Red Walls of Bida
In 1949, the year that I was born, Nigeria Magazine published an article,
“The Red Walls of Bida”.
Sixty-five years later, I find myself on the road to Bida.
Bida, Nigeria is located halfway between Lagos and Kano. The city is the capital of the kingdom of the Nupe, a Muslim people with a great past.
Since December 2014, I was in the process of arranging a trip to the central, northwest region of Nigeria with our Public Relations Officer, Alhaji Essa, who is a native of Bida. Our plans abruptly ended when Alhaji Essa suddenly died of a stroke on January 27, 2015. With great sadness but with more determination, I decided a trip to Bida was more of a necessity than one of curiosity.
Alhaji Essa had been with the company for nearly 25 years. My request to visit his hometown pleased him and he had arranged a detailed program for my stay in Bida. But now, I would be delivering the Lababidi’s condolences to the family of Alhaji Essa.
From Lagos, I called the elder, Alhaji Galadima, who indeed confirmed that the family was waiting for my visit. Too, I had done my research. With a copy of the Nigeria Magazine article in my bag, I was keen to see if I might recognize changes from 65 years ago.
After a short flight to Abuja, I set out on a four-hour drive to Bida over roads with unrelenting pothole damage. The scenery is that of the Sahel, a semi-arid climate in the middle of the dry season. But one thing is clearly different from the article of 1949, no longer under colonial rule, Nigeria soon would hold its 5th quadrennial general election since the end of military rule in 1999.
Along the roadside and at regular intervals, candidates advertise for people’s attention. From Minna to Bida, the use of scarecrow-fashioned models surprise me. My first reaction is that these forms are derogatory toward the candidate, but soon I realize the message was quite the opposite.
In 1949, our author of ‘Red Walls of Bida’ (his name unrecorded except for his initials W. H. L.) drove from Lagos in what he called an ‘American Two-Toned Touring Sedan’. My car is not nearly so memorable — a 2010 Toyota. However, we (W.H.L., me and my driver, Yacubu) arrive into Bida over the same road,
“an avenue of mango trees which lined the road. Almost every branch bore large clusters of golden fruit, made more golden by the evening sun. No prettier sight could be imagined, and no triumphal arch more glorious than this long canopy of trees.” (Nigeria Magazine,#30, 1949)
Bida was once surrounded by a wall as were many cities in antiquity. (One such city in Nigeria that the fortress walls and gate still stands is Kano). These walls were designed to withstand lengthy sieges. Open spaces within the walls were reserved for the production of crops. However, mud walls are not built to withstand the march of time and neglect. Today, only two short examples of the red walls of Bida remain. The open spaces are fill with a sea of cement houses and corrugated metal roofs that intermingle with mud-brick dwellings.
Alhaji Galadima waits for us and soon we head to the palace of the Emir, Etsu of Nupe. One does not conduct business without first greeting the Emir His Royal Highness (Bahagadochi) Alhaji Yahaya Abubaker.
Yacubu drives under the royal archway that leads to the guard gate. We are heralded onward through an entry hall decorated with ornamental design of imported china plates in a mud relief that are embedded into the exterior surface. We continue into an interior courtyard and cool reception hall then escorted into the throne room where the His Royal Highness sits on a throne surrounded by his subjects who remain on their knees. We tell HRH Alhaji Abubaker the reason for our visit and present the traditional gift of kola nuts.
Our author, W.H.L., arrived in Bida during the reign of Etsu Ndayako, 9th in succession from the first of the genealogical tree of Fulani emirs of Nupe. He explains,
“ Mallam Dendo was a Fulani from Kebbi and first appeared in Nupe late in the eighteenth century. He was a preacher, diviner, and seller of charms. Collecting a group of followers, he soon became strong enough to engage in conflict with the existing emirs for leadership in Nupe. These exploits were successful and before long, Manko (Great Mallam) as he was known, had established himself in Rabá as head of the Nupe. Mallam Dendo is the root of the genealogical tree of Fulani emirs of Nupe, and while himself not assuming the title of Etsu, his son, Usman Zaki, was crowned first Fulani Etsu of Nupe in 1836.” (Nigeria Magazine #30, 1949).
The present Etsu HRH Alhaji Yahaya Abubaker is thirteenth in succession. HRH was born into the family of the Etsu Ndayako and hails from the one of the ruling houses of Bida Emirate, Usman Zaki.
After lunch/dinner of river fish, Egusi stew, and semolina, dusk descends with the call to Maghrib prayer; the muezzin’s melodic voice recites evening prayers without a microphone. I want to record it on my iPhone but mesmerized by the simplicity and purity, I sit in place without motion.
In this little rest-house, I am comfortable. I am promised electrical power from a generator so as to enjoy air-conditioning until 1 am. After a day in the 42Celcius heat, I am most grateful.
