During the dry season, from October to April, the Tiv people of Benue State hold events of theatrical performance, dramatizing their folklore with masquerades, puppets, and marionettes. The resultant theatre, a demonstration of composite storytelling accompanied by music, is the Kwagh-Hir. The stories draw from history, tradition, and contemporary social norms, and are a medium for passing on customs and worldviews across generations as well as visual metaphors for past developments, including conflicts. A Kwagh-Hir performance includes roles for singers, drummers, dancers, and acrobats.
The word “kwagh-hir” is reported to mean “something magical/a thing of magic.” The Kwagh-Hir theatre evolved from the Kwagh-alom, an earlier art form of moonlight storytelling within families. The evolution is widely reported to have been begun in 1960, by one man called Adikpo Songo, who believed he was entrusted by spirits with a vision demonstrating the workings of the theatre. However, there are scholars who conclude that its origin was a community effort through the sharing of experiences with music.
To function, Kwagh-Hir groups require four divisions to come together. It needs the management, including a patron to create group identity, a chairman to provide resources, an artistic director, a women’s leader, a forest guard to lead wood carvers, and a warder to ensure order in the group. It needs performers, including a narrator, masqueraders, puppeteers, and a horn blower for timekeeping. It needs musicians: traditional drummers. And it needs a sculptor, who although rarely seen during a performance is considered a scriptwriter of sorts because he determines its aesthetics. Months ahead of performances, sculptors, carpenters, tailors, blacksmiths, and painters are hired to work on the coming spectacle.
The Kwagh-Hir stage has a semicircular main area, a chorus position, an auditorium, and a backstage. The puppets, made of polished wood, have triangular noses and nostrils, small lips, eyes like Nok figures, and articulated limbs that allow the puppets to dance or hunt. They are usually painted a vibrant red.
In his 2013 book The Kwagh-hir Theater: A Weapon for Social Action, the dramatist and ambassador Iyorwuese Hagher contextualises the art form as cultural revolt through the dramatization of everyday living in Tivland. The simple stories being told, of families, of farming, carry Tiv inflections to assert independence.
In 2019, the UNESCO inscribed the Kwagh-Hir on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) of Humanity.
Otosirieze Obi-Young is a Nigerian writer, editor, journalist, and curator. As Editor of Folio Nigeria, he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: business, art, photography, music, activism, health, food. He has extensive experience working in the African literary scene. He is currently the chair of judges for The Gerald Kraak Prize, for African storytellers exploring social justice, sexuality, and gender, and he was a judge for The Morland Scholarship. He was an editor at 14, Nigeria's first queer art collective, and Curator at The Art Naija Series, a sequence of e-anthologies exploring different aspects of Nigerianness. From late 2016 to early 2020, he led the transformation of the literary blog Brittle Paper to a standard platform, creating and administering The Brittle Paper Awards, the first by an African publication. His work in queer visibility advocacy has been profiled in Literary Hub. In 2019, he won the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians" by Avance Media. He completed a collection of short stories in 2016 and his novel in 2020. He has an MA in African studies from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. From 2017 to 2018, he taught English at Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.