Add to bookbag
Author: John McCall
Title: Dancing the past: experiencing historical knowledge in Ohafia, Nigeria
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact for more information.

Source: Dancing the past: experiencing historical knowledge in Ohafia, Nigeria
John McCall

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 6, pp. 8-9, 1993
Author Biography: John McCall is in the African Studies Program, Indiana University.

DANCING THE PAST: Experiencing Historical Knowledge in Ohafia, Nigeria


The present contains nothing more than the past, and what is found in the effect was already in the cause.

—Henri Bergson

It has often been observed that African peoples are highly cognizant of their past. Ancestral rituals and shrines, historical epics, and extensive detailed knowledge of descent are prevalent features in many African societies. This observation has led some scholars to propose that the temporal consciousness of African peoples is directed exclusively toward the past and that this is characteristic of a specifically African mentality. In this vein Dominique Zahan (1979:47) writes:

Being oriented toward the past, the African finds the justification and meaning of his actions not in the future but in time already elapsed. His reasoning is thus 'regressive': 'I do this because my forefathers did it. And they did it because our ancestors did it.'

Similarly, John Mbiti (1970:17) proposes that Africans are past oriented to the exclusion of any significant consciousness of the future. " ... according to traditional concepts, time is a two-dimensional phenomenon, with a long past, a present, and virtually no future." Robin Horton (1970:167) argues that "African traditional thought" is characterized by a kind of mythic nostalgia: that "things are thought of as having been better in the golden age of the founding fathers than they are today." Hence, he concludes, activities are developed which are specifically designed to negate the passage of time "by a return to the beginning."

In the West African Forest Belt, for instance, the richly developed ritual dramas enacted in honor of departed heroes and ancestors have a strong recreative aspect. For by inducing these beings to possess specially selected media and thus, during festivals, to return temporarily to the company of men, such rituals are restoring things as they were in olden times. (1970:168)

These arguments reveal less about the putative mentality of Africans than they do about the persistence of the Victorian notion of Progress as an epistemic lynch pin in academic discourse. Progress, in this formulation, blends Aristotelian entelechism: the metaphysical notion that form naturally tends toward perfection, with the program of social evolution outlined by the Enlightenment philosophers. As a social charter it is invoked to justify the colonizing project. Economic domination, missionization and eradication of non-European culture are seen as both a holy mission and as the inevitable unfolding of Natural Law. Mbiti (1970:23) reveals that his own conception of future consciousness is a Christian teleological one which identifies Africans' lack of "the notion of a messianic hope" as an explanation for their lack of a "belief in progress." Horton (1970:168-170) argues that African thought is deficient of "the idea of Progress" which, by his reasoning, is fundamental to all science. The ghost of Frazer's (1892) model of mental evolution progressing from "primitive magic" to religion to science haunts these propositions. Could it be that the resistance to the future encountered by these academic researchers, both European and African, was a resistance to a particular future, a future imposed from without rather than a future arising from indigenous values, experience and history?

The essentialization of Western values in these arguments is at least as problematic as their essentialization of African thought. But beyond the problem of essentialized objects is a fundamental epistemological gap. In his critique of scholarship on Africa, Mudimbe (1988:x) proposes that African "gnosis" has thus far been evaluated in terms of theories and methods which "suppose a non-African epistemological locus." However, the correction of this problem proves to be more difficult than its identification. It can be argued that the practice of scholarly exposition is itself a structure of specific epistemic mechanisms and that we cannot overcome the limitations of academic writing without abandoning established forms of exposition altogether. Such extreme measures may not be necessary. I suggest that we may only need to raise questions of a different order. Rather than assuming that we can identify a pan-African model of time consciousness it may be more productive to explore how the past is experienced by individuals in particular communities.

