Saturday, 11 January 2014

Serious Adventure

A Family’s 6-Month Drive from S’Africa to Calabar

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The Sampsons
Carnivals are one of the top tourism magnets all over the world, no matter how far flung or near their locations are. From long haul flights to stopovers at different airports, carnival enthusiasts remain undaunted in their desire to quench this thirst.
Calabar Carnival is no different as one couple (The Sampsons) decided to do it differently this year, bypassing the comfort of a 6-hour flight from South Africa to Nigeria for a 6-month drive in the quest to savour the thrill of Calabar Carnival. The Sampsons talk to OMOLOLA ITAYEMI while enjoying the carnival
From a modest beginning in 2005, the Calabar Carnival, reputed to be the biggest street party in Africa today, has become an annual fiesta steadily transforming into a continental and global showpiece with hundreds of thousands in attendance every year. Little wonder, it served as the fulcrum of Mr and Mrs Mark Sampson with their children’s (Rubi and Zola) 6-month journey by road to Nigeria. Very daring and not exactly an option people will opt for.
For the Noordhoek, Cape Town residents, watching the fun of Carnival Calabar on TV without physically being part of it was not an attraction anymore. So, as the 2013 edition gradually beckoned, the Sampsons decided to tell their own story and experience from the participants’ eye view. Even if it meant commuting by road with their entire family, they were all for it. And this they did. They were less bothered about the odds. It did not matter how long it would take, what was important was for them to get to Calabar anyhow. And for three months, they hoped and dreamed, planned and set in motion the process of berthing in Calabar for the carnival feast.

The Sampsons are not greenhorns when it comes to carnivals as they are part- organisers of the annual eMzantsi Carnival in Cape Town, South Africa. Sam was the former Managing Director of eMzantsi carnival for the past 8 years and her husband, Mark is a comedian. 2012 was Pearce’s 8th and last Carnival before she embarked on a 2 year trip around ‘Africa Clockwise’ with her husband and family spending six-months journeying to Nigeria.

The cultural ambassadors will be performing the Africa Clockwise show at SA embassies on the way.

So, it comes as little or no surprise when Calabar Carnival featured prominently on their list of places of interest. “My family and I have always wanted to come to the Calabar Carnival. We have heard so much about Calabar Carnival being the biggest carnival in Africa. We have always wanted to come and participate and if possible, arrange an exchange between the Emzantsi and the Calabar carnivals. I have watched the carnival live on television, but this year, we decided to come and witness it here live in Calabar. I am involved with Emzantsi Carnival back home in South Africa. My job is to put together the carnival, which holds every year in the south of Cape Town. I am very excited at the prospect of a pan-African collaboration in carnivals and it will be very wonderful to see Calabar promote a carnival so powerfully for Africa. Nigeria is so such a powerful nation with so many of its citizens in the Diaspora. There is an idea of Nigerians as very aggressive, which is inevitably so if you are a powerful people. But since our arrival here in Calabar, we have nothing but friendliness, warmth and an amazingly welcoming experience. It has truly been overwhelming for us,” enthused a visibly excited Sam Sampson.

Cornish Mark Sampson came to South Africa on a surfing holiday in 1992, and stayed on to work as a histologist in the Red Cross Children’s Hospital. Coventrian Sam Pearce, an Oxford graduate, came on a convalescent holiday in 1994. They met in Cape Town in 1996 and married in 1998, in between working at various music festivals notably Up The Creek as MC and PRO respectively.
In 1999, they founded the Cape Comedy Collective, SA first cross-cultural comedy initiative with Sampson mentoring scores of comedians in their weekly Comedy Lab. In 2003, they took a CCC show to the International Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in partnership with Old Mutual, the Department of Arts and Culture and the British Council, garnering 4 star reviews.
Since 2005 Sampson has written and toured 3 solo shows nationwide.

The Sampsons are not your average backpackers in their big green truck that runs on cooking oil and solar gadgets.
Avid sightseers, they chose the more adventurous and not so comfortable route, hence they preferred to be a ‘giant snail’ slumming it slowly through the road, across six African countries. It was an uncanny adventure they wanted to experience. And for six whopping months, they were holed up in a truck they described fondly as a ‘shell’ powered by cooking oil. With all the components that could be found in the home - bed, kitchen, dining, toilet and bathroom, as well as solar-powered light, they were good to go. “Ordinarily, it should not take us that number of months to get to Nigeria by road. It should have taken us just three months, but our truck kept breaking down in every country we passed through and we got to see every mechanic we met along the way. We spent a lot of time relaxing and sometimes we fell sick on the way and other times we met friends and families as we travelled. With our children with us, there was no rushing. We are a ‘giant snail’ and our truck is the shell of a giant snail. We are in no hurry. We just work with African time which is anytime we get there is the right time to be there.”

