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Airdate: Nov 16, 1998
Scientist: Sokari Douglas-Camp


The dry winter months are masquerade season for the Kalabari people of Nigeria.

For the Kalabari people of Nigeria, the winter is masquerade season. It's all part of a seventeen year cycle of ritual events which celebrates the spirit world and its resonance with human affairs. I'm Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet, presented by the American Museum of Natural History.

The inspiration behind these masquerades was a vision: one day a Kalabari woman went out collecting herbs near the banks of the river and witnessed a spirit performing an elaborate dance. Since then, a masquerade which reenacts this story has passed into the hands of an elite society of Kalabari men. Some say they become possessed by the spirits themselves. As part of the masquerade, with hundreds of townsfolk looking on, the men appear in the town square dressed in costumes representing the spirits. To become full inititiates in the society of the masquerade, each man must perform the spirit's intricate dance.

Sokari Douglas-Camp is a sculptor whose work has appeared in "The Art of the Kalabari Masquerade," an exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History. She remembers watching the masquerade as a child.

"As a child you are fearful because it's a spirit and the person inside this costume is basically no longer there; they've been possessed. You're coming in contact with a spirit and the fact that, as a small child watching these things, the human form has changed so much you just find [it] absolutely extraordinary and there's the excitement of watching the masquerade in a big arena in our town square and just being squashed by rather large ladies and other children jostling you and the whole thing's very exciting."

Additional funding for this series has been provided by the National Science Foundation. I'm Jim Metzner.