(edited for punctuation)
The comedy industry in Nigeria is experiencing steady growth. Tribal stereotyping features prominently in Nigerian comedy in instances ranging from stand up routines, to drama or film.
In Nigeria, all the major ethnic groups have their stereotypical characteristics. The accent is the easiest one to do. An impression of a Hausa man speaking tends to get the audience laughing in anticipation of a stereotypical story such as security guard or Suya seller with low educational attainment involved in a common scenario for that audience.
Other examples of tribal stereotypes are the Igbos love for money, Edo girls in Italy involved in prostitution, and Yorubas who love to lavish huge monetary gifts while dancing at parties. The major tribes feature prominently in comedy routines, as these characters with their regional accents are easily recognisable by audiences.
Apart from absurd or incongruous ends to stories, there is the feeling of superiority, which good comedians evoke in their audiences when talking about the stupidity or undesirable qualities of other tribal groups or individuals.
That may explain the ready success comedians have enjoyed from telling jokes about poor or ‘wowo’ (ugly) people. Everybody tends to laugh at these jokes; ironic in a country where poverty, real or relative, is rife.
And that may explain why comedy shows staged in a town will tend to have comedians telling jokes at the expense of other towns, or the minority groups within that town -- a sort of bullying.
Comedy affords an opportunity to laugh at events and problems that are not funny in any way. The pent up frustrations are given a release through laughter, and this helps to reduce tension.
Of all the tribal stereotypes on offer in Nigerian comedy, the most politically incorrect and vicious lampooning seems to be reserved for the Calabar people. Why?
This widely used term in Nigeria - Calabar people is somewhat inaccurate. Calabar is the Capital of the Cross River State, which was created in February 1976 out of the former South Eastern State (created May 27, 1967 out of the former Eastern region).
The three major language groups in Cross River State are: Efik, Bekwara and Ejagham.
Akwa Ibom State was created in September 23, 1987 and was carved out of the Old Cross River State. The major ethnic groups in Akwa Ibom are Ibibio, Anang and Oron.
To the average Nigerian, the two states of Akwa Ibom and Cross River are simply called Calabar, partly due to ignorance and also due to the fact that, to date, many Nigerians have not gotten a hang of the current map of Nigeria!
The various languages in these two states are also loosely called Calabar, or Efik.
History, Myths and Icons
Like I have alluded to before, comedy requires the audience to ‘get’ the story as it starts so that the ‘punch line’, usually an unexpected outcome, achieves maximum impact.
The people of Akwa Ibom and Cross River have a distinctive accent known to most audiences in Nigeria. This lends itself to comedy very readily.
I also suspect that their rich history and culture, which features strong iconoclastic characters, makes them exotic or perhaps enigmatic, thus making stories about them appear much more interesting.
These people of the South Eastern part of Nigeria are not known for rioting; so perhaps the Nigerian comedians and script-writers feel confident that there will be no back lashes from the ‘polite and dignfied’ Calabar when they are mercilessly lampooned in the name of entertainment.
The most dramatic things in Nigeria as a whole seem to happen to the ‘Calabar people’, and here I begin my list. Mary Slessor (1848-1915), the Queen of Calabar, was a Scottish missionary who lived and worked with the people of Okoyong for many years. She learnt the Efik language and died in those parts. Her grave stands there till date. She is credited with stopping the killing of twins in these parts and stopping the trial of witches by the Calabar Ordeal Bean.
A Dr W F Daniel first reported the use of this bean, Physiostigma Venenosum -- a woody vine and known to all students of Physiology worldwide -- in 1846.
People suspected of Witchcraft were forced to eat some of the beans, which contained Physiostigmine. There were three out comes possible.
Firstly, if the beans are vomited and the patient survives, then they were acquitted. Secondly, if they had abdominal symptoms and survived, they were sold into slavery. Finally, if they died, they were deemed guilty.
Missionaries at the time learnt to swallow the beans when captured by the ‘natives’ and put through the ordeal. They then regurgitated the beans up and survived. They had learnt that the deadly Physiostigmine was only released after chewing the bean (Na Beans!).
