Festivals and the Sustenance of a Collective Memory

Festivals and the Sustenance of a Collective Memory

Monday, February 6, 2017 12:28 pm

Peju Layiwola

By Peju Layiwola

A Calendar of Traditional Nigerian Festivals is truly a calendar that opens us to a systematic, month by month, state by state calibration of festivals in Nigeria. It provides details of places where festivals are held and their significance in a study which began as far back as 1962. Festivals are mnemonics of power and nature. They makeeasy recalls of the achievements of the founding heroes ofa clan. By their very nature, they commemorate the achievements of a people in a variety of ways through dance, songs, rituals and the plastic arts. Because festivals are a conglomerate of genres of culture they have become the bedrock on which major writers such as JP Clark, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, contemporaries of the author have based their works.

A Calendar of Traditional Nigerian Festivals is a landmark, valuable, innovative and well-delivered, scholarly contribution to the documentation of festivals in Nigeria. The author has added a new and unique chapter to our understanding of Nigerian, albeit, African cultures. I cannot but agree more with the author when he says in the preface: I quote ‘this calendar is part of the process of codification, interpretation and redefinition of our heritage that is necessary for our cultural continuity’.

The book: Festivals and the Sustenance of a Collective Memory

The book comprises 417 pages. I have gone an extra mile in physically weighing it and it has a weight of 2.5kg meaning that it has very weighty information that would be relevant as database for projecting the image of Nigeria in the area of cultural tourism. It has a rich introduction, lots of photographs and 37 chapters- each chapter dedicated to a state in the federation and the Federal Capital Territory.

From the acknowledgments we add our voices to the gratitude expressed by the author to the Ford Foundation for supporting fieldwork in different parts of Nigeria. If we go down memory lane we would recognize that the Ford Foundation had provided funding, not only for this work, but for other publications such as the compendium on the life and works of another octogenarian, artist, Bruce Onobrakpeya. Funding, therefore, is particularly important for the documentation and dissemination of information of our rich cultural heritage.

The author in his introduction raises a number of issues. Without revealing too much about the text, he raises the complexities associated with linguistic mappings and historical relationships. Where Language does not seem to solve the complex problem about these relationships, the author directs our focus to solving historical connections through similarities in cultural practices and archeology. Some of the examples he uses to buttress similarities in language through festival include words like Ogiso, the earliest rulers of Benin known as divine kings (which derives from Ogie, King and Iso, Sky- Benin , Esan), with variants of the same word Oje(Ora) Odje (Urhobo). Similarly, the word Eghughu (Edo), Egun or Egungun (Yoruba), Egwu (Igala/Ibo), and Gugu (Gwari) also reflect these linguistic connections.

If speculations about oral traditions and linguistic correlations do not provide definite answers to linkages between cultures, archaeology confirms historicity by validating or disputing claims. The author dwells a lot on the connections between Ife and Benin. While marshalling a great deal of contradictory oral traditions and archaeological evidence or non evidence, the author, like many other scholars is unable to define the exact level of connection that existed betweenboth cultures. For me, scientific methods of dating, stylistic considerations and further studies in metallurgical compositions of sculptures from both Yoruba and Edo cultures would shed more light on this contentious issue. You may wonder how all of these connect with festivals. It is in the commemoration of these oral traditions and local histories, some of which reveal conflict, that festivals are celebrated.

It would be difficult to discuss in detail the thirty seven chapters dealing with all festivals across Nigeria in this review. However, some of the salient points would be mentioned briefly. From his study of festivals, the author reveals that they are often influenced by nature and climatic cycles- such that herald the beginning and end of the farming season. In Arochukwu, Ohafia, Ufiele, Isu in Abia State and in many other cultures,festivals usher in the eating of new yam. In Abuja, we learn of the festivals that still hold despite the inroad made by religion and the changing character of the city. In addition to these festivals, the author provides exciting meanings of various landmarks in the city. Adamawa presents an array of festivals that celebrates rites of passage, wrestling and fish farming. AkwaIbom with its large array of statuary and masks particularly the Ekpo mask adds colour to the masqueradeperformances during festivals. In Anambra, one striking photograph although not dated, depicts the Owelle of Onitsha, Chief NnamdiAzikiwe in performance at the Ofalla festival in Onitsha. Calabar in Cross Rivers state presents very expressive, colourful costumes and graceful dances of the Ekpakha royal dancers and the Ekpe masquerades.

