Cavalry conjures up era of desert glory: In Kano Karl Maier saw the festival celebrating the horse culture that brought Islam to northern Nigeria

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The Independent Online
Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into the enemies of God and your enemies and others besides, whom ye may not know but whom God doth know. Whatever ye shall spend in the cause of God, shall be repaid unto you, and ye shall not be treated unjustly.

The Koran, Surah VIII, Verse 60.

EVERY few seconds fine outlines of muscles flashed on the legs of scores of horses as they flinched under their chain-mail and quilted armour each time gunners fired off 19th-century muskets. The Emir of Kano, encircled by his dogorai bodyguards in royal scarlet and green uniforms, had arrived on horseback to a rowdy fist- pumping crowd. He immediately sought the shade of an appointed spot beside his palace, where he was fanned by giant ostrich feathers. Islamic rulers from across northern Nigeria, dressed in brightly coloured flowing robes and turbans, rode into the front grounds ahead of huge family groups, local dignitaries, musicians and singers. Perhaps 30,000 commoners were pushing their way on to the hot dusty parade grounds, despite a few good hidings by overzealous policemen with whips.

Horns blasted and the two masters of ceremonies were speaking simultaneously over the loudspeakers as a dozen riders with swords and lances formed a line 100 yards away. Suddenly they were coming at full gallop. The crowd, already excited about the Sallah holidays, the end of Islam's month of fasting, Ramadan, roared with approval. This durbar was ready to explode.

The charge sent up clouds of dust as the horses strained towards their target, the Emir. The thronging crowd narrowed the field until the beasts were passing through a human corridor just 50 feet wide. At the last moment, the riders jerked on the reins, leaned back and saluted by raising their lances. The moment of glory finished, the group sauntered off under the trees to watch how their neighbours performed.

Horsemanship has been an art in Kano and throughout northern Nigeria since trade across the Sahara Desert opened up with North Africa over 500 years ago. Horses, like camels, were important weapons in the economic and military expansion pursued by Kano and other emirates of the Hausa-speaking people. If the modern-day celebrations are anything to go by, the ancestors of these mounted warriors racing at high speed with spears raised must have struck fear into the hearts of their victims. Horses are said to have played a decisive role in the great jihad launched in the 19th century by a Muslim scholar named Usman dan Fodio. It was his militant reform movement which deeply implanted Islam into what is today northern Nigeria, a region of nearly 50 million people, and set up an Islamic state, the Caliphate, which ruled powerful emirates like Kano.

The durbar is a celebration of that longstanding horse culture. Horses and camels became critical to the survival of highly developed city states, such as Kano, Katsina, and Zaria in the Hausa-speaking region as early as the 14th century. Horses, along with slaves, gold and salt, formed the backbone of the expanding trade across the Sahara with Egypt, Algeria and Morocco before Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas. Emirs based their military might on the cavalry. Powerful lieutenants, under a chief cavalry officer, the madawaki, would lead forces of horsemen, loaded down with lances, axes, shields, and chain-mail coats into battle against rival states.

The durbar is also fired by the fervour of Islam. At the height of the jihad, in 1804-1812, Usman dan Fodio, as the state's single spiritual authority, would gather troops in his capital at Sokoto during the dry season to plan out the year's war strategy. The empire lasted 100 years, and by the end it had pushed across the hot dry savannah west to the edge of the great rain-forest areas of the West African coastal region. There, where horses and camels could not long survive, the tidal wave of Islam petered out.

Yet the durbar is also in part the work of the British. The word itself comes from the Persian darbar, which means court-room or hall of audience. A special durbar had marked the proclamation of Queen Victoria as Empress of India in 1876. After Sir Frederick Lugard invaded northern Nigeria with his West African Frontier Force and conquered the Sokoto Caliphate in 1903, durbars were organised to remind their subjects and the old emirs of their subordination to the Crown. A grand durbar also saw in Nigeria's independence from Britain in 1960.

In modern Nigeria the durbar is timed to mark the end of Ramadan. It is a celebration of the day that Abraham is said to have offered his son as a sacrifice, and God said a ram would do. As a result, a ram's life is not worth much at this time of year, when the markets are full of the animals heading for slaughter.

Islam first penetrated a wide swath of West Africa, stretching from Senegal to Cameroon, on the back of the trans-Sahara trade routes. Because Muslims were literate, they were highly valued by traditional rulers and assumed roles similar to that of the clerics in medieval Europe. In Kano, Ali Yaji Tsamia was one of the first rulers converted to Islam in the 14th century. But his was largely a palace religion, with the great mass of people, even those living inside the city walls - 12 miles of thick embankments 30 to 50 feet high - left untouched by the Koran's teachings.

But today Islam has penetrated much more deeply into Nigeria. At the Kano durbar, with light fading and fatigue taking over, riding skills and police control seemed to deteriorate. After several brushes with the rows of onlookers, one rider ploughed into a tightly packed wall, pinning several people up against a television truck. Another charge knocked down a BBC cameraman. But overall, injuries were light.

With the last run pulling up just before nightfall, the revellers started moving back to the Muslim quarters in old Kano behind the would-be warriors, riding homewards slowly now, so that everyone could admire them. Within minutes, prayer-mats emerged from the small mud homes and whole neighbourhoods were on their knees, praying towards Mecca.

(Photograph omitted)