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 Editor of Folio Nigeria, where he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: art, business, entertainment, activism, health, food. He is a writer, journalist, curator, media consultant, former academic, and Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Open Country Mag, a new online platform covering African literature. In 2019, he received the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians" by Avance Media. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.