Nigeria has many local festivals that date back to the time before the arrival of the major religions, and which are still occasions for masquerade and dance. The local festivals cover an enormous range of events, from harvest festivals and betrothal festivals, to the investing of a new chief and funerals. It seems odd to Western ways of thinking to see a funeral as something to be celebrated. But for many of the tribes, death means joining the ancestors, and so the deceased must get a good send-off.
The dances that were once performed by members of each village have now been taken over by professional troupes, who tour villages performing at each local festival.
The Muslim year revolves around the three major festivals, Id Al Fitri, Id Al Kabir, and Id Al Maulud. The main event in the Islamic calendar is the festival that celebrates the end of Ramadan. Ramadan is a month-long observation of fasting. During the hours of sunlight no one must eat or drink; some very religious people will not even swallow. Each evening at dusk is a celebration of sorts, as the family prepares to break the fast. In towns people do so by going out to one of the markets, where stallholders will be prepared for the hungry people. At the end of Ramadan there is a celebration, which varies in style among the different Muslim tribes.
The Christian calendar is also celebrated, chielfy in the south of the country. Christian groups have moved closer to the rituals of their indigenous religions when celebrating Christian festivals.
The Durbar festival dates back hundreds of years to the time when the Emirate (state) in the north used horses in warfare. During this period, each town, district, and nobility household was expected to contribute a regiment to the defense of the Emirate.Once or twice a year, the Emirate military chiefs invited the various regiments for a Durbar (military parade) for the Emir and his chiefs.
During the parade, regiments would showcase their horsemanship, their preparedness for war, and their loyalty to the Emirate. Today, Durbar has become a festival celebrated in honor of visiting Heads of State and at the culmination of the two great Muslim festivals, Id-el Fitri (commemorating the end of the holy month of Ramadan) and Ide-el Kabir (commemorating Prophet Ibrahim sacrificing a ram instead of his son).
Of all the modern day Durbar festivals, Katsina Durbar is the most magnificent and spectacular. Id-el-Kabir, or Sallah Day, in Katsina begins with prayers outside town, followed by processions of horsemen to the public square in front of the Emir’s palace, where each village group, district, and noble house take their assigned place. Last to arrive is the Emir and his splendid retinue; they take up their place in front of the palace to receive the jahi, or homage, of their subjects.
The festival begins with each group racing across the square at full gallop, swords glinting in the sun. They pass just few feet away from the Emir, then stop abruptly to salute him with raised swords.
The last and most fierce riders are the Emir’s household and regimental guards, the Dogari. After the celebrations, the Emir and his chiefs retire to the palace, and enjoyment of the occasion reigns. This fanfare is intensified by drumming, dancing and singing, with small bands of Fulanis performing shadi, a fascinating sideshow to behold.
Arugungu Fishing Festival
This colorful annual festival takes place in Arugungu,("ar-GOON-goo"), a riverside town in Kebbi State, about 64 miles from Sokoto. The leading tourist attraction in the area, the festival originated in Aug. 1934, when the late Sultan Dan Mu’azu made an historic visit. In tribute, a grand fishing festival was organized. Since then, it’s become a celebrated yearly event held between Feb. and March. During the festival, hundreds of local men and boys enter the water, armed with large fishnet scoops.
They are joined by canoes filled with drummers, plus men rattling huge seed-filled gourds to drive the fish to shallow waters. Vast nets are cast and a wealth of fish are harvested, from giant Nile Perch to the peculiar Balloon Fish. Furthermore there’s canoe racing, wild duck hunting, bare-handed fishing, diving competitions and naturally, swimming. Afterwards, there is drinking, singing and dancing into the night.
The festival marks the end of the growing season and the harvest. A one mile (1.6 kilometer) stretch of the Argungu River is protected throughout the year, so that the fish will be plentiful for this 45-minute fishing frenzy.
About 5,000 men take part, armed with hand nets and a large gourd. During the alloted time, they fight for the fish in the river. Nile perch weighing up to 140 pounds (63.5 kg) are pulled out of the river, and the biggest are offered to the local Emirs who organize the festival. This festival began in the 1930s and has captured the nation's interest. It now includes many other events, such as canoe races and diving competition.
The Fulani culture presents a complex system, involving age-old initiations. The most important is the Sharo or Shadi (flogging meeting), believed to have originated among the Jaful Fulani, whose ranks are still considered the finest. During the Sharo festival, bare-chested contestants, usually unmarried men, come to the center ring, escorted by beautiful girls.
The crowd erupts in thunderous cheers and drumming. After some time, a challenger, also bare-chested, comes out brandishing a whip, trying to frighten his opponent.
The festival proceeds with lively drumming, singing, cheers and self-praises from both competitors and challengers. When the excitement is at a fevered pitch, it is the time for flogging.
