Christmas in Calabar

Oh Calabar, Calabar… it’s exactly as it sounds. Like the Turkish Delight chocolate that came in a shiny fushcia and silver wrapping as a special treat when I was a kid. Exotic, exclusive and full of carnival promise. When we left South Africa last July, we aimed to reach Nigeria in September. One of the benefits of breaking down 8 times, and being 3 months late, is that we arrived just in time for Carnival Calabar, ‘The Biggest Street Party in Africa’. I had high expectations, dear reader, and they were all exceeded.

Sampson was going down with flu or something, so I had to drive from Ikom to Calabar with him lying groaning in the back of the truck. According to the map it was a secondary road, but its stretches of fifth gear perfection were interspersed with the deepest potholes yet, often back to back. It was very tiring and I had to sing along to some vintage Stevie Wonder to keep my spirits up, but thankfully there were no roadblocks.

There were some near-death experiences, with lunatics overtaking and pushing in by the skin of their teeth, forcing cars coming in the opposite direction off the road. It seems Nigeria doesn’t do stop/go systems either – work crews just tar random sections of road and let people get round them as they please. A couple of valiant manoeuvrings on my part got spontaneous rounds of applause from the kids.



Driving into Calabar, we were immediately struck by how clean and green it was: with tree-lined boulevards, a complete absence of litter and a succession of huge roundabouts decked with the most fabulous Christmas lights. At night the city glowed like a festive Wonderland, with giant silver presents wrapped in red ribbons, gamboling reindeer, an enormous Christmas tree and a fountain that glowed through a rainbow array of colours. The kids were thrilled. Buildings all over town were swathed in red and green fabric and huge bows.

Dennis and the Oando team

Dennis and the Oando team

We filled up with water at the Oando service station – thank you Dennis! – and headed straight for the Drill Ranch, as Sampson wanted to interview Pandrillus founder Peter Jenkins. We parked outside on a tiny piece of waste ground at the end of the street and a Good Samaritan neighbour, Ernest, escorted me to the local Marion Market to stock up on veg before it shut.

I had pushed to arrive in Calabar in time for Madiba’s funeral the next day, and Ernest said we could watch at a nearby hotel. But the electricity was down, so very frustratingly I had to listen to it being translated into French on the only station I could pick up, Radio France International. Sampson was definitely sick now, with an ear infection and virus; he wasn’t up to interviewing anyone for a few days.

Whenever I have mentioned that it was hot on this journey so far, I was wrong. Calabar’s humidity was a whole new level of hot. Somebody later described the city as “the armpit of Africa”, which is a rather unflattering image, but true enough in terms of geography, and it gives you a good idea of just how stiflingly sweaty it gets. The Drill Ranch had some blissful shade under their trees and Ladonna Gordon, the resident volunteer keeper from Chicago, kindly let the children hang out there, watching the drills who were noticeably chubbier than their Afi Mountain cousins.

The very kind Ladonna with ?

The very kind Ladonna with her rescue pooch Lulu

Dometic had given us two aircon units for the truck, but they drain too much of the solar power from our five Treetops panels. They work when we’re driving – but then we’d rather just open the windows and enjoy the draught. The litres of chilled water we get through every day are too important in our lives to risk losing power to our 4X4Megaworld fridge, so we just have to do without aircon.

On Sunday afternoon, when it cooled down, the kids and I went for a wander. All at once, the police were closing the road and the sidewalk was filling up with spectators – we had landed in a prime spot for the Carnival Dry Run! Thousands of members of the five carnival bands danced along the route, without floats or costumes, just in their team Tshirts: Bayside (blue), Freedom (yellow) Seagull (red), Passion 4 (green) and Masta Blasta (orange). I was so impressed with the energy and attitude of these Nigerian youth with their stripey socks, big glasses and punky haircuts à la Toya Delaney. I wish the eMzantsi Bloka could soak up their self-esteem and wear their hair natural like that!

Waiting with bated breath...

Waiting with bated breath…

Getting in the carnival mood

Getting in the carnival mood

Freedom Band paying their respects

Bayside Band paying their respects

For me, this week was one of the low points of trip so far. Following Madiba’s death, I was feeling quite down, far from home, demotivated and unable to write, not to mention hormonal. All this as one of four in a 3m square environment. On Monday, Sampson was still sick in bed feeling very sorry for himself and Ruby started her exams. Trapped for the moment, I decided to make the best of it. If I was going to drip with sweat all day, I might as well spring clean.

