A flood bath of jubilant sunrays inundates a creek of murky waters in the oil city of Port-Harcourt, southern Nigeria, as a thousand souls spectate at its bank. A war canoe pierces through the waters as its twenty paddlers bellow battle chants and songs with dramatic fervour.
Like spears, their black-painted oars slice in and out of the tidal waters, as clusters of palm fronds fringing the rims of the boat sway, sway and sweep to the rhythm of the passing wind.
The whole creek turns into a fashion-runway of loaded canoes in an instant, all bedecked with elaborate dressings and fittings of colourful materials, each boat belonging to a tribe partaking in the Carniriv 2012 Boat Regatta.
About a thousand culture enthusiasts hit the sands of Port-Harcourt Tourist Beach on Wednesday, 12th December 2012 for the annual international aquatic fiesta, popularly called “The Carniriv Boat Regatta”. The week-long Port-Harcourt carnival which started off on Monday, 9th December 2012 had featured a number of opening parties, unveiling of the carnival monument, dance of fireflies as well as cultural art exhibitions which finally brought its visitors and attendees to the long-awaited annual regatta. The aquatic contest, engaging various Local Government Areas (LGAs) within Rivers State, is usually hosted at the city’s only tourist beach- The Port-Harcourt Tourist Beach, located along Moor House road, in the Borokiri area of Port-Harcourt city, Rivers State.
The air at the beach was dense and eagerness wore the people like Agbádá. They had been waiting, eagerly waiting for the battle of the canoes to begin. The tide was low, the boats could not row and for a moment the spirit of the waiting crowd became low. Then a rumble of drumbeats sprung and soared up from somewhere within the waiting crowd. It was the drummer boy of the Bonny people. Everyone looked in his direction as he rammed the magical goatskin of his willing drum with his zealous sticks. As soon as this began, another group of drummers standing nearby picked up their drums and began beating, and yet another group near the creek banks instantaneously joined in the vivacious fete.
The whole ambiance erupted into a cyclone of thrills. The people reeled, with excitement they reeled; and it was as though the creek waters also had ears and had been sprung to life by the reverberating drumbeats; for in a short moment, the tides began to rise while the crowd rejoiced and danced. The boat decorators who had slowly and painfully laboured, adorning the boats, boats moored at the creek side; they got stung as well, goaded by the melodious spell from pulsating goatskins. To their feet they sprung and began to speed up their work. The event moderator mounted the floating platform already set up on the creek, made a double tap and coughed into the microphone, alerting the audience of the commencement of the long-awaited regatta. Almost immediately, the various cultural troops participating in the event began to march down to the creek edge to board their canoes.
The moderator kicked off the show spilling out a series of side-splitting jokes that sent the crowd toppling with laughter. The whole atmosphere had become transformed into a barrel of amusement and delight within an instant. At the background, the DJ further graced the show by playing Duncan Mighty’s “I be Port-Harcourt boy yee… ohumgolobo…boy yee.. Port-Harcourt person…” (I am a Port-Harcourt boy…) It is the favourite Pidgin-English song of the Niger Delta people, and the crowd swayed merrily to its melodious rhythms.
The assembly of anxious tourists were already set for the boat race.
At the rare end of the creek, colourfully-decorated boats of various sizes assembled in rows and columns. Each belongs to the participating cultural troops. Most of them came with single canoes, being their ceremonial boats, known locally as ‘Alali-aru’, while a few others had two canoes- a ceremonial boat and a war boat called ‘Omuaru’. The design and adornment of the Omuaru and its paddlers’ attires are different from those of the Alali-aru. Omuaru paddlers are often garbed in black/dark attires (believed to signify violence) and their boats are fitted with palm fronds (believed to signify victory). These boats are not as elaborately decorated as the ceremonial boats.
The troops were called in one after another and the paddlers made amazing displays with their unique rowing styles and skills. The spectating crowd took turns to cheer whenever their favourite troops sailed into view to make their presentation. Among the participants, the Bonny and Okrika LGAs made the most spectacular display and drew the loudest ovation. The long Bonny Alali-aru sailed in with its paddlers in attires of white t-shirt and blue-checked robes with matching coloured-canoes. Its paddlers struck the waters with exceptionally choreographed strokes of their oars. The spectators roared with ecstatic cheers and claps, while the children jumped up, shouting “Bonny! Bonny! Bonny!” Everyone stood in awe of the matchless paddling style and dexterity of the Bonny people as their canoe sailed with amazing speed along the creek.
Okrika LGA came with both their ceremonial and war canoes. Its Omuaru (war-canoe) paddlers were dressed in black t-shirts, black-checked robes and white-black stripped head warmers, while its Alali-aru (ceremonial canoe-paddlers) wore white polo shirts, sky blue-checked robes and grey-blue head warmers. Their Omuaru (war boat) paddlers gave an awe-striking performance with a startling release of an explosion from a gun barrel attached to the bow of the canoe. It sent a sudden shock through the crowd of spectators as everyone reflexively bent their heads and rushed backwards in fright.
The shock however melted into great admiration of the creativity shown by the Okrika cultural troop, which immediately brought cheers and massive applause from the crowd. Other participating Local Governments Areas were Ikwere, Ogu/Bolo, Asalga, Akukutoru, Obio-Akpo, Akulga, Delga, Okrika (two LGAs), Opobo-Nkporo, Ahoada-West, Degema, Andoni and Khana; among whom Delga, Opobo-Nkporo and Okrika LGAs performed with both their Omuaru and Alali-aru canoes.
The Regatta ended with an extremely amusing and interesting aquatic drama presentation by the Akpara Fish Masquerade group. Everyone went home with wide smiles drawn across their faces, satiated from the various presentations at the boat contest and hoping that next year’s Carniriv will be just as amazing or even more.
…and the Regatta starts!!!
…then comes in Andoni LGA with their Alali-Aru (ceremonial boat).
- The war boat of the Okrika’s second LGA… (one of the paddlers at the bow is preparing gun powder in a canon barrel).
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This article was written by folarin
Founder of Naijatreks, Nigerian-born Folarin Kolawole’s photography and travel writing depict a passionate romance with nature’s endowments. He grew up in the small town of Akure, Ondo State. He is a travel writer, geologist, researcher and tourism activist. When not at work, he writes geo-scientific research papers and travels the length and breadth of Nigeria, exploring, taking photos, making videos and writing about her numerous hidden tourist potentials.