As an adjudicator, you were not allowed to wave , wink or tap your feet to the non-stop music. You were not even allowed to smile or do thumbs-up to a dancer or acrobat. If you were happy with a band, it must remain private happiness and if you felt like giving a reveller a knock on the head, it must still be your private pain.
You were not supposed to giraffe what the judge sitting beside you had in his or her score sheet and you could not whisper your doubts in his ear. Adjudicators were not al¬lowed to get up to stretch their stiff legs or take a pee while the bands were performing.
Yeah, no illegal peeing. What was worse? It was a street, open air affair, so female adjudicators were at a disadvantage, in the peeing performance, that is. And the cheeky, totally mischievous Chief Judge, His Lordship, Arnold Udoka, told us we must be careful but the men could ‘shoot anywhere except at the transformer.’
Welcome to the Calabar Carnival where I was an adjudicator this year. Welcome to Africa’s largest street party and the most serious party I have heard or been part of. This unadulterated fun is handled with so much seriousness, laced with so much passion that only those behind the scene could understand the hard work that goes into all that display of colour and costume.
For starters, when I stepped into the coven of the adjudicators, it was full of professors! Seriously, a street party being judged by professors, egg heads who deter¬mine who gets PhDs?
Lawyers, lecturers and little me and wait for it, we were more than 40. We discussed our issues, the veterans brought up the challenges of the past and Lopez and Wendell, from Trinidad and Tobago took us through the rules, the scoring guide.
That was followed the following day by a meeting with the leaders of the five competing bands: Passion 4, Seagulls, Freedom, Masta Blasta and Bayside. An¬other surprise. If you thought the leaders of the bands were unemployed graduates who are just keeping busy, you are wrong. An actor I’d been in ‘love’ with since the days of the DSTV celebrated ‘Bachelors’ series, a former commissioner of Works, Finance and serving Attorney General of the state, a former local government chairman, successful men…
Within 24 hours of joining this throng, I knew I was in Calabar for serious business. And to think Gabe Onah, Chairman of the Calabar Carnival Commission, told me it was going to be one week of fun and party¬ing, ah? Okay, I can’t deny that I had fun, but he didn’t warn me I would not be able to dance ‘Shoki’, ‘Shekini’ and ‘Dorobucci’ along with the bands. And ‘shoki’ is now the dance of the moment, have you noticed, even in church? Anyway, let’s go back to Calabar.
The night of the Kings and Queen went into the wee hours with the adjudicators sit¬ting like Supreme Court judges, watching, taking notes and scoring. I think I got back to my hotel at 2am. My son opened the door of our suite with a frown, ‘ Mummy, don’t you break down after this…’ See, I thought I was the parent and there was my boy all grown scolding me like I was some teenager sneaking in from an illegal party. I chuckled and fell into bed knowing call time was 8am, just six hours away. And you know what, the adjudicators were there on time, cheerful, throwing banters, in spite of the fact that they got only two or three hours sleep.
On the day of the grand finale, the adult carnival, yours sincerely was assigned the first adjudicating point with seven other experienced judges, all with Ph.ds tucked under their carnival T-shirts. It was an awesome experience.
The carnival route was a 12-kilo¬metre stretch and the five bands and the happy revellers danced the whole hog. As I sat there, poker-faced, not allowed to wink at the handsome guys or do thumbs up to the bands whose dance steps and costumes appealed to me most, I wondered how those people were going to make it to the finishing line at the UJ Esuene stadium.
But they did. They travelled all day, arriving the following morning still dancing, still upbeat, still doing magic, somersaulting and ‘shoki-ing’. It was incredible, absolutely incredible the swift feet of the young men and the jiggling tantalising waists of the carnival maidens at 1.am. after travel¬ling 12 kilometres.
Though I’m still smarting from not being able to get up and dance when P-Square suddenly appeared on the scene with Masta Blasta band, though I could not wave at Kate Henshaw, Jim Iyke, Mo Abudu, Grace Egbagbe and other celebrities when they got to our adjudication point, I still came away from the Calabar Carnival with plenty of lessons.
Is Calabar not part of Nigeria? Are the thousands of band members not Nigerians? Are the organizers not from among us? So, why do we not run Nigeria with the same passion with which the Calabar Carnival is prosecuted?
Let’s start with the discipline and devotion of the adjudicators. Have you tried to imagine sitting through six hours of great music, six hours of watching the most colourfully costumed dancers, choreographed impeccably and not even allowed to nod or clap?
Imagine our leaders, our rulers not being distracted by the perks and distractions of office. Imagine if they are all disciplined for the four or eight years they are in office. If only they all will keep their eyes on the ball. Focus on the jobs they were ‘employed’ to do, endure a few in¬conveniences. Because you see, at the end of the long day, the adjudicators were rewarded by the satisfaction of the bands and the success of the carnival.
The legacies a governor or president leaves behind live decades after them and those are the true reward of service to one’s fatherland. Not the few minutes of doing what’s in vogue, a passing fancy, momentary orgasmic pleasure.
Did I tell you that in the coven of the adjudicators, the focus was the job, not where we came from? I generally, at first, assumed that I was the only adjudicator from the south west until I heard judges with south south names greet me in Yoruba. And what did that teach me? That to put this country back in its deserved place, we cannot continue to use tongue and tribal marks as means of measurement. If we don’t all work together, we cannot get to the finish line.
I found out that each of the bands had its own Mas Camp where masks and costumes were designed and made. All those colourful costumes were made in Calabar. I learnt that the Seagull Band, under the guide and passion of Senator Florence Ita-Giwa employed 30 tailors to put together the delightful designs, I know the wedges worn by most females in the band were from Calabar. Hundreds of shoemakers put to work, honing their skills day in day out. I also learnt that during this period, crime in Calabar is at an all time low. Everybody is busy having fun and adding value. Even criminals take time off to en¬joy this season.
It’s no rocket science, no voodoo economics needed to show that when you keep able bodied young Nigerians busy, crime is kept at bay. Every state just needs to be creative to create employment and we’ll all be on our way to fulfil that pre¬diction that Nigeria is one of the MINT countries, the emerging economic power nations.
Passion is what has sustained the Calabar Carnival. Determination to stand out and do something different is the eagles wings on which this annual phenomenon has flown on these past 10 years.
And from the little I saw, the Calabar carnival is no longer an event, it is now an industry, a sector of the economy of that state that has come to stay, ready for private investors even as you read this. The youth have taken ownership and they drive the process even when funds arrived late.
Let me end with this scenario: the barricades that were put in place to keep the spectators from surging into the carnival route occasionally fell but instead of trampling over falling barricades, spilling into the streets and causing commotion , the carnival crowd only pick the barricades, put them back in place and stay away from the arena. It’s their show, their thing, their fun, their party and they hold the barricades with their hands. I did not see policemen with whips or guns pushing the crowd or threatening anybody.
We are a good people. We are a passion¬ate people. We know what we want and once our leaders do what is right, we take ownership and protect the arena with the barricades.
Thank you Donald Duke for the vision of the Calabar Carnival. Thank you Liyel Imoke for running with it. Cross River is one lucky state. One can only hope other governors whose only means of livelihood is the begging bowl they take to Abuja every month will learn something from this and look inwards.
Funke Egbemode is the General Editor of Sun Newspaper
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