Ruby hard at it

Ruby hard at it in the heat

Zola attacking the sticky cupboards

while Zola tackles the sticky cupboards

At this point, we’d been six months away and it was time to do a stock take. Zola and I scrubbed out sticky drawers and refilled and rearranged all our containers. On the second day, we tackled the utensils cupboard under sink that had got mouldy from a water leak, and oiled the Trellidor that allows us to sleep with the main door open, now very salty from the sea breezes in Cameroun. How we missed them…

We were down to our final layer of emergency tins. I had hoped to restock here but the local ‘Favourite’ supermarket was so grim, we had to take stuff back twice because it was out of date or tasted like bleach. Naïvely perhaps, I had expected Nigeria to be a lot more like South Africa. I was expecting roads to be better, supermarkets to be bigger and cheaper, and the internet to be cheaper and faster. In Calabar, the latter was slow to non-existent and disgracefully expensive: with a mobile population this huge, MTN should be ashamed of themselves.

The local fast food joint did however have a ‘5D cinema’ rollercoaster ride, which the kids loved. Afterwards, the manager Pam, told me that during their first year of operations, they realised that Nigerians prefer traditional foods such as pounded yam and pepper soup to chips. So ‘Fiesta Fries’ sold off all their deep fat fryers! I was glad for the sake of Nigerians’ health, but this boded ill for us – our used oil stocks were getting dangerously low.

My Xmas present to myself was to have the laundry done by somebody else for once; Ernest’s mate Anthony runs the Praise Paul Laundry Service, and I praise Paul and Anthony for it. We became a tourist attraction, videoed by Mr and Mrs Phillip Oke from Port Harcourt, on a guided tour with Mr Ebenezer Enogu. Mr Phillip was celebrating their 7th wedding anniversary by whisking his wife away on a weekend break from their 3 kids (including twins). Hats off to the romantic husband!

Mr and Mrs Phillip Onugu to the right

Mr Ebenezer Enogu behind Zola, and Mrs and Mr Phillip Oke to the right

On the fourth day there, Peter Jenkins, larger than life and twice as egocentric, invited himself round for a beer. Researching in Nigeria since 1989, he founded the Drill Ranch in Calabar in 1991 with his partner Lisa Gadsby. Africa’s first captive bred drill was born in 1994 and in 2002 the first drill twins ever born in captivity. Calabar’s Drill Ranch is one of the world’s most successful captive breeding programs for an endangered species; by 2009 there were 298 drills. In 1996, the first drill group was flown by helicopter to their new home in the Afi Mountain reserve – by 2005 they had five enclosures.

The legendary Peter Jenkins

The legendary Peter Jenkins

Peter was leaner and meaner than I’d imagined, with a dangerous glint in his eye. The kind of guy who would have been played by Mel Gibson in the 80s TV movie version of his life. Forget Crocodile Dundee: meet Drill Jenkins. Not toting a knife, but with heavy-duty artillery back-up and a flak jacket. His Task Force does a supremely dangerous job taking on the illegal logging fraternity and only someone as passionate as he would be crazy enough to take it on. He talked and talked, didn’t listen much, and was ironically exhausting for Sampson, who’d just crawled out of bed for the first time that week.

On the fifth day, I took my husband to the City Clinic round the corner, where the Doctor refused to even examine his ear. I bumped into Ladonna outside, who told me that the noise of the truck leaving had frightened a young chimp into escaping (briefly), so I decided to drive on into the city, to the National Museum. We purposefully arrived just as they were closing so I could beg to stay overnight in the relatively breezy grounds, next to a cool lawn area overlooking the river. We celebrated the end of Ruby’s exams with chicken kebabs from a café there.

Cool grounds of

Ensconced in the cool grounds of…

the National Museum, Calabar ex-residency of colonial governor

…the National Museum, Calabar ex-residency of colonial governor shipped in wholesale from Britain

The kids and I spent the next morning in the Museum, while Sampson rested. There was rather too much writing for them, and sadly it was too poorly lit to see many of exhibits clearly, but I was absolutely fascinated. The displays joined the dots for me around simple things I had failed to grasp e.g. how slave labour had funded the capital to launch the Industrial Revolution, and how the Atlantic slave trade was triangular. Ships took slaves from West Africa to plantations in the Americas, where they took on raw materials (sugar, tobacco, cotton, timber, minerals) which were taken back to Europe, to be transformed into manufactured goods that were taken back to Africa and sold to natives at wildly inflated prices or bartered for more slaves. Why wasn’t I taught this at school in the UK?

