15 December 2012

Nigeria: Babban Gwani - Life, Legacy of Zaria's Legendary Builder

Zaria — Weekly Trust explores the life and legacy of Muhammadu Durugu, also known as Babban Gwani, Zaria's master builder of the 19th century.

In Zaria city many people still believe that an Angel was present whenever Babban Gwani was constructing the many mosques that brought him fame, the attention of Kings, and sudden death from the same group that had initially praised and feted him.

Such are the kind of paradoxes that define the life of geniuses all over the world. The possessive temperament of the wealthy and powerful is also vividly hinted at here, as well as the capacity of the same group to bring total eclipse to both art and artists. On the other hand the pure love shown him by the ordinary folk is also captured in popular traditions very alive today in northern Nigeria, which have helped to keep the memory of this genius aglow.

Weekly Trust is told "Many people today believe that if someone builds a house for them, if such a person is not a descendant of Babban Gwani, it will be as though a house has not been built." Such is the reverence with which the man is held. Babban Gwani built mosques and palaces in Kano, Katsina, Bauchi, Zaria, to mention a few. He built the Zaria Juma'a Mosque.

Last Saturday this writer visited the mosque. It was an amazing experience. This is a 19th century architectural masterpiece which has many arches, pillars and columns, which stretch all the way to the ground. The mosque is silent just as the visitors are quiet, stunned by the sheer power of the extraordinary interior. Something in the architecture seems to shut out the 21st century sounds outside. Thus, one could in a sense go back to the 19th century during the visit in a perfect and complete sense.

The effect of the mosque was so sublime; I had to request to go back in when we were leaving, just to take in the powerful impressions once more. This was granted. At a point above an arch is an imprint of a palm, said to be that of Babban Gwani. It is rather large, and seems to show that the genius must have had extremely large hands. He might have needed these massive palms as an aid in the light of the physical tasks he had to carry out on earth.

Popular accounts state that Babban Gwani had many unique habits, one of which was that he built his houses or mosques only at night. This may be indicative of a certain profundity of spirit which functions best in moments of great silence. In his case, silence is not just golden; it is the sublime hearth for creating enduring works of great beauty.

His labourers, who were said to be a hundred slaves, would spend the whole day gathering mud and thatched clay. When Babban Gwani arrived in the evening, he would dismiss them and then settle to work fashioning masterpieces in mud and clay of such uplifting beauty and power. He would build a house without any visible plan or drawing, so say the accounts. One tradition holds that on one occasion, his slaves threw a hundred mud blocks for him to catch and lay. He is then depicted as catching all at once and promptly laying them. Babban Gwani's era, which coincides with the reign of Sarki Abdulkarim of Zaria (1835-1846), is regarded as the classical period of Hausa architecture. Another account states that Sarki Abdulkarim once intervened while the construction of the Zaria Juma'a Mosque was going on. He pointed out to Babban Gwani that the mosque was not directly facing the East. At this point Babban Gwani took the Emir's hand, the accounts state, and showed him the Ka'aba in Mecca from that very point. Sarki Abdulkarim also looked and saw the Ka'aba and was deeply moved, so the account indicates. The story seems to show that Babban Gwani might have been clairvoyant, and it seems to present the Emir as becoming temporarily clairvoyant on that occasion.

The fact that Babban Gwani held him by the arm before the Sarki saw the Ka'aba may be significant. His clairvoyant nature allowed him to see correctly and perfectly, where others thought he might have made a mistake in his gross material calculations. Muhammadu Waziri, Wazirin Magina, tells Weekly Trust "The Emir, upon seeing the Ka'aba turned to Babban Gwani and said 'I agree. I have seen the Ka'aba. You know more than me.' It is also held that even as a boy Babban Gwani had already exhibited traits which showed he would be great in the future. As a boy he moulded toys and forms out of mud and clay and did these so well that people then began to call him a 'Gwani' meaning an expert in the activity. Later when his talent manifested in the creation of buildings of sheer beauty, he was now addressed as 'Babban Gwani'. At this time the story spread of the speed at which he put up buildings. Some accounts say that a building could be completed by Babban Gwani in the space of one night. This may be indicative of the fact that he could construct a house within a short period of time, perhaps doing so in a period shorter than that used by any other builder who was less endowed and did not have the many gifts of the 'big expert.'

According to Muhammadu Waziri, "He (Babban Gwani) will arrive at night to build. The following day the people will see the building nearly finished."

Last Saturday, the descendants of Babban Gwani told Weekly Trust that their forebear was very popular all over Northern Nigeria, and was much sought after by the emirs and the nobles. According to Galadiman Magina, "Many emirs used to invite him to build for them, and whatever he built was done to perfection. If he couldn't go to construct the building himself, then he would send one of his workmen.

He built the reception hall at the palace of the Emir of Bauchi, the hall at the palace of Chief of Kafin Madaki, and a mosque in Birnin Gwari say the sources. He celebrates Babban Gwani's talent in the following words: "Babban Gwani flourished 150 years ago. No builder could do the designs he was skilled in doing. There was no designer of mud buildings like him. Even when he was not the builder, he would be invited to do the design. People generally deferred to him when it came to matters relating to his work."

Today, the Babban Gwani ward in Zaria is made up of people who initially originated from the famous Babban Gwani family, but many of them are involved in other trades and vocations. But there are still a few great grand children of Babban Gwani who are still involved in constructions using mud and clay today. Wazirin Magina says that there has been a slump in the business. According to him "Fewer houses are being built today using mud and clay. People are doing more of renovations using mud." He says that building with mud and clay today is a very slow process, and adds that it takes a significant length of time. "To build with the mud block is slow and difficult. Now people have turned to using the mud block. They mould the mud block to resemble the modern block which is faster. So we make the modern block ourselves and build with it." The assembled group says that if they are building a room with mud, this will take them about one month to complete it. But they add that when they use the modern block, it takes two weeks to finish a room. They also speak of the peculiar power of the name Babban Gwani, in the sense that the great fame attached to the name means that many people still look for them to give them building jobs.

So, even in death, the legend lives on. Waziri Magina says "People consider that there is a difference between our works and the work of other builders, so the name Babban Gwani brings benefit to members of the family."

According to the builders today it will cost N100, 000 to build a five bedroom house using mud and clay. The labour required will include that of the builder himself, and three labourers. Such houses tend to last for many years. They also speak of challenges from modern builders. Thus they have found it necessary to send their children to school to learn modern methods of building. "For instance, there are some of our children studying Building Design at the Nuhu Bamalli Polytechnic, Zaria," he says.

The descendants of Babban Gwani are clearly positioning themselves for future roles in Zaria's building sector. New knowledge about recent developments in building would be a plus in this regard, they add. The fame of Babban Gwani is still very strong in Zaria. This is captured in the fact that some do believe that Babban Gwani built the Drama Village at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. It couldn't have been Babban Gwani who built the village. He was already very popular as at the year 1830. Babban Gwani was great even in his assassination by royalty: one account captured by Collin Chant says he was killed by the Emir of Birnin Gwari. He writes "On completion of his mosque, the Emir of Birnin Gwari seized Babban Gwani and had him executed so that no mosque would ever be built to equal the one in Birnin Gwari." Another tradition states that the then Emir of Zazzau had Babban Gwani assassinated. So, who killed the legend?

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