This paper is based on field research conducted in the villages of Ohafia, located in the Igbo speaking region of Southeastern Nigeria. In attempting to understand how Ohafia people engage the past in their own lives and what it means to them I found it necessary to discard the model of cultural knowledge as an intellectual domain based primarily in language. In all societies, a substantial dimension of cultural knowledge, particularly knowledge of and identification with the past, involves the acquired bodily dispositions and spatial orientations which Marcel Mauss (1973) has referred to as habitus and which Bourdieu (1977:72) has defined as "systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures pre-disposed to function as structuring structures." However, I depart from Bourdieu by arguing for a more reflexive view of habitus which includes the self-conscious and creative manipulation of bodily dispositions and spatial orientations by people engaged in aesthetically framed activities. Because this project emerges from the aesthetic and the experiential it cannot be argued from a position of formal abstraction. The task of identifying the gnosis, (to use Mudimbe's term) underlying this culturally embedded experience of the past requires us to discursively enter the landscape of Ohafia itself. We will begin with a glimpse of one of those aesthetically structured community events which Horton (1970:168) refers to as "richly developed ritual dramas enacted in honor of departed heroes and ancestors."

"Kpaan-kpaan-kpa-kpaan-kpaan-kpa-kpaan-kpaan-kpa ... "the sound of the akwatankwa cuts through the din of the crowd gathered for the burial of an eminent chief. The hot midday air is heavy with red dust raised by hundreds of feet: dust mixed with the rich aroma of sweat and the fragrant vapor rising from large pots of palm wine. Several young, robust men in short, coarsely woven blue loin cloths begin to move into the center of the large clearing in front of the village meeting house. Their muscular arms are draped with the long white hair of ram's manes, and on their heads are red, black and white knit caps known as leopard hats, each pierced with an eagle feather. They move with confidence and pride but their leader seems even more imposing; balanced on his head is a board upon which human heads sculpted of wood are displayed. The heads also are flanked with ram's mane and capped with leopard hats.

The ogo is crowded with people of all ages, some talking, greeting, laughing, others maneuvering to find a good place from which to view the dancers. The dance leader, holding a small palm shoot in his mouth and a short cutlass in his right hand, stares fixedly ahead as he dances with short deliberate steps. Three akwatankwa players sit on a wooden bench defining one edge of the dance space. With casual concentration they tap out the heart beat of the dance. Beside them a drummer begins to play, not a dance rhythm, but drum language which is echoed by the antelope horn played by one of the dancers.

Everyone should come forth!
Those in the bush come out!
Those on the road come out!
The day is charged!

An old man, dressed in a faded wrapper of Indian madras, sits on a nearby stool and begins to shout: "Utugokoko kwe'n!" and a response resounds from the crowd: "huh!" He shouts again "Akanu kwe'n! ... Ohafia kwe'n! ... Igbo kwe'n! ... Nigeria kwe'n! ..." and each time the crowd responds with urgent approval. Then he begins to sing the legend of Elibe Aja, the story of a brave hunter who establishes an alliance with the neighboring Aro people by killing a leopardess that is terrorizing their farms. The music is fast, driving, insistent. The dancers are joined by other men, some mature, some mere boys. Each moves his feet in a rapid side-stepping pattern. They roll their shoulders in tight circles causing their chest muscles to flex rapidly. Gradually, deliberately, the tempo builds. As the pace of the music increases the pectoral flexing accelerates. The men's chests pulsate with rippling undulations. This is ofufu. As one man puts it: "when the music takes fire to the dance, the flesh melts." Ofufu is only performed in one context: iri agha, the Ohafia "war dance."

The musical instrument called akwatankwa is said to be indigenous to Ohafia. It is a homely device: two slats of bamboo are struck together. Ensembles of three play, in unison, the aggressive time-line of the war dance. This single repeated phrase constitutes the core of a complex performance which embodies the ancestral foundations of Ohafia manhood. A legacy of aggressiveness, courage, and achievement are infused in the sound and movements of the war dance.