Possibly because many British people still secretly believe what Cecil Rhodes wrote in 1877: “We happen to be the best people in the World, with the highest ideals of decency and justice and liberty and peace, and the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for humanity”? Boats from Bristol and Liverpool controlled 85% of the slave trade out of Calabar.

The facts were so disgraceful, I felt I should be apologising to the group of Nigerian college students on a guided tour just behind me. Indeed, as the Lagos Times of 19th February, 1885 said in response to the decisions of the Berlin Conference, where the European powers sat and carved up Africa between them: “This whole World has perhaps never witnessed a robbery on so large a scale.”

Once the slave trade was made illegal, Britain took control of the lucrative trade in ‘Red Gold’: exporting Calabar’s palm oil for processing in the UK. Lever Brothers bought land in Calabar and Cameroon for rubber and palm oil in 1910-2, the foundation of today’s global brand Unilever.

On the decorated roundabout on Mary Slessor Road, there were Christmas lights and giant letters spelling PEACE around a statue of white woman cradling a baby in each arm – I had been intrigued to know who she was. There was a panel dedicated to her in the museum, and I sent Zola back to the truck to fetch a torch so I could read it out to them. Factory worker Mary Slessor came to Calabar in 1875 as an eager young Presbyterian missionary from Dundee. Until her death in 1915, she worked indefatigably to improve the lives of locals, especially of women, especially through education. She famously embarked on a crusade to end the ritual killing of twins, saving thousands and raising eight orphans herself. She was highly respected by the local Efik tribe, finally being elected Obongawan Okoyong (Queen of Okoyong).

The Museum had an original ‘Sketch of Mary Slessor’s life by co-worker Miss Welsh’ published in the 22nd December 1956 edition of The Broughty Ferry Guide. You could’ve knocked me down with a feather: the only person I know in Scotland is my best friend from school, who lives on the coast just outside Dundee – in Broughty Ferry.

Much of Slessor’s success as a mediator was put down to her capacity to speak Efik fluently. I found photos of the Efik kings of Calabar and Creek Town through the centuries fascinating. Their increasingly elaborate costumes combined a Nigerian love of display with Victorian finery sublimely unsuited to the climate: layers of silk and damask, heavy crowns and carved maces, brass staffs and top hats.

Back in the truck for lunch, I found mouse droppings all over the newly cleaned cupboards. Grrrrrrr. Our new housemate must have climbed on board outside the Drill Ranch while Zola and I were spring cleaning. We were kicking ourselves for leaving a bin bag under the truck for those few days until we could find a place to dispose of it responsibly.

Needing supplies, we set off towards Watt Market. Sampson started driving but felt too unwell, so I had no option but to get behind the wheel. Later, I was told by the MD of the Cross River Tourism Bureau that more than 350 000 domestic tourists come into the city for the month-long Calabar Festival. Well, it felt like most of them were zooming down the Calabar Road around me that day.

When you’re driving on the right in a right-hand drive vehicle, it’s very difficult to see people cutting in and overtaking on the left. I feel quite capable on straight highways, but not strictly tall enough to negotiate our way safely around town, so Ruby was in the passenger seat trying to be my eyes. The road narrowed as I moved over to avoid a sewage ditch, and a car tried to squeeze past me and got squeezed by Big Reg. The traffic policemen at the junction in front of us went nuts and started jumping up and down and shouting at me.

Luckily the lady driving, who was called Grace, was grace itself, and didn’t. We pulled over and exchanged details so she could phone me with the panel-beater’s bill. I explained my husband should have been driving, but he was lying down in the back. She phoned me later to ask if I was OK, reassured me I was not to worry and said “God Bless you”. Bless you Grace.



Finally my contact at the Carnival Commission Nsor Nyambi came and escorted me to the office of Nzan Ogbe, Special Advisor to the Governor and key member of the Carnival Calabar Commission. He gave me a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of the Carnival and the reasons for its initiation. I felt immediately that Nzan was a kindred spirit, passionate about his city and very proud of the huge strides the Carnival has made in its 12 year history. I was left in no doubt that Carnival is considered the jewel in the crown of Calabar’s tourist temptations, showcase of the city’s creativity and its people, and its major claim to fame.

We were delivered into the care of Nsor’s colleague Akpet, who was instructed to take Sampson immediately to the Governor’s own doctor and then escort us back to the carpark behind the Cross River Tourism Bureau offices where we were to stay. The carpark was in a brilliant spot, right in centre of Calabar, within easy walking distance of both Watt Market and Millennium Park, with a welcome breeze off the river in the mornings and evenings. We were also given use of a Toyota Hilux, to prevent us having any more accidents. ‘Cross River: Africa’s Warmest Welcome’ indeed!

