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The historical Argungu fishing and culture festival in Kebbi State


The historical background of the Argungu fishing and culture festival
The Argungu International Fishing and Cultural Festival (The most widely attended in Nigeria and perhaps the oldest known festival of its kind) predate the “Conquests” of Kanta of Kebbi in early 16th Century. The festival started initially in the form of religious rites prior to the time of Surame Gungu of Kebbi Kingdom. In other words it began as an informal family and communal affair. Since that time the festival has undergone several changes and modifications.

More than 30.000 fisherman had taken part to the annual Argungu fishing festival in Nigeria's Kebbi state. People from all west africa has come to partecipate to the main event: the fishing contest in the waters of the river Mata Fada, using nets and traditional gourds made with calabashes a sort of punpkin dried and hollowed. The fisherman who take the biggest fish wins a prize of 7000 dollars, a huge amount of money for nigerian people

The evolution of the festival at Argungu seems to go hand with the socio economic development of the Kabawa (people of Kebbi) generally. Since the 16th century (Kanta’s days), the festival as we know it today has become more elaborate and stylish. At the same time it has, since the jihad period, been getting progressively enriched with the fielding of more events for the general entertainment of the attending public.

To make this write up comprehensive, we shall here categorise the historical background of Argungu fishing into two main adaptation phases:

Fishing festival from 16th century to 1934 in brief

In the 16th century - the days of Kanta - the fishing festival at Kabi probably assumed a sort of nationalistic character. The spectacular rallying powers of Kanta who used to travel in a boat receiving homage through out his riverine empire must have served to bring in bold belief the desirability as well as efficacy of a centralised festival. Kanta himself was known to have encouraged both localised and annual festivals as a passport to having a very firm hold on his subject people. Kanta had to work hand in hand with the officials and chiefs of fishing and waters who also advised him in matters of significance for the welfare of his kingdom such as during warfare, communal fishing and harvests. In this period four major public rituals were observed.

Gyaran Ruwa

The Fashin Ruwa

The Gyaran Gari and

The Shan Kabewa and Fura

The first two ceremonies, (Gyaran Ruwa and Fashin Ruwa) relate to water and have direct bearing on fishing while the last two ceremonies are land propitiations.

Specifically the Gyaran Ruwa refers to the basic rituals of purification of waters that precedes the great fishing day with the view to have a hitch-free fishing festival on the appointed day. On the day of Gyaran Ruwa, the priests and the Bori parishioners enter big canoes and traverse the length of Kabi Rivers. In the process, the Jirgi (Master of the river) pours libations in the middle of the river to the Queen Spirit of the Water (Doguwa). At this junction, the Bori practitioners leap into the water and perform some incantation for the protection of the fishermen throughout the year.

The Fashin Ruwa signifies the opening up of the waters for fishing. In this case the Home seeks formal permission from the Emir of Kabi who then fix a date for beginning of the fishing season. Through the Home, the Fashin Ruwa rite attracts a great deal of social interaction. It is a national event with open displays of music, dance, acrobatics, wrestling etc serving as side attractions witnessed by huge crowds of men, women and children.

The Gyaran Gari (Purification of the town) and Shan Kabewa (Testing the Pumpkin porridge) were specialised rituals of land propitiations. They were replete with sacrifices, bori and tsafi demonstrations; music, dancing and artistic exhibitions all aimed at purging evil spirits from the land and soliciting for bountiful harvest. As part of thanks giving profuse sacrifices are made at the food of some specific rocks and trees and at the top of some hills.

All the four festivals mentioned above were heavily attended and naturally called for the presence of side attractions and the presence of entertainers of all traditional occupations. With the steady penetration of Islamic culture in the area, the three rites namely the Gyaran ruwa, Gyaran gari and Shan Kabewa were stopped leaving the Fashin Ruwa rite which is the origin of the present Argungu International Fishing and Cultural Festival.

Within this period, the festival at Argungu had already assumed a fairly non-religious or non-animistic tone, devoid largely of the usual Bori and Tsafi exhibitions. However even though Islam had by this time become very widely adopted in the area, the presence of Islam appears to have merely served to neutralise the base for Bori and Iskoki rites so well associated with the festival. This is suggesting that with the wide spread acceptance of Islam among the Kabawa, most individual families in the area have increasingly given up animist practices but continued to look up to the festival occasion for periodic displays of the traditional cult. At the same time, attendance to this festival appears to have increased considerably with community representatives taking some fairly conspicuous position at the festival venue. Dignitaries from the neighbouring riverine areas also featured regularly as guests during the festival.

The 1934 festival was the most conspicuous in attendance by a non-Argungu notable dignitary with the historic visit by the Sarkin Musulmi, Sultan Hassan Dan Mu’azu. In response to an earlier invitation extended by the Emir of Argungu, Muhammad Sama, the newly appointed Sultan of Sokoto paid a visit to Argungu in 1934.

In anticipation of the visit, the Emir and his council decided to arrange a grand fishing exhibition which will serve as a momentous symbol of the Kabawa identity. Initially the Emir and his officials had felt that local entertainments and feats of manhood like boxing and wrestling would alone appear demeaning and totally unworthy of entertainment for a whole Sultan. Neither would anything short of water-craft portray this in clear focus than organising a grand fishing fiesta devoid of the traditional rituals of spirit propitiation.

Between 1934 and 1950 the festival began to record a certain degree of consistency in terms of dating and attendance. For the first time women and small children were being admitted into the festival ground. Besides, the grand day for the fishing finale began to alternate between Saturdays and Sundays of a special period during the post rainy season. In late 1870’s, however the most preferred day of the week for the grand fishing finale has consistently been a Saturday in February or March.

