The Kalabari are Ijaw-speaking people comprising three Local Government Areas of Asari-Toru, Akuku-Toru and Degema with Buguma as its traditional capital in Rivers State. They live on 23 islands in the Niger Delta of Southern Nigeria. Their traditional economy is based on fishing and trade. They traveled in large canoes to trade with inland peoples, including the Igbo to the north, the Yoruba to the west and the Ogoni and Ibibio to the east. In line with the thought of Mahatma Gandhi, “No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive”; the Kalabari people were among the first tribes in Africa to be exposed to the Europeans. History has it that from the 15th century onward, Kalabari traders were middlemen between Africa and the West, exchanging slaves, ivory, spices and palm oil for guns, gunpowder, brassware and Western luxury goods. In the course of trade, they absorbed many immigrants who rose to positions of power but could not approach traditional ancestral shrines. New memorial forms, based on Western paintings and prints, were invented for these dead leaders.
The Kalabari people in fear of the realization of the great Mao Zedong thought that, “An army without culture is a dull-witted army, and a dull-witted army cannot defeat the enemy” developed traditional kin-based lineages into large corporations known as Houses, each with an elected Head and a war canoe team that controlled commerce and warfare. At the height of this trade, the delta became an important economic center. Today, Port Harcourt the State capital of Rivers State is the major urban center of a local economy strongly linked to petroleum within western Africa.
In Kalabari society, wealth is measured by how many people a man has in his House, defined both as a place of residence and as family, including living relatives, ancestors, adopted members and, formerly, domestic slaves. Every powerful House had a war canoe as well as paddlers and pilots to navigate the Niger delta, the inland rivers and the estuaries along the Atlantic coast. Both the boat and the house in this headdress are symbols of wealth. The pregnant stomach also alludes to the importance of people as wealth.
The Kalabari people of South-South Nigeria, like other West African coastal peoples, see swamps and creeks as the home of spiritual beings that may form all kinds of relationships with humans. Through masquerades, spirits periodically interact with the wider human world. In a seventeen-year cycle of “plays”, the Kalabari invite water spirits to take possession of performers and dance in the town. – Click to read article in full