Economic empowerment through cultural arts:
Edegbrode annual festival as theatre

Posted to the web recently

BEING a paper presented by Kenneth Efakponana Eni, a lecturer in the Department of Theatre Arts, Niger Delta University, Wilberforce Island, Bayelsa State, at the 3rd Okpe World Conference organized by the Okpe Voice On Economic Empowerment In Okpeland held at Okpe Hall, Sapele, Delta State, on December 18 - 21, 2008.


The paper attempts a vivid discussion of the festival tradition in Okpe land with a view to establishing
the Edegbrode annual festival as theatre comparable to other traditional theatre forms in the country.
The structural organization of the festival and its nature as a youth play identifies it as a potential tourist
attraction capable of yielding economic values to the nation. The paper therefore attempts to place
within the broader perspective, the argument of viable traditional theatre forms in Okpe land in particular
and Africa in general


It is without doubt that the arts are a veritable source of livelihood and economic empowerment. Before the advent of modernity, the Okpe people are known to have lived and prospered by the works of their hands, the arts and crafts inclusive. Music, dance, masquerade performances, masseurs and masseuses, weaving, carving and canoe making est. are major money spinners that have sustained traditional societies through the centuries. Thus, the "Owena" (skilled artiste or artisan) is regarded as "Ohovwore" ("ehovwore" plural, meaning a person of wealth or substance) and he is next to the "Ekakuro" ("Okakuro" singular, meaning titled chiefs) in social stratification among most Okpe community. This placement of the artiste or artisan high on the social ladder in Okpe society emphasizes the high premium placed by the Okpe people on the arts. Thus it is a mark of achievement to be recognized as an accomplished artiste or artisan.

Culture is an axis around which artistic activities revolve. A single theatrical presentation, for instance, gives a panoramic view of the culture of a people, hence dress styles; crafts, dances, and other forms of artistic and religious expression all find full conveyance in the theatrical activities. "Theatre in Africa as such, has been a source of community entertainment and education towards awareness generation" (Sotimirin, 162).

This essay is not an attempt to vividly define what drama and theatre is, but it is an attempt at pointing out theatrical and dramatic elements in African traditional festivals. The author of this essay is of the opinion that African traditional festivals contain drama and theatre, and not "quasi dramatic elements"(Finnegan, 500), as Ruth Finnegan would have it and therefore capable of yielding economic returns to the benefit of the practitioner and the community.

Using the Edegbrode annual festival as a reference point, the author attempts to refute E. T. Kirby's rigid classification of all African performances into seven categories. Viz: -"simple enactment, ritual and ritualized enactment, story telling performances, spirit cult enactment, ceremonial enactment, and comedies" (Kirby, 64). The Edegbrode annual festival rightly falls into four (4) of the above Kirby's classification namely: Ritual and ritualized enactment, Masquerades and Masquerade enactment, ceremonial enactment and spirit cult enactment.

For the purpose of clarifying our main concern in this essay, we shall also classify Nigerian drama and theatre into three broad categories: Contrary to the two broad classifications made by Yemi Ogunbiyi and J. P. Clark (see Ogunbiyi, 74; Clark, 1981) into the traditional and literary forms. We want to make a clearer distinction between the different forms of drama now existing in the country based on historical and sociological factors. The three easily identifiable groups are:

1. 'The Traditional: By this we mean drama as it exists in its various forms in traditional communities, which have survived till date - communal drama (festivals, folk performances, ceremonial dances, e.t.c). As it was in pre-colonial times, the traditional theatre gave room for full participation of members of the audience. This participation can be in various ways; serving as part of the choric force, singing, refraining, dancing, helping with the props, e.t.c.

2. The Neo-Traditional: This is the traditional theatre used in a new context. It is the modern popular traditional drama. Modern because of its relevance, contemporaneousness, and its flirtation with the literary and western forms; popular because of its wide acceptance by the commonality of the people. It still retains its close affinity and direct ancestry with the traditional forms. It features materials taken from the traditional repertoire and fits them into new circumstances as exemplified by the theatres of Ogunde, Ladipo, Ogunmola e.t.c. Their performances have known authors.

3. The Literary: Literary is used in its usual sense to mean theatre that grew out of the churches, schools and universities. This theatre features a synthesis of African and Euro-American forms. The literary dramatists are those who have been exposed to Western forms through travels, training, and cross-cultural synthesis. Their work is thus bi-cultural'. (Eni, 6-7)

Our main concern in this essay is with the first group. A careful appraisal of the foregoing will point out in well-defined terms the difficulty in attempting a rigid classification of all African traditional performances. Typical to African traditional performances is the fluidity with which the drama embraces other aspects of the theatre. The Edegbrode Annual Festival rightly exemplifies this fluidity and traditionalism.


