Many African cultures have the age-long practice of teasing themselves on inter-tribal and intra-tribal bases. In this report, MAIRO MUHAMMAD MUDI focuses on this effective socialisation practice, known as Barkwanci, among ethnic groups in Northern Nigeria, against the backdrop of current ethnic skirmishes in the region and elsewhere in the country.
The august gathering was at first shocked to its bone marrow. But when the joke became apparent to all present, a rapturous laughter and joy swept through the audience for the custodian of culture's recourse to an almost forgotten tradition.
The occasion was the wedding ceremony of one of the sons of the Emir of Suleja at the palace of the emir of Katsina.
According to the Galadiman Zazzau, Alhaji Muhammad Rabiu Isyaka, as the customary introduction of guests was going on and got to the turn of a Niger state commissioner who is a Nupe man, the Katsina monarch pointed to the commissioner and insisted with deadpan seriousness that Niger official must not be allowed to leave the palace. In fact, the emir directed that the Niger official should be tied down to a stake in the Katsina palace, being his slave as a Nupe man!
For many at the gathering who had long forgotten the tradition or do not even know of it, the emir had simply taken to an ancient pastime, according to some accounts, introduced to Northern Nigeria by the legendary founder of the Sokoto Caliphate, Uthman Danfodio.
According to a lecturer in Media and Cultural Communications at the Bayero University, Kano (BUK), Prof. Uba Abdallah Adamu, Barkwanci or tribal teasing was introduced to Northern Nigeria by Danfodio as a social cohesion mechanism with the aim of reconciling warring communities after peace has been restore and a way to prevent future conflicts. In essence, the practice was a cultural avenue to let off steam or any animosity individuals of different ethnic groups may harbour against one another, singly or collectively.
In the days of old, Barkwanci sessions were deployed to recall events or episodes of internecine warfare lightly, with a view to purging all involved of lingering bad blood and conscientise survivors of the war to say never to such again. It could also take the form of intra-community bantering.
Classic examples of inter-ethnic or intra-ethnic wars leading to such joking banters involved Fulani/Kanuri, Katsina/Nufe, Kanawa/Gwandrawa.
A second form of Barkwanci also exists among cousins, which historical roots, according to Prof. Adamu, are traceable to the founding of the Hausa states, specifically the Hausa Bakwai and Hausa Banza mythic dichotomy. Cousins throw banters at one another in the game and on the 10th day of Muharram, the descendant of one's historical sister could demand gifts from the descendant of the historical brother.
In both strands of Barkwanci though, all participants are called Abokanwasa.
Also, Ibraheem Waziri, a lecturer at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria said: "The tradition of exchanging banters among different ethnic groups in Northern Nigeria is an old tradition with a very long history that runs into over a century. But there seems to be no serious intellectual work that captured and documented the origin of the tradition, at least to my knowledge.
"However, some oral sources trace it to the period of our history after the complete conquest of Hausa states by the forces of Usman Danfodio in the name of Jihad. It is said that the old animosity that used to characterise relationships of different ethnic groups or towns was encouraged to be replaced by exchanging those banters with a view to easing the hot airs and converting old hatred into fair love."
Waziri said the Abokanwasa usually claim the others are their slaves and tell funny stories with a view to mocking them and showing themselves superior.
"For example," he said, "in a group of four people that includes one Kano person and someone from Zazzau, the Zazzau person could say, 'there are three human beings here and one Kano person.'
On the benefits of Barkwanci, Prof. Adamu said: "These exchanges teach solidarity, brotherhood, and most importantly, tolerance. Through such joking relationships, social tensions are regulated and community camaraderie encouraged. Furthermore, communities become more integrated.
"These joking relationships therefore, are good cultural practices that promote peace, brotherhood and general community stability. Within joking relationships, discrimination is either reduced, or its sting significantly taken off."
100-year-old Mallam Abubakar Ahmed, who is the Sallaman Zazzau in Suleja Local Government, Niger State recalls with nostalgia how Barkwanci was an integral part of his growing up years and early adulthood.
Mallam Abubakar explained that his community which originated from Zaria, sees people from Kano as their banter mates and sets Muharram, the first month of Islamic Calendar as the month of teasing, which is called Gani Month.
Seven days starting from the first day of Muharram are set aside for banter. During this period any one could insult any other person in the spirit of Barkwanci. A lowly man could insult royalty in the period, especially if the latter had done something regarded as negative by the people.
Mallam Abubakar said: "The musicians were particularly good in the art of Barkwanci. They could coin statements in several ways to decimate their targets. You could commission them to attack your opponent in banters. People who did shameful things often sneaked out of town until the period was over to avoid being humiliated through Barkwanci."
On his personal experiences, the old man recalled that in one teasing month he was standing with "a friend who did something shameful of which I was unaware until the musicians came around and started singing. Before I knew what was going on, my friend took to his heels and left me alone in the ring the musicians had formed around me to bear it all alone!"
Alhaji Isyaka also disclosed that Barkwanci exists between the Fulani and Kanuri, Fulani and Tiv, between the people of Kano and Zaria, the people of Katsina and Nupe of Niger state, Gbagi and Kwaro in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and between the Gbagi and Kadara, with each side claiming the other as their slaves as the basis for the banter.
The Galadiman Zazzau also recalled another incident "when a friend of mine called his wife his slave. One of us demanded to know why he should, as it were, humiliate his wife that way and he jokingly explained that he was from Katsina while she was Nupe, stressing the banter by saying she and her people would always be his slaves, to general laughter among us."
Alhaji Isyaka added:"It is a good thing that this culture was practised in the past. However, Barkwanci has declined over time and the month of teasing is no longer observed in many communities in Northern Nigeria. If it is revived, I believe it has tourism potentials for the region. It would also serve as deterrent against unwholesome behaviours and moral decadence in the society, as every citizen would have to face the shame of his or her misdeeds before the whole community once every year."
Aminu Bombiyo is a Fulani man from Bauchi state. Aminu said a Fulani could take any joke against him from a Kanuri and Tiv but this might not be tolerated from a Hausa "because culturally Fulani and Hausa people are not banter mates."
He stated: "In the spirit of Barkwanci, we Fulani call Tiv people the "Munci tribe" which means 'we have eaten'. There are two versions of the story as to why we Fulani call Tiv, Munci. One version has it that Fulani men give their cows to Tiv people for keeps at a point in history.When they came back for them, the Tiv people told them 'Munci,' which in Hausa means 'we have eaten (them)' The other version says the Fulani man gave a Tiv man a wife to keep for him but when he came back he met his wife pregnant and on enquiry the Tiv man said 'Munci'."
Mallam Aminu urged the authorities to promote Barkwanci in the country," as it is capable of dousing tension and enhancing tourism."
However, Ibraheem stated: "The tradition seems to be in good health in cyberspace. Social media seems to have provided a new outlet for Barkwanci. I have written a science fiction work with lots of banter that was shared through the social media and some Kano people, in reaction to it, jokingly said they wanted to become Zazzau people since our genius shone through that story.
"On a serious note, Barkwanci's sustenance largely depends on how creative we are in employing modern tools of communication to pass across meaningful messages that carry elements of the traditional banters."