As the akwatankwa play the drum calls men to action: "Agwo ntu no akarika!" "There is a dangerous snake in the grass!" This is a warning, a call to arms, a summons to dance, to be courageous and to come prepared for action. The drum and the horn were battlefield instruments used to communicate during raids. Many of the calls these instruments produce are traditional alarms and commands and they bring the tension and immediacy of actual battle to the mood of the dance. The drum also plays the dance rhythm, fitting its tones tightly within the fast paced time-line. The drummer sings a high pitched note interjected sporadically throughout the performance which further increases the fervent tone of the event. The ensemble is small, the sound "hot," and aggressive.

In Ohafia, the war dance is part of a distinctly masculine genre of music which is contrasted to the lilting meter of women's music. Never pausing, the war dance pushes ahead, creating a sense of moving forward aggressively. This is embodied in the ridged bodily comportment and continuous swift movements of the war dancers. Men speak of the compelling quality of the war dance rhythm: that they cannot resist the call to dance, that the music pushes the dancers driving them to dance and to move like the warriors of old once moved. Like a voice of the ancestors themselves, the war dance induces men to do what they must do to be Ohafia men.

The sound of the war dance produces a direct link between the ancestral values that the music invokes and the bodily experience that it evokes. The undulating chest movement called ofufu constitutes a somatic rather than a semantic association: an immediately experienced bodily cognizance rather than an abstracted codified message. When the sound of akwatankwa travels through the village many young men and boys respond physically to the call, executing the dance and performing ofufu. The word ofufu is unique to dialects in the Ohafia region. It is probably derived from the verb root "fu": to blow, or to receive an electric shock. The common characteristic shared by electric shock, blowing, and ofufu is the sense of a force moving through the body. In the case of ofufu, this force is the ancestral power of Ohafia warriors. It is said that the akwatankwa "push" this force, filling Ohafia men with the power of their heroic ancestors which manifests as ofufu. Hence, when the sound of akwatankwa is heard, the insistent rhythm carries with it a sense of what it means to be an Ohafia man, a descendent of courageous warriors.

The war dance is a dramatic embodiment of Ohafia masculinity and the power associated with their ancestral heritage. The Ohafia word for chest is used idiomatically in a manner similar to the way "heart" is in English. Thus, it is said of a happy person "his chest is sweet." Of the courageous it is said that their chest is powerful. Ofufu manifests the sense of a powerful chest as a dramatically embodied and experienced fact. The dancers are dressed with concentrated clusters of signification: images evocative of ruthlessness, courage and masculinity. The ram's mane, the eagle feathers, the mimesis of the color and movement of the leopard establish an immediate affinity between the war dancers and the virility and power of these animals.

The lead dancer carries a headdress bearing heads. In the past, when a warrior was celebrated after returning from battle with a human head as a trophy, the headdress was a large pot, blackened with sacrificial blood, upon which were tied the prepared skulls of particularly formidable victims of the past. At other times, a long board covered with leopard skin and bearing carved wooden representations of heads was carried to honor men who had killed leopards or had performed other brave deeds which were considered to be acts equivalent to the taking of a human head in battle.

The skull studded pots are still maintained but they have largely become relics of an earlier age. The leopard board however, is at the center of a living tradition. Now used to celebrate men who have succeeded in business and educational endeavors, it resonates as a key symbol of the relationship between traditional Ohafia culture and the endeavors faced by Ohafia men in the modern world.

The war dance is what Victor Turner refers to as a "contingent ritual," the celebration of which is initiated by events in the lives of individuals. The ceremony occurs in commemoration of a particular person's accomplishments and the dance is performed in the village section in which the celebrant's paternal descent group resides. While people will often say that the war dance "belongs to the whole of Ohafia," particular performances "belong" to individual men. By performing the war dance the community gives recognition to men of achievement. But in doing so, these men become empowered to define what constitutes achievement in their own generation.

The war dance has changed considerably in the past century. The battles of the past have been relegated to remote history. But the dance remains at the heart of Ohafia identity. While the age of head-taking is gone, modern markers of achievement serve equally well as tokens of proven courage and affirmed manhood. New signs have become structurally equivalent to "heads," worthy of celebration just as, in the past, the hunter who killed a leopard was celebrated as having "taken a head." This idiomatic transference is frequently explained in blunt terms by Ohafia people who remark: "we used to go to war and bring back heads, now we go and bring back degrees."

