Counterfoil Choices in the Kalabari Life Cycle

by Nimi Wariboko


Kalabari ethnic identity is under enormous pressure as a result of modernization and Western influences. One Kalabari response to their exposure to foreign values, styles, cultural artifacts and ways of life has been to select, incorporate, and transform borrowed values, styles, and artifacts to create a new combination or ensemble uniquely identified as Kalabari. This process of adaptation has been described as cultural authentication (Erekosima and Eicher 1981,1995; Eicher 1997). In their studies, Erekosima and Eicher have focused only on the use of a limited number of material artifacts (such as textiles) to create and maintain ethnic identity. Kalabari have created clothing that separates them from their neighbors, “for items assembled from their history and the range of their trading contacts resulted in distinctive appearance” (Eicher 1997:231).

Why the preference for distinctive appearance? Why are the Kalabari always tinkering with foreign artifacts in order to make themselves distinct from their Southern Nigerian neighbors? Why the deep preference for independence? The best answer Eicher and colleagues have found is: “Kalabari dress represented their independence of thought and action and their view of a tripartite cosmology of the water-people, community deities and ancestors” (Eicher1997:231; Erekosima 1989, Daly 1984). This explanation appears inadequate. By limiting their analyses to the easily observable somewhat static connection between dress and world view, they ignore the more intellectual, dynamic, and complex process involved in maintaining and passing to the next generation the core of Kalabari identity. Maintaining an ethnic identity is not a one-time affair, especially for an African traditional society that has to grapple with influences both from the West and from other nationalities within Nigeria. Dress and other aspects of the culture are often the visible representations of an invisible world view. One is, however, very far from the whole truth unless one explains how this link has been maintained from pre-colonial times until today in spite of all influences to the contrary.

This paper discusses the salient management tool or idea that Kalabari have used and are still using to ensure that their ethnic identity is maintained amidst the flux of changes from within and outside. This paper brings to the fore the philosophical principles which put into proper perspective the Kalabari struggle to maintain an identity and way of life, and to minimize European influences on their traditional and political beliefs (Dike 1956: 161). For lack of a better terminology, this identity management tool is termed counterfoil choice.

In most societies, there are two types of choices: ordinary and Hobson. In ordinary choice, the decision-maker chooses between A or B, which are alternatives to each other. Hobson’s choice is between what is offered and nothing. Kalabari have a third variety wherein the freedom to choose is not limited as in Hobson’s choice, but the result of the selection is similar to that of Hobson’s choice. This is termed counterfoil choice. A is not an alternative to B; B is only a counterfoil to A. When A is offered, Kalabari offers its negative B to show the person where the decision should not go. The decision-maker is primed to choose A, the real “ticket” and shun the counterfoil. For instance, a father wanting to teach his child a lesson about success might give him two bowls. One contains garri (cassava derived flour), the other is empty. The child is asked to choose. The empty bowl is there to show that laziness comes with severe hunger and that life offers two bowls (prosperity/power or failure/disgrace). The child is advised to know the right bowl to choose. It is a counterfoil choice because no father wishes his son or daughter to choose the empty bowl. Kalabari have found this an effective way of teaching their youngsters.

The use of this management tool in Kalabari society parallels age-grade and political status. Thus, this essay shall proceed by examining the significance and role of counterfoil choice within Kalabari culture from the perspective of its relevance through the political life cycle. For the limited purposes here, the life cycle is divided into five stages: awome (birth to age 15), asawo (16 to 40), opuasawo (40 and above), alapu (chiefs) and duein (ancestors). Ancestor is considered a stage in the life cycle because a person’s life is deemed incomplete if he or she does not become an ancestor after death. To be an ancestor a person must be in good standing before entering the next world.

This classification is not precise; the purpose is only to indicate phases. It is based mainly on the male life cycle. However, this paper will consider women in the category of iya (most lawful and expensive) wives when it is dealing with alapu because in traditional Kalabari society every chief must have one iya wife. Also, in terms of achievement women value iya marriage as much as men value chieftaincy titles. Third, the fact that this paper is focused mainly on age categories of men does not mean that counterfoil choice as relating to women is given short shrift. As a matter of fact, various examples of counterfoil choices are given which span the life cycle of women in the society. This paper limits its focus only to men’s age categories because it is easier to handle five categories than handle 10 in short essay of this nature. Fourth, age is not the sole determinant of each category as personal wealth and achievement of an under-30 years can move a person to the rank of chiefs.

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