On the last day of the Argungu Fishing Festival in Argungu, Kebbi State, thousands of young men would assemble on the banks of the Mata Fada River. Upon a gunshot, they would dive into the water, chasing fish to catch. Whoever caught the biggest fish, within the one hour of contest, would receive a prize. In the river, also, would be canoes of drummers, using seed-filled gourds to drive fish to shallow waters.
The Argungu Festival, celebrated between February and March, starts the fishing season. It began in 1934, when the then Sultan of Sokoto, Hassan Dan Mu’azu, visited Kebbi, ending hostility between the Sokoto Caliphate and the Kebbi Kingdom. Feeling that no cultural display could adequately mark the historic occasion, the Emir of Argungu, Muhammadu Sama, organized a fishing festival. Local lore has it that the prayers of appreciation said by the Sultan are why the river subsequently overflowed with fish.
Initially, the Festival comprised religious rites, but has since grown into a four-day affair symbolizing communal unity. As it drew more and more visitors yearly, the state government took over its management. In 1970, it was graced for the first time by a Nigerian head of state: Gen. Yakubu Gowon, who attended with Alhaji Djori Hammani, president of Niger Republic.
To ensure enough fish for the event, a mile of the river is protected year-round. The fishing competition is followed by canoe racing, wild duck hunting, drinking, dancing, and singing.
In 2005, a fish weighing 75 kg became the biggest ever caught at the event. In 2006, due to low water levels, the Festival banned fishing. The state government also prohibited the use of gill and cast nets. By 2010, due to insurgency, the Festival was temporarily stopped. It resumed in 2020, with a N10m cash prize and a reported 30,000 visitors.
Otosirieze Obi-Young is Editor of Folio Nigeria, where he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: art, business, entertainment, activism, health, food. He is a writer, journalist, curator, media consultant, former academic, and Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Open Country Mag, a new online platform covering African literature. In 2019, he received the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians" by Avance Media. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.