Edegbrode is a community in Elume clan, in Sapele local government area of Delta State. The name Edegbrode is a corruption of the Okpe word, "Esegberode", which literally means, "to fall upon a name". The Edegbrode people are part of the larger Okpe kingdom with Orere-Okpe as their ancestral home. They are like all other Okpe people in all respect; the only distinguishing factor is the fact that they have a set of annual festivals, ranging from youth play to very complicated adult performances, which are celebrated separately from all other Okpe general festivals. The main occupation of the Edegbrode people like other Okpe people is Farming, fishing, and petty trading, contact with modern ways of life has however led many of them into white collar jobs.

The Edegbrode annual festival, which is purely a youth play started not long ago with no religious undertone. But however, the festival now has the attention of "Iben", the river god with the eldest man in the community as its Chief priest.

Structural Organization of the Edegbrode Annual Festival

Prelude to the Performances:

It takes months of strenuous rehearsals before the performances in a public arena. Like any theatre production, the rehearsal period is of utmost importance to the success of the performances. These rehearsals take place in the "Efi" (sacred grove). Only initiates are allowed to see and take part in the rehearsals. The rehearsals are taken very seriously as the performance itself. The rehearsal period stretches from two to three months or even more as the case may be.

The performance in a public Arena:

The presentation in a public arena is in three acts or sections. It stretches from morning till evening. It rightly falls into the Aristotelian definition of drama as having a beginning, middle and an ending (logos, prologos and denouement). The beginning act, which takes place in the morning, is the introductory act. The middle act takes place in the afternoon. While the third act which takes place in the evening is the concluding act or the denouement. Each act is complete, having a beginning, middle and an ending.

Like in the early Grecian festivals in Athens where the Attic trilogies were presented, the interlude between each act is taking as the period for recreation and refreshment in which visitors make friends and are entertained, while the actors change into new costumes in preparation for the next act. The performances usually take place on the 25th of December with a repeat performance on the 1st of January. The Christmas and New Year holiday in this area is usually climaxed with this festival.

Act One (Morning Sessions):

This act features the "Agbakara" (Crocodile) and the Oloda (shark) Masquerades. All are totemic symbols of the gods that inhabit the waters, which nurtures the main occupation of the Edegbrode people. This set of Masquerades dramatises the struggle for food between the Oloda and the Agbakara in the water.

After a heavy down pour of rain, the Oloda comes out in order of father, mother and child to look for food. After feeding on the smaller fishes in the river, the Oloda is prepared to return home. It is at this point that the conflict begins. The Agbakara, who also is hungry, comes out and is ready to feed on the Oloda. A fight ensues and by shear chance the Oloda manages to escapes from the grip of the Agbakara with his family.

These set of masquerades are very aggressive. Because of the nature of the Oloda to always care for and protect his wife and children. No one dares to go near any of the masquerade. Any one who violates this rule receives some machete cuts.

Act Two (Afternoon Session):

This act is a dramatization of those forces, which lives in the water, which, in agreement with other land forces bestows on man potent charms to fight evil forces. This act, which is the middle act, is packed with a lot of songs. The Eloda (Eloda plural, Oloda, singular) Masquerades comes out of the sacred grove led by the Obo (Chief priest). They move to the "Agwele" (shrine) where the Chief priest pour libation to the gods imploring them to guide the performance to a successful ending. Before this set of masquerades move to the performance arena, otherwise the stage to perform, an initiate fences the performing area with fresh palm leafs. This is to prevent any unclean person from crossing the performance area and also to ward off evil charms. Unclean person means a man who slept with a woman the previous night or a woman who is under her menstrual period. First, the Obo dances round blowing the white orchare (native chalk) he is holding while reciting incantations, the audience, being part of the performance sing:




Which interpreted means:

"I will spur the giver of wealth

And children to action

With my ritual song."

As the audience is singing this song, the masquerades take their turn, one after the other to dance and entertain the audience. At this juncture, the Obo returns to the stage, this time singing more fiercely:

Solo: Avbafio ragha mero 'bara-a

All: Utirio...

Solo: Evbesihio' tore mero' bara-a

All: Utirio----


Solo: You can never see blood when you dissect a snail

All: Never.

Solo: You can never get blood when you pound the earth

All: Never.

