Boat regatta is a vibrant and significant event amongst the Niger Delta in Nigeria. Boat Regatta is a festival celebrated by the riverine people of Niger Delta Region in Nigeria. The festival is celebrated by people from Rivers State, Akwa Ibom State, Bayelsa State, and Cross River State. Rooted in ancient traditions, this festival holds great importance for the local communities and serves as a time to honor their cultural heritage, connect with their ancestors, and foster a sense of unity among the people. The boat regatta practice was fashioned by the coastal and riverine peoples of Nigeria as a means of protecting and drawing strength from the environment through the use of watercrafts and boats to defend creeks and territorial waters. Boats are lined up on the sea and adorned beautifully in rich and vibrant colors and dances are performed by performers on each of the boats. Each of the dance styles passing a cultural message or a story. Different parts of the Niger delta each exhibit different styles and patterns of the boat regatta but they all have the same characteristics.
Ijaw people, also known as the Izon people or Izon Otu, are a tribe found predominantly living in the Niger Delta. The tribe has lived in Nigeria for several centuries. One of the most crucial and noteworthy practices that have survived history worth centuries is the Boat Regatta Festival. The festival is an important part of the community’s annual calendar. Several communities, sub-ethnic groups and smaller tribes within the Ijaw ethnic nation take the initiative to participate in the competition. The Boat Regatta Festival, or the Boating competition, brings forth the spirit and creativity of the people. Before the Boat Regatta, the competitors take their time to decorate and adorn their competing partners, the boats. The community members of the Ijaw Ethnic Nation give a lot of respect to the community’s people. This is because the boats are a source of livelihood and pride for the competitors. The people of the Ijaw, Ekpeye, Ogoni, Isoko, Nembe, Kalabari, Okrika, and Igbani communities take ardent measures to care for their boats and keep them in good working conditions for the festival.
The festival is usually hosted when there is a high tide in the river. Accordingly, the tribes celebrate the festival at the height of the rainy season (between the months of May and June).
This is when the rivers are perfect for staging the festival. The brightly decorated boats floating against the background of the rivers is an amazing sight and a wonder to behold.
In Cross River, the Efik tribe marks various conquests in tribal wars conducted in the ancient times by celebrating this boat Regatta once a year. There are two types of regatta the ceremonial and the competitive.
The Competitive Regatta is a social event for entertainment and a gathering of the Efik and Qua communities where there are races, competitions and a winner is deemed the champion of the festival, while the ceremonial regatta is observed during the coronation of a new King (Obong) followed by ceremonial boat paddling and displays.
In the West, particularly Ondo, Boat regatta is associated with the people of Ilaje, Ijaw Apoi and Ijaw Arogbo in Ilaje and Ese-Odo Local Government Areas of the State. The various forms of regatta include ritual, social war and boat racing. It could be held at any time of the year, but most appropriate when water volume reduces between the months of November and December when most social occasions are held.
In Nigeria, most of the tribes and communities trace their deities or places of worship on hills or special stones, while those of the riverine locate theirs on water serving mermaids, river gods and goddesses. Thus, the regatta practice must have evolved as a religious assemblage or propitiatory ceremonies to appease the water gods or goddesses. The aim of the exercise was to offer prayers to the gods and goddesses for protection and prevention or scare any evil the community. Since the fall of the city-states, kingdoms and communal societies through colonilization, the regatta practices in Nigeria acquired new role as a social activity instead of a spiritual one. These include, receptions of very important personalities and visitors, fishing festivals and expeditions, as well as celebrations of important events in the community. Today the regatta has developed into a giant recreational activity of tourist significance as people all over seem to come to witness the festival. This involves boat-rowing competitions, boat racing, dancing, wrestling and a host of other activities for entertainment during special occasions. The boat regatta has also been used to honor special and very important guests to the communities as a way of warm reception. The modern versions of the assemblage use fleets of colorful canoes, which carry flags and bounties in artistic formations and skilled paddlers while musicians and dancers perform to enrich the performances. The canoes carry emblems or symbolic inscriptions of different group or clans. The display of modern war regatta simply depicts symbolic war costumes elaborately patterned to suit the particular occasions. Despite the influence of Christianity, which tended to have eroded much of Nigerian culture lining many of the practices as heathen ways, the relic of boat regatta as maritime heritage among the delta and riverine peoples of Nigeria continue to persist and thrive. Although the ancient practice of communicating with the river gods and goddesses has been watered down, many of the dances and relishes have been kept.
Before the day of the festival, all the boats that would participate in the regatta are properly cleaned, polished and adorned with ornaments and colorful strips of clothes, palm fronds. During the days leading up to the festival, different war songs are sang , food is prepared in large quantities in order to mark the event, preparation to receive foreigners are also made, the water is also closely watched, fishermen in the communities all park their boats and canoes in anticipation of the boat regatta some specific dance moves are rehearsed. On the day of the boat regatta, the entire village comes alive with excitement. Villagers dress come out of their homes, and gather together to sing and dance to various songs while people appreciate the performances of the masquerades that come out to perform. However the boat regatta because it is a festival practices in multiple parts of the country, each community has rituals peculiar to them. Boat paddling performances are exhibited by each of the boats, there are also races where the winner is deemed champion of the regatta. In terms of the display, the community main chiefs and elders all watch the performances, to judge and decide the winner. In conclusion, the boat regatta is a festival that brings the people together, it fosters unity and happiness in the hearts of the people. It also serves as a bearing of tourism, and enables people from different parts of the country to witness the culture of the people and learn more. The festival spurs a great sense belonging and joy in the people as each and every person would want to be a part of the festival and is looked with great anticipation and excitement. The boat regatta festivals helps burn the candles off its practice, the constant yearly celebration will enable its continuous practice as generations to come will want to keep the festivals for their future generations.