The Argungu Fishing Festival is the culmination of a four-day cultural event in Argungu, the north-western Nigerian state of Kebbi. The festival holds annually in the town of Argungu and brings all able-bodied men in the town to the River Argungu in a competition to determine who will make the biggest catch.

The festival predates the “Conquests” of Kanta of Kebbi in the 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.

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, 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 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, Fashin Ruwa, Gyaran Gari and 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 precede 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  and breath 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 juncture, the Bori practitioners leap into the water and chant some incantations 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 fixed a date for the 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 display of music, dance, acrobatics, wrestling, etc serving as side attractions witnessed by huge crowds.

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 thanksgiving, profuse sacrifices are made at the foot 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.

The Sakin Ruwa boarded a boat, beating his drum and add to the festival atmosphere. A scene from the 2009 Argungu Fishing 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 families in the area have increasingly given up animist practices but continued to look up to the festival for periodic display of the traditional cult. At the same time, attendance at 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 of Sokoto. 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.

A fishing festival was organised in honour of the visiting monarch. Since then, the fishing festival has continued as an annual event, with additional cultural and sporting activities, attracting about 500,000 spectators from all over Nigeria, and all over the world, attracting local and international media coverage.

The festival usually takes place in Argungu, the capital city of Argungu Emirate Council. The geo-physical nature and characteristics of the festival site in Argungu are river areas (matanfada, mala, gamji), irrigation, and orchards. Kanta meseum is the main historical centre in Argungu for visitors across the globe. People from different destinations troupe to Argungu, just to witness the occasion. During the festival, thousands of local men and boys enter the water, armed with large fishnet scoops.

They are joined by canoes filled with drummers, plus men rattling huge seed-filled gourds to drive the fish to shallow waters. Vast nets are cast and a wealth of fish is harvested, from giant Nile perch to the peculiar balloon fish. They have just one hour to catch the biggest fish. At the end of the hour, the fish are piled up at the foot of the weighing machine, as competitors stagger up the stone steps to have their fish tagged and weighed. The pair that catches the largest fish in this bare-handed manner is the winner and will be rewarded. In most years, fish exceeding 50kg are pulled in from the river. During the allotted time, they fight for the fish in the river. The biggest are offered to the local emirs who organise the festival.

Furthermore, there’s canoe racing, wild duck hunting, bare-handed fishing, diving competition and naturally, swimming. Afterwards, there is drinking, singing and dancing into the night. The festival marks the end of the growing season and the harvest. A one mile (1.6 kilometer) stretch of the Argungu River is protected throughout the year, so that the fish will be plentiful for this one hour fishing frenzy.

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