All year round, villages and towns across Nigeria including Argungu fishing village, are alive with pulsating, esoteric and flamboyant celebrations, honouring religion, fertility and harvest. If you want to see a display of fishing you will never forget – or just fancy dancing the night away at one of the worlds’ most unique cultural celebrations – Argungu fishing festival is not to be missed. Argungu, in the Kebbi State in northwestern Nigeria, plays host to one of the world’s craziest festivals – and probably one of the most unusual cultural events you’re ever likely to witness.
This four-day cultural spectacle began in 1934 to celebrate the peace agreement between the Kebbi Kingdom and the former Sokoto Caliphate. Argungu’s fishing festival celebrates life. It is a precursor to modern day fishery management programmes and a way of conserving natural resources and preserving traditional ways of living. It is valuable to the life of the community because it draws on historic local knowledge – the people of Argungu believe they have been fishermen for all time.
The festival also forms part of an ancient fertility ritual which, for the local people, is the most important part of the celebration. It takes place in February or March when the farmers have stopped working on the land – marking the end of the growing season and welcoming in the fishing season in spectacular style.
The Argungu festival culminates with up to 35,000 burly fishermen plunging in pairs into the murky Malan Fada River, clutching hand nets and gourds for flotation. A blast of gun signals the start of the contest and each pair of fishermen have just one hour to catch the biggest fish.
The bare-handed fishing frenzy takes place alongside the beat of drummers who play from their canoes in the surging waters and on the river bank. The competition is growing with each passing year and it’s now so popular that competitors can struggle to find space to enter the water. Many fishermen only come to Argungu once a year, at the time of the festival.
The Matan Fada River is small, but it is well stocked so there’s plenty to play for. One mile (1.6km) stretch of the river is protected throughout the year, to make sure fish are plentiful for the competition. When the hour is up, the participants stagger exhausted up the stone steps to have their fish tagged and weighed.
It’s not unusual to see a 50-kilo fish dragged flapping from the water, but in 2007, a legendary 75-kilo fish was crowned catch of the day. It took four men to hoist the beast onto the scales. Big fish mean big money. The pair of fishermen who catches the largest fish claim a prize equivalent to $8000 plus a minibus!
Aside from the bare-handed fishing in the river, the festival hosts many other events to tempt visitors. Agricultural shows, craft exhibitions, and wrestling and boxing displays are sure to keep you entertained, as will wild duck catching, canoe racing, motor rallies and displays of traditional Kabanchi. And after the winning fish has been found, and its fishermen crowned victor, the crowds and participants dance and sing long into the night.
Sadly, due to the political insecurities in the northern part of the country, the fishing festival was put on hold between 2009 and 2013 but was revived in 2014. Sokoto 100 miles away from Argungu offers the best places to stay for visitors to the festival. The Shukura Hotel is a hotel in Sokoto with a pleasant atmosphere. Its central location means that it’s ideally placed for accessing banks and other amenities that will make your stay comfortable. Sokoto also has lots of offer in its own right. The central market is famous for handmade leather goods.
The fishing festival helps to boost Nigeria’s tourism industry. The festival is already helping the local economy. During the event, a bustling night market is held where you will see camel and donkey racing and water sports.
Participation of Women…
Kebbi State now abides quite robustly by Sharia (Islamic law). At one time it was questioned whether the festival was at odds with Sharia because women were allowed to participate. This is no longer the case and now both the fishermen and the most of the audience are men.
The Argungun fishing festival is extremely steeped in fun, history and culture revolving around a people who are hospitable and charming to visitors. They are guaranteed a ‘swell’ time in the land of equity.