Prior to 1934, the financing of the four rituals has been on a purely individual familial or communal basis. Individual families and participants sponsor themselves or live on one another’s reciprocal hospitality and upkeep of the sacrifices and other material rituals that are to be performed by the Bori practitioners and the fishing functionaries.

From 1934 up to the 1960’s the Emirate Council, the Native Authority and the Northern Government started in turn to invest in the festival with a view to making it grandiose particularly in the wake of increasing waves of invited guests.

Active government participation however, came with the establishment of a Northern Regional Government when for the first time a substantial grant of £500 (Five hundred pounds) was made to the Argungu Native Authority. In 1969, the then North Western State government, decided to involve itself directly with the general development and restructuring of the festival. The federal military government waded in with a substantial donation of £10, 0000.00 (Ten Thousand Pounds) each in 1970 and 1977.

In fact in February 1977, the Argungu Fishing Festival was organised specifically as a major side event of immense cultural value. In recognition of the value of the festival in reviving the state heritage and enhancing the development of tourism, subsequent Sokoto state administrations drew up a multi-million naira master plan for the festival village and for the provision of infrastructure.

In the case of attendance, before 1934 the attendance to the four rituals remained chiefly a local affair. However, after 1934 the festival at Argungu became not only a community affairs but essentially a national event worthy of being witnessed by dignitaries from the international community. Indeed since the memorable visit of Sultan Dan Mu’azu, the festival has been attracting such a growing followership from all over the country. Tourists and guests for the occasion troop in large numbers from Europe, Britain, United States, Russia, South East Asia, and neighbouring African countries like Niger, Benin Republic, Cameroon, etc.

By 1970 the attendance figure to the festival had exceeded 100,000 people. The first visit by a Nigerian Head of State was also recorded in 1970 with the visit of His Excellency Gen. Yakubu Gowon and his counterpart from the Republic of Niger, Alh. Diori Hammani. Both statesmen attended in the company of their wives. In the same year, (1970), fishermen from Rivers state and cultural troupes from the South, Western and Eastern State of Nigeria began participating. In fact by 1979, Rivers state had established a permanent camp for its fishermen and cultural troupes in the Fishing Village. The Festival was used by the Federal Government during the period to heal the wounds of the civil war and build confidence and mutual respect between Nigerian people. In contrast, 1977 marked the beginning of the attendance of high profile International guests to the festival. Notable amongst the visitors were Mr. Andrew Young, the American Secretary of State, the Russian Ambassador to Nigeria and the Consul-General of the Saudi Arabian Embassy.

Cultural troupes and Heads of Missions of most nations that attended FESTAC ‘77 also witnessed the Festival. All Nigerian Heads of State and Presidents witnessed the festival with the Exception of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar and Chief Ernest Shonekan. Former president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo has a record attendance of four visits to the festival. To date, more than 200 traditional Rulers have witnessed the festival from all over Nigeria and neighbouring African countries, with the Sultan and many of others making it a duty to attend annually until the end of their individual reigns.

The 1980 festival was witnessed by no less than nine state governors among whom were Alhaji Abubakar Rimi of Kano, Abubakar Barde of Gongola, Adamu Attah of Kwara, Solomon Lar of Plateau and Tatari Ali of Bauchi.

On the whole approximately 105,000 persons attended the 1980 (46th) festival. In his vote of thanks, the Guest of Honour of the occasion, Governor Tatari Ali of Bauchi remarked that, the festival was simply marvellous beyond description. He said “with all my travels the world over I have not yet come across a festival of this nature drawing so huge and so complex a multitude of persons.

Events which feature in the festival have over the years become diversified and secular. Unit 1950 the Festival has been consistently fielding three major events, Bori and Gyaran Gari. From 1970 to date the festival has been featuring amongst other, things a highly diversified and multi-sponsored agriculture show, a grand fishing competition, craft exhibitions, national wrestling and boxing tournaments, cultural entertainments, traditional symphonies, instrumentalists, etc. It also features the much cherished Kabanci display which includes swimming competitions of different styles, bare hand fishing, wild duck catching, diving competition (Shako), canoe race of different categories, etc. The Motor-rally and Archery competitions were introduced in 1973 and 1981 respectively. In 1980, 175 varieties of Artistes and Entertainers performed during the festival.

The Argungu Fishing and Cultural Festival has contributed highly to the infrastructural and socio-economic growth of Argungu town and its environs. It has also brought fame and acclaim, both national and International, for the Argungu Emirate, Sokoto and Kebbi States and for Nigeria as a whole.

Indeed as a result of a growing interest in the festival Argungu as a town and Sokoto and Kebbi states are becoming increasingly identified as some of the most reputable tourist centers in the entire continent of Africa.

In his speech at the 1978 fishing festival, the Late Emir of Argungu, His Royal Highness Alhaji Muhammadu Mera (May his soul rest in peace) said:

“We are proud to notice that the Argungu Fishing which started as a humble traditional ceremony each year has now developed to its present size drawing visitors from both within and outside Nigeria. This year we are pleased to notice that our traditional Fishing Festival has truly become not only an international event but also the greatest traditional festival in the country. With the presence of such a great number of distinguished guests than as ever attended any traditional festival in the country at any one time.”

Plot 4, Wing 'B' Isheri- Ogba Road, Omole Bus Stop
P.O.Box 4153, Ogba Ikeja, Lagos.
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