Sampson, Nsor and our complimentary car courtesy of the Carnival Commission

Sampson, Nsor and our complimentary car courtesy of the Carnival Commission

The next day, Ruby and I went Christmas shopping – it was 20th December after all and about time I started. Shoo, how I LOVE how travelling gives me the excuse to sidestep most of the consumer claptrap.

Watt Market made even le Grande Marché in Pointe Noire look pokey. There were vast numbers of tiny stalls in the narrowest of alleyways, all in a criss-cross pattern, stretched over a square kilometre of chaos. In the centre were piles of greens, meat being hewn with cleavers, squawking chickens and geese, and mounds of periwinkles and plum tomatoes amidst a deafening racket of hundreds of tiny red chillis being freshly ground into powder for pepper soup. We found peace by ducking into a passage full of cloth in jeweled colours and mini frou-frou dresses for little girls, frilled with gold like Christmas crackers.

Ruby had been promised her first pair of high heels for Xmas if she got her exams done in good time. She’s only 12 years old, but is now a size 8 shoe! After much debate and excited tryings-on, we settled on a suitably sparkly pair for Carnival. I was reminded of going round and round Cov market on a Saturday morning with my Mom, looking at cheap jewelry. Plus ça change.

The next day, while Sampson and the kids went missioning out of town to fill up with water and empty our sewage, I met the Chair of the Carnival Commission, Gabe Onah who, like Nzan, was far more accommodating and generous with his time than I would be merely days before our big event. I sat with some of his team leaders and described Cape Town’s Klopse carnival heritage, the eMzantsi intercultural process and our desire to collaborate.

Nzan and Gabe of the Carnival Commission

Nzan Ogbe and Gabe Onah of the Carnival Commission

Afterwards, while I sat outside in the breeze on the stoep, reading old carnival programmes and waiting for the family to return, I was joined by young Jeremiah. In Nigeria, all matrics do a year’s National Youth Service, and he had been lucky enough to be posted here to assist at Carnival. He sat and chatted to me about stereotypes: both the representations of Nigeria abroad and the cultural characteristics of the nation’s major cultural groups – the Igbo of the south east, the Yoruba of the south west, and the Hausa of the north.

I love the status of being an ignorant outsider, before you learn what you’re supposed to know. I remember happy days when I first arrived in South Africa in 1994, when I couldn’t tell the difference between many a so-called ‘coloured’ person and a so-called ‘black’ person. Because on the one hand, there isn’t any. But on the other hand, there’s all the difference in the world: language, culture, heritage, some weighty history and LOTS of politics. I also couldn’t tell the difference between an Italian and a very handsome blue-eyed church-going ‘coloured’ guy, much to the dismay of my hosts, but that’s another story.

Here, everyone looks Nigerian to me: warm, welcoming and respectful. There is a tangible presence of formal respect in Nigeria. Respect for older people (which I’m benefitting from now I’m so blatantly grey), respect for women, respect for colleagues. Young people like Jeremiah are confident without being arrogant, it’s quite wonderful to watch.

Both the facts and his portrayal of them were fascinating. I was particularly happy to learn that 80% of the music played on radio was local, and how many words there are in Nigerian slang for having fun. In South Africa there is a fabulous word employed by English speakers that people from England don’t know of: ‘jol’. It’s both a verb and a noun, loosely translated as ‘party’ e.g. “Are you jolling tonight?” or “The carnival was a real jol”. In Nigerian, you can ‘flex’ ‘joor’ or ‘jaiye’ and the event might be ‘faji’. I think you can judge a country on how many words they have for having fun, and how finely they discriminate between them.

The only drawback to being right in the centre of things, was that we were right in the centre of things. There were trucks pulling in at 5am every morning, striking sets for various festival events. But on the plus side, we were able to watch Cross River State’s own float being built in middle of the car park! The kids were enthralled. I had several fascinating chats to float-building team leader Osi and his boss Dr Esekong Andrew, who has a PhD in theatre set design and lectures at the University of Calabar. He is the only person I’ve ever met who also has opinions about Bakhtin’s carnival theory!

How we enjoyed..

How we enjoyed…

watching the Cross River float..

watching the Cross River float..

come into being!

come into being!

I was missing Emmanuel so much, constantly reminded of him by the smiling float-builders, feeling very aware how much more confident I would feel stepping into this pan-African carnival arena, knowing my ever-positive Zimbabwean brother was at my side alongside our Xhosa sister Yandiswa. His spirit is so strong in my heart, I still can’t believe he’s gone.

