Tribal Stereotypes In Nigerian Comedy: The Calabar Example

by Wilson Orhiunu

The comedy industry in Nigeria is experiencing steady growth. Tribal stereotyping features prominently in Nigerian comedy in instances ranging from stand up routines, to drama or film. Comedians play to the gallery, so one might suggest that there is a demand for these sort of jokes. The question however is why? Not an easy question to answer but I will try.


Gelotology is the study of laughter. Many researchers have undertaken to study laughter in formal situations and produced interesting findings. To date, I am unaware of any such studies being conducted in Nigeria thus I have relied heavily on anecdotal evidence in the writing of this article, and thus bias and inaccuracies might occur.

Eliciting laughter is the ultimate a goal in the performance of a comedy routine. We laugh when we find a situation funny. In many instances a situation is perceived as funny when the end of a series of events results in a different outcome to what we had anticipated at the beginning. Hence the first job of the stand up comedian is usually to make his audience anticipate something. That is only possible by sharing a situation that is familiar to the audience. And since most comedy routines are basically stories about people, the easiest way to manipulate the audiences’ collective expectation is to use stereotypes.

In the Nigeria, all the major ethnic groups have their stereotypical characteristics, which are usually based on erroneous premises. The accent is the easiest one to do. An impression of a Hausa man speaking tends to get the audience laughing in anticipation of a stereotypical story such as security guard or Suya seller with low educational attainment involved in a common scenario for that audience.

Other examples of tribal stereotypes are the Igbos’ love for money, Edo girls in Italy involved in prostitution, and Yorubas who love to lavish huge monetary gifts while dancing at parties. The major tribes feature prominently in comedy routines, as these characters with their regional accents are easily recognisable by audiences.

Apart from absurd or incongruous ends to stories, there is the feeling of superiority, which good comedians evoke in their audiences when talking about the stupidity or undesirable qualities of other tribal groups or individuals.

That may explain the ready success comedians have enjoyed from telling jokes about poor or ‘wowo’ (ugly) people. Everybody tend to laugh at these jokes; ironic in a country where poverty, real or relative, is rife.

Anything that may explain why comedy shows staged in a town will tend to have comedians telling jokes at the expense of other towns or the minority groups within that town- a sort of bullying.

Comedy affords an opportunity to laugh at events and problems that are not funny in any way. The pent up frustrations are given a release through laughter, and this helps to reduce tension.

Of all the tribal stereotypes on offer in Nigerian comedy, the most politically incorrect and vicious lampooning seems to be reserved for the Calabar people. Why?

Calabar People

This widely used term in Nigeria – Calabar people is somewhat inaccurate. Calabar is the Capital of Cross River State, which was created in February 1976 out of the former South Eastern State (created May 27, 1967 out of the former Eastern region).

The three major language groups in Cross River State are; Efik, Bekwara and Ejagham. Akwa Ibom State was created in September 23, 1987 and was craved out of the Old Cross River State. The major ethnic groups in Akwa Ibom are Ibibio, Anang and Oron.

To the average Nigerian the two states of Akwa Ibom and Cross River are simply called Calabar, partly due to ignorance and also due to the fact that till date many Nigerians have not gotten a hang of the current map of Nigeria! The various languages in these two states are also loosely called Calabar or Efik.

History, Myths and Icons.

Like I have alluded to before, comedy requires the audience to ‘get’ the story as it starts so that the ‘punch line’, usually an unexpected outcome, achieves maximum impact.

The people of Akwa Ibom and Cross River have a distinctive accent known to most audiences in Nigeria. This lends itself to comedy very readily.

I also suspect that their rich history and culture which features strong iconoclastic characters make them exotic or perhaps enigmatic, thus making stories about them appear much more interesting.

These people of the South Eastern part of Nigeria are not known for rioting, so perhaps the Nigerian comedians and script-writers feel confident that there will be no back lashes from the ‘polite and dignified’ Calabar when they are mercilessly lampooned in the name of entertainment.

The most Dramatic things in Nigeria as a whole seem to happen to the ‘Calabar people’ and here I begin my list.

