Roaring muskets flash salutes as thousands of warrior horsemen race onto a dusty parade ground in front of the Emir’s palace marking the start the annual Durbar festivals in Northwestern Nigeria. Horseman clad in colorful robes, indigo turbans, ostrich feathers and glistening swords honor their Emir who enters the parade shielded from the sun by a massive twirling parasol.
In the northern reaches of Nigeria lies two cities, Kano and Katsina, both famous for Durbar festivals. Kano is the oldest city in West Africa settled over 1000 years ago by the Hausa people. Today, it is the second largest city in Nigeria. The old city of Kano is surrounded by a massive 11th century mud-brick wall that extends 17.7 kilometers. The wall still stands and must be navigated by a series of sixteen gates. Not to be outdone, Katsina is surrounded by 21 kilometers of a mud-brick wall and is Nigeria’s northernmost city. Both cities are predominantly Muslim, comprised mainly from Fulani and Hausa ethnic groups.
Often we think that goods and ideas travelled one-way into Africa and overlook the fact that the ancient trade routes were a two-way street. Camel caravans carried luxurious and rare commodities in both directions along the trans-Saharan trade route creating a thirst for highly prizes items and curiosity for new beliefs. Out of Africa, went indigo, gold, ivory, kola nuts, cowry shells, salt, and ostrich feathers. From Timbuktu, Katsina and Kano were the crossroads of trade with flourishing markets. Arab traders brought Islam. The Hausa and Fulani groups converted to Islam in the eleventh century and remained under Hausa leadership until 1804 when the area was engulfed in bloody wars and fell to the conquering Fulani armies under the Islamic reformist, Usman Dan Fodio.
Over millennia, a tribe or a nation, proudly displayed military might by organized parades. In Mamluk Egypt, ceremonial processions and parades showcased the military’s training and displayed their horsemanship and preparedness for war. “Mamluks reminded the whole population of Mamluk utility and ferocity by continually training in military skills, publicly practicing horsemanship (polo), and parading in disciplined regiments behind the sultan, who was shielded by a gold-embroidered yellow umbrella…” (Urbain Vermeulen, D. De Smet, J. van Steenbergen. Egypt and Syria in the Fatimid, Ayyubid, and Mamluk Eras.). Cultural, religious and military traditions moved into Northern Nigeria along the trans-Saharan trade route.
In the long history of a military parade, the origin of the word, durbar, comes from Urdu, darbār, (dar meaning door and bār meaning entry or audience.) In Nigeria, the Durbar dates back 200 years when horses were used in warfare to protect the Emirate. Each noble household was expected to defend the Emirate by forming a regiment. Once a year, the regiments would gather for a military parade to demonstrate allegiance to the Fulani ruler, by showcasing their horsemanship, readiness for war, and loyalty.
I am in Northern Nigeria, with the Nigerian Field Society and organizer Paulette Van Trier, to witness the Katsina and Kano Durbar Festivals. Tied to the lunar calendar, the Durbar is celebrated at the end of Ramadan, Eid el-Fitr, and at the start of the pilgrimage to Mecca, Eid el-Kabir. My journey begins as the Hausa guide explains his name, Danjuma, born on a Friday; his English name, Friday; his Muslim name, Essa. I marvel at three distinct identities that reflect the heterogeneous nature of Nigeria.
We travel by bus to Katsina, 200 kilometers northwest of Kano. The bus enters the Palace gates and we climb stairs to the covered reviewing stands that overlooks a sandy parade field. People and food vendors begin to gather. The Nigerian National Anthem plays loudly and the crowds grows silent and still. On the last note, everyone jostles for first row position. The procession starts with groups of horses lead by noble households and district heads. Horse and riders circle the grounds counter clockwise, passing to pay respect to the dignitaries.
The procession is strictly men only dressed in magnificent turbans many with one ‘ear’ or two sticking out denoting their royal linage. Young and old participate to insure that tradition is observed through generations. All approach the viewing stands raising their fist and shout “Ranka ya Dede”, proudly proceeding to line the sides of the parade ground. Rhythms of the talking and traditional drums fill the air with the shrill of trumpeters and fluters. Acrobats flip and catch one another, musicians, warriors riding brightly armored horses make their way to assemble along the parade grounds. When hundreds of horsemen are on the parade grounds, the Emir’s procession begins down the center, including his guards, his sons, riderless horses for his wives, and camels. Finally, the Emir himself rides among his guards and servants amidst the shooting of flintlock muskets. The Emir is immediately recognized, veiled and clad in white with a huge fanning parasol lifts up and down over him. After he pays respect to the governor, the horse regiments race up to the Emir at a gallop to demonstrate their courage, agility, and respect. The Emir gives an Eid el-Kabir address to the crowd’s approval.
We travel back to Kano to attend the Kano Durbar the following day. Once again, the crowds press into the fences, people dangle from tree limbs and fences to watch the spectacle. Dust everywhere, we have front row seats. Anticipation! As in Katsina, the procession of horsemen, acrobats, and musicians parade in front of us in a myriad of different costumes of every conceivable color. Indigo turbans shine metallic and swords glisten in the sun.
After nearly 2000 men and their horses file past, the arrival of the Emir is announced by ancient musket fire from the Emir’s guards. The procession is lead by his family, wives vacant horses, bodyguards, servants and the Emir himself receiving an outpouring of favorable shouts from the crowd. Finally, horsemen brandish their swords and charge at full gallop to stop only feet away from the Emir. The crowds cheer and rush onto the parade grounds. In the fading afternoon light, this year’s Durbar is over but the ancient traditions remain, for now.
(Published for Obelisque Magazine 2013. Photography is protected under international copyright, all rights reserved by Lesley Lababidi.)