The Big Green Truck sat in the carpark for over a week. In between doing the inevitable washing, I was battling to get up to date with blog. When I wasn’t too hot to think, I was finally getting back into the zone. Thankfully, there was no school to interrupt my flow. Ruby and Zola were deeply involved in their never-ending game of Lego: the continuing adventures of James Spy (stunt man and secret agent) and Princess Sophie (car mechanic/inventor/fashion designer). It’s so all-encompassing, a parent has to shout “Put The Lego Away” when it’s time to eat.

Hooray for Legoooooooo!

Hooray for Legoooooooo!

We cherry-picked from the packed Festival programme. We went to a charming Children’s Concert in Calabar’s Cultural Centre, as big as the Baxter Theatre, featuring local youngsters playing carols on an array of instruments. We saw a workshop featuring the giant puppets of Les Grands Personnes. We visited the upmarket Marine Resort, but found the cheap-but-cheerful Christmas Village far more our style. It was as packed as the Maynardville Community Chest Carnival but less drunken, full of jolly Xmas tat, silly hats and glow in the dark baubles. Looking for something gluten-free to eat, we came upon Austin, an effervescent Nigerian from Essex, UK, who’d come back to launch his Caribbean chicken brand, Jerkstation. While the Sampsons tucked into that, he made me a special stockcube-less catfish and roast plantain, yum. Cheers Austin!

Giant puppets at the giant Cultural Centre of Calabar

Giant puppets on show at the giant Cultural Centre of Calabar

Now that's what I call a big hug

Now that’s what I call a big hug

Sampson was putting some serious effort into regaining the 15kgs he’d lost since we set off in July. He committed himself to finding us more protein and made a friend who showed him how to slaughter a chicken and pluck it for the same price as 3 pieces from Fiesta Fries.

For the first time I was too hot to sleep. With a sea breeze, humidity is tolerable. But the odd breath of air from the delta just made you appreciate how horribly hot it was. Sampson found it unbearable. He took to going outside 2 or 3 times in the middle of the night and sitting under the tap. Eventually he was sleeping on the roof; we’d all like to, but there’s not enough room amidst the oil containers.

Christmas Eve shopping in Watt Market made the other day look relaxed. It was Zola’s turn to shoe-shop. I amazed myself by diving down an alley in the middle and confidently pushing my way to the back through the mélée to find the exact same stall from where I’d got a mouse trap to exchange it for a smaller one. In same place we got Zola a lovely pair of black pointy patents with a white stripe. My son is channeling his latest influences: Michael Jackson meets Congolese cool.

After finding the pineapples Sampson had asked for, we sat down to rest in front of the only closed stall we saw all day. It was fate: opposite me were hanging the most Christmassy-red ankle boots, second-hand, Italian leather, sexy heel, in exactly my size. So they’re completely impractical for the climate and the lifestyle, but when Santa sends you a sign like that, what can you do?

Waiting for Dad and Ruby to return from their shopping mission, Zola and I sat blissfully cool in the aircon of MacBite, watching the Carnival Calabar Queen pageant on TV that had taken place the night before at the chic Tinapa Resort. Afterwards there was a choir singing carols. Zola sat on my lap and I was making him laugh singing embarrassing harmonies into his ear. It’s usually too hot to cuddle in the truck and he won’t fit on my knees for much longer. It felt like a special moment seized.

Sampson had great news: SIAT Gabon’s sister plantation in Benin City, PRESCO, had called to invite us to visit and offered the best Xmas pressie ever: to fill our tanks with oil. It was SUCH a huge relief as we were having no luck gathering more than a few litres at a time. With this weight off our shoulders, we could kick back and relax and enjoy Christmas. MacBite was the only restaurant that collected any used oil for us, all 5L of it. Thanks Victoria and Cecilia!

Thanks MacBite!

Thanks MacBite!

Ruby also received an unexpected gift on Christmas Eve: Carnival Commission secretary Eme Affiah gave her two bags of clothes that her daughters had outgrown. Ruby was so happy she was dancing round the truck!

I managed to wrap all the pressies in two rolls of shiny paper I’d been hiding in the back of the wardrobe since we left home, with some additional recycling of magazine pages. With the kids banished outside to the stoep, playing infinite Lego, and Sampson dozing on the bed, I merrily sang along to carols on the radio while sellotaping with wild abandon. It was my most Xmassy moment.