In addition, the picturesque scenery at Obudu accommodates and heralds a number of festival commemorating new yam. Cable cars stretched across the skies at Obudu, like those above the Table Mountains in Cape Town reveal the technological changes that have occurred over time. In Delta State, we discover a diverse range of festivals. In Edo State, the author focuses on the annual Igue festival in honour of the ancestors in Benin. From the photograph spread across the book we see an attempt to capture historical time as the author reveals personalities, dances, costumes and ceremonial swords etc.We could go on and on.

I have raised some issues in the book.

In looking at the term ‘traditional’ in the title, there is the way in which it conjures the image of a society that has remained intact without changes over time. African societies are in a constant state of flux. What may be considered traditional in its commemoration, may indeed be contemporary. With increased westernization, there has been an influx of foreign goods, materials and cultures into Africa. Some of these are reflected during festivals. For example, how traditional is an Ekpe masquerade who in addition to his garb of foreign clothing, wears an Adidas canvass whilst holding a mobile phone in performance. Similarly, there are instances where an Ere Ibeji sculpture has been replaced with a Caucasian doll in a ‘traditional’ shrine. If we do not capture aspects of social change in these festivals and embrace the evolution that occur in these societies, we might miss the point.


One might argue that some of these festivals had been in operation before the advent of Europeans. In order to engage with the concept of true tourism in Nigeria, I would suggest that these festivals look beyond the clan-based structure of their commemoration to encourage more audience participation from outside of the culture and geographical areas. Herein lies the success of the annual Osun Oshogbo festival which brings hoards of Europeans and African- American visitors to Oshogbo. This commemoration is done against the backdrop of an already existing cultural base, the steadfastness of contemporary writers, artists and performers in the 1960s and the cultural inclusion of the Austrian- based artist, Suzanne Wenger whose post modern sculptures combine western aesthetics with the spirituality and flavour of indigenous Yoruba traditions.

With all these in place, Oshogbo continues to attract international attention. We might choose to redefine the cultural context of newly evolving festivals such as the Abuja, Calabar, Lagos and Benin (Ugie) carnivals. However, we cannot underestimate the social capital that these new festivals provide. The success of an inclusive festival structure can be seen in Onitsha. The present, Obi, HRH Nnaemeka Achebe has included an annual contemporary art exhibition, an ultra modern museum, andtransformed the palace into a learning and interactive space as he midwives the traditional Ofalla festival into modernity. The greatest merit of this book is in the ability to allow us rethink festivals in a global context.

Given the background of study of the author, the points are properly articulated and the entire book is structured in a flowing manner. The language in the book is written in a simple form, devoid of high sounding words and phrases. The systematic layout of the book makes it easy to find information according to place, type of festival and significance. The font size is also standard. The photographs keep you glued to the book. They animate the text in a special way. You could almost hear the dance steps of the masquerades or the cries and shouts of an excited audience. The book is full of unique and timeless photographs that speak about the experience of the author in various cultural parastatals across Nigeria. However, some images are blurred and not adequately referenced.

A few do not have dates. I believe that subsequent editions would include some of the images taken by a new crop of distinguished Nigerian photographers such as Andrew Esiebo, George Oshodi and AdolphusOpara who have done groundbreakingwork on Nigerian culture and monuments. I am happy that the author has also included photographs of AmaizeOjeikere who continues to extend the legacy of his father, PaJ.D Ojeikere whose works can be found in the permanent display of World master photographers at the Museum of Modern Art (Moma) in New York.

In conclusion,Mr Chairman sir, The Vice Chancellor, Distinguished Ladies and gentlemen.

A Calendar of Traditional Nigerian festivals is ‘The’ Calendar of festivals. It is being presented at a time when most people would have celebrated the Christmas and New year. However, if you missed that period, the author has very expertly laid out festivals for the rest of the year which you could attend. It is not just a book of festivals but an inventory of several cultural resources found across Nigeria. It is a must-have book, a timeless coffee table book that allows us calibrate culture and celebrate it in a grand style. It is a commendable effort and one that should be built upon by other scholars. It is a work that the nation should be proud of in its depth and variety that it offers.

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen I invite you to acquire not just a single copy but several.

Peju Layiwola, artist and art historian, is of the Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos, Nigeria

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One Comment

  • Aremu Mathew Okikiolu says:

    This is a to Tome! if you ask me. The author, a distinguished cultural administrator and art cognoscenti, is a credible source of this Festival…chronicled by Frank Aig-Imoukhuede. Every state has a chapter, hopefully, one would expect that they work on their calendars to attract a wider audience. It will help us know our country and cultural connections and possible cooperation. Commendable.

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