Ask any non-Calabar Nigerian about what he knows about the Calabar girl, his response will mostly border on the hyper-sexual through the promiscuous and maybe some caution about the Calabar woman being a ‘husband snatcher’. Some people may be magnanimous enough to add that ‘they are good cooks and good home keepers though’. On the not-so-palatable side, the Calabar girl is also seen as a very good house maid; neighbours and friends may be quick to warn the madam of the house to be careful; ‘make sure that Calabar girl and oga are not left alone together – o’ is the unwritten law.
In cases of sexual misdemeanours, the Calabar maid has always been blamed for seducing the oga. While the madam would always look for a way to reconcile with the oga, the Calabar maid would be bashed and thrown outside without pay. The society will go ahead to excuse the bashing; after all ‘na Calabar girl’ they would say.
Friends of Bride in a traditional wedding ceremony
How many people really know what Calabar is? Some Nigerians would say Calabar is Akwa Ibom; others would say Cross River; still others would mention the two states. Yet still, there are people who will say Calabar are Igbos.
In 17th century Calabar was a prominent slave-trading port. 19th century saw Calabar as a major centre for trade in palm oil and palm kernels. The British made Calabar the centre of its southern Nigerian colonial administration from 1885 to 1906. It was this early relevance that made Calabar so prominence. The early exposure to the white slave dealers and later, to the white traders, made Calabar a centre of attraction to most of the people around the city. Most of the surrounding tribes and peoples had people migrating to the Calabar civilization. Prominent among these migrating tribes were the Ibibios and the Annangs.
Although the Efiks, the Quas (pronounced kwos) and the Efuts are the different clans that inhabit Calabar town, the Efiks seem to be more popular; and all the natives of the old Calabar town are most of the time erroneously referred to as the Efiks. For the sake of this article, I will continue with that error – Efiks here refer to the native inhabitants of the old Calabar town.
To the other Nigerians, the Efiks-Ibibios-Annangs are Calabars (there are still other sub-tribes like the Oron, Ekid, Andoni, Ibeno – which I will join several people to erroneously refer to them as Ibibios). In this article, I will first look at the bashing the Calabar woman has been subjected to by other Nigerians; I will also look at the industrious nature of the Calabar woman and will finally look at the beauty of the Calabar woman and her culture). The aim here is to clear the misconception other Nigerians have about the Calabar and hopefully understand why she is such a good home keeper, why would other who could not keep their men be afraid of the Calabar woman – could it be that the Calabar woman has what others do not? Could it be that the culture has anything to do with equipping her with a tool that make men happy?
The early exposure to, first the slave dealers, and then the white traders, made the local Calabar chiefs quite rich and powerful. They had slaves which were either captured during military raids or fallout of the slave dealings with the white man. At the demise of the slave trade, the palm oil and kernel trade still made Calabar a centre of attraction. The colonial administration finally crowned Calabar as the place to be when they made Calabar the administrative headquarters of the Southern Nigeria protectorate. All these, together with the creation of the South Eastern State made so many Ibibios and Annangs to migrate to Calabar to seek the better life. Some of these migrants ended up as slaves and servants to the whites and the rich Calabar natives.
It is a common practice among the native Calabar dwellers to refer to the Ibibios as ‘ifin ibibio’ (meaning: Ibibio slave). So the bashing actually started from the native Calabar dwellers – Efiks. Many Ibibios got so used to sending their children out as house helps to Calabar. The very fact that these families had their relations working at Calabar – not really minding the fact of servitude – was a source of pride. That may be the reason an average Efik girl would hardly marry an Akwa Ibom man (Akwa Ibom, a state created from former Cross River State, is predominantly Ibibios and Annangs).
The Ibibios and the Annangs happened to be quite industrious; the house chores were not really a difficult task for them. It was a common belief that the Efik man would not disturb himself about farm work and other chores – he would wrap his wrapper round his waist, sits with friends and enjoy his palm wine in the community square. The Efik woman did most of the work with her Ibibio/Annang servants as her help.
There are stories of incidences of sexual harassment of the male servants by their mistresses and female servants by their masters. The stories of the male servants’ sexual relationships with their mistresses are however told with more finesse (more like achievement on the part of the servants) than the female encounters with their masters. The ifin Ibibio was seen as an object that could be used without any conscience.
By the time the concept of ifin Ibibio was exported to the other parts of the country, the idea of using the Calabar girl as a sex-slave had already gained ground. It is therefore, not surprising that that the Calabar maid in Lagos and other parts of the country is more likely going to be an Ibibio-Annang girl than an Efik girl.
The Calabar girl in the hands of other Nigerians has been worse treated than the way her Efik masters and mistresses treated her. The Calabar girl’s industrious nature has been abused. The families back home still send relations to cities like Lagos, Port Harcourt, etc with the belief that their daughters are being sent out for better life. Even worse is the fact that the more privileged Akwa Ibom and Cross River natives still get their less-privileged Calabar sisters from their ignorant family members with the promise of getting them education or jobs, yet end up using them as slaves.
Other Nigerians already have a stereotype of a Calabar girl being free to be abused as a maid or a sex-slave. Cases abound where hot metallic objects have been used on the Calabar girl – all that is needed to conclude her guilty is the label: ‘she was seducing my husband’. With that accusation, she would be tried, convicted and punished without considering or even hearing her side of the story.
With the advent of Nollywood (Nigerian Movie industry), the bashing of the Calabar girl continued. There was a time when all the house helps characters in Nollywood were Calabar names. Calabar ladies were at the verge changing their Calabar names to English names, just ‘not to be seen as Calabar’. I specially want to commend those celebrities who stood up to be Calabar as Calabar when many shied away from that tag – Ini Edo, Nse Ikpe and others too numerous to mention deserve great respect.