I was looking forward to getting more fully in the festive mood at the city’s Christmas Carol concert at Millennium Park, which the programme said started at 8pm. The array of festive lights was so impressive, we got distracted, and only arrived at 8.30, but found we were still 2 hours early. Though we really enjoyed the sound checks of the massed choirs about to compete, we just couldn’t stay any later. Like the British couple in front of us with a toddler who passed out exhausted, we knew Christmas Day just wasn’t going to be fun if we did.

While waiting, Sampson treated us all to a bar of Lindt chocolate that he’d bought at wildly inflated prices in the dodgy supermarket. I ate one square. Half an hour later I was asking him if he’d remembered to check the ingredients label: he hadn’t. A minute amount of barley malt extract did for me. It’s gluten. So by the time we got home, I was looking 6 months’ pregnant and in a lot of pain. Christmas Day I was unable to go play with them at the Tinapa Water Park as I had to stay in near the toilet… I’ll draw a veil over the details.

Our present opening was surprisingly good. Sampson and I were touched at just how excited our kids were over their relatively meagre bunch of presents. Apart from their shoes, Zola got 3 toy cars and some new trousers, Ruby got a sparkly top, and they each got some play-dough, a pack of fancy biscuits and a little fan. The latter (brought from home, thrown in at the last minute) were an unexpected hit.

Fans of fans

Fans of fans

Xmas shoes

and Xmas shoes

for everyone!

for everyone!

The treats extended to Heinz beans on toast for lunch and a chicken braai supper with Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut while watching the unexpectedly delightful film ‘African Queen’. We all felt for Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn battling their idiosyncratic way across the Congo against the odds. Bogart playing against type as the far-from-suave Charlie Allnut made me feel unutterably fond of Sampson.

On Boxing Day, we hauled chairs and a sunshade up on the roof of the security guardhouse to watch the Cultural Carnival parade pass. Later the Chairman of the Carnival Commission invited us to the VIP box in the stadium to see the finale performances: 14 of 18 local government areas in Cross River State had come to represent. I was impressed to see a 19th century tradition that I’d seen documented at the National Museum upheld in the performances: celebrating the beauty of young girls fattened for marriage.

Bearskins were big in Calabar this year

Bearskins were big in Calabar this year.

Cultural carnival characters

There were a myriad cultural carnival characters…

Live accompaniment

live accompaniment…

lots of amazing dancing

lots of amazing dancing…

Efik royalty

and royalty…

Cultural carnival

and spirits…

Gorgeous girls of Calabar

plus the gorgeous girls of Calabar…

Gorgeous girls of Calabar

doing it with pride!

This led straight into the spectacular finale of the Children’s Carnival starring 5000 kids! They walk 6km, not 12km like the senior parade, but that’s still pretty demanding, in costume, through the heat of the day, with the finale starting at 7pm. The Governor’s wife made a big entrance in a lime and coral outfit, with matching orange nails and an enormous green hat, and sat at the front of the VIP box. Next, her protégée the Carnival Queen arrived and sat down next to me. Oh the embarrassment! All the TV lights suddenly swiveled down on her 6ft 6”, looking immensely glamourous in tiara, sash and false eyelashes, with little old me next to her in the sweaty blouse and dirty cap I’d arrived in five hours before. It’s a good job no one who knows me was watching, otherwise I’d have been mortified.

Sampson had quit earlier because of backache, but Ruby and Zola were loving it; they received a packed lunch of jollof rice and meat like all the kids in the parade and I survived on plantain chips. We were knocked out by the sheer scale of the display and the professionalism of the young performers – it was magnificent. (No pics cos my camera battery had died by then, but there are loads on Google.)

We walked home at 8.30pm through throngs of people out enjoying the festive atmosphere. I honestly felt safer walking round Calabar at night than Cape Town. Ignorance is bliss? Maybe. But there were lots of other women out too.

On 27th December, Carnival Calabar day, we spent the morning watching the most beautiful women in the city adorn themselves in feathers, jewels, and high heeled boots. They were preparing to accompany the Cross River State float leading the parade under the direction of the legendary Mr Chris Agibe (four-times-winning creative director of Passion 4). Ruby made friends with beauty queen Maryanne, who shocked me when she wrote down her email address featuring the birthdate 1991 – the year I graduated, aaarrrgh! I also chatted to visiting band leader Mervyn McKell of the Sound Specialists of Laventille from Trinidad. We overheard some excited domestic tourists asking Carnival Commission helpers in the carpark “When is the kick off time?” “Soon” “Soon is a time??” I felt very at home.

