Flashback to...riding for the Emir
Updated: Dec 2, 2019
For years I'd watched it, in Maidugari, Bauchi, Katsina, the spectacular riding festival marking the end of fasting – the Eid-al-Fitr- in Northern Nigeria. Swirling gowns, flashing swords, pounding hooves, the drummers, the praise singers – a festival indeed, capturing the essence of Hausa culture with its love of the horse, and its tendency towards the colourful and the dramatic.
But this year was to be different. Alhaji Hassan Hadeja, a polo player at the Kaduna Polo Club, was taking his polo ponies up to his home town, Hadeja, to ride in this festival in his official capacity as Sheetima of Hadeja, and I was permitted to be part of the most exotic event of the year.
The journey from Kaduna to Hadeja, a five hour trip, took the main road north, by-passing the historical cities of Zaria and Kano. The vegetation became sparser, the landscape flatter and wider – a touch of the desert here. It was late afternoon before we arrived in Hadeja, the old town a maze of streets and ally-ways, the compounds hidden behind high walls of baked earth, a warm honey colour. Jostling crowds bursting with the excitement of the coming festival.
It was still dark when I was awakened next morning at Alhaji's guest house, by a couple of worthy gentlemen bringing me my attire for the day. We started with the most difficult item, the turban. My long hair was unceremoniously squashed up under a white embroidered cappy. This was to anchor the many yards of fine silk-like material that was wound skilfully around my head and across half my face to end in a flowing tail over my shoulder. The turban was then carefully removed and placed to one side so that I could change into the rest of the attire. A loose white pyjama-type trouser with a high collared tunic, both embroidered at the hems and collar in green. Over it all a white, green embroidered baban riga – the wide robe worn by the men of Northern Nigeria.
I carefully donned the turban again and paused in front of the mirror. Actually, not a bad look, I thought as I smudged a bit of mascara around my eyes and stepped out into the cool morning light.
The courtyard was already pumping with activity, The praise singers were chanting and beating drums. The polo grooms attending Alhaji's horse were now dressed in flowing embroidered robes, their turbans fine, handwoven indigo cloth, beaten to give it a metallic shine. The ponies, who I knew from the chukkers we had played, were now decked out in embossed metal decoration, colourfully stitched turquoise leather and saddle blankets embroidered in bright wool, with tassels and pom-poms. They looked exactly like the prints found in books on ancient polo in Persia. We were also to be accompanied by a group of young polo players on fully tacked out polo ponies.
We all stood around admiring each other and chatting. Then Alhaji Hassan appeared. The polo player, Hassan, was transformed. He was splendid in fine white lace, a gossamer thin wool cloak embroidered in gold thread and a towering white tulle turban. He was assisted onto his horse and we all mounted ours. The gates to the courtyard were opened and we rode out, drummers and praise singers in front, to join other groups heading to the main road. Men riding camels or horses, carrying old muskets or lances, drummers on foot, crowds jogging beside us.
Our entourage reached the main road which led to the Emir's palace. We waited in our various groups, horses getting a little nervous, the occasional rear or leap as we holding them in and back. Finally, the Emir arrived on horseback, sheltered under a huge silk-fringed umbrella, surrounded by guards in traditional green and red robes. He positioned himself at the gate to the palace. The crowd surged forward to the sides of the road. They knew what was coming....the charge! The horses and riders moved close together and at some hidden signal broke into a gallop, pounding up the road towards the Emir, lances, guns or fists raised high, shouts of the greeting “Rainka dede” - ''long may you live'.
It was our turn. I didn't see any sign, but we were suddenly hurtling up the road, crowds cheering, muskets firing, horses rearing. Hassan's lance in the air, we greeted the Emir, and then rode to one side. It was over. The festivities that accompany the end of fasting were now of primary importance and we all dispersed promptly, riding back to the compound. On the way back Hassan lent across his horse to me and said “ Hadeja is over 2000 years old and you are the first European, the first Christian and the first woman to ride in this festival”.
What could I say! To, abin da na ce "Na gode da yawa, Alhaji"
Thank you so much Alhaji Hassan.