A Senegalese acrobat executes a few flawless cartwheels as an appreciative audience hoots and claps in encouragement. Then a Ukrainian joins him, as a friendly competition ensues. The circle that forms around them increases in width as more people are drawn to the spectacle.
Spurred on by the building excitement, a lady in Mexican costumes and colours catwalks through the centre of the “stage”; the rancorous response she elicits is proof that the onlookers are entertained. Then a uniformed official comes and leads her away. Enough.
That’s because we’re not at a performance ground, not even in Calabar yet but actually at the local wing of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos.
As the case has been in recent years, haze was once again a factor in the build-up to the Carnival Calabar. Flights to Calabar were cancelled for a few days. This also affected neighbouring airports in Uyo and Port Harcourt, where flights were either cancelled or rescheduled.
This presented a logistical challenge, especially in the case of the International Carnival which had representation from close to 20 countries. It was an arduous task, not only getting troupes from different continents to Calabar in time, but to also project the host country in good light despite schedules thrown in disarray.
But the upbeat spirit of the carnival spreads beyond Calabar as can be deduced from the scenario recounted above. Despite long hours spent waiting at the airport, bands from Africa, Europe and the Americas put on a mini-show in preparation for the real thing while being egged on by their Nigerian hosts.
The camaraderie that ensued is a reason why the International Carnival has become my favourite part of the Carnival Calabar. The bonding between groups from far-flung parts of the world despite differences in tongue is priceless.
As a journalist attached to the international contingents, I’ve over time established relationships that have become beneficial even across the Atlantic. This is especially true for the Brazilians from Sao Paulo that I ran into during the FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
With the Calabar airport still not cleared for flights and time running out, organisers of the carnival decided on Uyo by air, then onward to Calabar by bus, which meant more time to mingle. The Nigerians and Croatians exchanged banter; why don’t we select 11 members from each group and play a friendly pre-World Cup match before the real thing in June?
The South Africans were especially excited on the bus trip from Uyo to Calabar. Uyo must be close to the coast, some deduced. While it was impossible to see the ocean from the air due to low visibility, the sight of palm trees rushing past the bus was a pointer.
Finally in Calabar, the different groups were accommodated in separate hotels. This again presented another opportunity for new hookups, with bands that came to Nigeria through Abuja. For those a little reticent on the bus trip, it was another opportunity to mix and this time with a little more time.
My new friends turned out to be the Ethiopians and the Ukrainians. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that quite a few of the Ukrainians were able to communicate in English, even though it’s at best, a third language for them after Ukrainian and Russian. This is probably because the group came from Odessa, the former Soviet Union’s premier tourist destination.
Technology helps too; this went beyond Google Translate which was unnecessary on this occasion, but rather, the SoundCloud music app coupled with BeatsbyDre speakers which helped us party to the latest from both Nigeria’s and Ukraine’s pop scenes.
Oh, all these and we haven’t even been to the U.J Usuene Stadium for the International Carnival competition, the reason these performers – and tourists – are in Nigeria in the first place.
While we may not have the most comfortable seats at the stadium, journalists have the best view; close up, right in the thick of the action. It’s awe-inspiring, especially when you see your new friends doing extraordinary things, in some cases superhuman.
It is exhilarating and humbling; beautifully costumed men and women in peak physical condition, performing dance moves and tricks and a few unexplainable things, like the Ghanaians swallowing fire, or the Kenyans defying gravity.
There were cultural dances from Ukraine, Mexico and Ethiopia, acrobats from Senegal and Kenya, flag twirlers from Italy and Croatians on stilts.
France was also represented by a colourful dance group while Lithuania stole the show at a point; a couple of fire performers wowed the audience through their fearless display with flames and fireworks.
There was a team from the US supported by representation from neighbouring Caribbean nations like Belize, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and many more.
Tanzania and Swaziland were some of African countries represented through ensembles that brought traditional dances under the lights of the stadium to entertain as well as educate on each country’s history. South Africa also, with two different sets of performers displaying energetic Zulu war dances.
And despite Brazil’s representatives being a different band from the previous winners and coming from a different city (Rio de Janeiro in this case), they still kept the audience engrossed and entertained, and ended up winners of the competition.
This, partially due to a brilliant enactment of Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art that combines dance, acrobatics and music, developed mainly by African slaves in the 16th century. South Africa came second while Ghana came third. From the reaction of the audience though, every band was a winner.
The International Carnival was the climax of a series of activities which attracted more than a million revellers over the previous few days in what the Calabar Carnival Commission described as an unprecedented shutdown of the city.
Speaking on the theme of the carnival (Migration), Cross River State governor, Prof Ben Ayade, expressed his belief that Africa is the future and encouraged the youth to put an end to migration, and rather “…come to Calabar as we have provisions for jobs and have created opportunities so that you can stay back here.”
Continuing he said; “this year’s carnival is not just about dancing and celebrating, but telling a very painful and sorrowful story as it relates to migration,” adding that “in due time Africa will rule the world.”
His words are a reminder that the carnival goes beyond entertainment and revelry and extends to economic empowerment. Cultural integration too, which for this writer is good reason to do it again.