Sampson hanging with the beauty queens, Maryanne on the right

Sampson hanging with the beauty queens, Maryanne on the right

Carnival morning mayhem

Carnival morning mayhem

Mr Chris Agibe with Mr Ibok Ekpenyong

Carnival Calabar legend Mr Chris Agibe flanked by Dr. Esekong Andrew (l) and Mr Ibok Ekpenyong (r)

In the early afternoon, it was just too hot to consider walking to any of the best viewing spots, but I couldn’t face clambering up on the security guard’s roof again. Instead we moved the truck to the other side of carpark where we could watch all the action from the roof, while sitting under the shade sipping ice-cold water from the fridge. Perfect.

The parade was jaw-droppingly awesome: 25000 performers in an apparently never-ending stream of increasingly extraordinary images, eliciting increasingly bigger gasps from us. We had a great view of the action, and everyone else got a great view of us, the lone tourists: this resulted in three interviews in an hour with The Nation newspaper, CRBC and African Independent TV. As Passion 4’s African kingdoms float, featuring hunky Zulu warriors, came round the corner, AIT got my leap-to-the-feet response live on camera : “Whoooooo-hoooooooo!!!”.

Here comes Passion 4..

Here comes Passion 4’s float…

African legends

portraying African legends – respect!

Loving it

Loving carnival colour 1

Loving it

Loving carnival colour 2

Being interviewed by Queeneth from CRBC on the roof of the truck

Being interviewed by Queeneth from CRBC on the roof of the truck

When it cooled down, we set off to watch the finale, Ruby and Zola in their Noo Shoes, and me in a dress, just in case I got hijacked by any Carnival Queens. I wanted to experience the Carnival on the street so we started by walking up past the stadium. Once again we were proving a tourist attraction; the kids were very patient with mothers asking to ‘snap’ them holding their babies.

Off to Carnival we go

Off to Carnival we go

While waiting an hour for the parade to arrive, we had a wonderful chat with über intelligent Ubi the medical student, and his friends Christopher and Goodwin, just back from business studies in India (and not impressed by their lack of respect for women). When a man and woman in carnival dress came past on two quad bikes giving rise to shouts of recognition and a good-natured mob running alongside them, Ubi explained it was ex-Governor, and founder of Carnival Calabar, Donald Duke and his wife.

Duke is well loved, he told me, because he “rebranded Calabar”: the city now has a reputation for environmental and cultural tourism because of developments under his tenure; thanks to the standards and stability he established, people come here to have conferences. I was also told that it was Duke who first ensured pipe-borne water to all households in Calabar. It was rather refreshing to hear people happy with the work of their politicians. Present Governor Liyel Imoke also got high approval ratings, with his wife popular for her charity work with orphans.

Xmas angels everywhere

Xmas angels everywhere

Ubi and Christophe with Ruby

Ubi and Christopher with Ruby

Heels have been dumped

Some had dumped their heels!

When the parade finally arrived, many of the dancers were looking exhausted, after their 7 hour trek in 80% humidity. Which made it all the more amazing, when, less than an hour later, we saw the same bands enter the stadium for the finale at full throttle, giving it their all for the judges, the TV cameras and the crowd. We only just made it in before the police shut the gates at 9pm, waving our media passes to get the last 4 seats in the VIP box. Phew.

The spectacle was Massive. Words cannot possibly do justice to the kaleidoscopic range and atmosphere of the event. The Dukes entered the stadium on segways to open for Bayside. There were breathtaking B-boy teams doing hip hop routines, with the Jesters of Freedom Band topping the lot with superb circus skills including spinning and throwing bowls, and a tiered series of somersaults without a safety net that made you wince.


Bringing the vibe into the stadium



Freedom Band jesters doing their thang

Freedom Band jesters doing their thang

Passion 4 seemed to dominate in terms of size and scope: the clarity of their ancient African kingdoms theme, the professionalism of their performers, the sheer slickness and sleekness of their show. Afterwards, I thought it was all over – surely no one could match that? But then Seagull displayed moments of inspired conceptual brilliance plus a parade of the most gorgeous costumes and a sprinkling of Nollywood stars that had the crowd roaring.  I didn’t envy the judges’ job. Earlier, Chief Adjudicator Arnold Udoka had told me that the key reason for the carnival was the renewal of self-esteem. I could feel it; for both participants and spectators, it was working.

How's that?

How’s that for a walking logo?!