Mary Slessor (1848-1915), the Queen of Calabar, was a Scottish missionary who lived and worked with the people of Okoyong for many years. She learnt the Efik language and died in those parts. Her grave stands there till date. She is credited with stopping the killing of twins in these parts and stopping the trial of witches by the Calabar Ordeal Bean.

A Dr W F Daniel first reported the use of this bean; Physiostigma Venenosum, a woody vine and known to all students of Physiology world wide, in 1846.

People suspected of Witchcraft were forced to eat some of the beans, which contained Physiostigmine. There were three outcomes possible.

Firstly, if the beans are vomited and the patient survives then they were acquitted. Secondly, if they had abdominal symptoms and survived they were sold into slavery. Finally, if they died, they were deemed guilty.

Missionaries at the time learnt to swallow the beans when captured by the ‘natives’ and put through the ordeal. They then regurgitated the beans up and survived. They had learnt that the deadly Physiostigmine was only released after chewing the bean (Na Beans!).

John Newton (1725 to 1807), the author of the world famous hymn Amazing Grace was said to have been inspired to write this hymn after hearing traditional songs in Old Calabar when he was a Captain on a Slave ship. This story has been the subject of numerous writings, documentaries and films, including Jeta Amata’s Amazing Grace released in 2006. These three stories have given Calabar a place in world history and folklore.

Throughout Nigeria’s recent history, a subject of discussion among men for many years is the traditional fattening rooms of Calabar have been. These are rooms where young girls are feed to obese proportions for months and also taught how to satisfy a man ie sexually, through cooking, home management skills, respect for in laws etc. This has given rise to the myth that Calabar girls know how to take care of a man. And since comedy is a male dominated profession, this image of beautiful girls with insatiable sexual appetites, the stuff male fantasy, gains expression during stand up routines.

Another myth is that Dog meat is eaten regularly in Calabar and its environs and this meat somehow confers a sexual stamina on the women who eat it.

Then there is the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star whose leader is Olumba Olumba Obu, who claims to be God. He is a well-known ‘Calaber man’.

In more recent times the dispute over the oil-rich Bakassi peninsular between Nigeria and Cameroun has brought the area into the limelight. The International Court of Justice in 2002 awarded the peninsular to the Cameroun to the consternation of many Nigerians. The word Bakkassi was used as a jocular slang for female buttocks and also serves as a name for the vigilante group, Bakkassi boys.

This South Eastern area is on its way to becoming a major tourist attraction with the opening of Tinapa; a business and leisure development. The Obudu cattle ranch is also a much talked about destination boasting of a cool climate due to its high altitude (1,542m) and affording visitors to embark on horse riding, hiking and the like.

In London, there is a well known restaurant called Mama Calabar, a place where nutritional needs are meet.

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Adiaha June 14, 2010 - 8:59 pm

Firstly, anyone that is “Calabar” should calm down re how defensive you are. Here you are priding yourself that the Europeans chose to marry from our side rather than from the other sides…at which point you proceeded to insult the people you thought had offended Calabar people. That is not the way to represent us. Your bitterness is apparent and I am not sure where that stems from. We know we have been the butt of jokes forever, but all groups go through that. If you are not a housemaid with no education or class, dont act like it by engaging in ignorant abuse. Seun id right, ufan, get your facts straight. Ku swen idem mfo!

seun December 6, 2008 - 1:49 am

@The author, nice article. However, it is my belief that no truly educated person, can decide to relate with a group of people or tribe based on what a comedian says. Thanks to Grace we all now know about the great achievement of the Calabar/Akwa Ibom people, but the truth is that a joke is a joke, not to be taken seriously. Besides I think that the jokes are shifting more towards waffi. Take the waffi people for instance, they are very funny people, they know it and they do a good job of making people laugh. They make fun of other people as well as themselves. When a comedian tells a joke, he does so with the aim of making people laugh, if a Yoruba,Igbo or Huasa joke helps him achieve this great, if it is an Akwa Ibom,Waffi or Fulani joke, then he might as well render it. Let us not get carried away with tribal sentiments.

seun December 6, 2008 - 1:19 am

@grace, You are quite obviously a very bitter person. Good thing no one bothered to waste “their time wif u”. But you c, you need to recheck ur facts.

