Spending Christmas in Calabar is a thing of Joy. From first December each year, the whole city begins to party with the celebration reaching its zenith with the carnival on 27th December. And the parties continue in the streets up till the New Year.
Calabar is pleasing for many reasons. It’s exceptionally clean and the people have a habit of using dustbins rather than throwing rubbish on the streets that are thoroughly cleaned each day. It’s also pleasing to be in a city where security checks are not carried out at the entrance of all public buildings.
You feel safe in the city and start realizing the stress of living in cities where bombs can go off without warning and gunmen can start a killing spree of the innocent at any time. It’s also pleasing to see tens of thousands of people simply enjoying themselves with music, dancing and elaborate costumes.
Of course the people of Calabar are also famous all over the country for their great cuisine. Calabar Kitchen is another word for good food in contemporary Nigeria. The soup “edi kang ikang” has become a national dish savoured by all and sundry. The chef at the Chelsea hotel where we stayed introduced us to many other delicacies. One remarkable dish we enjoyed was “akpang nku kwo” a vegetable disk with dried fish, meat, stock fish, snail and of course periwinkles and small pieces of mashed cocoyam lovingly wrapped in their leaves.
I was conflicted about the periwinkles. The chef at the Chelsea put loads of periwinkles in most dishes. The periwinkles have extremely hard shells, like stones and you need to suck very hard to get out a small piece of periwinkle from the shell. It’s also difficult to suck elegantly because a great effort is needed and I felt as if people are looking at me making the sucking noises.
It’s however worth the effort because when you succeed is getting it into you mouth, you feel as if you have won a prize. Of course the secret of Calabar cuisine is that they devote a lot of time, skills and resources in cooking which is a sign of a sophisticated culture all over the world.
I spoke to my good friend Nkoyo Toyo, Member of the House of Representatives representing Calabar and she explains that in Efik culture grooming and enhancement of beauty is fundamental. The fattening room, which is now more appropriately translated as the beauty room is an old age tradition, which serves the purpose of training and grooming young women for marriage.
Traditionally, women spend up to six months being pampered from head to foot with massages using oils from natural plants, soaking in mud baths and eating great dishes while improving her conversational and cultural skills. Of course the practice conflicts with the exigencies of modern life and the formal practice of secluding the girls for grooming is waning. The process of cultural training has however continued and there are efforts to revive it in a new form within the context of promoting tourism. With the reincarnation of the beauty room, I hope that gender parity is introduced so that both men and women can be groomed.
The high point of Christmas in Calabar is of course the carnival, which is the greatest and biggest street party in Africa spread over 14 kilometres. Spectacular colours, music, costume and dancing infects the whole city and everybody is party of it.
The Donald Duke Administration modernized the tradition by introducing Brazilian style samba bands for the parades and succeeded in transforming the events into world-class entertainment that is attracting a lot of tourists. I heard many people complaining that the current Governor, Liyel Imoke, is not investing as much money in the Carnival as Duke did but I feel its unfair criticism as Cross River State has lost all its oil wells to their neighbours so there is less money to throw around. The fact that the carnival has been sustained with a lot of corporate support is a good indication that it has been institutionalized and is not a “government event” per se, but as should be, has become a celebration of life by the ordinary people.
I run the risk of forgetting that this column is about democratic struggles not good food, music and beauty so I better return to more familiar terrain. One must see in Calabar is the slavery museum at the Marina. It tells the story of the centuries of slavery that depopulated Africa and tortured and humiliated its peoples for generations. The Nigeria area produced the largest number of slaves in the world and the brutality and horrors our people endured are narrated on video, with artefacts, statutes and paintings. The thirty-minute tour is sobering.
The narrative however has a positive twist, so many slaves against all odds tried to escape and gain their liberty at the cost of their lives. Many of the attempts ended up in failure and the recaptured slaves were tortured and often killed. So many of the slaves however continued the struggle for their liberty until the practice was finally abolished. Today, 53 years after independence, Nigerians are in bondage and are subjected to exploitation and humiliation by a political class that has no respect for human rights, democracy and development.
I asked honourable Nkoyo Toyo how she engages in the struggle following her transition from civil society to politics. She explained that there is a world of difference and the political terrain functions with what are called structures.
They are cadres of followers loyal to a system of hierarchies or to some individual or individuals. They are not affiliated to political parties as such but have developed the capacity to mobilise and coordinate action that can perpetuate certain interests. The loyalty of these structures has to be constantly lubricated with adequate resources and finance by leaders and this makes the struggle for democracy at the local level extremely difficult and expensive.
She explained however that the extensive networking skills she developed during her decades of work in civil society has enabled her to work with both the structures and community groups to build consensus and negotiate broad coalitions inside and outside the party to keep political projects going even within the context when positions differ and loyalties shift. The skills also allow her to help facilitate re-entry when people leave the structures and their return has to be negotiated.
I got a bit lost in the theory of these structures, as these categories did not exist during my days as a student of political science. In any case, long live democratic structures and long live the good people of Calabar and their periwinkles.
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