The masquerade is central to Kalabari culture, dance and music. The masquerade transforms men into spirits being born from the water that surrounds our land – the ocean, rivers, creeks and swamps. The water spirits are every where and their origins are the stories of dusk like the one below.
Krakrama River, Kalabari
One of the leading masquerades societies is from Ekine ( becoming a society, group) – Sekiapu / Sekibo. One day many many years ago in the days of Elem Kalabari, before oil pollution, before slavery, when the waters were clear with sparkling blue and silver fish – a beautiful young woman named Ekineba (daughter of Ekine) was playing by the river when she was abducted by water spirits and carried away into the mangrove swamps.
The spirit mother was angry and ordered her son spirits to return the young woman to her family. Before they did so, they taught Ekineba many different spirit plays. Ekineba performed these plays entertaining the people, drumming, singing and dancing. Their bodies danced like the waves of the ocean spray from whence the people came. The dancing and plays continued but all was not well for Ekineba and the Elem Kalabari. The water spirits became angry because the men did not follow the rituals of the plays and eventually they took Ekineba away for good. The people wept and became so very sad as they missed their dancing daughter. The only solution was to make her live forever so Ekineba became a goddess and a spirit of the Kalabari people and that is how Ekine – Sekiapu was founded and the spirits continue to dance up to today.*
That was in the old days. Now things are different. The fish are gone, the rivers and creeks polluted with oil waste, the mangroves dried and dead. Development came in the form of oil rigs, pipelines, flow stations. Leaders from far off places who never knew of Ekineba or the spirits of Kalabari, got rich from the oceans, creeks and land. They were greedy and ignored the laws of trade. They took everything and only gave back poverty and devastation. The spirits became weary, the people became tired and left their homes in search of another life but left behind the protection of the water spirits.
Now only the elderly are left to pick the periwinkles from the sandy banks covered in the black sludge of crude oil. Soon the villages and towns may die from oil, die from sadness. Where will the spirits go, what will they do? No one knows. To think of such a time is too fearful a thought because it means it is the end of time. So instead we ask the the spirits to dance for us, to dance long and hard, so that we all may be strong once again.
Yes the spirits ARE everywhere and walk and in the case of the water people, they swim with you. On a quiet early morning when the sun is rising you can sometimes see the outline of blue tinged mermaids crying tears over the destruction of their home. How do we see the tears in the water? We see them because they are stained with oil.
Idiogbon* kuro wariri, Kalabari – Still our spirit is strong! [Previously published on Black Looks[
*I have used a phonetic spelling here and written my own version of a Kalabari mythical story.