By Anote Ajeluorou
Echoes of Boko Haram terrorist hideout, Sambisa forest in Borno State filled the exhibition hall at Freedom Park last Saturday as the yearly Lagos Black Heritage Festival (LBHF 2015) took off on a sober mood. Also, the despotism that characterised many African leaders soon after independence had its origins projected from the Haitian example in the dramatic expose of The Tragedy of King Christophe performed on day two of the festival.
Declaring the weeklong cultural fiesta open were Lagos State Commissioner for Culture and Inter-Governmental Affairs, Mr. Disu Holloway and Festival Consultant, Prof. Wole Soyinka and many culture practitioners like Taiwo Ajayi-Lycett, Chief Emanuel Francesca, Sir Peter Badejo, Tunji Oyelana and Jimi Solanke.
After Holloway briefly restated the commitment of Lagos State Government to the ideals of the festival, which are to promote and preserve Yoruba culture in particular and Nigerian culture in general, he toured some of the events on offer. His first call was the main stage where children’s group, Footprints of David put up a superlative performance. In a dexterous combination of drumming, singing, dancing and folk narrative, the children literarily transported the audience back to moonlight night reenactment of years gone by.
However, the plight of the 219 Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped a year ago resonated at the exhibition hall where the paintings by school children were on display. It was in resonance with the worldwide activities that marked the anniversary last week. With the enigmatic theme, The Road to Sambisa, which Prof. Soyinka gave them last year to work on, the children faithfully and imaginatively rendered on canvas various traumatic situations the kidnapped girls might be going through while they remain in captivity, presumably inside the Sambisa forest.
From a shattered public school system to bad governance, a helpless government and ineffective military in the face of the kidnap a year ago to the plight of the girls; the dreaded Sambisa forest to the wicked terrorists and the hapless girls and other harrowing situations, the primary and secondary school students brought Sambisa forest, the terrorists, the girls and how they perceive their own country from the recesses of their young, creative minds. What comes across is a canvas of the failure that has characterized their country, which, in the innocence of their minds, they have rendered in poignant brush strokes.
Not least is the poetic rendering to which some other children cast the dire situation of Chibok schoolgirls. They told the guests their troubled thoughts concerning their young female colleagues in faraway Borno State who have been made to suffer untold hardships in the hands of their abductors. Indeed in designing the theme for this year, it was the desire of Prof. Soyinka to get school children from faraway South-West part of Nigeria to be in empathy with their colleagues in the North-East and to render same in a moving fashion and in solidarity with them.
And it worked. Visitors to Freedom Park and the children’s exhibition would marvel at the sheer brilliance and imaginative ingenuity of the children as they travelled in their imagination and thoughts to be on the same page with the kidnapped girls in their hour of need.
Other features of yesterday’s events included Zangbeto masquerade dance from Badagry, other masquerade displays and a bandstand in performance. A boat regatta at the Lagos Lagoon and the performance of The Tragedy of King Christophe at Freedom Park will hold today just as other performances will be held tomorrow through to the end of the festival on Saturday.
ON Day Two, Jos Repertory Theatre staged The Tragedy of King Christophe based on the struggle of Haitians soon after the revolution that chased their French colonial masters away. Henri Christophe emerged liberator at the northern part of the country with Alexandre Petion in the south. But in Christophe’s spirited effort to create an enviable kingdom, he resorts to the iron fist to instill discipline and order, which soon wears him out.
Rather than enhance the prospects of his countrymen and women, he further enslaves them. He builds for himself a throne like those of European monarchies complete with his courts. He embarks on building a citadel that will proclaim the glory of Haiti. But this comes at a huge cost to the liberty of Haitians, who have recently been freed from slavery. Forced labour becomes the norm and poor Haitians are made to bear the brunt of his tyrannical powers, with the executions of dissidents a regular undertaking.
Ordinary Haitians live in fear of their absolute king, who places the army at the top hierarchy in the pecking order of prominence. The people become slaves in their own liberated land. They are made to work even harder to realize the vision of their king, who does not even appreciate their hard labour. Even his lieutenants are in awe of him.
But as it often happens in dictatorships, time and tide soon turn the tables, as King Henri comes to learn. He suffers paralysis in his leg and his powers begin to weaken. This gives room for open rebellion among his trusted aides who seize on his condition to seek liberation from his tyranny. King Henri is an energetic and charismatic character but flawed by his poor reading of his power over the lives of his fellow countrymen and women. His is a good example of good intentions but poor outcomes.
Indeed, Christophe and his other Haitian league of despotic leaders like Papa Doc Duvalier provided the first models for African leaders that emerged soon after independence from colonial rule. Their propensity towards dictatorships and tyranny echoed Christophe’s and Haitian leaders that were to follow.
Thus The Tragedy of King Christophe is instructive for democracies across Africa. It calls for constant vigilance among the citizens against a regress into something dark and reprehensible from a leadership that soon assumes absolute powers. Christophe believed he had all the answers to his country’s problems and went on to solve them his own way. But it ended up alienating him from his people, who had, at first cheered him on, but who later hated him for taking away the freedom they’d deservedly earned.
Jos Repertory Theatre’s performance of The Tragedy of King Christophe on the night was energetic and exciting. Although, the characters did not affect the speech patterns of Haitians, they came close to some of the mannerisms. Particularly brilliant were the Victorian-style costumes, the ballroom parties and affectations that Christophe created to imitate European monarchical models of power and grandeur. Complete with a court clown, Christophe outdid himself in slavish modeling and so fell flat on his face when his voodoo conjuration of sango failed to inspire similar national frenzy to his histrionics of nation-building that sucked the blood of his fellow Haitians.
Also, the performance of the play at the big stage at Freedom Park with the audience seated on the grass terrace gave the performance a unique moonlight tale-like ambience. It also tallied with the Festival Consultant, Prof. Wole Soyinka’s vision for this year’s event, with drama as centrepiece:
“This year’s excursion into Drama as central theme does however offer a special contribution to the artistic trail blazed by these visitors (Shakespeare Globe Theatre’s staging of Hamlet). Its format was inspired by an increasing awareness of the need to bring theatre closer to the people, not merely confine it to predictable, albeit efficiently structured venues. Directors were selected, then encouraged to scout for optional spaces that they find most appropriate to their choice of plays – bare spaces, night clubs, open pavilions etc. - thus weaning drama of domination by ‘congenial confinement.’ Freedom Park will therefore constitute only one of this year’s drama venues, though without abandoning its role as the hub of the festival”.
Lagos Black Heritage Festival continues till Saturday with many theatrical performances for audiences to savour.