Polo and Palaces
Katsina is an ancient city, with its sun-baked earth buildings, moulded doorways and a busy market place where you can buy anything from a camel to a carton of cigarettes. It will always be etched on my memory, and will always hold in a special place in my heart not only for its ambience, dust swirls and sizzling kebabs but for the Katsina Polo Week.
A polo tournament in Katsina is something special, to be part of a team travelling there is something of a real event. Preparation for the journey started the week before the tournament. Tournaments in northern Nigeria last a week so masses of equipment and sacks of feed were sorted, stacked and transported to Anguan Dawaki (Horse Village) then loaded onto lorries with the ponies. Behind the driver's cabin, riding high on all this luggage, sat the grooms. With wild waves and cries of 'Sauka Lafiya' the lorries wobbled off in a blast of diesel fumes. I always muttered a wee prayer to whoever was listening that they would arrive safely. Luckily, I can say, they always did.
It's dry in Katsina, here the days are seriously hot and have you crawling like a lizard into the shade. The polo field was hard, brown and dusty. Along the far side stables were set up with poles and matting. A temporary horse village then emerged with bundles of sun-bleached grass and groundnut tops being bartered as horse feed; small smokey fires lit to keep mosquitoes away; mallet menders and leather repair men setting up shop. In the evening the old city glows in the setting sun. The smell of wood fires and sizzling kebabs wafts across to the polo field and as the temperature drops it's time to enjoy a glass of hot tea and a spicy bean cake.
Katsina Polo Week is officially where the action was at. Groups of people made their way to the field for an afternoon of games every day. Northern Nigeria is horse country and Katsina provided a very knowledgeable spectator crowd. They knew not only the players' names and positions but made pretty astute comments about character, ability and horsemanship. Apart from the invited guests sitting on oversized armchairs, and hundreds sitting on benches behind them, there were all the street kids and market boys hanging from the desert rose bushes surrounding the field. As the only female polo player in the tournament, my appearance at the pony lines always caused a mini-commotion, to the boys looking to help on the pony lines, squabbling to carry my mallets, boots, helmet. In their wisdom, they gave me sage words of advice...when to play Danda (fast but difficult to stop) or Bidi (quick turns but excitable), who to mark and a few other tactical tit-bits. Making me laugh, they managed to settle my pre-game nerves.
Our Berber-Arab ponies were well adjusted to the firm ground, the dry conditions, the bleached grass. The games were fast, hard, competitive. Teams from all over Nigeria played at different levels throughout the afternoon. Low Goal (my level) played first in the midday heat, which was certainly a great incentive to improve your handicap and play later in the day. Each team got at least three games during the week and a finale at the weekend.
Play stopped when the Emir arrived. The royal limousines swept onto the field. Praise callers, traditional horn blowers and guards jumped out and the Emir in tall turban and fine cloak walked to his reserved armchair, the entourage sitting on the red carpet spread out in front. As soon as the Emir was seated the umpire restarted the game.
In the evening there was a reception in the Emir's palace. The players all congregated in the courtyard sipping soft drinks, nibbling delicious fried chicken and discussing, as all polo players do, the game that day. The royal family of Katsina had been keen on horticulture for generations and so the gardens provided unusual fruit and vegetables. I wandered through the courtyards, stroking sun-warmed walls and breathing in the scent of exotic foliage and flowers. Perfect. But that evening a problem emerged. Someone pointed out to Emir Dr Muhammadu Kabir Usman, President of the Nigerian Polo Association, that there was an old rule prohibiting women from playing in official tournaments. Devastation! I felt I had contributed to our team's success that day with efficient ride-offs and passes to our goal scorer, Audu Shehu, but that was not the point. The point was that no matter how I played I shouldn't have been on the field at all.
A meeting was called for the next morning. I was not invited and spent the time in the women's quarters chatting and nervously waiting. There was a two hour discussion in which various solutions were put forward including me being given the title of 'honorary man'. The Emir patiently listened to all arguments and suggestions but finally, with a royal sweep of his hand, declared the old rule null and void. Women could now officially play in tournaments in Nigeria. The news was brought to me in the women's quarters. The women were amused by my ecstatic shouts and air punches. Hugs all round as I rushed off to get my ponies ready for the afternoon's game. We went on to win our level.
Prize-giving was Sunday evening field-side. Dusk comes swiftly in Northern Nigeria so we lined up briskly at the end of the last game, winners of each section getting the silver. We all met again the next morning to watch our ponies being loaded back onto the lorries. In clouds of dust the convoy lurched off towards the highway and the long trip home.
'Sauka Lafiya '