A scene from the play
In spite of Elechi Amadi’s grim, blood-cuddling narrative of the communal dispute between two communities over ownership of fishing ponds in his classic novel, The Great Ponds, such face-offs in modern-day Nigeria happen all the time nonetheless. One remembers Ife-Modakeke in Osun State, Aguleri-Umuleri in Anambra State and Igbide-Emedi in Delta State, otherwise neighbouring communities that fought to the death over the ownership of rather negligible pieces of land and fishing ponds. Such is the power of art to predict and project human frailties, and since man learns so little from history, he keeps repeating himself and blundering along needlessly.
This classic dramatization of communal conflict was brought home vividly to a Port Harcourt audience last week Monday at Obi Wali International Centre as part of activities of the rite of passage of late Amadi, who passed on in July. It was part of Amadi’s Festival of Plays that also had Isiburu being performed as well.
Adapted from its prose format to stage by Imo Edward, produced by Emila Nyeoma Agbaru and directed and choreographed by Daniel Walter Kpodoh, performance of The Great Ponds was a fitting testimony to the creative genius of Amadi. However, the duo of Edward (for adaptation) and Kpodoh (for directing and choreography) provided a stunning dramatic re-enactment and realistic battle scenes of a needless communal conflict that claimed so many lives before sanity could be restored. Indeed, it will be such a shame if the production only ends up as one-off performance for Amadi’s burial rite; the performance is such world class standard that it should tour parts of the country for a full realisation of its dramatic import to a wider audience. Lagos theatre directors and choreographers and even Nollywood directors will learn a thing or two about staging mock battles as realistically executed in The Great Ponds.
And so, how do two communities wad off conflict over disputed property? What fuels such disputes and make them escalate beyond control? Importantly, how do people resolve full-blown, costly conflicts as engulfed Chiolu and Aliakoro? What is the role of the elders and warriors? How does the ensuing war impact the vulnerable members of society like children and women? Why should community leadership on both sides remember the path of sanity after so much loss has been incurred? What is the role of neighbours and mediators and at what a point should they step in to avert self-inflicted destruction by the warring parties?
These are some of the puzzling conflict scenarios Amadi has created in this work that should engage conflict resolution students and experts alike before or when tension, with the potential for conflagration, flares up between communities, when disputes over ownership of natural properties, especially landed property, happens. Chiolu and Aliakoro could have avoided war if the elders of Chiolu are not so insistent on a hefty ransom for the Aliakoro men they seized.
Buoyed by certain invincibility as a result of an earlier battle they had won over Aliakoro over Wagaba ponds and believing the war scale is still on their side, Chiolu’s elders shun the path of caution. From greed of a hefty ransom to ego boasting, things soon escalate. Aliakoro, still smarting from their previous defeat, are more than ready to take on Chiolu’s challenge. And so when Aliakoro captures Chiolu’s women and girls in retaliation and demands more than double ransom on them, Chiolu is scandalised; but all is fair in war, as a mockery of Chiolu’s protestation that Aliakoro has violated a gentleman’s agreement to leave women out of disputes. Aliakoro presses home its advantage; even the pregnant wife of Chiolu’s chief warrior, Olumba (Monday Evbuomwan), is taken hostage.
It is at this stage that neighbouring communities, fearing a backlash, step in to broker peace. Olumba offers himself to insure ownership as he swears to Ogbunabali, the god of the disputed ponds that has watched, with indifference, the needless bloodbath. Olumba is to die in six months if the ponds do not belong to Chiolu. But Aliakoro people lend a hand to the matter; Olumba must not live out the six months. And so they hire a diviner to ensure Olumba dies. But Olumba also seeks fortification.
By the time peace is restored, the two communities are so broken and battered. What is worse, the abominable has happened; a man kills himself right inside the disputed ponds. No man will ever be able to fish in Wagaba ponds again. Both communities do not only smart from the war scars, there is no prize for either to claim after all. It is a scandalous denouement to a grim dispute and waste of lives.
The Great Ponds, and indeed, Amadi’s fictional narratives, verge on the fatalistic, where man’s impulses or those outside of him, render him prostrate and bewildered! However, there was absolutely no need for the huge screen that simulated scenic effects, as it clashed all through with the lighting. The red carpet is another talking point, too.
The ingenuous use of a Narrator (Deprey Omoku) gives the performance the hair-raising edginess of a looming disaster soon to befall Chiolu and Aliakoro communities. His ominous submission is that greed and ego will soon bring death over upon men because of fish; yes, fish and death will soon be grim companions that will stalk the lives of Chiolu and Aliakoro’s inhabitants.