Another way the bashing of the Calabar girl is in the area of telling stories of her so-called promiscuity. But is the Calabar girl really all that is said about her?
Is the Calabar Girl Really More Sexually Active than Others?
I believe many factors are responsible for this misconception.
There is a widely held belief, both in spiritual and in secular circles, that Niger delta women are very active sexually. In fact, the word many non-Niger Deltans use is ‘promiscuous’. One hears expressions like ‘Calabar babes are hot’, ‘Port Harcourt babes are promiscuous’ and ‘Edo girls play ‘Italian league’ (referring to trafficking in persons for commercial sex purposes – to Italy, Spain and other European countries). The words used here are the printable ones; the ones we hear on the streets are not.
The spiritually minded people go to the extent of explaining that the promiscuity is from the coastal spirits; that is to say, it is expected that girls from the coastal region should be promiscuous. These conclusions have never been backed up with any decent scientific research, yet they are widely held to be true.
A man from another region of Nigeria, in an attempt to cast aspersions on my people, once told me a story of how people who visited some red-light zone were besieged by girls who solicited for sex by claiming to be ‘Calabar girls’. Certainly, the girls may not even know what Calabar is or where it is located. These types of stories are also spiced up with the wrong notion that Calabar girls are husbands snatchers. To really understand why many have this wrong notion, can best be understood by looking at the traditional practice of ‘mbopo or nkuho’ – the fattening room – depending on the ethnic group and dialect used.
Calabar Fattening Room – A Practice by No Other Tribe
Very few non natives know that the grace of the Calabar woman to make a man happy is not as a result of the use of ‘kop no mi’ (submit to me) – referring to charms concocted to make a man fall in love or submit unquestionably to the bearer of the charm, in this case a woman; it’s not even the spiritual powers of the coastal spirits (after all, other tribes like the Yorubas also have settlements bordered by the sea, just as there are some Calabar communities that are not bordered by the sea). It is the result of the age-long tradition of the fattening room.
The fattening room does not just add a good dose of flesh to her hips; it is the place where the would-be Calabar bride is taught what no other tribe has taught their women – how to develop the habits and character that endears her to her man. She is also taught the development of the hips that is believed to prepare her for wifehood and motherhood – these are the hips that keep the eyes of men fixed on where she wants them to see.
She is also taught on how to take care of and satisfy her man. You are free to run wild with your imaginations as to what I mean by satisfying her man – your guess may or may not be correct.
For the very few who still practice the condemnable act of female genital mutilation, the fattening room also serve as the ritual room for that purpose.
Mbopo: a young lady just out of the fattening room. The ceremony usually includes an outing to the a particular forest for rituals and to the market square with friends and family. In modern times, these ceremonies had included visits to church for thanksgiving.
Looking at the history of the bashing of the Calabar woman, it is easy to understand that she has really suffered psychologically – resulting in low self esteem; she has been misled religiously – to believe that there are some spirits pumping extra sexual hormones into her; and she has suffered socially – to believe that her only place and talent is in being a maid. With all these, any man with a low-respect for the womanhood would easily see her as an easy prey.
A good natural endowment of beauty should not be seen as an open invitation for a free ploughing of a woman’s body. There is no scientific evidence to show that the Calabar woman is more sexually active than others.
I would rather you carry out an exercise I carried out and I would challenge any dweller of a cosmopolitan city like Lagos to do same. I once put this question to people on the streets (non-Calabars and non-Yorubas),
‘…if you hear that some married women have been caught having extra-marital affairs, which tribe would have the highest number of culprits?’
Ninety percent of the respondents mentioned a particular tribe – and not one respondent mentioned Calabar. In the same exercise the respondents tend to agree that the Calabar maiden may have more than one sexual partner, but there have been almost no case of them being reported of having extra-marital affairs. This is, they tend to respect the marriage institution and stick to their spouses.
You may be surprised that the tribe which have vilified the Calabar woman the most is the same tribe that is most popular in extra-marital affairs and divorce cases (by my findings). If you are a Nigerian reading this, or are very familiar with Nigeria you would agree with me on this.
The Calabar Woman – Excellence in Beauty
No matter the vilification she receives, there is no denying the fact that the Calabar woman is beautiful. Her bullies will never argue with that. Many of them may not just be able to resist her beauty and knowing her to be socially and economically not so strong, her bullies would rather cast aspersions on her in the open while visiting her at night.
The beauty however goes beyond the curves of her hips and dexterity of her dance steps – it penetrates any home she takes care of and overflows in any relationship she puts her heart into. It is seen in her frustrations when her trust and love is betrayed. She reacts in a way many would not expect when she is betrayed. The tiger in her seems to wake up anytime her love she willingly gives is trampled on. This explains the reasons people see her as a tiger whenever she is jilted.
Calabar Dances and dancers are one of the most colourful in the Continent.
Calabar woman – the home maker
The Calabar woman’s relationship with the home – the man of the House, the children and the Kitchen – is beyond the natural. There is almost this sublime scent of the spiritual connotations in the way she handles the home and sometime the members of the home. The home responds to her presence. Any home she enters responds to her unspoken command. Things do not just remain the same after they come into contact with her. This sometime explains the reason the Calabar maid gets the envy of the madam of the house and most of the time harsh treatment since her skills would expose the shortcomings of the house madam.
Photos courtesy: Muyiwa Osifuye