Naked Big Fish [Sokari Douglas Camp]

Rivaat Zarlif

Contributor

In the mangrove swamps of the Niger Delta in Nigeria, you quickly become sensitive to the water's rise and fall.

The Kalabari live on 23 islands in the Delta and are particularly aqua-sensitive. To make sure they are on good terms with the enormous amount of water around them, young Kalabari men dress up as merman hermaphrodites with wickedly eccentric headgear. Naked Big Fish, for example, has a canary-yellow and winged dolphin-crocodile. Camp has also put him in a sexy vest because, as she explains, "I like men in string vests. I love that their nipples can be caught in the string." Aha. 

The local water spirits are all female and love it when the men folk get dolled up. You see, long ago the water spirits abducted a lovely Kalabari girl called Ekineba and taught her the art of masquerading. When she returned to home she taught the men folk and ever since the spirits come on land during the masquerades and possess the performers. The whole lot, spirits and humans, then get to celebrate together. Big party.

How do the water spirits know the performers are appropriately hermaphrodite and ok to possess? Well, in front the men strap on pregnant stomachs made out of baskets, and on their backs attach large erection-like things. It's not subtle but the salty mangrove water has probably left the water spirits nearsighted.

Camp grew up in the Niger Delta and as a kid loved the masquerades: "It's like coming in touch with Father Christmas, except in a far more electric way. Peter Pan, a real fairy, playing in front of you! They come to perform for you and they tell you stories about their world."

The Delta, however, has had decades of oil spills and violence and Camp wonders whether man has driven the water spirits away. She has exposed Big Fish as a man pretending to be a god. The childhood magic is gone.