Finally…..I get to blog about my trip to Calabar! I must confess that I fell madly in love with this city and it was my first visit to Calabar. The city was clean and laid back, the people were very friendly and seemingly always smiling. Everyone who knows me knows that I’m a Lagos girl, but Calabar stole a little bit of my heart forever.
Calabar, the capital of Cross River State, is an ancient town located in south-eastern Nigeria on the bank of the Calabar River. Known to European sailors as far back as the 15th century and recognized as an international sea port since the 16th century, Calabar was a major slave trade port from the late 17th to 19th centuries. Needless to say, it was one of the first cities to be colonized (or invaded) by the British. Beginning with the trade in slaves (mostly from Igboland) and subsequently exportation of rubber, palm oil, cocoa and timber, Calabar is a major seaport with a proud culture.
Due to her early role in international trade and colonial administration, Calabar reputedly hosts the earliest Military barracks, the first Presbyterian church (Church of Scotland Mission) in 1846, the first monorail and the first modern road network in Nigeria. The city also boasts of the first public (General) Hospital in Nigeria – St. Margaret Hospital, the oldest Post Office and one of the first two Botanical Gardens in the country.
As a social centre the city boasts of the first social club in Nigeria – The Africa Club – and also hosted the first competitive Football, Cricket and Field Hockey games in Nigeria. Among the city’s firsts include the first Roman Catholic Mass (held at 19 Boco Street, Calabar – 1903) and the oldest secondary school (Hope Waddell Training Institute – 1895) in eastern Nigeria. The School later produced the first Nigerian President Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe. Prominent figures in the history of Calabar include King Archibong III – the first king in southern Nigeria to be crowned with regalia sent by Queen Victoria of England in 1878 (is that a thing of pride, I wonder?) 🙂
Culturally, Nigerians especially Nigerian men, love Calabar women because they supposedly know how to take care of their men’s needs. This belief was in large part developed because of the fattening room tradition (nkuho) of the Efik people of Calabar. The fattening room is an ancient tradition where young engaged women are placed in seclusion and taught skills considered valuable for marriage and womanhood. During this period the girl is cared for by older women and is not allowed to come in contact with other people. She is put in a room where on a daily basis, she is massaged three times, fed about six large portions of food (like poridge ekpang, plantain, yam fufu and assorted pepper soups), drinks three pints of water thrice daily and gets plenty of sleep. This process ensures that the bride gets a healthy a waistline (the “fattening”) since the Efik, like most Nigerians I think, believe a woman who is full figured with a healthy waistline is beautiful. In the Fattening Room the girl goes through domestic training on home economics (cooking and housekeeping), how to sexually please her husband, childcare and how to respect and make her husband to be and his family happy. The older women give advice about their experience in marriage to ensure a successful one for the bride to be. Not a bad deal in my opinion! You can read more about the fattening room tradition here.
Today, Calabar has an estimated population of 1.2 million residents and its primary indigenes are the Efik people known for their artistic skills, rich culture and traditions. The City is watered by the Calabar and Great Qua Rivers and creeks of the Cross River (from its inland Delta). I spent two days in Calabar with the first day visiting the Calabar Museum and went on a city tour – Duke Town, Calabar city. The second day was spent visiting Cerpopan and Pandrillus, sanctuaries for monkeys and chimpanzees which are native to the area and in danger of extinction.
The Government House Museum (Old Residency)/Calabar Museum
The Government House overlooks the Calabar River and I would definitely recommend it as a must see for anyone visiting Calabar. It houses a lot of antiques that show the history of Calabar before, during and after the slave trade and colonial era. Although the museum could be in better shape this, in my humble opinion, is still the best curated museum I have seen in Nigeria thus far.
View of Calabar River from the grounds of the Museum.
Replica of the boats used for palm oil trading after the abolition of slavery in Calabar.
This is the highest point in the city and one of the major tourist attractions in Calabar. The Presbyterian Church and its cemetary (where Mary Slessor is buried) is in this part of the city, along with the Obong’s (king’s) palace. Unfortunately, the Obong was not in town when we visited. I would have loved to see inside of his palace.
Mary Slessor’s Tomb
Mary Slessor is very well known in Nigeria for her work successfully advocating against the killing of twins in Calabar. For those that do not know who she is, here is a brief description:
Mary Slessor, Scottish missionary in eastern Nigeria, was born in 1848 in Aberdeen. Her father, a shoemaker, was an alcoholic and her mother a deeply religious woman. The family moved to Dundee in 1858 where Slessor began working in the linen mills at the age of eleven. She joined the local Christian youth club and became convinced of a call to be a missionary.
