Daily Trust (Abuja)

10 May 2009

Nigeria: Uhola - Drumbeats of a Thanksgiving Festival

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The post-harvest thanks-giving festival is one event many African agrarian communities have very notably developed in common over the centuries.

After a very successful harvest season, the agrarian communities, at separate times, depending on the months and duration of their farming seasons, which determine their respective harvest seasons, stage festivals in expression of gratitude to the deities they respectively worship as supreme.

The festivals serve as forums for proud display of colours and cultures and the performance of some annual rites according to the respective cults and creeds they have developed over time.

Examples. The Igbo of the South-eastern Nigeria have the Iri-Iji (New-yam) festival. The Yoruba of the South-west have the Ikore festival. The Kilba of the North-east have the Sa-ka-ki-ka-ki.

The Lelna (the Dakarkari) of Alela, the land covering the Zuru Emirate of North-western Nigeria, have the Uhola.

The word 'Uhola' in the C'lela language means 'He has prevented,' implying, 'God has prevented calamities and epidemics from befalling us during the year.' On this foundation theme, the Lelna celebrated the Uhola at their 23 clan levels for 198 years, beginning from 1795, up to 1993 when it remarkably transformed to a grand Uhola, called The Emirate Uhola. This means the festival has been staged for 214 years now.

The grand Uhola is called: Uhola Cultural Festival and Agricultural Show. It is entirely the affair of Zuru Emirate, comprising five districts in four local government areas of Zuru, Danko-Wasagu, Sakaba and Fakkai.

According to the present Emir of Zuru, Alhaji Muhammadu Sani Sami, "Uhola Cultural Festival and Agricultural Show was established by ZEDS (Zuru Emirate Development Society) to keep the community's cooperative spirit alive, preserve our cultures and costumes as well as showcase the positive values and traditions to the outside world."

From its beginning over the last two centuries, Uhola, according to an account by erstwhile Post Master-General, Mr. Nathaniel Zome, the former President of ZEDS, is usually celebrated at the end of the planting season, primarily to express gratitude to God for a good planting season.

The occasion is also chosen as a period during which a C'lela boy or girl undergoes rites of passage from childhood to young adulthood.

"It is after a boy performs these rites that he is admitted into Golmo (the age-grade system preparatory to marriage)."

The boy performs the Dato (the final dance), which is the centerpiece of the Uhola, as the process of the significant passage. When the boy joins the Golmo, it is said that he can court a girl, whose hand he is given in marriage only after he gathers his friends and works on the farm of her parents for seven farming seasons.

"Merry-making, music, songs, dance, wrestling and exchange of gifts characterise Uhola festival. This underscores the festival as one that portrays the values of the people of Zuru," according to Mr. Zome.

On the day of the festival, both boys and girls, accompanied by a long procession of singers, drummers and well-wishers, make for the mother village of each community called Ile.

Zome explained: "During this procession from C'bela (farm settlement) to the traditional city, all sorts of grievances are let out, usually through the poetic license, of bad behaviour and or praise acts of valour and good behaviour. When the procession gets to the city or town square, each teenage celebrant goes to pay tribute to the chief first. Afterwards, celebrants, (both boys and girls) show their skill in Yadoto dance, display affluence and express pleasantries with friends."

Explaining the Yadato further, he said it "depicts the rites of passage from childhood to young adulthood for both boys and girls. After undertaking the (Ya) dato (the act of final dance) a boy is qualified to begin Golmo (the age-grade system preparatory to marriage). This is also the time a K'lela boy is initiated to M'gilla (a cult-like manhood creed). Dato marks a crossover from childhood to adulthood. This final dance is performed by both boys and girls to show that they have now attained marriage age."

Wrestling contests form a notable feature of the Uhola. After the Yadoto dance, the wrestling contests take place during which contenders from all the participating communities (each community presents its contender or contenders) slug it out for stardom. Two communities, each represented by its contender, lock horns. Each community lock horns with another. In this way all the communities take part in the contests.

Uhola usually lasts for two or three days.

That was how the Uhola was celebrated by the 23 communities of the Alela for about 200 years until 1993 when ZEDS, with Mr. Nathaniel Zome as the then President, presented the idea of transforming the festival to a grand one, called the Emirate Uhola, to the then Emir of Zuru, the late Alhaji Usman Danga, who embraced the idea.

The Uhola 2009, celebrated between April 17 and 18, 2009, was the fifth grand Uhola, following the 1993, 2004, 2005 and 2008 celebrations. The grand Uhola, the Emirate Uhola, has admitted new features on the age-old ones. Such new features are: the D'bill, a dance drama, a variety of cultural dances, agricultural show and bicycle race.

In attendance were the Kebbi State governor, Alhaji Saidu Usman Nasamu Dakingari, and his deputy, Alhaji Ibrahim K Aliyu, the Minister of Culture and Tourism, Senator Bello Jibrin Gada, seven Emirs from the state and its neighbouring Zamfara and Niger, foreign tourists and an array of other dignitaries.

This attendance of notable personalities is now regarded as a significant step towards the festival's attainment of national and global recognition.

The grand Uhola, which is usually organised after the 23 clans have celebrated it at their individual levels, could continue to acquire new features according to the demands of the changing times and the internationalisation it craves for.