The war dance is about achievement of manhood by way of incorporation of the Other and appropriation of power. The head continues to stand as a resonant symbol of this achievement, but the actions which constitute the appropriation of power have transformed to embrace the structures and relations of modernity: the corporation, the academy, and the state. Hence, when a man returns to Ohafia with an academic degree or arrives in his home village in a Mercedes-Benz he is said to have "taken a head."

The identity realized here is not in the appropriated objects themselves or even in the power that they represent, but in the all important action of returning with them. Those who stay in the city and lose contact with their natal villages are referred to as "lost," as were the warriors who failed to return from battle. Material rewards are not enough to constitute an authentic identity. The sojourn must be completed. The warrior must return, be celebrated, meet his ancestors, and join in the community of heros. Through adaptation of the warrior tradition, the war dance provides a continuity with the past which circumvents the upheavals and social changes which have characterized the last century by appropriating these new elements. It is an embodiment of Ohafia identity which, faced with the transforming influences of consumer culture, religious conversion, and literacy, refuses to succumb and instead incorporates these elements like so many skulls adorning the shrine of an unconquerable people.

The war dance is located at the nexus of history and tradition in Ohafia: that point in social process where the contingent and reflexive acts of individual "history makers" are made coherent and meaningful in relation to an ancestral tradition. The acts themselves are not bound to any particular form. Like comparable events in all societies, the war dance positions participants in relation to the cycles of tradition and the contingent unfolding of history. James Fernandez (1986:44-45) refers to such processes when he writes that humans are:

"time binders" concerned to find the kind of activity that will concretize the incoate, fill the frame in which we find ourselves, and bind the past and the future together.

Processes of "time binding" are explicitly constructed in the war dance. Each performance is initiated by an offering of libations to the ancestors. They are called to come, to share the drink and to join with the living in celebration of Ohafia's heroes, past and present. This action clears the way for the subsequent events and delineates a space in which the boundaries between the living and the dead: the past and the present, become permeable.

This manipulation of time consciousness is fundamental to the experiential dimensions of the war dance. Through aesthetically framed enactments of past events and ancestral heroes, the war dance constitutes a collective experience which extends through time, linking the living to their predecessors. The term "history" fails to convey this sense of community unfolding through time. It is an experience of transtemporal communitas which is at the core of each individual's identification with the war dance event and ultimately with what it means to be Ohafia. The collective community which participates in the creation of the war dance includes the living and the dead; for without the ancestors there would be no community with which to identify.

This presence of ancestors is not a "supernatural" notion. Rather, it is an empirically experienced glimpse of a social reality extending through time over many generations and thus normally outside of the mundane experience of present time consciousness. This notion is eloquently expressed by Ogba Kalu of Abia, Ohafia who stated:

Whenever [the war dance] is performed, our hearts brim with joy: because it is the umbilical cord with which we were born. Whenever we hear its rhythm, our-hearts swell with joy: we think of the day of our birth and cherish the day of our death; we think of the day we shall raise our heads in pride and rejoice in anticipation of the day we shall grow rich ... So then, we are most happy to see it performed every time. (Azuonye 1974:96)

By dancing as the ancestors danced Ohafia people also dance with them. The war dance engages the performer with the past in a manner which collapses the temporal ontology that divides the living and the dead. In this way, participants experience individual existence as a part of a greater whole. But this is not, as Horton (1970:168) suggests merely a mythic nostalgia, a yearning for a "golden age" which has been lost. When Ohafia men dance the war dance, they position themselves in social time and space with their ancestors as ancestors in the making. They come to know that to prevail in their own lives they must live like those brave warriors who brought them into the world. This is not a denial of the present moment but a recognition that the past subsumes it. In this warrior's dance the past is the final conqueror, ultimately incorporating all people and events into its fold.