Throughout Nigeria’s recent history, a subject of discussion among men for many years is the traditional fattening rooms of Calabar. These are rooms where young girls are fed to obese proportions for months and also taught how to satisfy a man, i.e., sexually, through coking [sic], home management skills, respect for in laws etc. This has given rise to the myth that Calabar girls know "how to take care of a man". And since comedy is a male-dominated profession, this image of beautiful girls with insatiable sexual appetites, the stuff [of] male fantasy, gains expression during stand-up routines.
Another myth is that "dog meat is eaten regularly in Calabar and its environs and this meat somehow confers a sexual stamina on the women who eat it".
Then there is the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star, whose leader is Olumba Olumba Obu, who claims to be God. He is a well-known ‘Calabar Man’.
In more recent times, the dispute over the oil-rich Bakassi peninsular between Nigeria and Cameroun has brought the area into the limelight. The International Court of Justice in 2002 awarded the peninsular to the Cameroun -- to the consternation of many Nigerians. The word "Bakkassi" was used as a jocular slang for female buttocks, and also serves as a name for the vigilante group, the "Bakkassi Boys".
This South Eastern area is on its way to becoming a major tourist attraction with the opening of Tinapa, a business and leisure development. The Obudu cattle ranch is also a much talked-about destination boasting of a cool climate, due to its high altitude (1,542m), and affording visitors to embark on horse riding, hiking and the like.
In London, there is a well known restaurant called "Mama Calabar": a place where nutritional needs are meet.
As a young boy growing up in Lagos (70s), I first noticed the lampooning of ‘Calabar people’ through a character in the now defunct soap opera on NTA Lagos ‘The Village Headmaster’. There was a shop owner Bassey Okon played by Jab Adu. He was a somewhat volatile man, who always reached for his cutlass or wooden cane to ‘settle’ heated disputes. He had a daughter, Ikate, and a relative, Boniface, who worked as his shop assistant. Boniface was particularly dim (I write from memory), and I remember ‘Calabar people’ at school being called Boniface or Ete (Man in Efik).
Then in the 80s there was the popular Masquerade soap staring Zebrudaya as the main character. He had two house boys, Gringory Acabot of Ikot Epkeme, and Clarus Igbojikwe of the one eyed mama.
Gringory was particularly stupid, as was Clarus, and because the acting of Gringory was very good, a stereotype was born; that was of a stupid Calabar man. Like all stereotypes, the premise was wrong, as the actor playing Gringory was highly educated and articulate.
I also remember the late stand up comedian and DJ John Chukwu doing a routine during which he did perfect impressions of the Calabar accent in the late 70s.
The above shows could be said to be the fore runners of today’s stand up comedy routines. A recent explosion in Nigerian comedy can be attributed to the VCD series, ‘A Nite of a Thousand Laughs’ by Opa Williams. For the first time various standup comedians were introduced to Nigerian audiences through touring and VCD. Going through these VCDs is the easiest way to ascertain the level of tribal stereotypes as it exists today. I opted to study the Abuja-Benin 2004-2005 VCD, as I felt that this was the best of the whole series (a biased view, but I had to watch something I could tolerate to the end!).
Below is a brief review of Opa Williams' Nite of a Thousand laughs. Abuja-Benin 2004-2005. Ahbu Ventures Ltd.
Note that the theme tune for this show is ‘Who let the dogs out’ by the Bahamen which is played between and during comedy performances.
I list the comedians in order of appearance and a brief description of their performance.
Okey Bakkassi. 5 comical stories covering marriage/infidelity/squints/robbery and a man and a monkey. The monkey handler offers a prize for getting his monkey to laugh, cry or go into the cage. A Calabar man performs this feat by first telling the monkey his work, his pay and lastly inviting the monkey to apply for a vacancy at the Nigerian Railway cooperation. This last joke was done in a Calabar accent, bringing down the house. There was no mention of any other tribal group in his routine.
I go dressed in a bright red suit gave what I consider to be his best performance ever. Told about 13 jokes. He made no mention of any particular tribe, although he did mention a Warri boy acting aggressively. Routinely mainly about breasts and mobile phones.
