Kano Small Sallah

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Small Sallah in Kano by Andy Buhler, CUSO, 69-71

The sun was roused early from its fleecy cloud bed by the noisy eager urgings of a million expectant voices. Morning dawned crisp with anticipation. Even the haze of Harmattan could not cloud the sense of urgency that filled the air.

Id-el-Fitri -- after a trying month of sacrifice and fast -- finally it was here. No longer need the body suffer for the eternal glory of the spirit -- people could eat, drink and be joyful again.

Already, though the sunlight was only moments old, tiny rivulets of people rippled between buildings to merge into a swelling stream. It flowed quickly toward the seething sea of humanity upon the prayer field outside the crumbling city walls. Still they came though the field was full. The late arrivals overflowed into the surrounding streets and pathways.

Within the hour the whole area quivered with activity, changing colours at every motion like a meadow of multi-coloured wildflowers in a summer breeze. Everyone (with or without reed prayer mat) was sitting, busy with calabashes of water, washing hands, face, teeth and feet in preparation for his prayers. Watches and other gaudy ornaments were removed and carefully placed upon the ground. A sudden hush descended, as though each had been struck dumb by a mysterious miasma. An expectant hush -- then the prayers began.

A wailing, sing-song chant quavered through the air as Koranic incantations in Arabic were repeated by the masses of the faithful. Like so many limp puppets controlled by a single string, the crowd rose or bowed or prostrated themselves towards Mecca. Arms raised above the head with palms forward, hands on knees in a small bow, kneel on the mat, two low kneeling bows with forehead upon the ground, sit, stand -- and repeat again a dozen times. And all the while prayers chanted in a great collective voice. Beads were then produced from within the many secret folds of the flowing rigas and each Moslem thumbed quickly through his own, like a Catholic with a rosary, softly reciting private prayers.

Shortly all prayers ceased and the crowds surged along the roadway of the parade route, all chattering happily and greeting friend or stranger alike with their multitudes of Hausa greetings. “Barka da zuwa!” “Sannu!” “Lafiya!” “Ina sanyi?” “Madella!” “Amin.” -- all resonated upon the ear with every meeting. Traders, their bean-cakes, kola nuts, peanut loaf, or sugarcane balanced precariously upon their heads, bobbed and weaved agilely among the multitudes, loudly proclaiming the excellence of their wares. The cripples, the blind, the deformed and the professional beggars were visible everywhere, capitalizing upon the festive spirit of the occasion. Alms changed hands freely as the crowd pressed ever closer to the roadway.

“Boom, BOOM, Boom!” -- like the sound of little cannons, three ancient flintlocks barked and belched forth smoke and crimson flame.

The parade was about to begin winding its way toward the City Mosque and the palace of the Emir. An equestrian charge ripped a ragged scar through the throngs of people massed before Kofa Matai. Like a school of fish rushed by a hungry shark the people scattered to left and to right but quickly returned to the edge of the newly created path. The first wave of horsemen checked their charge and drew up as a guard of honour. Drums throbbed distantly.

The mighty Arab steeds stamped impatiently against the press of the crowds. Haughty and arrogant, their riders held their posts. A volley of gunfire exploded above the noisy clamoring. The drums rolled closer. The first of the Emir’s entourage snaked through the gate and into view. Ornate costumes, heirlooms from uncounted generations of wealth and position, often enveloped both horse and rider. Tasselled headdresses draped the horses heads, necks and reins. Strands of both gold and silver glinted richly from within the deep warm purples, blacks and greens. Moslem turbans framing ebony faces decreed the Arab ancestry of this great occasion. Long ceremonial swords hung loosely by their sides. Many a spear was brandished in greeting to the crowd.

“Fagge!” “Fagge!” -- clenched right hands held high -- a mounted troop reported to the crowd.

The crowd roared back its applause. Whether they resided in Fagge or not mattered little as all were caught up in the excitement of the day.

“Kano!”, “Dambarta!”, “Bompai!” -- and always the response was the same, a mighty cheer with blessings and the clenched right fist raised high in greeting.

Red turbans with red and green check rigas denoted the wearers as personal advisors of the Emir. Included among several flanks of cavalry came various of the infantry. The Native Authority police, symbols of control within the ancient city, marched briskly along in their dark blue trousers, green shirts, black caps and shoes shiny black under a light veil of dust. Parade soldiers of the Emir, decked out in uniforms of red, passed by proudly carrying their ancient flintlocks upon their shoulders. Court musicians tapped their way along on small drums or stirred the air with reed and stringed instruments. Occasionally a court jester would bound into view followed closely by a semi-nude buffoon with his face painted in pinks and blues. They would wave hands, faces or bodies at the bystanders, who would hurl back good-natured abuse and alms.

And the drums throbbed like a mighty heart.

The red dust swirled and rose from beneath a million pairs of moving feet and mingled with the earthy smells of horses, perspiring people and roasted groundnuts.

“Oooahhah! Oooahhah!” -- eight-foot-long silver trumpets proclaimed the arrival of his excellence, Alhaji Ado Bayero, Emir of Kano, the Sarki!

Immediately behind the royal trumpeters were the drummers -- three men, impressive in their golden rigas, swaying into view mounted upon the imperial camels. From their leather kettledrums suspended on each camel’s hairy hump, they brought forth a deep and resonant boom. The camels padded along, oblivious to the noise, and peered down with a holier-than-thou gaze at the throngs of people.

Surrounded by a great press of foot guards, the Sarki arrived. He rode, regal and impassive, upon a coal-black stallion. A white turban, wrapped and tied with the two little ear-like tufts of an Alhaji, graced his head. A billowy pink riga flowed from his shoulders to the gilt of his stirrups. His eyes were shaded by an ample pair of sunglasses. Bobbing over his head was a tasselled pink parasol held aloft by a black and sweating slave. He raised his right hand in a fist.

The noise of the crowd became deafening in its intensity, each man trying to outdo his neighbour in volume. At last they had greeted their Emir.

The solid wall of sound moved with him. Slowly and sedately he rode from the brown mud gate toward the gleaming white of the City Mosque with its pointed green domes. On across the crowded dusty expanse of the mosque prayer ground to the rear entrance of the high-walled palace the procession slowly trod. Then, stopping, the Emir turned his steed to face the waiting masses. In a clear firm voice he began his address and blessings.

“Amin!” resounded to every regal incantation. So be it -- the universal response from a culture dedicated to the will of Allah.

Address and blessings over, the crowd fell silent for the second time.

Solemnly the Sarki watched as the people melted back from the prayer ground leaving a wide clear corridor right up to the palace. The drummers suddenly rolled a deep and sonorous tattoo and a mighty yell rent the air at the far end of the field. The first charge of horsemen thundered toward the palace, right hands holding swords or spears skyward in salute. Mere feet before the Emir, a sudden sharp rein up in a swirl of dust and flying hooves, and the second charge began from the foot of the field. A third charge, and another and another until the area became a seething mass of moving bodies, noise and dust. Then, as suddenly, it was over. The Emir turned and rode quietly back into the protective confines of his high-walled palace.

The excitement and talking continued for hours. Crowds milled about until the ruddy glow of evening when little fires bloomed along the many roadways of the city. The night became filled with laughter, dancing and feasting until the sun could no longer rest and peered over the horizon to see what was really going on.

Another day, another parade -- and so it went for three successive days, varying little either in grandeur or excitement. Now they rest and save for Id-el-Kabir, the Big Sallah parade which occurs in February.

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