Between the classical oppositions of subjectivity and objectivity, description and explanation, agency and structure, free will and determinism, there lies what Giddens (1984:374) calls the "double hermenuetic," which he defines as "the intersection of two frames of meaning as a logically necessary part of social science, the meaningful social world as constituted by lay actors and the meta-languages invented by social scientists." Ethnography is located at this intersection and in practice "slippage" (to use Giddens term) occurs between these two frames of meaning. In representing facts of Ohafia life, my goal is to move between these two "frames of meaning" without priviledging one in relation to the other. This approach reflects the recent repositioning of the study of expressive culture within social theory. The grand explanations of the Victorian period, characterized by exemplars such as Durkheim and Marx, form the foundation of twentieth century social analysis. From the perspective of these approaches the arts, music, dance and even religion are conceived of as superstructural elements. At best, such practices are viewed as mere reflections of another, more fundamental order of social relations. At worst, they are seen as devices for masking the inequities of those relations. Since the 1960s there has been a movement to go beyond these formal models of the social toward analysis of practice and process (Ortner 1984). The constitution of the social domain though the initiatives and activities of individual human agents is now a central concern. This shift of emphasis has tremendous implications for the ethnography of ritual, art and performance. These activities can no longer be relegated to the margins of social life. Instead they must be acknowledged as techniques that humans use to creatively form and reformulate their societies.

The Ohafia War Dance does more than express Ohafia notions of power, ethnicity, gender and history. It structures a lived experience of these and in doing so it becomes the very means of producing them. This shift of perspective is in keeping with Foucault's (1977) observation that emphasis on the repressive capacities of power in Western political models has caused us to overlook the constructive nature of socially constituted power which transforms individuals into social persons and experience into knowledge. It is this creative aspect of social power which, in Ohafia, is bestowed by ancestors and may be physically experienced in dance. The Ohafia notion of power (ike), so vividly manifest in the war dance, is in harmony with Arens and Karp's (1989:xii) observation that "power must be viewed in part as an artifact of the imagination and a fact of human creativity." The Ohafia warrior tradition is a social production as well as a social fact. Although people are driven to achieve greatness because they are born into a tradition which demands it, all individuals fight their own battles, bearing responsibility for their achievements and failures. The collective can only exist as it is constituted by "the initiatives and actions of individual persons" (Jackson and Karp 1990:29). In Ohafia as elsewhere, the performance arts embody this constitutive process. They create a nexus at which the individual and the collective intersect. It is at this nexus of the part and the whole, the person and society, identity and history, creator and created, that social forms emerge and can be transformed. Such a view accounts for that fact that the war dance has retained currency in Ohafia in spite of the fact that head taking, its putative object, is no longer practiced. The dance itself has proven to be more vital than the practice it originally commemorated, the act of celebration more definitive than the act celebrated.


Arens, W. and Ivan Karp "Introduction" Creativity of Power: Cosmology and Action in African Societies. W. Arens and I. Karp (eds.). Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. 1989

Azuonye, Chukwuma "The Narrative War Songs of the Ohafia Igbo: A Critical Analysis of their Characteristic Features in Relation to their Social Function". Ph.D. Dissertation. University of London, 1974

Bourdieu, Pierre Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977

Fernandez, James Persuasions and Performances: The Play of Tropes in Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986

Foucault, Michel Discipline and Punish. New York: Pantheon Books. 1977

Giddens, Anthony The Constitution of Society. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1986

Horton, Robin "African Traditional Thought and Western Science." Rationality. Bryan Wilson ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1970

Jackson, Michael and Ivan Karp "Introduction." Personhood and Agency: The Experience of Self and Other in African Cultures. M. Jackson and I. Karp (eds.). Uppsala University. Washington: distibuted by Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992

Mauss, Marcel "Techniques of the Body." Economy and Society. 2(1):70-88, 1973

Mbiti, John African Religions and Philosophy. London: Heinemann, 1970

Mudimbe, V. Y. The Invention of Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988

Ortner, Sherry "Theory in Anthropology Since the 'Sixties." Comparative Studies in Society and History. 26:126-166, 1984

Zahan, Dominique The Religion, Spirituality, and Thought of Traditional Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979

passages |