Grace September 1, 2008 - 12:09 am

Akwa Ibom/Cross River are states that produces only the best which includes the first professor of Nigeria, as stated below. Even when they are oppressed financially by the fed govt, psychologically by some tribes; by laws and policies enacted by the hausas/yorubas, that have left their economy less than what it should be.

The Ibos and Yorubas seem to enjoy stigmatizing us as househelps in home videos(Ekaete, Udo, Akpan, Okon), thereby creating an impression to d ignorants, that we are as portrayed.

The hausas and yorubas seem to have a need to belittle the Calabars, that i think stemmed from the past when we always received more favours from the Europeans, and the Europeans generally married from our area, rather than some dirty, no consequence, cultureless, mannerless, yoruba people.

Prominent figures in the history of Calabar(Cross River/Akwa Ibom) include King Archibong III – the first king in southern Nigeria to be crowned with regalia sent by Victoria of the United Kingdom, in 1878. Others include Eyo Ita, the first Nigerian Professor; Louis Edet, first Nigerian Inspector General of Police; Margaret Ekpo, first woman special member in Nigeria’s Eastern House of Chiefs and later Eastern House of Assembly; Hogan “Kid” Bassey, first Nigeria’s World Boxing Champion; and Etubom Oyo Orok Oyo, premier football administrator, first and only Nigerian so far to be elected into Executive Committee of FIFA (1980 – 1988) and the first African to be made an Honorary Vice President of Confederation of African Football (CAF) (from 1988 for life).

It baffles me how this highly Uneducated people can also produce the following:

Entertainment Industry: Liz Benson, Emem Isong, Ini Edo, Pat Attah, Kate Henshaw, Frank Edoho (Who wants to be a millionaire), Caroline Uduak Abasi Ekandem, to mention but a few.

Abiodun Ladepo: since u seem to love joking about other tribes, i’ll save u a cold one. yorubas are very dirty and loud people who have never contributed anything good to Nigeria. All they do is embezzle the Niger Delta money with the northeners, introduce 419 to Nigeria, take away Bakassi, an oil rich place that was taken from Calabar and given to Cameroon, kill Biafrans inorder to prevent them from separating Niger Delta, and leaving their sorry Ass in poverty, and to add insult to injury, took the capital that should have been in Niger Delta, to their area Lagos(and now the northeners have moved it to Abuja) inorder to develop their area and boom their economy, thereby making them richer, and the owners of the money, poorer. Apart from Lagos the previous capital, and ibadan(which has developed because of the wealth effect of Lagos), the rest of their states remain in abject poverty, Despite the outrageous amount of money that has been spent in that region, while they go about with false air. It sure makes me wonder why they dont hide their faces in shame because they are yorubas.

I rest my case, because i dont need to say more, and for the criticizers, please do a wonderful job, but dont expect a reply, because i have better things to do with my time. Esiere/Ciao.

A Obi July 29, 2007 - 5:33 am

Average Nigerians think that anybody from Akwa Ibom or Calabar is a Calabar man? Then things have improved. It used to be that the average Nigerian (especially our bros/sis from the Lagos-Ibadan corridor) used to think anybody from the former eastern and mid-west regions were Igbo!!! Ofcourse I found this very vexing especially when this sweeping (Igbo) generalisation was made in such a way as to infer that they couldn't be bothered with trying to distinguish b/w the (plenty) tribes from the aforementioned regions. It took me a while to put my Yoruba wife (whom I love very dearly) straight on this issue.

Reply July 27, 2007 - 12:44 pm

One of the funniest pieces I have read in recent time. What is all the fuss about, brother? Why not let us enjoy our tribal jokes? Have you heard the jokes about the Gwaris, the Fulanis, the Ijebus or the Ijeshas? Abeg, go siddon…lol. Good as they are, Calabar jokes pale in comparison to some of the ones mentioned above.

But you vented your spleen in the most humorous manner and I like that. Good job.

Rosie July 25, 2007 - 2:26 pm

Hmm. I too can say I am ignorant of what people in that region are really all about. I guess the joke has gone from Igbos to "Calabars." Good Piece.

Anonymous July 25, 2007 - 12:55 pm

very interesting!


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