By Ikeogu Oke
Oji River might have been just another obscure town east of the Niger but for the racy river for which it is named and its being host to Nigeria’s first thermal power station located on the banks of the river, which supplied water for its operations. Though the power plant has fallen into desuetude for long, turning the iconic facility into a shell of its useful old self, the town remains irrepressibly relevant as a historical landmark of electricity generation in Nigeria, thanks to its being host to the power plant.
As I drove past the town on my way to visit Inyi on January 1, 2013, I could see the switchyard in the fore of the expansive grounds of the power station. I could also see the now derelict building that housed the coal-fired turbines. And I could recall, as a former maintenance crewman in the then National Electric Power Authority (NEPA), leading a team of servicemen to work on equipment in that switchyard. Memories returned, too, of the abandoned conveyor, with its buckets stringed on a pulley system, that ferried coal to the station from coal mines in Enugu. And I could only wish the Nigerian power sector reform eventually keeps its promise to revive the dead bones of the Oji River thermal station.
Inyi, a town located about ten kilometres from Oji River, virtually under the shadow of the latter, is the venue of the Agbalanze Day which took place on the day of my visit. I had been invited to the ceremonial event by the host, Mr. Chike Madueke, an engineer, technocrat and culture enthusiast, who incidentally works in the Presidential Task Force on Power (PTFP), Abuja. The venue was the extensive grounds of his country home.
For those who know the meaning of Agbalanze, an Igbo traditional title that evokes grandeur about its holder, the Agbalanze Day could easily be misinterpreted as a ceremony centred on a personality, a grand gesture of self-aggrandisement. But the event at Inyi was different. For no sooner did it start than the man who holds that title at the event, who had called the elaborate gathering, retreat to the background, clearing the scene for a glittering array of cultural performances that defined the day.
The cultural performances took place in the courtyard of his compound, an area floored with concrete and bordered by shady trees from whose edges the audience sat, extending outwards. The audience included – perhaps surprisingly – Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke, the Hon. Minister of Petroleum Resources (who witnessed the event with her husband, retired Admiral Allison Madueke, one-time Chief of Naval Staff and at various times governor of Imo and Anambra State), whose culture-loving side might not have been obvious considering her ministerial portfolio.
Mohammed Idaros, an Egyptian, was one of the foreigners in the capacity audience. Also in attendance was Mr. Reginald Ifionu, and engineer and the Chief Executive Officer of Sapele Power Plc, Chief Ejike Nwankwo, a former member of the House of Representatives, and Chief Kim Uke, the Ugama of Ugama Kingdom. The Ugama was one of the traditional rulers in attendance. His regal entry, with fanfare and gravitas, caused special excitement as he lifted each foot to the sound of drums and other musical instruments played by his attendants while proceeding to take his seat among the honoured guests. In the essay “Poetry and Abstract Thought,” the French poet Paul Valery compares prose to “walking to a destination” and poetry to “dancing to a destination”. The Ugama’s entry was the poetry of locomotion, a charming expression of royal pomp as kinesis.
The first of the cultural performances was from the famous Nkwa Umuagbogho group from Afikpo, Ebonyi State, arguably the state’s most notable cultural showpiece. Nkwa Umuagbogho translates as “Dance of the Maidens,” and the “maidens” from Ebonyi State, their waists stringed with the traditional rows of colourful of beads, did dance to the delight of the audience.
The Inyiejioku Masquerade from Umuomeinyi, in Oji River, with its upper and lower halves covered in colourful clothing and raffia respectively, also performed. “It is distinguished from the other masquerades by the knife it is holding, which is merely for pulling stunts,” explained Boniface Onwuemesi, the leader of its group. There was also the Afunanya Ekwere masquerade from Achi, Amaetiti, in Orumba North, Anambra State, with its bright yellow face and long, black, stiff locks. It bore three standing yellow statuettes on its head and wore a long robe streaked with red and brown colours. Also in attendance was the emblematic Igba Mgborogidi cultural group from Inyi, the host town, which accompanied the Obibi – a colourful two-horned masquerade with a red- and-black, cloth-covered head with conical, woven, fresh and dry palm fronds. Porcupine quills extended from its body swathed in red, black and white clothes, and its legs were covered with flowing raffia.
And there was the Igbawuruaja Cultural Dance from Ihie, Owerri Ezukala, in Orumba South, Anambra State. “Our performance is special because our masquerade dances strictly to the beats of our instruments,” said Edwin Ukonu, the group’s leader. “What is going on here today, with this gathering of masquerades and traditional musicians, is cultural revival of the progressive sort. Inyi, the host town, is actually the sibling of Ufuma [a town in Anambra State]. There is no difference in the culture of Inyi, Ufuma and Orumba. And since the people of Inyi have shown such a strong commitment to the revival of that shared culture, it shall be well with them,” said Chief Ejike Nwankwo as he summed up the spirit of the Agbalanze Day.
I found my spirits which sank as I glimpsed the long-disused power facility at Oji River revived by the spirited performances of the various cultural groups present at the Agbalanze Day, most of which I had yet to learn about.
• Ikeogu writes from Lagos Email: Ikeogu.firstname.lastname@example.org