Mike Ogbolosinger – told 8 jokes. Mentioned Akwa Ibom thrice. Once during his routine when the theme tune-‘who let the dogs out’ was played suddenly, he joked about eating dog meat. During a classroom story, he inferred an Akwa Ibom pupil was stupid by for answering ‘the ten commandments’ when asked to name something breakable -- especially as the two previous pupils asked the same question had answered Eggs and Glass.
Lastly he joked about a stupid and violent Akwa Ibom man who refused to give him directions when he was lost (done with accent). He briefly mentioned a stupid Aso Rock Photographer whom he lampooned in a mock Hausa accent.
Clint the Drunk. Three tribal jokes about singers -- Hausa singers: useless; Yoruba singers: loud; and Igbo music: unscripted and composed on the spot, to praise rich people in attendance. No mention of Calabar!
I go die- 3 jokes. No tribal insults
Okey Bakkassi – 4 jokes . No tribal jokes
An named comedian described how different tribes prayed: Yorubas shout; Igbos give God their shop addresses; Benin people speak "Good English" (note that the show was in Benin), Warri people yarn (discuss) with God like friends; and Esan people shout excessively.
I go save: Mainly insulted the ex President of Nigeria by inferring he looked like a primate.
From the above, it is obvious that a disproportionate amount of jokes are heaped on the ‘Calabar people’.
A particular comedian- Basket Mouth (the singer, not Bright Opkocha, of similar stage name) did not appear in the above show, but his routine consists of singing in the style of old-skool reggae dance hall about Calabar, Edo and Yoruba girls. His act is the most derogatory comedy act against Calabar people that I have seen to date, and I have written below (printable) excerpts from his act on ‘A Nite of a Thousand Laughs’. Volume 2. Obaino Music
I too dey like their style
Because they really know how to take care of man
Dem go cook for you
Dem go wash your cloth
Dem go make your belle
Make e extra sweet
Na inside bedroom dem dey get their power
Bleep, bleep, bleep. (Offensive to Christians)
Dem get degree for sexology
Dem be professors for knackiology
E reach bedmatics dem no dey taya
Because Calabar girls they are ever ready
Maybe na the dog meat wey dem dey chop
Maybe na dat one dey give dem extra power
Etc etc etc
The audience at this time was falling over themselves with laughter. I would however doubt he would have gotten a good response to that song had it been performed at Tinapa (Calabar)!
If summary, Calabar is an iconic town with a huge reputation. It inspires creative people and deserves to be made the subject of films, plays and musicals, as has been demonstrated by Fred Amata’s Amazing Grace.
Creative people should try to concentrate on getting creative works out that can inspire rather than constantly insult a tribe. Insults are cheap and will definitely get the performer an easy laugh but merely dispensing insults represents a lazy approach to comedy writing.
While I am not a great fan of political correctness or censorship, I think the Calabar jokes have been pushed too far.
Perhaps I should start the ball rolling by deleting the Calabar comedy audio track I have on my web site!
By Wilson Orhiunu
Personal note by C.Porter:
I find this particularly interesting because I was once assigned to translate several tons of rubbish about some sort of EEC scheme to set up a whole series of "African comedy schools", in Africa, along with all sorts of garbage about attemps to set up an "African Union", with all sorts of burocratic institutions, like its counterpart in Europe, and even more garbage about "how if there is one African child in a class, he is always the smartest"! In Europe! The African capacity for self-delusion is absolutely limitless.
At roughly the same time, I had to translate a speech, in French, to be delivered by some African burocrat, which was, like most speeches, totally incomprehensible to begin with, but which was, in addition, cram-packed with every obscure and pretentious French idiom in the book, and many that were not in the book: Africans always have to prove that they're smarter than you are.
After that, I made it a rule in my translation work: "no more French written by Africans"; and "no more speeches".
Sexual mutilation, slavery and rape have been called the "national sport:" of the Congo, but all their problems will be solved when there is a "comedy school" in every village, paid for by Europeans!
I never knew Africans thought they were that funny.
People who tolerate the EEC for even a minute are nuts.
They also wasted billions of Euros in prize money to encourage Africans to write essays on "democracy".
That's really what they need: more horseshit talk.
Pole-vaulting, South African style
(joke - funny, ha-ha)