The Abuja Carnival has the distinction of being the least publicized major event I’ve ever attended. Our intrepid band of Nigerian neophytes scoured the local newspapers, surfed the Net and called local state officials with a zeal that would have done Woodward and Bernstein proud, but our efforts came up empty time and again. Finally, we located our Deep Throat within the Ministry of Tourism, who gave up the location and time of the first event, the Durbar Festival at the Equestrian Centre on the outskirts of the city. My keen sense of deduction told me that this would have something to do with horses.
The origins of the Durbar Festival are lost in antiquity, which is my way of describing something that I haven’t researched. Hey, this is a blog, not a f*ing thesis. All I can say is that the rumours that we started hearing on Friday pointed to this being a massive event, with all of the states in the country sending representatives to participate. Given there are 36 states in total, plus the Federal Capital territory (That’s a researched fact. Happy now?), “massive event” doesn’t begin to do it justice.
Our VSO quartet decided to beat the anticipated crowds by going before the “announced” start time of 4 pm. We arrived at the Equestrian Centre to find a scene worthy of Noah’s Ark, if Noah had ignored God’s instructions and just put horses and camels on his boat. And also skipped the bit about bringing two of everything and brought a bunch instead. Yeah, you’re right. That analogy blows. Anyway, we arrived to find the sides of the road littered with horses milling about, not the safest thing in the world, given the propensity for Nigerian drivers to treat the ditch as a passing lane. We found a place to park the car, somewhat encouraged by the positive response of a bystander who probably had nothing to do with controlling the parking.
We began walking about the compound where the horses and camels were being collected and prepared for the procession. We soon drew much attention to ourselves by our obvious uniqueness and were promptly approached by a police unit. Visions of the day coming to a premature end in a detention centre proved to be unfounded. “Come over here and see the camels,” said the leader of the group. Relieved at not being subjected to a cavity search, I happily complied. “Take his picture,” he said, pointing to an old timer already seated on a prostrate camel. “No, wait until the camel is standing!” OK, Captain Bossy Boots. “Now, we go to see the elephant!” And on it went, for a few more stops on our tour.
Leaving the police behind, we were left on our own to explore. The Equestrian Centre consists of a huge dirt field ringed by buildings for the horses resident there. As we strolled around, a few curious people approached and spoke in Hausa with Kristel, the veteran VSO volunteer among us. Her facility with the language was an enormous boon. People immediately relaxed around us, and we were able to take pictures we otherwise might have been dismissed as too intrusive. She was even invited to meet an emir, with a photo op soon following. As the afternoon progressed, we began to see more and more people decked out in their spectacular traditional dress. Nigerians are known for being brilliantly dressed on regular days, so when a special occasion such as this occurs, the results are truly magnificent.
Our tour of the preparations was often punctuated with explosions nearby, the first of which set bells off in my ear and almost caused me to hit the deck. Soon, we realized the source was the firing of muskets, ostensibly to test them out, but I think mainly to scare the bejesus out of those within earshot, a term which takes on a whole new meaning in this context. Tony and Sue, the other members of our foursome, retreated to the hillside overlooking the presentation circle in order to claim a good vantage point for the procession. Kristel, perhaps emboldened by her earlier successes with the locals, headed straight into the preparation area, with me following in her wake. She knew no fear, walking in among the horses and camels and coming dangerously close to the hind legs of both. But the rewards from the risk were grand – camels dressed in orange and yellow finery, horses trussed up in metal armour, warriors in monstrous headgear. We witnessed it all in extreme closeup.
Eventually, it became apparent that order was ascending from the chaos. Groups began to organize themselves around the perimeter of the field in preparation for the procession. And the crowd of onlooker had also increased, dropping our status from unique attraction to mere tourist. Five spectators managed to find brilliant viewing spots, perched on seats ten feet high, as though they were lifeguards posting watch on the scene below them. Kristel and I opted for a closer view once again, lining up alongside the riders on the perimeter of the circle. Given the thousands of riders and animals involved, the final preparations were remarkably smooth. How the various groups knew where to find their place in the circle is beyond me, but at an appointed time of someone’s choosing, the riders all began to move forward.
As they marched past, we saw many familiar faces from earlier in the day and were recognized in turn. We made a point to stay away from the grandstand housing the local VIP’s, because of the crowd and also our anticipation of what the musketeers had planned. Sure enough, as they approached the viewing stands, the guns went up and off. Almost as impressive as the noise was the smoke that billowed out in the aftermath. Combined with the dust raised by the riders, the effect was similar to a nice summer day in Toronto – thick smog (or maybe smust?) blocked out the setting sun and the view of nearby Aso Rock.
With the procession winding down, the chaos returned. As the riders finished their tour, they could return to their base camps, and freed from their official duties, they cranked their inner Born to Be Wild. Horses seemed to be everywhere, and the prospect of getting trampled suddenly seemed all too real. We wisely packed up our cameras and headed back to meet up with Tony and Sue before the sun left us to fend for ourselves in the emerging darkness. The Durbar left us dusty, sunburned and amazed.