Then just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, Masta Blasta came through and blew everyone away with their inventiveness. They were the only band to feature live music, with a high impact opening featuring 50 drums as well as a dynamic tribute to Fela Kuti. Their B-boys were an eye-popping bunch of young women called ‘the Amazons’, who danced hiphop with an aggressive sexiness and American football-style shoulderpads. There was also a moving lovers’ dance, a sensual semi-ballet with several couples in pas de deux, which caused a sensation. But it was the Thriller-esque sequence climaxing in a four-costume-changes-in-mere-seconds transformation (the last under a shower of tinsel) that brought the house down. Nothing could top it. There were a couple of giant puppets thrown in at the end for good measure, I have no idea why – the theme was incomprehensible, but it was all so entertaining. I pitied Passion 4: the message of their sophisticated and uplifting narrative had evaporated amidst the spectacular bells and whistles of Masta Blasta.

Check out some footage of the day here and a great article:

By 2am, the kids were flagging, and Sampson took them home, but I wanted to stay for the announcement of the winners[i]. Half an hour later, I missed it as I was being interviewed as The International Visitor again, this time by Ebonylife TV. “It’s a world class event.” I declared, “There should be tourists flocking to see it.”

After the headline performance by local hiphop star KCee on the main stage, (his ubiquitous hit Pullover will forever remind me of our stay) I was amazed how the stadium, packed to capacity with 50 000 people, emptied in about 20 minutes in the calmest manner. My Carnival Commission friends Gabe and Eme gave me a lift back to the truck saying “We don’t want you to be kidnapped now!”. They were so kind, and enthusiastic about our meeting, that I came floating home feeling high on the sense of future possibility.

Eme in the calm of Afterwards and A Good Job Done

Eme in the calm of Afterwards and A Good Job Done

The theme of Carnival Calabar 2013 ‘Ain’t No Stopping Us’ was interpreted variously across the parades as the progress of Africa from ancient times to the present, the progress of Nigeria in the fields of sport, art and education, and the progress of Cross River State’s ongoing development. But for me, ‘Ain’t No Stopping Us’ was the perennial theme of the Carnival Commission team. At eMzantsi we do Carnival for one day a year; they do a festival for one month, with major events happening every day in Christmas week and three carnivals on 26th and 27th. Then they have their feedback meeting on the morning of the 28th. This is the Nigerian work ethic. If I asked my float-building team to work the whole of Christmas Day from 7am like Dr Andrew’s crew did, I don’t think I’d be seeing much of that carnival spirit!

eMzantsi can’t teach Calabar anything about hard work or commitment, but I hope we can offer them some capacity-building in recycled carnival art, how to incorporate more live music, and how to highlight the cultural diversity of their carnival.

eMzantsi could recycle an entire carnival out of what Calabar throws away

eMzantsi could recycle an entire carnival out of what Calabar throws away

Passing through a village on the drive to Calabar, I saw two guys walking along in the most extraordinary costumes made from natural materials, with giant heads reminiscent of Kentridge noses, half-scary, half-absurd. Twice more, we saw these spontaneous carnival performers: once children dressed from head to toe in palm leaves dancing in the traffic coaxing coins from drivers; once a whirling figure progressing along the pavement draped in layers of coloured raffia like giant welcome mats to the floor; always with their faces covered.

I learned later they were portrayals in the Yoruba tradition of Gelede of the spirit Egùngùn, who assists communication with the ancestors. If you meet his eyes you risk death, but his long skirts sweep away sickness and bad luck every new year. I found these raw expressions of festive fun entwined with ancient beliefs almost more exciting than the sophisticated glamour and high-octane impact of Carnival Calabar. I long to learn more, and invite their powerful presence back into South African Carnival. Sampson on the other hand would just like to teach Nigerians how to play a vuvuzela properly…

Drafted end Dec 2013 – sorry for delay in posting, see Africa Clockwise Facebook page for explanation.

[i] 1st Masta Blasta, 2nd Passion 4, 3rd Seagull

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4 Responses to Christmas in Calabar

  1. julie Wright says:

    Sorry confused and put my comment on last blog…..
    All I wanted to say was GREAT you are back…I missed,and worried,not reading your stuff

    Don’t do Facebook so got deprived of your adventures

    Love to you all………

  2. Finally getting to the end!

    Nothing like a bit of spring cleaning (and some shoes) to lift the spirits. But of course none of that tops the carnival – sounds like you got front row seats! Lovely shot of all of you. Thanks for explaining some background for us as well.

    Interesting sight to see at the end there, the people in the more natural/folk style costumes. Definitely interesting to see a “raw” version of the tradition.

  3. wow just wow 10 over 10

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