I have always loved looking out the window of anything; cars, houses, classrooms, libraries. I just love seeing the free movement of people and different things while being confined to a space. Growing up, when we moved to a particular house that overlooked a major road, I would sit at the window for hours and just look. One of the things that attracted me to the window was a large house with a mighty compound across the street. The owner kept horses and their stable was visible from our living room window. Now that I think of it, maybe the owner of the horses was a polo player, but as a child, I often wondered why anyone would have up to eight horses in his house. Anyway, I loved seeing them, graceful creatures that they are.
I won’t forget a particular spectacle one night that my brother woke me up to see. There is a festival of the Berom people that used to take place in Jos every year, the Nzem Berom. I don’t know what they celebrate but that night, long after the celebrations were over, drunk young men staggered past our house on their way home, putting up a variety of hilarious drunken displays. Locally brewed beer is not for the weak.
This is not about horses though or Berom youth, drunk on very potent burukutu. This is about the day, many years later when, as a teenager, I beheld one of the most graceful, fluid, colourful and mesmerizing cultural displays I had ever seen. The house that we lived in then was in Lagos and my bedroom window overlooked the car park of our estate. Nothing much to see except neighbours going out and coming in and outside the gate, a noisy, traffic congested Lagos road.
The car park was the biggest in the estate which meant, whenever there was a party, it took place in that car park, right under my window. On this day, the party had started and there were so many people and so much noise. More annoying was the fact that it was a traditional wedding ceremony and the proceedings were of course not in English so I couldn’t follow what was going on just by listening.
All of a sudden music started playing; traditional music. It wasn’t so fantastic but the rhythm had a way of making you want to move your body. I shuffled to the window and pulled up the curtain just in time to see some pretty damsels glide into the arena. Their faces were dotted with white paint and glitter and their bodies, from the hair to the feet. were covered in all types of adornments. They swirled and stomped their feet to the rhythm of the beat, moving their torsos and arms with such fluidity that you would think they had no bones. They smiled and put so much attitude into the dance, drawing their audience into the energy of the dance.
There are a lot of traditional things that I detest and believe should be in the trash where they belong, but I love cultural displays and that display that day made me resolve that I must marry an Efik woman. I didn’t know the name of the dance then but now I know it’s called the Ekombi dance.
The Efik people are found majorly in parts of Cross Rivers and Akwa Ibom states, as well as in Bakassi which is now in Cameroon. This is probably why there are similarities between the Ekombi dance and a dance of the Oroko people of Cameroon.
Ekombi dance is a reflection of the belief system of the ancient Efik people. Just like many other riverine ethnic groups, they believe in water spirits and divinities know as “Ndem” which are lesser in heirarchy than the supreme being “Abasi.”
“It is believed that sometime in the indeterminate past, during a moonlight play, an Ndem took possession of a beautiful maiden. While under the enchantment of the water spirit, the maiden began to dance. The dance steps and entire body movements of the maiden including her demeanor were remarkable, enthralling and riveting. This dance was named Ekombi. The dance became the dance of the initiates of the cult of water — sprits, in praise of and worship of water gods and goddesses.” Affiah & Owan (2018)
This perhaps explains why the dance appears to be mimicking the movement of the waves, undulating and swirling in a somewhat irregular yet synchronised pattern. Another dance that has movement of the torso, similar to the Ekombi, is the Swange of the Tiv people of Benue state. Though Swange appears to be more energetic with snakelike movement rather than wave like movements of Ekombi.
I gather that in contemporary times, especially when performed at weddings, the Ekombi dance marks the end of the fattening room experience. A bride must dance to show that she is fully prepared for marriage and has all the attributes of a good wife. It is also an opportunity for the other maidens who dance with her to be noticed by prospective husbands. So possibly, those maidens that were dancing in my estate that day were trying to catch my attention and I was ‘dulling.’ Too bad. I’m still happy that I witnessed the Ekombi dance live and it sparked in me an interest in cultural dances.
I’ve seen many forgettable cultural displays but the Ekombi dance is not one of them. Neither is the Goje dance of the Jukun tribe in Wukari, or that of the Afizere people of Plateau state or the Swange of the Tiv. Bata dance is another fascinating dance. I don’t know where this interest in cultural dances is leading to but I will continue to explore.