Crisscrossing one country to another could come with its own challenges, but Mr. Sampson’s gift of humour, according to Lady Sampson was always on hand to diffuse whatever tension that brewed.  He pulled off jokes when the natives dared to stir. “To be very honest with you, we did not encounter any hazards. We just had a couple of moments of tension. But we found out that you can always diffuse tension with laughter. My husband is a comedian and so, he made us laugh when tension seemed to rise. He is a humorous person and as we crisscrossed different countries trying to come to Calabar Carnival, he usually pulls off jokes when we are stopped by people who try to cause trouble.”

Of all the carnivals that the Sampsons have seen and heard about, none, in their opinion hold a candle to Calabar Carnival. Is Calabar Carnival over hyped? Mrs. Sampson disagrees, offering: “It absolutely surpasses what we have heard and seen on TV of Calabar Carnival. It is far bigger and it is far more professional. Above all, it is world-class and I am so honoured to be here. In fact, I look forward to working with Calabar Carnival in the future?
As one of the organisers of the Emzantsi Carnival in Cape Town, Mrs Sampson thinks there is a lot both the Calabar and the Emzantsi Carnivals could share in common. And collaboration, she hints, could be very much on the cards. And what kind of ‘collabo’ could that be? “I am very interested in introducing a concept that we have in Emzantsi Carnival, which is using recycled materials to make costumes, floats and giant puppets. We use only rubbish and they are yet beautiful. The Calabar Carnival is so spectacular, but I imagine it will be very expensive.
If we are to make things sustainable into the future, it helps to use things that do not cost so much money. I will like to be sharing skills which teach you how to make puppets from recycled materials and Calabar Carnival can teach us how to grow to be so magnificent as it is.”

“We have been everywhere. We have been to Tinapa Water Parks on Christmas day. It is fantastic. We have thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.”
Having just been around for a few weeks, this correspondent couldn’t help but ask if the city of Calabar was what she envisaged and are there any stories to tell? Mrs. Sampson said: “Calabar is very, very clever in the sense that it has positioned itself as a tourism centre. And we as travelers can only appreciate that because it is the first place since we left South Africa that is thinking like that. It has really geared itself towards tourism. It is wonderfully a clean city. It is wonderfully so organised than any city that we have been so far in Africa.
And considering it is a small city relatively, compared to Luanda or Brazzaville, it is far more professionally geared towards travelers and we really appreciate that.”

With Brazil, Egypt, Ghana, Rwanda, Trinidad and Tobago as well as some other countries in the Caribbean all stealing the show at the Calabar Carnival, what is keeping South Africa away from registering her presence? Mrs. Sampson vows this absence will not be long as she will do all within her power to compel her country’s participation in subsequent editions. “I’m going to make it happen. When we leave here, I am going to raise money to facilitate a pan-African collaboration. It is very important that we have a lot to learn from each other. And I would love more of South Africans to learn how spectacular Calabar Carnival is. It is indeed sad that in South Africa, we know so little of Nigerian cultural events.

“I love the waterslides at the Tinapa Water Parks. I will like to come back again next year,’’ says oth. Zola found the carnival extremely different from anything else she has witnessed when it comes to carnivals. ‘’The Cape Town Carnival where I come from is no way near the Calabar Carnival. The Cape Town Carnival is always boring compared to Calabar Carnival. Even the dry run that we witnessed was amazing. I hope we will be here next year. It is just amazing,” she says.
Sam did really dip herself into the Nigerian culture as she admits her love for Nigerian food, fufu. ‘’I love Nigerian foods such as fufu and plantain chips. Why don’t they sell them in South Africa, she enquired? ‘’You must export them to South Africa.  With plantain chips and a bottle of beer, you have yourself the best snacks. It should be everywhere. Nigerian spiced chicken is the best. Spicing here is very different and better than what we have in South Africa.’’

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