I'm going to take a break from final preparations and packing for our trip to South Africa (we leave Friday night and I'm very excited about it!) to write a quick note about a couple of interesting lectures I've just attended. I want to make a record of them so when I have time later I'll be reminded to do a little more research, especially about the festival.
Last night we went to a very interesting slide lecture by a German fellow who is riding a motorcycle all over the world. He showed us slides from and talked about his first trip across Africa, which he took in 2004. He went from north to south - Libya to South Africa, mostly down the eastern side of the country. His current trip started in Alaska and he traveled south to the southern tip of South America in Argentina. He then shipped his bike and himself over to Cape Town and now he is biking Africa from south to north, along the western side of the continent. Sometimes I feel like I am doing some adventurous things living in Nigeria, but my kind of adventure definitely doesn't equal his kind of adventure. If you want to have an adventure by proxy with him and look at some pictures, you can visit his website.
Today a Smithsonian fellow, Eli Bentor, from the United States was speaking at the National Museum about the Aro Ikeji Festival, a rural festival among this people in Southeastern Nigeria. He is writing a book about the festival and has just returned from this year's celebration. If you want to learn more about this festival, you can read an article by him that is online here. Here's some interesting things I learned about this festival:
In Bentor's article, he says "The Aro people, an amalgam of several Igbo, Ibibio, and Cross River ethnic elements, first came together in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century to fight a war against a group of Ibibio people."
The Aro Ikeji festival was originally scheduled in September to celebrate the yam harvest, but now it's been rescheduled for April, mostly for convenience, and celebrates the planting of the yam.
The Aro culture is a trading culture, not an agricultural culture. At this new yam festival, their shrine is to honor the market, the trade, not the yam itself.
The entire festival lasts 24 days, with different activities scheduled for different days. The main celebration with the masquerade happens over 4 days.
On the first significant day of celebration there is a long march that young men make carrying 4 yams on their head to a palace, reenacting the history from which the festival arose.
After a procession to the shrine, the leaders come together to decide on their history and tradition. He said that this is often a very long meeting and the decisions they make about the history are not the same every year. They can make a decision to change a particular tradition, and if nothing bad happens over the ensuing year, that decision can be ratified the next year. If they feel that they have suffered, then they may decide that is because of a particular decision they made last year, and they will decide to change their history and tradition. One very interesting comment Bentor made is "A tradition is sometimes what people hide behind to advance their own interests." I thought that was interesting, thinking about family traditions and which ones we decide to keep in practice and which we decide to leave behind.
In the masquerade, each of the 19 villages of the community have to contribute a dance or masquerade. They are fined if they fail to do this.
He showed some interesting masks and costumes, and mentioned how young men are initiated into the mask society. Some costumes are all raffia and no wood. There are some masqueraders that parade on short stilts and have a high pointed headdress. Others cover their arms and legs with clay mixed with engine oil to make a paste and use that to paint and disguise their body. The masks celebrate their history and their diversity. When a new mask is introduced into the ceremony, there is a whole process of inviting the spirit into the mask. The worst crime is to unmask a masquerader. It is punishable by death.
He says there are questions about the future of the festival. There was a big dispute this year with a power struggle between the different Eze's -- leaders of the villages. One problem is arising from communities splitting up their alliances to make more autonomous communities so there are now many more leaders than there have been in the past, and they each want to have their own say in the decision making about the festival. The Ezes couldn't decide this year on the best date for the big day of the festival -- I think it was between April 16th and 24th. He said they ended up performing on both dates, but he said that all the performances were about which date that particular group had chosen, and he said there were some tense moments as each village argued their position. They want to make this festival a tourist destination, but, like the Eyo festival, there are some things they need to fix before many international tourists will flock there. The first is deciding on a date for the festival more than a week or two in advance.
He showed some interesting pictures of the festival this year -- one showed the clash of modern culture and traditional culture with the cow about to be sacrificed in the village square, surrounded by advertisments for MTN, the sponsor of the festival this year. He also showed a masquerader dancing with a large picture of Obama. ;o)
I'm sure this is more than you ever wanted to know about the Aro Ikeji festival, especially since probably most of you were like me and didn't even know it existed before today. But mostly I wrote this so I could remember what I learned today and I hope I haven't made any huge errors in my report. It looked like a really neat cultural experience that, unfortunately, I likely won't ever get the chance to attend.