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The Kalabari Ekine Society: A Borderland of Religion and Art

  • Robin Horton


One of the pillars of traditional Kalahari culture is the Ekine Men's Society, otherwise known as Sekiapu—‘The Dancing People’. But although many Kalahari talk of Ekine as ‘one of our highest things’, it is an institution remarkably difficult to pin down and define.

On the face of it, Ekine serves many disparate ends. At a superficial glance, it appears as a religious institution, designed to solicit the help of the water spirits1 through invocations and dramatic representations of them by masquerades. A second glance suggests that these masquerades are recreational as much as religious in their intent. Yet again, many of the masquerades seem to be important status-symbols. And finally, Ekine often appears as a significant organ of government. A day-to-day description of the society's activities in any one community would reveal these aspects as tightly woven or tangled together. In this paper, however, it will be our task not only to unravel them, but to attempt a distinction between those which are essential features of the institution, and those which are incidental.



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page 94 note 1 For a sketch of Kalabari society and of the various categories of Kalabari gods, see my ‘Kalabari World-View: an Outline and Interpretation ’, Africa, July 1962.

page 94 note 2 The Ekine myths exemplify recurrent Kalabari patterns. Thus the most elaborate of them shows a new institution introduced by a goddess who is typical of the village heroes generally: a figure coming from outside the community, who lived with men and taught them, but who finally disappeared leaving no descendants when men failed to keep to the rules she had laid down. The theme of a woman introducing the plays and men taking them over also exemplifies a recurrent mythical pattern, in which men assume control of what women originate. The latter probably reflects a paradox of which Kalabari show themselves aware in a number of situations: that of a society whose most important assets—people—are brought into the world by women and are then taken over by men. This theme of the woman creator of the male institution seems widespread in West Africa. A striking example is recorded in Holas, B., Les Masques Kono, Paris, 1952. From the Kono assertion that women first discovered and danced masks, Holas infers that male-dominated Kono society was once matriarchal. An interpretation similar to the one I have just offered seems more in accord with known facts and probabilities.

page 96 note 1 A solitary exception is Ngbula, whose characterization as the native doctor of the water people is consistent with the use of his costume to drive out evil spirits during a disease epidemic.

page 98 note 1 In his article on Northern Ibo Masquerades (JRAI, vol. xc, pt. 1, 1960), J. S. Boston shows that in this culture-area, too, it is a distinctive set of rhythms which is definitive of a particular masquerade play.

page 98 note 2 Spoken Kalabari is a three-tone language. Drummed Kalabari reduces the three tones to two by equating middle and low, then abstracts the resulting two-tone patterns from their context of verbal syllables.

page 100 note 1 From here until the end of this paper, I shall use a comprehensive ‘ethnographic present ’ to cover cultural patterns which are still fully extant in some communities, but which elsewhere live on only in the older man's memories of his youth. Since the present paper aims to give a picture of the position of Ekine in the traditional culture which will be valid for the majority of Kalabari communities, this usage seems preferable to a long and tiresome string of qualifications.

In fact, there are a number of modern changes, bearing upon different communities with variable force, which have brought varying degrees of disruption to Ekine activities. Thus there is a switch from a pattern of productive activity based on the village itself, to a pattern involving shifting residence in a variety of fishing-camps often twenty miles or more from home; and where this switch has been most marked, people spend the greater part of the year away from the village. This makes the organization of frequent masquerades almost impossible; for each demands the presence of a goodly proportion of Ekine members, and it is extremely difficult to get such a quorum into the community at any one time. Another factor has been the avoidance of overt participation in traditional religious practices, which has become a powerful status symbol in certain communities. Where large numbers of mission-educated people have ploughed back the fruits of their education into the traditional status system, power and influence have become associated with church-going, and hence with overt rejection of the old religion. This has had its most marked effect in the three offshoots of the New Calabar city-state. In these towns, many of the chiefs and other influential people are mission-educated and retired from jobs in commercial firms or government service. Although many of them privately subscribe to traditional religious beliefs and methods of dealing with misfortune, and many are enthusiastic spectators of the masquerade, few care to participate actively in Ekine. Fortunately, I was able to check the very full accounts given by older men in these New Calabar communities with first-hand observation in remoter villages like Soku, where these modern changes have not impinged with such force, and where the traditional patterns of Ekine activity appear to be largely intact.

page 102 note 1 The largest of the three offshoots of the New Calabar city-state.

page 104 note 1 This line of approach is derived from ideas put forward in Edward Bullough's famous essay “Psychical Distance” as a Factor in Art and an Aesthetic Principle ’, British Journal of Psychology, 1912, vol. v, no. 2), and from the application of these ideas to Greek religion made by Harrison, Jane in her Ancient Art and Ritual (Oxford, 1948). This little book seems neglected by anthropologists, probably because it champions the discredited myth-from-ritual theory of religion. But the use which it makes of the concept of ‘Psychical Distance ’, chiefly to account for the origins of Greek dramatic art, is independent of this mistaken theory and so merits attention for its own sake. The ancient Greek situation as analysed by Harrison seems analogous to the one we are dealing with here. Thus she sees Greek drama arising as an art in religious rites representing the ancient heroes: because these figures were losing their religious importance at the time, they could elicit contemplation rather than practical reaction. A point of contrast, of course, is that the Kalabari dancing water spirits are not part of a decaying religious system: on the contrary, they are part of a very live system, of which, however, they happen to be marginal members.

page 105 note 1 That it is not true among the Yoruba is suggested by Ulli Beier's article ‘Gelede Masks ’, Odù, no. 6, June 1958; and for the Northern Ibo the same thing is suggested by J. S. Boston, op. cit., p. 56.

page 108 note 1 Since it is performed out of its turn in the masquerade cycle, the funeral play is not accompanied by the usual preliminary invocations and offerings.

page 108 note 2 For the descent-system of Kalabari, see the out-line at the beginning of my ‘Kakbari World-View ’, Africa, July 1962. Suffice it to remember here that where the deceased's wife or wives were married with small bridewealth, property rights pass matrilineally—first to his full-brothers and thence to his full-sisters' sons. Where there was a large-bridewealth marriage, property rights pass to the deceased's own male children.

page 108 note 3 This aspect of the Kalabari masquerade shows interesting parallels with the Yoruba Egungun masquerade as described by P. Morton-Williams in ‘Yoruba Responses to the Fear of Death ’, Africa, Jan. 1960. Egungun, however, is first and foremost symbolic of the dead, whereas the Kalabari masquerade is only incidentally so.

page 109 note 1 Tribes of the Niger Delta, London, 1932, p. 300. See also the author's The Peoples of Southern Nigeria, vol. iii (Oxford, 1926), p. 765.

page 109 note 2 Intelligence Report on the Kalabari Clan, Nigeria, 1942.

page 112 note 1 See the comment by Murray, K. C. on pp. 95–100 of The Artist in Tribal Society, ed. Smith, M. W., London, 1961.

page 113 note 1 A good discussion of the modern Nigerian painters and sculptors is to be found in Art in Nigeria 1960, by U. Beier, Cambridge, 1960.

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  • ISSN: 0001-9720
  • EISSN: 1750-0184
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