As this song is in progress, the Obo and one of the masquerade dramatizes the potency of traditional medicine. Obo begins by asking for bottles from the audience, which he breaks on a mat. The Obo then lies on the broken bottles with his belly while the masquerade jumps on his back dancing violently without the Obo sustaining any injury or bottle cuts. Following the display of his medical prowess, the Obo and his apprentice take their exit while the masquerades follow in order of father, mother, and son.

It is pertinent to note that, the Obo is also the choric leader or mastersinger for the festival. In the interlude, which precedes the last act, men who have once done the mask in their youth come out to dance, showing their skills in doing the masquerade dance, miming how they use to do it when the blood of youth was still flowing in their veins. The interval also serves as break period in which visitors and guest exchange pleasantries and refreshment.

Act three (Evening Session):

This act is a dramatization of a traditional legend about a wicked village and their inhuman treatment of an old man.

The play begins with the entrance of an old man who goes to the elders of a village begging them to allow him to fall a tree, which is very close to the community so that he can use it to carve a canoe for his fishing occupation. The elders refused to inform the stranger that "Okuyaye", the dreaded fairy, lives on the said tree. They accepted money, drinks, and the customary kola-nuts from the old man before granting him the permission to go ahead to fall the tree. On his first attempt the fairy "Okuyaye" brutalised him. He reported his encounter with Okuyaye to the elders who dismissed his story and asked him to go ahead to fall the tree. On his second and third attempts the same thing happened to him. Frustrated, he went back to the elders, asking for a refund of his money but the elders refused him and drove him away. He left dejected but not without a curse on the village. The old man's curse became effective later when Okuyaye became uncontrollable, flogging and chasing their women and children on their way to the farm. As the village became very unsafe for them, they abandoned the village and went to look for a new settlement.

The entire three-act play is presented amid dialogue with songs and dances accompanied by music produced from traditional drums.

The use of Costume:

Costumes are very elaborate. The masquerades carry head mask that are the totem of the god or gods they represent. These totems are highly conventionalized and are easily recognizable by the audience. Since the masquerades are believed to have come from the water, beauty is one of their attributes. The masquerades costumes are usually made of a light cotton or silk material with another more heavy material, preferably velveteen, properly tucked in from the waist down to the knee level. The legs are painted white which connotes invisibility, with traditional "akwa" tied to the legs to produce a jingling sound as the masquerades move about. To be able to differentiate between masquerades, as between father and mother, or between father and son, one has to be conversant with the predominant convention in costuming. The role of color is very important. The male is costumes in grey, connoting old age, the female costumed in green connoting fertility, while the child is costumed in yellow, which connotes youthfulness.

Staging Technique:

The staging device explored is the arena staging and it is in its most traditional form. The audience gathers in the village square standing semi-circular facing the shrine. And for an auditorium, a canopy is raised with palm fronts to accommodate the drummers and elders of the community to shield them from the heat of the December sun. No seat is provided, but the individual is allowed to bring seats for themselves.

The Choric Force:

The women, girls, and youths of the "Udumu" (Quarter) of the community make up the choric force and they are an integral part of the performance.

The Orchestra:

Music is produced by three (3) set of drums viz: - Three drums played in a roll by the Odje-Igede (master drummer) which are the "Agba, Izui-Igede, and Omi-Igede. The "aberse", and "Ekpe".

The dance movements and gestures are dictated by the Odje-Igede. A good display of dancing skill is crowned with the women cheering "I--Iye". However, the masquerade's could be provoked with a bad play of drumming skills, as this make the masquerade to falter in his steps.


The viability of African traditional performances as money-spinner in the tourism sector has been well established in the presentation of Osun festival, Okere Juju of the Itsekiri people of Warri, the Kanji fishing festival amongst other numerous traditional tourist centers in the country. "Many nations across the globe are becoming increasingly aware of the economic, social and cultural potentials of tourism to the growth and development of society" (Doki, 191) As has been noted by Doki, since the establishment of the Nigerian Tourism Board by Decree No. 55 of 1977 and its subsequent coming into effect in 1978, it was hoped that the decree will go all out to seek parallel avenues for the development of tourism sector in Nigeria to a stage where it could compete favorably with other nations of the world, but sad enough we are still on the fence overlooking the Yankari Game Reserve, Obudu Cattle Ranch, and a few waterfalls scattered around the nation and the National Troupe as major tourist attraction (Doki, 192).

Nigeria needs to look beyond these categories and explore the huge amount of varied creative cultural forms available in the country. Theatrical arts especially embody the culture of a people in totality and so serve as a veritable source of tourist attraction.

