Folk music troupes and dancers, chefs and a 'Nollywood' film festival bring the beat of Africa to Old Jaffa.
As celebrations of Tel Aviv's 100th anniversary continue to roll on, an entire African nation has decided to join the party. The Federal Republic of Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa and eighth most populous country in the world, just completed an exuberant "Nigerian Festival Week," with a colorful array of programs worthy of the hundredth birthday party of one of the most colorful cities in the world. This unique festival was designed to entertain and amaze even the most blasÃ© and jaded among us with some of the most vibrant aspects of Nigerian culture - traditional folk music troupes, spectacular costumes, singers, dancers, drummers, a surprisingly rich ethnic cuisine and, last but not least, recent productions from Nigeria's booming film industry.
The festival kicked off in Old Jaffa on Saturday with a carnival of music, drums and dance. Two highly acclaimed Nigerian dance troupes were showcased: The Adaeze International Cultural Troupe, with their diverse repertoire covering all ethnic varieties of Nigerian dance styles; and the Benue Group, featuring its signature Swanger Dance from the Tiv people, one of Nigeria's major ethnic groups.
August 22 also saw the opening of a week-long festival of Nigerian films at Tel Aviv's Cinematheque. Nigeria's film industry is now the third largest in the world, after Hollywood and Bollywood - the film industry of India. Called "Nollywood" by New York Times writer Matt Steinglass and known by that name ever since, the local industry produced more than 2,000 films last year - up from 662 movies five years ago. Most of the films are in English, with the rest produced in the major local languages of Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo and Edo.
Unlike Hollywood and Bollywood, Nollywood shoots its movies on videotape, instead of much more expensive film. For reasons of economy, there are no movie studios. Films are shot on location, and are intended for viewing at home, on DVDs. These DVDs are sold in markets for the equivalent of two or three dollars, making them available to virtually everyone. Film crews work at speeds unknown anywhere else. One director, Chico Ejiro, boasts of having made more than 80 movies in five years, and claims to be able to complete a full length feature film in three days. Whatever Nollywood movies may lack in technical quality or western-style production values, they more than compensate their audiences with eye-level, up-close looks at African life, with compellingly real African stories told by Africans themselves.
ROUNDING OUT the week of festivities was the "Magic of Nigeria" food festival, offering Israelis a rare taste of Nigeria's rich and varied cuisine. Ethnic dishes were available throughout the weeklong cultural events and, from August 24 to 27, at the Olive Leaf Restaurant at the Sheraton Tel Aviv Hotel. With a team of Nigerian cooks, Chef Charlie Fadida prepared a Nigerian menu featuring such discoveries as "Obe Ata Pepper Soup," a blend of green peppers and tomatoes with meat, palm oil and hot chili; "Jollof Rice," a traditional rice dish with tomatoes, green pepper, onion, chili and meat - along with a generous serving of yam and cassava chips; and "Suya," a spicy roasted beef dish.
The initiator and driving force behind the entire Nigerian Festival Week was Janet Olisa, 44, wife of Nigeria's ambassador to Israel, H.E. Sam Azubuike Dada Olisa. As she explained to The Jerusalem Post at the beginning of the film showings, "The purpose of the festival is to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of Tel Aviv, and also the branding of Nigeria. We have a policy to showcase the country and explain who we are. We have a country of diverse cultures, a country of 140 million people coming from 400 different ethnic groups."
Olisa further highlighted her county's cultural diversity by saying, "The south of Nigeria is ethnically the most complicated, with more ethnic groups than any other region. There used to be a song that said that every one kilometer, there's a different language spoken. This is a very important issue for us. It explains why we are difficult to govern, and why we need a president who understands the country's diversity." She and her husband are members of different ethnic groups.
Born in Lagos to a polygamous family, Olisa credits her mother as being the major inspiration of her life. Olisa's mother separated from the family, left Lagos, and brought her daughter Janet to live and study up north. "Each time my mother improved our economic situation, she put me in a different primary school, so I went to four primary schools."
Her secondary school was the Federal Government Girls' College. One of Nigeria's many "unity schools," its policy was to recruit and teach girls of many different ethnic groups from all over the country and blend them into one national identity. Influenced by her mother's steely determination, Olisa then went to Ambuz Ali University, and graduated with a BSc. in economics. Olisa entered the Nigerian Foreign Ministry shortly thereafter, where she met her future husband.
Olisa is herself a career diplomat in Nigeria's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Because of a policy of not allowing married diplomats to serve at the same post, Olisa has chosen to accept the somewhat nebulous position of "ambassador's wife." Many spouses of ambassadors have complained throughout the years of having simply too little to do - a frustrating situation for people who are often every bit as educated and qualified as their ambassadorial husbands or wives.
HAS OLISA set out to redefine the position? "I don't know if I'm trying to redefine it, but I myself have never been the sort of person to just sit at home. By going out and pursuing my own interests, perhaps I have shown that an ambassador's wife has a useful role."
Olisa says she has attempted to do precisely that during her husband's previous postings to Belgium and the Philippines, as well as here in Israel.
As far as her two-year stint in Israel is concerned, Olisa recalls, "When we were approached about being posted in Israel, we were somewhat anxious. We had read a great deal about the Middle East, and all we really knew was that Israel was a country at war. But we were wrong. We got here and have had a wonderful time. My children have been so free, they've had friends from all over. And my daughter has had a lovely time. She just graduated from high school in Jaffa. She cried as she was leaving. I couldn't believe that was possible. Israel is nothing like we thought it would be."
The Olisas have four children. The two oldest remained behind in the Philippines, the family's previous post, to attend university. Their daughter, now 18, is off to the US to attend college, leaving a 10-year-old son with them here in Israel.
Aside from keeping busy organizing charity events and volunteer services, making the usual round of diplomatic events - not to mention raising children - Olisa found the time to pursue a course of graduate studies at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, where she received an MBA.
After two years in Israel, the Olisas will leave later this year. The ambassador is slated to retire from Nigeria's Foreign Ministry next month, upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 60. The couple will return to Nigeria and she to the Foreign Ministry. Before leaving, however, Olisa says she has one more project left in her: fundraising on behalf of Mayumana, the internationally acclaimed Tel Aviv-based dance troupe, in which her son performs. "He was selected during the past year and has been performing with them since. I'm doing a fundraising project for them."
Will she be sorry to leave? "Very much so," she says. "I've had a lovely time. And I must say that without the help of the wonderful Israeli ladies I have met in the International Women's Club, I could not have pulled off this Nigerian Festival. These ladies have shown me what Israel is all about."