How the Caretta Carnival became one of the biggest carnivals in West Africa

The Caretta Carnival, also known as the Fanti Carnival, is an annual celebration among Afro-Brazilians in Lagos, Nigeria. It is an open, welcoming, and inclusive festival with no discriminatory tendencies. While the carnival started several decades ago, it has evolved to become one of Africa’s largest due to the luxury, colorful display, rich culture, and fanciful costumes displayed during the celebrations. The carnival’s history is interesting because the story dates back to the slave trade and its eventual abolition in the nineteenth century.

It is important to mention that there are several eventful carnivals in West Africa and even in Lagos, the home of the Caretta festival. From the Calabar carnival to the Gerewol festival, Africa, and indeed West Africa, is home to rich culture and tradition that are mostly indigenous to its people. But in Lagos, Nigeria, there is a fascinating carnival that started, not by the indigenes, but by the offspring of people captured during the inglorious slave trade, which led to the emigration of millions of able-bodied men and women to the Americas to work on plantations.

Some of these captured slaves were taken to Brazil, Cuba, El Salvador, etc., which is home to Caretta. At the end of the slave trade, some of them were taken back to Lagos, where they believed they had come from because of similarities in language and belief. Though some were definitely not related to the indigenous people of Lagos in any way, they found themselves in Lagos and resided among the indigenous people already living in Lagos, called Isale Eko. So, how did this carnival begin?

Lagos is well-known for its rich cultural festivals and events, such as the Lagos Carnival, Eyo Festival, and Lagos International Food and Drink Festival, which are open to the public and highlight the diversity of Nigerian culture. By the end of the slave trade, descendants of returnees who arrived in Lagos came not only with the vast expertise of Brazilian architectural design but also with a social and cultural rapport that dotted much of the activities in the later-named Brazilian quarters in Lagos Island, and indeed in other parts of western Nigeria. This sizable Afro-Brazilian community influenced the city’s culture and traditions for centuries. These cultural and historical influences can be found in a variety of aspects of Lagosian life, such as music, dance, food, and architecture.

According to research carried out by Onadipe Titilayo (2020), the Caretta Carnival started in 1890 to celebrate “the church and the arrival of the returnees.” The Caretta Carnival is actually a cultural relic of Brazil. When the returnees settled in Lagos, even though the indigenes were accommodating they discovered that they were mostly isolated by the people because of the differences in their character and orientation. Thus, to make the atmosphere lively and celebrate the returnees, they started the Careta Festival. They engaged in this sociocultural activity during the time of their slavery in Brazil. Caretta, by the way, is an expression that connotes masks in Brazil. Thus, it is not surprising that during their carnival, most of the costumes include masks.

The Caretta Festival was soon called the Fanti Carnival due to two major reasons. Alaba Simpson (2007) ascribed the metamorphosis of the name from Caretta to Fanti to the adulteration of the word “fancy” used to describe the people that participate in the carnival and, secondly, the contribution of another group of settlers in the Lafiaji area of Lagos from Togo and Ghana in 1936 who wore Ankara instead of the elaborate costumes used by the Afro-Brazilians.

The Festival is usually held on January 1 every year. People in Lagos and their guests are entertained with costumes, music, and dance that depict a diverse blend of the city’s Brazilian and Cuban heritage. The Fanti Carnival has grown in popularity and acceptance among people of all ages and backgrounds. Not long ago, the Lagos State government showed interest in the activities during the Carnival. This portends huge potential not only for the organizers but also for the state government in terms of revenue generation in the near future.

Adedeji Ademola

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