither mask nor costume. Unknown to me, my uncle had it all planned ahead of time. When he got me to his house, he handed me a mask he had carved himself. He had crafted into it our family totem of a lion with a draping mane.

The head gear that went with it was adorned with brilliant rooster, parrot and peacock feathers. I was so instantly besotted it that I no longer bothered what my parents might do when they found out Uncle had sneaked me into the festival.

Uncle immediately dressed me up in a costume of dyed raffia he had designed for me. He painted my body with clay and native chalk. He then walked me to the village arena.

When we arrived the atmosphere was already suffused with heavy drumming and excitement. Ours was a stage without curtains. The actors and the audience melded as men, women, children and the masquerades danced and sang away as if they had no care in the world.

The lead drummer who played seven talking drums all by himself was also the choreographer of action. He was supported by orchestra members who worked at an infinite variety of instruments including slit bamboo and metal gongs, rattlers, clappers, beaded calabashes and assorted other drums made by stretching goat hide over hollowed wood.

The lead drummer soon halted the collective performance and summoned the maskers into action. Each masquerade was hailed by his praise name. The first to be called was The Big Tree Who Sheltered Ancestral Spirit Children.

This masquerade sway, rolled, and towered into the dancing stage heralded by ululations, shouts and praises especially by women in need of children and by appreciative mothers and fathers as well. It was followed by the Eagle, who was swift and spirited in dance steps. Then the masker who impersonated the river — the life force of the community — was called into action.

Its praise name was “The River Who Drowns a Child Yet Its Mother Drinks from It.” That masker represented the duality of life and the contiguity of good and evil.

After a long list of maskers, I was eventually called to take my stand. My praise name was “Anyone Who Embraces You Finds Solutions to Life Challenges.” The drummer, a family member, reeled out our family history and heritage. I was the great-grandson of the warrior who founded the village. Our ancestors had tamed jungles and the wildlife in it, the drummer spoke through his drums.

When he drummed how great-grandfather had crossed seven seas and beheaded the seven-headed spirit to found our village, my kinsmen and women exploded with applause.

Inebriated by the cheers I sauntered in and tripped over. My folks shouted encouragements. I quickly picked myself up and gyrated in synch with the pulsating rhythms. Again both audience and performers came together in an explosive dance of possession.

The drummers, by now intoxicated by their own music, made their instruments mimic and mime our tonal speech patterns. Others bid their instruments speak in a manner of speech and delivery that communicated ancient intelligence.

It was a memorable festival. In later years when I submitted and defended a dissertation on the interface between oral and scribal performance traditions in postcolonial drama and theater, it was like continuing the argument with my parents. I wondered if they were alive if they still would have held a dim view of our performing arts.

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About Imo Eshiet

Imo Ben Eshiet was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Raised in his village, Uruk Enung, and at several cities in his country including Nsukka, Enugu, Umuahia, Eket and Calabar, Eshiet is a detribalized Nigerian. Although he was extensively exposed to Western education right from childhood in his country where he obtained a PhD in English and Literary Studies from the University of Calabar, he is well nurtured in African history, politics, culture and traditions.

Imo is currently a teacher in the high priests group in the Summit Ward of the Greensboro North Carolina Stake.

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