"The Uhola has by tradition been celebrated by clans," Mr. Zome, the chairman of the occasion at the Uhola 2009 began to review the festival from the beginning to its transformation. "Each clan would have its own Uhola between the months of December and April. When I was the President of ZEDS in 1993, I conducted a survey and reflected over the implications of what our people do. I realised that our community was rich culturally. I realised that the Zuru community was celebrating 23 Uholas every year. If there were 23 clans that celebrated Uhola, spanning the period between the months of December, January, February, March and April, it was important for the leadership of the community at that time to evaluate the implications of such a festival on the community. I then proposed to the late Emir, Alhaji Usman Danga, the idea of bringing the whole world to our community with an Emirate Uhola, bringing all the clans to a grand Uhola. He accepted the idea. So, we started celebrating an Emirate-wide grand Uhola in 1993."

Kebbi State government started participating financially in the festival with 'a token donation.' The Federal Ministry of Culture and Tourism also donated 'some money.' The state government has decided to, henceforth, feature Uhola in its tourism map.

According to Mr. Zome, "by 1995 when Usman Danga died and Muhammadu Sani Sami had already mounted the throne, the grand Uhola fever hadn't really developed seriously, but while on the throne, Sani Sami realised it was important to promote it because it has very many more merits than demerits. It is actually the melting pot, the grand gathering forum, for the community."

Alhaji Muhammad Yawa Dankarma, the District Head of Ushe in the Zuru Emirate was the chairman of the central planning committee of Uhola 2009.

"The main aim of the grand Uhola is unity. It is an expression of gratitude to God for granting sufficient rainfall, seeing us through a successful farming season to a bountiful harvest without any calamities and epidemics. The occasion provides the opportunity for all the clans to converge in a showcase of unity with cultural display. So, I can tell you that the main theme of Uhola is unity," Alhaji Muhammad offered.

According to him, other ethnic groups under the umbrella of the Lelna, who celebrate the Uhola, are the Kambari, Dukkawa, Acifawa and a few others. "Each of these celebrates Uhola every year."

He explained that at the clan-level Uhola, after the members of the respective clan have gathered their farm produce, the date for its own Uhola would be fixed. The chief of the clan reserves the right to fix the date after consulting with his councilors for the organization.

"For instance, my district, Ushe, celebrates its own between the first week and the second week of February because that is when every one of us has brought home his harvest," he said.

"To introduce any new cultural feature into the grand Uhola, we refer to history. We consider what used to be the cultural practice with regard to Uhola in history. When we feel the need to introduce a cultural practice, we do so to remind people of history and ensure that they do not forget it. This is why we pick and introduce such past cultural practices, one after another," the traditional ruler noted, saying, "There are many things to introduce so that, with time, Uhola will be of a very large magnitude. With these efforts we are making, with time, Uhola will be internationalised."

The present Emir of Zuru, Alhaji Muhammadu Sani Sami, Sami Gomo II, the traditional leader of the Lelna, shoulders the responsibility of sustaining the original values of the Uhola and successfully transforming it for international recognition.

"We felt that after the celebration of Uhola by each clan, we should have a master one at the Emirate level which will bring in all the chiefdoms, the districts and all the villages to celebrate it in a bigger way. The attendance this year was very encouraging and the people were very happy to come together to demonstrate their rich cultural heritage," Sami Gomo II explained.

"We are transforming it in efforts to internationalise it because it is very important to us and we don't want to keep what we do to ourselves. We draw people from outside to come and have a look at what we do," he pointed out, saying, "We are happy people are very impressed with the efforts we have been making. The state and federal governments have both recognized Uhola and are ready to help us to transform it to a masterpiece for it to go beyond the borders of the country."

According to the Major-General of the Nigerian Army, "The most important achievement of the grand Uhola over the years is drawing our sons and daughters from within and outside the state to come back home and take part in this very important festival which we very well cherish. We have taken the opportunity of the festival every year to summon our elite, sons and daughters, to organize a big meeting of where we discuss our problems and how to solve them. Politically, we have exposed our Emirate to other people. We area very peaceful people. We play very neat politics and we have a lot of talents."

The Kebbi State government has also heed the appeal of the Emir to build an Uhola village where the festival will be staged to contain wider and well-organised crowds as it achieves wider participation in future.

Aliyu Ibraheem Zuru, a son of the Zuru Emirate, is the Acting Director of Hospitality at the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC).

"In order to get this festival acceptable nationally and internationally, I have succeeded in putting Uhola on the map of our recognised festivals. NTDC has actually recognised Uhola. This national recognition started from last year. Prior to that, most of the publications of the NTDC carry Uhola among the festivals of this nation under Kebbi State," he explained.

"We admit that you cannot have a successful grand Uhola festival when you lack sufficient hotel accommodation. As at now, in Zuru we have only two hotels. All others are just mere guest inns, not hotels. I have made some contacts with international investors towards building a hotel of at least 50 bedrooms. We want to make sure that whoever goes to Zuru will have something see," he assured.

"The issue of sponsorship and funds don't even bother us. I know that there are individuals and companies out there that are willing to sponsor the festival. It is just a matter of reaching out to them. Some communication companies are willing to sponsor the festival, apart from the state government and the Federal Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and the NTDC, too. So, it is just a matter of reaching out," the NTDC official announced.

"There is one dimension we are trying to introduce. We have to discourage the planning of Uhola from a local-based platform. We will talk to the local organizers that the festival is now beyond their sphere. The state tourism board and, by extension, the state government have to be involved, not just contributing one, two or three million Naira," Aliyu Ibraheem observed.

The current tempo of introduction of new events provides a glimpse of the future Uhola.

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