The Vai Samba Band from Brazil won thee International Carnival

The International Carnival Calabarwhich is distinct from the traditional street parade, helped to make the 2016 carnival the best ever, despite coming close to being derailed by bad weather, reports Demola Ojo…

The performances by different bands and troupes at the U.J Eusuene Stadium in Calabar on December 29 last year were spectacular. Drawn from different countries across the world, the troupes wowed the audience with feats that were entertaining and surreal in equal measure.

Some looked downright impossible, from the fire-eating Ghanaians to the pole climbers from Kenya, from the Croatians on stilts to the acrobats from Ethiopia.

Others entertained through music, costumes and dance. The Brazilians – crowd favourites and repeat visitors to Calabar – come to mind in this regard. Rwanda and Burundi too, with their resounding drums and choreography. The energy of the South African troupe was notable, especially the plus-size man who jumped, twisted and rolled on the tracks with incredible dexterity.

The war dance with swords and shields from the Turks was another highlight. The audience was especially involved in this act, as they helped in bellowing the war cry.

Nigeria wasn’t left out of the International Carnival, with the street parade champions, the Seagull band, representing alongside accomplished acrobats from Imo. It was a fusion of different cultures, expressed especially through a joint performance by a Spanish ballerina and the Ethiopian acrobats.

It was breathless back-to-back entertainment at its peak. Pure magic!

But as awe-inspiring as the International Carnival was, it was just one day of many. Calabar was already agog from the street parade by five bands the previous day, and the Bikers’ Carnival a day before that.

Zulu dancers from South Africa

Looking back at 2016 as a whole, it is safe to say without any doubt that Carnival Calabar was the biggest tourism event in Nigeria and the largest street party in Africa. The latter statement is not a tagline but a statement of fact.

Climate Change

Truth be told, it didn’t seem like it would be the resounding success it turned out to be when the month-long carnival and festivals was about to climax with the much-vaunted International Carnival.

For the second consecutive year (coinciding with Governor Ben Ayade running the show), international bands and troupes entertained a mammoth audience while competing for prize money. This new concept is an addition to the street parade the indigenous carnival bands traditionally compete in.

Every carnival has a unique theme that each of the bands interprets through costumes, dance, drama and floats. It may be all fun and fanfare on the surface, but there is always a message conveyed. This past edition, just like the previous one, the theme of the Carnival was Climate Change.

Initially, repeating the theme seemed like a personal obsession for Prof Ayade. He is a renowned environmentalist who has invented groundbreaking solutions in groundwater remediation.  He has been chairman of Cross River State’s Ecological Fund and has led African governors to a UN-organised summit on climate change. Perhaps, his background as an environmentalist was unnecessarily influencing the choice of theme.

Again looking back, and considering the events that occurred in the build-up to the carnival, there was – and there still is – a pressing need to highlight the reality of climate change.

The choice of theme turned out to be apt as without warning, a heavy Harmattan haze descended on large swathes of Nigeria from December 26. Visibility was low, flights were delayed and cancelled, itineraries were altered. 

Suddenly, it was a herculean task getting more than a dozen groups representing different countries to the venue of a competition they had waited a year for. Some of the bands, like the VaiVai Carnival Band from Brazil, had up to 40 individuals.

The race to get so many foreigners to Calabar safely was on. It needed all the ingenuity the Carnival Commission and other stakeholders could muster. Some cities were worse hit than others by the haze.

By a funny twist of fate, flights to Calabar were a no-no. The options included flying to Uyo, Port-Harcourt and other airports close by, then travelling to Calabar by road. But leaving Lagos and Abuja, and landing at these other airports was no forgone conclusion. There was still the possibility of making the journey from Lagos by road, if all else failed. The International Carnival was almost over before it started.

With hindsight, it is easy to see the upside to the flight disruption. The Brazilian band, as well as troupes from Ghana, Rwanda, Burundi and a few others flew into Port-Harcourt from Lagos on the night of the 27th. In tow were some Nigerian celebrities and journalists, this writer inclusive.

Road Trip

Road trips are usually exciting and are opportunities to bond. It is also the best way for tourists to explore a country.Unfortunately, the road trip culture is dying in Nigeria because of bad roads. Surprisingly though, there is no recollection of a bad patch on the approximately four-hour trip from Port-Harcourt to Calabar via Uyo.

The surprise (and feel good emotions for yours truly) started from the Port Harcourt airport to the hotels in the GRA part of town where the international troupes were lodged. It was lit all the way. This is not to be taken for granted in our climes.

Some of the other countries had to be ferried through different routes, with the last batch arriving Calabar a few hours to the event. Some countries like Zimbabwe couldn’t make it. Only two members from the Ukrainianband made it. This meant that the International Carnival that was billed to start for 7pm started a few hours late. However, for those who did, it was certainly worth the wait.

VaiVai Encore

At the end of visual spectacle, the Tobias VaiVai Band of Brazil came out on top, with the Ghanaian and Rwandan dancers coming second and third respectively in the competition that featured 13 countries. However, he true winners are the government of Cross River for put together a stunning show, and the audience that witnessed it.

Challenges

It goes without saying that there’s room for improvement. The bigger the carnival gets, the more important it is for infrastructure to keep up. Calabar certainly needs more international standard hotel rooms. It is also imperative that the city and the state, take advantage of the influx of visitors to sell other tourism products in the state. Making Cross River an all-year round destination, rather than the month of December alone, is the task.

The challenge shouldn’t be the government’s alone. Opportunities abound for the private sector in areas of transportation, tour guiding, destination management, souvenirs, hotels and more.

The future looks bright and at this rate, the carnival can only get bigger and better. The Cross River government should be proud of successfully hosting a great event.

Beyond all the fun and entertainment however, the theme of the carnival shouldn’t be lost on us. Climate change is real and the earlier we come up with solutions to help mitigateits effects, the better for us all. If it takes Nigeria’s biggest tourism productto bring attention to it, then so be it.