The challenger raises his whip and flogs his opponent. His opponent must endure this without wincing or showing pain, lest he be branded a coward.
Eyo Festival is unique to Lagos area, and it is widely believed that Eyo is the forerunner of the modern day carnival in Brazil. On Eyo Day, the main highway in the heart of the city (from the end of Carter Bridge to Tinubu Square) is closed to traffic, allowing for procession from Idumota to Iga Idunganran.
Here, the participants all pay homage to the Oba of Lagos. Eyo festival takes place whenever occasion and tradition demand, but it is usually held as the final burial rites for a highly regarded chief.
Among the Yoruba, the indigenous religions have largely given way to Christianity and Islam, but the old festivals are still observed. The traditional leaders of the Yoruba are the Obas, who live in palaces and used to govern along with a council of ministers. The Obas' position is now mainly honorary, and their chief role is during the observance of the festivals.
Yoruban festivals honor their pantheon of gods and mark the installation of a new Oba. The Engungun ("en-GOON-gun") festival, which honors the ancestors, lasts 24 days. Each day, a different Engungun in the person of a masked dancer dances through the town, possessed by one of the ancestors. On the last day, a priest goes to the shrine of the ancestors and sacrifices animals, pouring the blood on the shrine. The sacrifices are collected, and they become the food for the feast that follows.
The Shango festival celebrates the god of thunder, an ancestor who is said to have hanged himself. Lasting about 20 days, sacrifices are made at the shrine of the god, in the compound of the hereditary priest. On the final day, the priest becomes possessed by the god and gains magical powers. He eats fire and swallows gunpowder. The procession again goes off to the Oba's palace and the feast begins, accompanied by palm wine, roast meat, and more dancing.
In the past, the priest of this cult would have been a very rich and powerful man. With the decline in power of the Obas, and the large numbers of people who no longer profess to believe in the old pantheon of gods, the priests of the Yoruba are much poorer and less powerful than they once were.
The Benin Festival
This ceremony takes place at the end of the rainy season, after the harvest has been gathered. It is partly a kind of harvest festival but also serves another purpose - eligible young men and women of the village are displayed before each other to be ritually acquainted.
The festival occurs once evey four years, and only the very wealthy can afford to have their children take part in the matchmaking ceremony. But all the villagers are able to join in the festival atmosphere.
In the past, the young girls who took part in the festival traditionally wore no clothing, but in modern times, because nudity is frowned upon, they are clothed.
The chief parts of the girls' display are the numerous heavy armlets and leg ornaments that they wear. They are so heavy that the girls must hold their arms over their heads during the entire festival, in order to support the weight of them. Their hair is intricately plaited with coral beads.
Both boys and girls have elaborate markings painted on their bodies. The boys also take part in a tug- of-war as a demonstration of their strength.
The Ibo Celebration of Onitsha Ivories
In the past, Ibo society centered on subsistence farming, so few Ibo people became wealthy. Power in Ibo communities was based on the good standing of the man, rather than the extent of his wealth. But in more recent times, social status and wealth have become more important to the Ibo. While many of the old traditions are dying out, the Onitsha ivories festivals are becoming more common.
The title of the ivory holder can be claimed by any woman who has collected enough ivory and coral to fit herself out in the costume. Usually, these women are the wives of rich men, or women who have become successful in business and can buy their own ivory.
The woman has to have two huge pieces of ivory, one for each leg. The pieces have been known to weigh up to 56 pounds (25 kilos) each. In addition, two large pieces must adorn the wrists. Thousands of dollars worth of coral and gold necklaces are also worn. Once she has accumulated all this, the woman must finance a feast for as many people as possible. A special priest carries out a purification ceremony for the ivories.
The next stage of the process is even more elaborate. A woman with a full set of ivories can take the title of OZO ("OH-zoh"). In addition to her ivories, the elaborate and expensive embroidered white gown, and coral and gold ornaments, the woman must acquire an ivory trumpet and a horsetail switch.
Men can also take this title. When a ceremony for a new Ozo takes place, all the similarly titled women dress up in their ivories and attend the celebration to mark the ocassion.
Many communities, including those in the north, have a version of the harvest festival. In the south, this is often a new yam festival, celebrated when the first of the season's yams are ready to eat.
The tribes that live in the Niger Delta hold the Ikwerre, Kalabari, and Okrika festivals, to celebrate the water spirits of their region. The masqueraders wear carved headdresses that imitate the heads of fish or water birds. Typically, a festival begins with a divination by the priest of the deity concerned. This is followed by ritual sacrifices, then a song and dance performance depicting aspects of the deity. The climax of the festival is usually a masquerader appearing disguised as the deity.