Thus if properly harnessed and packaged, the possibilities for economic empowerment of the Edegbrode Annual festival for tourism are many. For a vibrant art culture to flourish towards an economic end, there must be a conscious awareness and knowledge by the host community of the economic potentials of the art form and practical efforts made towards harnessing it for economic ends.


Other forms of economic activity which the festival can generate apart from its tourism potentials is in packaging of the festival as a touring theatre troupe which can help provide employment for the traditional people and also help to sell Okpe culture at home and abroad to complement the efforts of Chief Owin Sadjere and his Midaka Dance Troupe and other similar endeavors within the Okpe kingdom. The economic viability of touring theatre companies is not in question. All that is needed is the will to develop a theatre company that is capable of being a cultural ambassador for the kingdom. It is for want of such entertainment companies within the Okpe kingdom that indigenes go out to pay for performers from other cultures during important occasions and sometime pay heavily for it. In this wise I sincerely appreciate the efforts of emerging Okpe popular musicians and pay homage to the doyen of Okpe music, Late Igbikume Azano for his pioneering role and several others for helping to bring Okpe popular music to limelight.

In the face of the current marginalization of the Okpe nation and attempts by other larger ethnic groups to systematically annex and assimilate the Okpe people under the larger umbrella of other ethnic groups within the nation, the arts becomes a means of our asserting our cultural and linguistic uniqueness, which establishes our identity as a different people. As the saying goes, "Okpe san" (Okpe is unique). Those pillars of our culture and tradition, which stresses our uniqueness, need to be studied and encouraged to grow. In this regards, I salute the efforts of Chief Owin Sadjere and his Midaka troupe for taking Okpe dances into the international arena and into the national archive of Nigerian dances. This singular effort is most commendable.

Also, with the Edegbrode Annual Festival lies the raw material that could be harnessed for the growing film industry in Nigeria. No doubt that the film medium has come to be a very powerful money-spinner and employs quite a large number of people in its production. The Calabar Cultural festival and the recently concluded Rivers State Carnival Float all speak of the economic potentials within the filmic medium of our culture that is embedded in our traditional festival celebrations.

The timing of the festival which falls into the Christmas and New Year holidays which is a period that is known for its fluidity with which cash exchange hands, the business of buying and selling is at its peak during this period. The festival offers the occasion for petty trading.

When traditional performances are presented, good performance spurs the audience to "spray" money on the performers. The act of money spraying is a way of audience appreciation of the performance and a means of paying for the performance, which could be likened to the Western concept of gate-takings. Since there are no formal structures housing the performances, it is expected that the audience will show their appreciation of a good performance by spraying money on the performers. Monies received in this manner goes to augment the cost of the performance and the surplus goes to supplement the performers earnings.


Since the time of Aristotle, who traced the root of classical tragedy to religion, Men like Andrew Horn (1981) have argued further that drama has its root even deeper in religion. Not left out in this school of thought is J. N. Amankulor and Ossie O. Enekwe. On the other hand, men like M .J .C. Echeruo are saying that, "African performances (with regard particularly to Igbo drama) should force ritual to yield its result" (Echeruo, 1981). In other words, they are saying that African drama should break loose from religion and throw ritual into the waste bin of time; without which, they say, Africa cannot claim to have what is called true drama.

Furthermore, Ruth Fenigan seems to want African drama to follow the Aristotelian plot structure of cause and effect. Forgetting that the Aristotelian plot structure may be canonized to some extent, it should not be seen as a universal yardstick for accessing what true drama is. If it were to be so, then, the Indian Sanskrit plays, the Chinese Kabuki and Chinese Noh plays that violate the Aristotelian plot structure and unity of time, cannot be referred to as theatre.

Finally, it could be inferred from the brief analysis of the Edegbrode Annual festival that it is purely a youth play that makes use of religion as a vehicle for exploitation. Since community government is maintain through a balance of set rules and laws with taboos dictated by the do's and don'ts of the religion of the people, religion is woven into the fabric of the total organization of communal life, theatre therefore which is part of communal life cannot be an exception. When it is acknowledged that religion is an integral part in the African belief system, which punctuates the entire way of life of the African, the answer as to why traditional African drama and theatre is so structured will not be far-fetched.

The uniqueness of African traditional theatre lies in its ritual-religious mode of expression, which today, a careful survey will reveal European and American performances are leaning towards and are seeking to enrich their performance style with African performance as Augusto Boal's experiment in Latin America has revealed. Africa has developed its own kind of drama based on the need of its people. Its Drama and Theatre, which it has in abundance, therefore should be allowed to flourish along with its culture in which religion is not an isolated island.