24 Hours in Calabar
By Pelu Awofeso
“Cross River has the most number of languages of any state in Nigeria,” Essien says inside his barbershop in the Akim Quo area of Calabar. Knowing little about this place, I let him tell me more about the city that every Nigerian alive wants to visit in December. “In Ugep, for instance, there are so many dialects that one community cannot understand what its neighbours are saying.”
Essien is not bragging in the least; he is just plain stating the facts as he believes them to be. For one, he is an Ibibio man from Akwa Ibom, a sister ethnic group to the Efik of Calabar. The take-it-or-leave-it tone in his comments, I guess, is in step with the sense of pride people from here have developed in the last decade, all thanks to a visionary and charming man by the name of Donald Duke who was governor for eight years (1999-2007).
Calabar has a long and pacesetting record of missionary work dating back to the mid-19th century. I ask Essien, who divides his time between his shop and a part-time programme in the city’s university, what denomination is most dominant in the city nowadays. “From my observations, the Efik are more of Apostolic and Presbyterians, although Catholics are also in the majority, likewise the Assemblies of God,” he explains as he tucks my clipper back in the tote bag.
Pilgrimage to nowhere
Yesterday, just after I got into Calabar, I made straight for the Cross River State Tourism Board. My plan on this trip was to reach Ikom to see the monoliths, something I had dreamed of doing for four years. The monoliths are perhaps the most intriguing feature of Cross River’s tourism landscape; this is so much so that a model of one of the carvings, rendered in a plain and colourful calligraphy, is what the tourism board has adopted to be its logo.
My interest in the monoliths grew when I read the report of a research by a Nigerian culture administrator in which the location of the stones was described as ‘Garden of Eden’. There was also then a campaign to propose it to the UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation) as a candidate for World Heritage status. (Nigeria has two landmarks – Osun-Osogbo Grove and Sukur village – on that exalted list.)
“The stone carvings which have survived for over two thousand years still tell the story, not only of the origin of the [Nnam] people and the significance of their facial tattoo marks,” goes the excerpt from a state-sponsored brochure, “but also of the belief system of their time, especially as these involved procreation and fertility.”
I explained to the young lady at the reception briefly why I was there, asking her to direct me to the appropriate official who could assist me on my quest. “You are actually going to Nkarasi,” the official in charge of tours told me. “It’s roughly four hours or thereabout by public transport.” There are other monoliths at Alok, he added, but the ones at Nkarasi were better known. Even at that countless engraved stones have yet to be uncovered.
Much as I wanted to come face to face with the monoliths of my dreams, I sure did not plan to venture that far inland. I could feel my interest waning, there and then. Of course, the man seated in front of me was not aware of this. He searched for a number in his phone and read it out to me. I scribbled it down. “Call him first and tell him that you will be coming. He is one of our men on the ground – he will take you to the right places.”
On my way out of the building, I stopped by a life-size map of the state that shows some of the local tourism assets: Agbokim Waterfalls, Kwa Rapids, the Canopy walkway (Afi Wildlife Sanctuary), the Obudu Mountain Resort, Mary Slessor residence, and the multi-million dollar Tinapa Business and Leisure Resort. My eyes traced the road network – shown in red lines – from Calabar (in the south) to two-thirds of the way up. I saw how far up in the map the monoliths were located: I quietly cancelled the trip in my mind.
School of many colours
I reflect on Essien’s thoughts and try to plot my movement around town for the rest of the day. I ask BJ, who rides a commercial motorcycle (popularly called Alalok), to take me around to some of the city’s traffic circles, and then to a good cyber café afterwards. We ride around the city for an hour. While we are at it, the man chooses to school me a bit. “The Matt Market is made up of three streets – Bedwell, Nelson Mandela and Goldie,” he says of the market, built at about 1903 and reputed to be the largest in the city.
What has happened to the Zoo on Mary Slessor Avenue, which is now a botanical garden cum alfresco bar? “It has been moved to Ogoja,” BJ says, turning the bend into Mayne Avenue, where an inter-house sports competition is in full swing at the Government Secondary School, Atu. Dozens of commercial motorcycle riders, glad for a colourful diversion, stop over and watch the proceedings from the sidelines. I get off the bike too.
“This is the first inter-house sports in the school to feature a carnival section,” a Physics teacher says just as the different houses warm up for the march. “You know that Calabar is known for the carnival in December, so the principal suggested that we include a mini version in this year’s outing.”
A section of the school’s wide compound is already marked out for the competitive races. Meanwhile, hundreds of students from the five houses chit-chat in small groups; others wrap up rehearsals and cross-check final details of their dressing. Behind them, the carnival teams, aglow in satin outfits and other creative costumes, add on more make up. Clearly, there is a more excitement around the kings and queens, some being fanned by subordinates who are only too glad to play the role.
Houses, I learn, choose their leading pairs based on different criteria. “Whoever is selected must be smart and intelligent,” Victoria, queen of the green house and an SS3 student, says just before the parade begins. “I believe I am and that’s why I was picked.” Her King, who is one year her junior, stands to her left, oozing a warm smile.
Elsewhere on the school’s premises, a group of young photographers have set up outdoor studios of sorts, ingeniously decorated with backdrops of foreign landscapes and models, but it is the memorabilia of the most famous clubs of the English premiership that pulls the teenagers. A short distance away from the activity grounds, they attract a fair share of the student population who have dressed in anything but school’s blue-and-white uniforms.
I feel I have seen enough for the day; I return to the hotel.