"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
April 1, 2014
Street Theater and Easter Season at Calabar
by Imo Eshiet

A few months back, the city where I have been living for the past six years was brutally whipped by extreme weather. A freak combination of snow storm, driving sleet, biting ice and icy rain blasted it. The elements were so unforgiving as something that could blot out the sun. Often they succeeded in putting airports, banks and schools on hold.

For one who until now had lived mostly in temperatures averaging a blistering 90 and 100 degrees, the chilly weather was sheer torture.

Hearing of my misery, a family in my ward loaned me a powerful heater. I immediately went to work virtually baking myself and members of my family with it. The killjoy, however, was my utility company. As if protesting that my friends had stopped the weather from zapping me, the energy company reacted with a wicked wit and burned a yawning hole in my pocket.

With the onset of spring my neighborhood, which all this while was drooping and drowsing like the neck of a beheaded chicken, is fast renewing its face. With beautiful flowers springing up everywhere, the environment seems to be sprucing up its wardrobe as if it is preparing for a job interview or a date.

The happy turn of the climate and the accompanying Easter season rekindle enlivening memories of Easter holidays in Calabar.

Since its early contact with the West, Calabar has been a hub for remarkable cultural events. The first Mass celebrated in the country by the Roman Catholic Church was held in Calabar in 1903, at 19 Bocco Street. Since then the city has become the home for several religious and cultural organizations.

Significantly, the first Institute of Religion built by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in West Africa was sited in Calabar when I was district president in the late nineties.

As a teacher of drama in one of the local colleges, I was especially drawn to the unique cultural history, traditions and institutions of the city. I was particularly interested in the enduring relationship between drama and religious activities. Throughout the three decades I lived there was hardly a moment of dullness, as there were both native and Western religious events to celebrate and commemorate.

Kids and adults alike took part in street parties. These performances featured songs, dances, mime, pantomime, and traditional masquerades. The numerous mind-blowing religious festivals ensured that the city was regularly swept up in compelling spectacle and colorful street theater.

Community centers, town halls, churches and flea markets served as stages for these performances. There, costumed performers and spectators interacted and fused together to re-enact their rich customs, traditions, and common heritage, hence fostering their shared identity.

Usually regal-looking Efik women, one of the dominant ethnic groups in the city, would don their long-flowing “Oyonyo”, a Victorian style gown gathered at the waist or chest, and grace the occasion.

These women reflected their deep-rooted traditions and history in their ceremonial dressing and cultivated bearing. Their unique hairdo and royal beads, bangles, ornaments and assorted adornments made eloquent statements on the aesthetics cherished by the people for centuries.

The men wearing beaded head gears, smart shoes, loincloths and matching tail shirts and carrying walking staff added commanding charm to the spectacle.

Apart from Christmas activities that feature 32 days of shows including carnivals, musical concerts, boat regattas, and diverse other forms of pageantry, the Easter celebration is the next religious page-turner in the shows put up in the city. I recall church parades and masses of folks dressing in native clothing to act out the historical event of the death and resurrection of Christ.

Many in the procession held crosses woven from yellow palm fronds, while others carried banners emblazoned with crosses and images of the risen Christ.

As a keen observer, the metaphor of the frond was not lost on me. In native metaphysics, the yellow palm frond is an ancient symbol for priestly authority. Since Easter is a significant time honored festival in Christianity, the frond in folk imagination is an apt symbolism for the living hope that Christ Himself represents.

So popular was the Easter season that the government usually declared Friday through Monday of the season as public holidays. On Easter Friday kids would drag an effigy of Judas along the streets and mercilessly whip it blue black for betraying the Lord of Creation. The menacing effigy was usually made from cut banana or plantain stems to which the kids designed and stuck mock human features.

As they flogged these into pulp, they chanted religious songs. Some of the songs expressed fury at the traitor. Others glorified the Savior for overcoming the power of the grave. While some of the kids donned masks, others carried drums, slit bamboo and iron gongs, clappers and tortoise shells and played on these to tease dance steps from the maskers.

They would visit and perform at every home on the streets and in appreciation the homeowners would dole out gifts of money and food to them.

Their performances celebrated life and the spirit that renews it. Perhaps someday when these kids become adults, they would similarly reject our festering culture of corruption and its many Judases.

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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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