Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Saturday, January 1, 2011

Festival in Ogwa

A Nigerian friend had invited us to a festival in his home town. As it happened, he had never himself actually lived in this bush village. His parents had sent him away to the city for the sake of his education, and he could not in fact speak the local language at all. Still, he had been educated in the U.K. where he had lived for some years, and there could be no doubt that he was considered a local celebrity, a “big man” with considerable social obligations. The far-reaching African version of extended family was part of what had driven him to live abroad.

Ogwa is a group of rusty-roofed mud huts blending into the sandy clay earth and dense jungle. No cultivated farms are immediately visible, just wild vegetation encroaching on all sides. Paths link the houses. We and our friend were hustled inside a place like many others, settled in the softest seats and given kola nut while crowds of the curious collected at every window and door. When we were offered drinks, we produced the bottle of “schnapps” (actually jenever) we had brought as a gift for our host. He bowed low in pleased surprise and thereafter mentioned the gift using freshly excited gestures with each new visitor.

Receiving took the entire afternoon with greetings, gifts, and toasts, each exchange exquisitely calibrated to the participants’ relations in age, prestige, and income. One aged and rather dissolute-looking caller greeted John with rhythmic poetic praises to which his entire body offered reinforcement. He danced about the room suggestively giving us no apparent attention. The same man, I later noticed, was prominent in the dance ring, shuffling to and fro, waving his hips, and soliciting contributions.

Eventually, several women brought trays of food, and we retired to the back room where we dined splendidly on rice and goat. By the time we reached the dancing, festivities had been in progress for some time. Indeed, during most of the afternoon we had heard drumbeats and snatches of song. A large area of cleared ground was surrounded by a dense crowd. The music was wholly percussive and vocal: two large drums kept a steady cadence while cries and handclaps punctuated its unending, constantly transforming, beat. Other drummers beat on hollowed logs. Small boys used toy versions more quietly on the sidelines.

We were ushered inside the ring to a sort of thatched reviewing stand with seats for the local high chief and other dignitaries. These individuals were doubtless of sufficiently lofty standing that they would not have joined the queue to meet us earlier. Some came over now to shake hands, including a couple introduced as “master and mistress of the dance,” but some remained aloof, including an especially distinguished-looking gentleman with a metal walking stick or scepter.

We had hoped to record the music on a small cassette machine, but John said that it would be better to skip that to stay well distant from issues of taboo. Slyly we concealed the tape recorder in a bag and unobtrusively (we hoped) switched it on when the music really got going. Furtively checking it after a time, Patricia saw that it was running properly.

Masqueraders cavorted about in the ring and on the margins – there were perhaps eight in all. They were clothed in motley with clashing patterns and shreds of fabric festooning their limbs. Their hands and feet were obscured by the cloth ties, some with bells attached, and their faces were wholly covered with fabric through which they could see adequately but could not be seen. (In traditional belief, of course, the masquerader becomes another being. I once saw a newspaper story about a masquerader pleading innocent to an assault committed while costumed, claiming that the masked figure had been in fact the god, though temporarily using the man’s body.) Some had labels pinned to them – I made out one that said “taxi.” These were the principals in the famous Ishan (or Esan) acrobatic dance. One at a time, but in no particular pattern, they would display their skills, most commonly by holding their torsos parallel to the earth while revolving their legs in sweeping kick movements again and again. They would take off into a series of backflips and somersaults. At intervals they would lie prostrate on the ground attended by aides until they leapt up, having recovered full energy. Some action looked like apotropaic magic or scapegoating: masqueraders were at times pursued across the ring and flew into flip as though barely escaping a flogging. Sometimes they submitted to the mimed abuse or else they would menace the young children in front who would shrink back cowering.

Onlookers, particularly young men, now and then entered the dance circle to do a quick amateur turn. At one point some children began dancing, then the crowd dissolved into the center, blurring the boundary between performer and viewer. But perhaps this had gone too far, because the space was cleared before the action recommenced. I noticed the dissolute man and the mistress of the dance wandered about the arena, jiving and stepping. All the dancers did sexual gesturing and thrusting, but only occasionally.
As we had been told nothing of the ritual, we abandoned hope of contextual understanding. Our experience, however, of the afternoon as a pure event was lucid. Clearly the focus of a festive weekend, whatever the magical intention, whatever the myth; it was centered in exuberance in the flesh, mysteries of change and identity, hypnagogic rhythmic repetitions, and the energy of collective excitement.

Back at the house we were occupying, we were offered a second dinner, only two hours after the last: pounded yam and stockfish this time. Then the large ever-changing company settled in for palm wine, beer, and conversation, almost all of it unintelligible to us. We drifted to another home where the host brought out drinks, spilling a libation first on the floor and invoking a blessing on home and drinkers. Others crowded around, playing Yoruba and Bini music on tape recorders and I was called on to bless and split the kola which I trust I accomplished adequately. Then to the local headmaster’s house where the same rituals were repeated.

Asked to translate the lyrics of a poignant and powerful tune to which certain guests were moving in solitary concentration, John said the sense of it was “even to your enemies do good, for you must account to god.” Just as Christian themes dominated the European Middle Ages, Africans (and also Muslims) are fond of sententious and moralistic themes even if the sound be passionate. Of course, on the topic of male/female relations, John’s English wife Catherine says, after years of marriage, “Oh, they have no notion of romantic love here.”

Returning to where we had spent the night, we prepared to sleep as John declared, “We’re going to dance all night.” As we strolled through the village, we passed many huts where entertaining was in progress, though the one with the largest crowd of enthusiastic dancers was, we were told, “a sort of church.” I believe many people did celebrate until dawn as people came and went, sometimes dropping off to doze and later waking to party further. As we lay, feeling fatigued, we heard loud singing from several directions, and sleep was slow to come.

In the morning we bathed in unwarmed water in a small tub in a room with an earthen floor and breakfasted on eggs and fried yam, immediately after which a new calabash of palm wine was brought and I was asked to bless it and people set to drinking and the festival continued. We made a few more visits, including one to John’s grandfather, a dignified old man in an ancient derby who sat in a very dark room. John said he his grandfather would have been chief “but for an accident of birth.”

By the time we got back to our base, John’s brother was so wasted he passed out in the fine new latrine our hosts had thoughtfully hacked for us from the flora – a very deep pit walled in by fresh fronds that attracted nibbling goats. In front children were dancing and accompanying themselves on drums fashioned of big bamboo sections, hollow and opened on one groove just like the larger versions made from tree trunks. Music all about.

As we sat outside that Sunday, surveying the scene, an old woman came up grinning and singing and dancing and sang salutes to us and indicated in turn her white hair, toothless mouth, and now-barren loins with strangely joyful reflections on old mortality. A delightful lady.

We had to depart before the communal dancing got really underway, carrying kola and four yams as gifts. John’s brother said they had meant to send us off with fresh palm wine as well, but the supply was temporarily exhausted and it would be another hour before the delivery-man bicycled back from his latest visit to his trees and his vats.

Upon our return to Agbarho we discovered that our tape was blank. The microphone, which had been working before the trip and which worked without a problem afterwards, had unaccountably failed.

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