By Prof. Dahiru Muhammad Argungu
As a child growing up in Argungu, sometime between the early fifties through the sixties, I still can recall with much nostalgia what the then Argungu Fishing Festival (AFF), (and later the Argungu International Fishing and Cultural Festival (AIFCF) looked like, a picturesque like no other, a direct encounter with the multitudes of fishermen who swarmed every inch of the murky waters of a not-so-very-wide river which, actually, is a tributary of the meandering River Rima arriving at Argungu from Sokoto and heading toward the Niger River.
A fortnight or so ago, exactly on Saturday, 14th March 2020, once more, the grand spectacle was repeated, and in a fashion and passion of the great history which kick-started it in 1934, when the then Sultan of Sokoto, Hassan Dan Mu’azu, paid an official visit to Argungu during the reign of Sarkin Kabi Muhammadun Sama with the purpose of cementing relations between their two ancient domains. The Sarkin Kabi was said to have thought of no other way of honouring his august visitor, the Sultan, than organizing a fishing festival which his subjects, the Kabawa, were best at. However, this year, the event came more than a decade since its last outing, the reason being, as explained by the authorities, the problem of insecurity which the nation has been facing for some time now. This year’s Fishing Festival, therefore, was held as a proof of improvement in the security situation.
This year, therefore, the River Rima, indeed Argungu town, undoubtedly the Custodian of the Fishing Festival and all the paraphernalia that went with it, HRH Alhaji Samaila Muhammad Mera, CON, the Sarkin Kabi and emir of Argungu, was playing host to the millions of spectators whose ‘glocal’ and global eye lenses, both natural and digital, had watched the grand finale on that auspicious day. Amazingly, the River had retained much of its rich aquatic secrets as the proceeds of this year’s event had proved and in spite of passage of time and some environmental challenges.
This time around, again, I was privileged not only to be within the precincts of the fishing arena, but in the main pavilion itself, and not as a child with some faint memories of the past, but as a full-blown adult, no doubt, an elder fast advancing in age and approaching near full circle. It was a rare moment to not only watch the event, but also meet and exchange pleasantries with members of the nation’s top elites, some of whom were my classmates from across the schools and institutions I attended. I met both the little, small and big ‘fishes’ among them at AIFCF. But a poor academic, even as a professor, would only weigh as much as a medium-size catch from among such weighty and colourful ‘fishes’.
The AIFCF is a unique gathering because it not only attracts some of the nation’s most powerful people but it equally unites them with the ordinary folks, particularly the thousands of fishermen and other game players and changers. Indeed, the fishing event is a stunning traditional experience I am yet to encounter anywhere else since my childhood, in particular the grand finale of the festival which symbolizes the zenith of the series of events marking the AIFCF. For the thousands of spectators who had spared time and money to converge in Argungu, the spectacle has left behind memories to be engraved in their hearts for many more years to come, the apex of which was that particular moment when the nearly thirty thousand or so fishermen, as reports had it, leapfrogged almost in one swoop to dive into the river.
Upon being commanded by the authorities, indeed on the day of the grand finale, the fishermen again jumped the gun, for, as far as I can recollect, keeping them ‘battle’ ready had always proved a herculean task for the authorities over the years, certainly due to anxiety and the keenness of the competition, as well as its increasingly lucrative nature. Soon, thereafter, and in a frenzied manner, the fishermen started advancing, indeed running, toward the spectators, on the opposite side of the pavilions and the river, as if the spectators were their real target. And holding tenaciously to their ‘combat’ gear, made up of hand fishing nets of varying sizes, sealed gourds or plastic containers to help them keep afloat on water and additional gourds with which they quickly hid their smaller catches, the fishermen wriggled their way through the river at Matan Fada.
Matan Fada is the specific name the Kabawa fishermen have given this particular bank of the River, out of numerous other river banks like the Mala (Malaa), Twonka (Twonkaa), Gamdi, Gurbin Magajiya, etc., which once mentioned assist the fishermen to know exactly the water entry point to head to for the day’s fishing since the River is a long stretch blocking Argungu town at one end. Indigenous inhabitants, both young and adults, in Argungu, are familiar with these names, as fishing zones along the River Rima. Often, such banks are named accordingly, on account of their depths and an abundance of their fishes. On days when the grand fishing is not observed, and when authorities declare a particular bank as a free fishing zone, several fishermen take advantage to display their skills and try their luck in the river. This is often done in order to provide for the fishermen’s livelihood as well as see that more prosperity touches as many families as possible.
Once the fishermen jumped into water, they remain inside it struggling to catch the winning fish of the day known to the locals as uri (uurii) and which plural in the Kabanci sub-dialect is uruna. However, as an endangered vocabulary, the term giwar ruwa (pl. giwayen ruwa), is today preferred by some Kabawa, as the term uri is gradually being replaced in the spoken Kabanci sub-dialect. As the emotionally-charged fishermen wriggle in water, many spectators would feel obliged to abandon their seats in the pavilions and remain standing or even tiptoe in order to catch a good glimpse of the spectacle.
As I silently and keenly watched the fishermen doing what they knew best all these years, and as part of a continuing generation of a tradition and occupation, I reflected and said to myself, but for my bokonised fate, as God would have it, I too would have been among those multitudes battling it out and awaiting what destiny had packaged for me, nonetheless a fisherman among thousands of other fishermen from Argungu I would have been. And, am I not too late and weak to embrace the occupation as a retirement option? Thus, within minutes of their entry into the river, uri after uri would be brought to the fore to the bewilderment of spectators. The catches are then rushed to a point where the hanging scale stands for the fishes to be weighed. The frenzy of the fishing fiesta, which lasts for about an hour or so, comes to an end with the announcements of the three heaviest catches and the prizes to be won.
This year’s heaviest catch weighed 78 kilograms while the second and third catches weighed 75 and 70 kilograms respectively, the standard weights of a normal adult, as a doctor friend later commented. Attached to these catches were different types of cash and other prizes. The rise in the prizes over the years has greatly helped to attract more fishermen participating in the event not only from Argungu and its surrounding villages, but also from the neighbouring states of Sokoto and Zamfara as well as fishermen from the Republic of Niger. This year’s first and second winners came from Augi in Argungu Emirate while the third winner emerged from Silame in Sokoto State, thus making the Festival not only truly national/international but free of any border restrictions. Indeed, the Nigeriens contingents have been attending the fishing fiesta since my childhood days, most importantly their cultural troupes. Though the world was engulfed in fighting the Coronavirus pandemic, only the visiting tourists wearing their facemasks reminded one about COVID-19 at the Festival which began well and ended well. (To be continued).
Professor Dahiru Muhammad Argungu teaches Linguistics at Usmanu Danfodiyo University Sokoto and was Chairman, Quiz and Essay Competitions during the AIFCF. He can be reached at 08065589054 or firstname.lastname@example.org