Wednesday, April 9, 2003

Kano’s 500-year-old market

By Tadaferua Ujorha, who was in Kano

What is the link between a king and a market? Mohammadu Rumfa, Sarkin Kano, (d.1503) was the founder of the Kurmi market, located within the vast city walls of Kano, and it is this act of his which generates this question in the first instance. Apart from being the founder of the Kurmi market, Mohammed Rumfa initiated a number of firsts. He built a new palace which has been the seat of all subsequent kings of Kano, established a new council of state, and gave active support to Islam and scholars. Al-Maghili visited Kano during this time and wrote a classical thesis for Sarki Rumfa. Kurmi market can even be called a versatile market, for a king would feel at home there, just as an ordinary citizen would, given the quality of items on display.

Kurmi market is some 500years old, and there is a massive gutter or water course beneath it, along which flows the famous Jakara stream. Indeed the endless rush of the waters is fairly reminiscent of the pulse of commercial activities which go on in the market all day long. The foul odour from Jakara, and even its hardly attractive black waters do not hinder commercial activities here. Indeed it is work in progress at Kurmi market, and come rain or sun, the traders are present making their shops slightly more attractive, and trying to catch the eye of the visitor. These are scenes which have remained similar to those seen by Heinrich Barth the renowned German explorer, when he visited Kano in the 19th century.

Alhaji Sale Ayagi is the Chairman of the unions at Kurmi market, and he affirms that the market is certainly over 500 years old. He says the tradition handed down indicates that the sale of leather items, alongside Hausa traditional dresses were some of the items on sale when the market first opened, and he says that the market has not really changed over the years in this respect.

According to him Arabs used to import potash and herbs like ginger and garlic, which were exchanged for the leather and traditional items available for purchase at the market. Today these traditional items and ginger have become a vital aspect of trade at the market.

In Alhaji Ayagi’s view most of the prominent and wealthy businessmen in Kano had a period of tutelage at Kurmi market. He specifically mentions Alhaji Dantata, the father of Alhaji Aminu Dantata, and late Alhaji Adamu Dankabo who established Kabo Air. Clearly, Kurmi market is the oldest market in Kano, and it is much later that the Sabon Gari market began. Perhaps it is correct to indicate that Kurmi market is one of West Africa’s oldest markets.

Indeed the age of Kurmi market can be discerned by a careful look at the architecture of the location. Architecture there presents different faces which highlight varying phases of the markets history, as well as, quite logically, the larger history of Kano. Parts of it which are, quite clearly, the older or earliest parts are made of clay and mud, and present massive pillars such as you would find in parts of the magnificent palaces today in Northern Nigeria. The other face of architecture is the modern type made of concrete, cement and block, and here it is easy to connect electricity. The market itself is very large, and an endless stream of persons course through it. Daily Trust learnt of an attempt to modernise the market which was rebuffed. Indeed the charming old architecture remains one of the great attractions of the place.

Alhaji Ayagi also showed Daily Trust the location where the Alkalin Kasuwa, or judge of the market, used to sit. Indeed there is something quite sober and juridical about the place.

Zakiyyu Hafizu, has spent 22 years trading at the Kurmi market, while his father had traded at the same location for some fifty years. It seems they have both galloped through the years with a smile.

Zakiyyu’s shop stocks a variety of items which relate to the Horse. Thus all those items required for horse riding, such as the bridle, stirrup, rein, and ceremonial accoutrements are available. There include the Jalala, Dankai, Dan Kirgi and Danwuya, which all relate to decorative pieces for the main body, neck, chest and head of the horse. In a flash Zakiyyu Hafizu could dress up the horse of any king. Soon he poses, alongside a friend of his, with some of the items he has on sale. Though they looked rather horsy, it didn’t seem quite convenient to tell them this at that moment.

There is the Yan Kwarya section of the market. These are the calabash workers, and there is a permanent sound of knocking or hitting here. Also there are the hat sellers much in evidence. Here is the entire tribe of hats in different colours, silently beckoning at the viewer. Next too is the concourse of herb sellers. The powerful aroma of ginger assails the nostrils and there is garlic in abundance, and cloves and much else too. Then there are carpet sellers and those who trade in art, leather items, and fine decorative pieces.

Kurmi market was the source of the famous Moroccan leather which was traded across the Mediterranean to Europe and Eastern parts of the world, often mistaken as having been produced in North Africa. The leather works for which the Kurmi market has been famous are still found in abundance, and visitors to the city take delight in patronising the goods which are produced in various forms and for various uses with exquisite beauty.

In the early days in Hausa society, the capital was a spiritual, cultural and economic location. Therefore it was good for the Sarki to have a market literally under his eye, better still if it was located within the city walls. So the Sarki could also regulate trade as well as cultural and spiritual matters, and for a great city like Kano, located at a strategic junction of the great Trans Saharan trade, the market naturally drew immediate attention, and a powerful market would increase the prestige of the Emirate, as well as that of the Sarki. Indeed Mohammadu Rumfa, Sarkin Kano, flourished during an era which has since come to be regarded as the golden age of Hausa civilisation.

So there is a link between a king and a market. In truth there is something quite regal and princely about Kurmi market, and you don’t have to lift up the boards to realise this.