Over the next few days, we visit the Bida glassmakers’ quarter where glassmakers sit for hours on the ground in mud huts vented by characteristic round portholes, who, in front of hot furnaces, make seamless glass bracelets and beads from old medicine bottles. I find the same working scene repeated at the Bida brass workshop and the local blacksmith.
In the midst of visits to sweltering workshops of glassmakers, brass-works, and the local blacksmith, we stop to watch cloth pressed by traditional ironers who use various sizes of mallets to beat the cloth by which reveals the natural sheen of traditional cloth.
We watch a local carpenter carve stools that will sell for a high price in Lagos but not at the local workshop.
Bida straw hats are renown. The hat maker offers to sew strips of red leather on the hat that is similar to a traditional hat that a Fulani cattle herder might wear.
All too soon Friday is upon us and so much left to see and revisit. We begin with a visit to the Emir’s Islamic School of Technology and to the oldest mosque in Bida (1854) currently under restoration. After Friday prayers, we motor to a small village, Kutigi, situated near the Kaduna River about 30 kilometers north of Bida.
Along the way, we cross a long, wide bridge that spans the Kaduna River. Our author, W.H.L., also has something to say about his crossing of Kaduna River:
“Ten miles from Bida, we come to the Kaduna River, which has to be crossed by pontoon. This is a procedure which turns out to be easier and less ominous of certain death by drowning than one would at first suppose. While the pontoon was being moored in readiness to take our car, I had time to look at some very large dug-out canoes which lay near the landing place. Some of them were forty feet long, of square section, and must have entailed a prodigious amount of man labour to reduce from a growing tree to a shapely hull.” (Nigeria Magazine#30, 1949).
At Kutigi, we pursue the colored raffia mats. Our first stop is at a school yard where we find a group of men sitting under umbrella-like Flame trees weaving raffia to make large African fans. Men discuss and weave while the children run and play. It is peaceful; a good way to spend a Friday afternoon.
Our group of six has grown into a long line of interested bystanders and we parade through the dusty roads of the village. The road becomes an alleyway and then a narrow dirt path shared by sheep, goats, hens and small children that is interrupted, from time to time, by a stream of waste water.
The village is a collection of round huts and cement brick houses. Granaries (called dobwi) are maintained to store guinea corn. A granary can be free standing or set in the wall of a house. A typical room consists of a circular mud wall with one door. The wall is continued up to form a complete domed mud roof, over which the framework a thatched or corrugated roofing is attached.
As the crowd grows in curiosity, I wonder where we are being led but finally we enter a large room with sunlight streaming through two doors and four elderly men sit on the floor weaving carpets of plain and colored fibers. Hues of purple and green reflect across the room.
We find the women weavers in darker surroundings, no light except for that which enters through the doorway or by a torch.
On returning to the small oasis rest-house, I think about the Nupe heritage crafts that have been intertwined with the culture for several centuries. Can these skills and traditions survive ten more years? To produce an object, it is a group effort. The ground is the surface to sit and work. Each person has a particular skill whether it is to stoke a fire, work the bellows, solder, shape, weave, carve, or design that turns simple raw material into jewelry, furniture, clothing, or tools. For example, to craft a necklace of 40 glass beads, four men spend 15–20 minutes to make one bead. The necklace is sold for 500 Naira (less than $3) in the Bida market.
The elderly men who work the bellows and plait the straw today are probably the same who learnt from their fathers sixty-five years ago. When asked, the men said, simply, these crafts do not support the lifestyle and demands of today; youth want a better life.
Yet, this journey cannot end on a sad note for the days were filled with hospitality, generosity, and fascination. I give our author, W.H.L. the last word:
“That evening we sat on the lawn in front of the house on the hill and watched the sun go down in a sky of glory. It was our last evening in Bida. Several of the smaller boys from the mission school came up and sat around us on the grass. There in the quietness we talked of all things under the sun; the African sun.”
Originally published at nomad4now.com on March 13, 2015.
The Red Walls of Bida is a 5 part series. The above article is an abbreviated version of the Introduction and Part Two. To fully enjoy this fascinating region of Nigeria read the full article at Red Walls of Bida — Introduction, Red Walls of Bida Part Two, Bida Glass-Bangles and Beads, Bida Brass, Bida Blacksmith at nomad4now.com.
Nigeria is often in the news — often the news is not good, however this article centers the spotlight on Nigerians, the culture and their good work to keep traditional crafts alive. Throughout the developing world, heritage crafts need support, if not, the ancient techniques will vanish only to be read about from a dusty old book. Please support heritage crafts wherever and whenever possible. By doing so you help preserve ancient techniques, encourage skills and apprenticeships, and the support local economy.
Lesley Lababidi is an author of Cairo’s Street Stories: Exploring the City’s Statues, Squares, Bridges, Gardens, and Sidewalk Cafés. She writes about culture and history of Egypt and Nigeria.
*Excerpts and 1949 photographs are from Nigeria Magazine Quarterly, edited by E. H. Duckworth, Government of Nigeria, No. 30, 1949. p 270–315.