In 1876 the United Presbyterian Church agreed to send her to Calabar as a mission teacher. She worked first in the missions in Old Town and Creek Town but in 1888 went alone to work among the Okoyong. For the rest of her life Slessor lived a simple life in a traditional house with Africans, concentrating on pioneering. Her insistence on lone stations often led her into conflict with the authorities and gained her a reputation as somewhat eccentric, but she was heralded in Britain as the ‘white queen of Okoyong’. She was not primarily an evangelist but concentrated on settling disputes, encouraging trade, establishing social changes and introducing Western education.
Slessor frequently campaigned against injustices against women, took in outcasts and adopted unwanted children. In 1892 she was made vice-consul in Okoyong, presiding over the native court and in 1905 was named vice-president of Ikot Obong native court. In 1913 she was awarded the Order of St John of Jerusalem. Slessor suffered failing health in her later years but remained in Africa where she died in 1915.
Mary Slessor lived for a long time among the efik people in Calabar in present day Nigeria. There she successfully fought against the killing of twins at infancy. Witchcraft and superstition were prevalent in Nigeria when she arrived there because traditional society had been torn apart by the slave trade. Human sacrifice routinely followed the death of a village dignitary, and the ritual murder of twins was viewed by the new missionary with particular abhorrence. Her dedicated efforts to forestall this irrational superstition were to prove a resounding success, as photographs of Mary with her beloved children testify. She died in Calabar in 1915 and was given a state burial. (source)
Here is a picture of Mary Slessor with some of her adopted children. She was fondly called “Ma” by all in Calabar. I believe she went back to Scotland only once in the 38 years she lived in Calabar and she took her four children below with her on that trip. What a site they must have made!
Presbyterian Church in Duke Town (Duke Town Church)
This church, established by Presbyterian missionaries, is believed to be the oldest in Nigeria. To be honest, I’m not sure if this is true or not, but the people of Calabar believe it to be so. I loved the simplicity of this church. It is very well-preserved and I felt like I could have been sitting in the same spot a hundred years ago! There were numerous memorial plaques on the inside walls of the church which we no longer see in modern-day churches. I liked the idea of the plaques because it gave the building additional historical gravitas 🙂
Walter Egerton was the High Commissioner for the Southern Nigerian Protectorate and the Governor of Lagos colony at the time this foundation stone was laid.
Some of the memorial plaques inside the Presbyterian Church….
The friendliest people!
Adjacent to the Presbyterian Church, on the day we visited, was a family celebrating the burial of their grandmother (oldest relative). They saw our group and beckoned us to join them in celebration. I was really touched by the ease of their offered friendship and a few of us decided to join them. I have to confess also that I LOVE Afang soup (tasty Calabar vegetable stew) and up till that moment, I’d only had crappy hotel version of the stew. I was dying to try a properly made Afang stew in Calabar and I was not disappointed. It smelled and tasted wonderful!
My “take away” pack of Afang stew and goat meat. This was so delicious….i wish there was a way to communicate the awesomeness that was this stew to you my dear readers! 🙂
Other sites around Calabar
The primary school adjacent to the Presbyterian (Duke Town) Church was built in 1910 and is still in use.
The purported first post office in Nigeria. It is on a very busy road which was not very conducive to tourists and their cameras! It is unclear if it is the same structure from the early 20th century or if it had been rebuilt on the same site.
The Africa Club below is the first social club in Nigeria. It is still very much in use although, I did not go inside.
The Ekpe lodge
I had taken the picture of the building below, before I was later informed that it was the Ekpe society lodge. The Ekpe society in Efik culture is a secret, mostly male society (although there are some women initiates) that controlled every aspect of Efik society before the arrival of the white man on the Calabar shores. Despite its reputation as a spiritual and cultic institution, the Ekpe were the pre-colonial police and judicial system. The society was vested with the powers of policing and bringing justice to the Efik Kingdom. They seemingly controlled everything (including the selection of the new king or Obong). Today, the Ekpe cult is still strong among the Efik, with membership still very high and their masquerades and other purported occultist practices still very much visible in today’s Calabar society. You can read more about the Ekpe here or visit the Museum which has a lot of information on the Ekpe society.
The Tortuga Island and Slave History Museum.
This is one of the hidden gems of Calabar. Tortuga Island, on the banks of the Calabar River, is not actually an island and I don’t know why it is called one. However, do not let the name fool you. Once you are done with your day of sightseeing, this is the perfect place to relax and unwind. You can sit by any one of the bars and order grilled fish, a cold drink, ice cream and pop corn. Just a word of warning though, make sure you order your grilled fish as soon as you get to Tortuga, it takes a looooonnnnnggggg time to get your grilled fish, but the result is worth the wait!
While your fish is grilling, you can visit the Slave museum next door. This museum is the best documenting the slave experience in West Africa, in my opinion and I have been to a few slave museums – Goree Island (Dakar), Elmina Castle (Ghana), etc. What sets the Slave Museum in Calabar apart is the use of the audio-visual effects to pull the visitor into the journey and experience. Trust me, you will definitely be subdued after visiting it. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take pictures and so I have no pictures to show for it, but I recommend it highly.