The Argungu International Fishing and Cultural Festival (the most widely attended in Nigeria and, perhaps, the oldest known festival of its kind) predates the ‘conquests’ of Kanta of Kebbi in the early 16th Century. The festival started initially in the form of religious rites prior to the time of Surame Gungu of Kebbi Kingdom.
More than 30,000 fishermen had taken part in the annual Argungu fishing festival in Kebbi State. People from all over West Africa come to take part in the main event, the fishing contest in River Mata Fada, using nets and traditional gourds made with calabash. The fisherman who takes the biggest fish wins a prize of almost 1 million naira.
The evolution of the festival seems to go in hand with the socio-economic development of the Kabawa people of Kebbi. Since the 16th Century (Kanta’s days), the festival as we know it today has become more elaborate and stylish.
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 throughout his riverine empire must have served to bring in bold belief in 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 subjects. Kanta had to work 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: the ‘Gyaran Ruwa’, the ‘Fashin Ruwa’, the ‘Gyaran Gari’, 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 festivities.
Specifically, the ‘Gyaran Ruwa’ refers to the basic rituals of purification of waters preceding the great fishing day, with the view to having 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 do 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 formal permission of the Emir of Kabi is sought and, if he agrees, a date is fixed for the beginning of the fishing season. 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 propitiation. They were replete with sacrifices, ‘Bori’ and ‘Tsafi’ demonstrations; music, dancing and artistic exhibitions all for purging evil spirits from the land and soliciting for bountiful harvest.
As part of thanksgiving, profuse sacrifices are made at the foot of some specific rocks and trees and at the top of some hills.