FECHIBA horse festival set for March 2012 in Barani, Burkina Faso
The equestrian heritage of the Sahel has been a real source of inspiration for the SAHEL design collection. A traditionally decorated horse is a rare sight in Burkina Faso nowadays except at FECHIBA ( Festival Culturel et Hippique de Barani ). Horse lovers, photographers and adventurers take note; the annual FECHIBA horse festival in Barani this year will be from 2 to 3 March. A two day feast for the eyes, FECHIBA is a must for pilgrims of anthropology or sahelian culture. You’ll need a little French, a little ingenuity and a willingness to rough it, but that all helps keep the festival authentic.
Below is a Sunday Times travel feature that Steve and I wrote about the FECHIBA horse festival back in 2009. For more information about the 2012 festival, contact organizer Mamadou Sidibe (+ 226 70285191).
SINCE THE YEAR 2000, the tiny village of Barani in north-west Burkina Faso has played host to an extraordinary horse festival, one of the most colourful and arresting spectacles in the whole of West Africa.
The tam-tams of the Barani griots have been pounding all night, with a brief interlude for the call to morning prayer. The village wakes, fumbles for water buckets, washes face and ears, prays and blinks back sleep. On a sandy plain in the middle of Barani, small groups of men meet, shake hands and rattle through obligatory greetings.
‘Did you pass the night in peace?’
‘Did you sleep?’
‘How is your family?’
To the north of the greeters stands the house of Al Haji Sidibe Moussa, mayor of Barani. To the south is the house of Al Haji Sidibe Saali, the traditional chief. To the west, the mosque. To the east, a palm-dotted sand dune with the rising sun behind.
The pounding of tam-tams is joined by a chorus of flutes. A red prayer hat, like a second fiercer sunrise, appears over the brow of the dune, and beneath the hat, a fifty-something man, resplendent in a broad-shouldered green and yellow boubou. Beneath the man, a horse.
And what a horse it is! A pale chestnut stallion with rings on its bridle and bells on its reins, it lopes down the sandy track and comes to a halt before the company of early-risers. The rider holds the reins lightly between finger and thumb like a douser wielding his rods or an artist his brush. For a moment, even the griots go quiet.
In Burkina Faso, horse-riding is more than a leisure pastime – it is the tradition, love and lore of an entire nation. It is no coincidence that the country’s coat of arms depicts a horse, that the coveted first prize of Ouagadougou’s pan-African film festival is the Etalon d’Or (Golden Stallion), that the nickname of the national football team is Les Etalons or that the most common surname here is Ouedraogo (which means stallion in the language of the Mossi people). In countries populated by dozens of different ethnic groups, national identity is often an elusive quarry, but here in Burkina Faso one thing is sure: that quarry has a mane, a tail and four hooves.
The rider turns his heels, touches the reins lightly on his horse’s withers and leans forward in the saddle. The stallion bows, furls his front legs and kneels on the sand. The assembled praise-singers and musicians come to life again, banging the drums around their necks in riotous acclaim.
‘Sidibe Ousmane!’ cries a griot. ‘Ousmane Moussa son of Moussa Alu son of Alu Simbi Koté! Revered by men, esteemed by other knights, beloved of God Himself.’
At a whisper from Sidibe Ousmane, the fine steed lowers its belly to the ground, followed in an arc by the long neck and jewelled jowls. Motionless save for the rise and fall of one glossy flank, the stallion lies prostrate in front of the chief’s gate. When the dust has settled, the knight steps up onto the side of his horse and plants his feet wide. His hands are on his hips, his jaw jutting and his gaze level. If this is obeisance to the chief of Barani, I would hate to see defiance.
The fall of the Timbuktu in the sixteenth century led to a mass migration south into the Bobola region of what is now Burkina Faso. The formidable Fulani warrior Sega Samba was one of these new arrivals. He subjugated the Samo farmers and Dozo hunters living in Bobola, creating the Emirate of Barani. The conquered peoples were allowed to live in peace on condition that they pay annual obeisance to the new Fulani chief. The modern Festival Culturel et Hippique de Barani (FECHIBA) is a reincarnation of that ancient ceremony of allegiance.
At a sharp command from Sidibe Ousmane, the chestnut stallion rises and stalks off towards the mosque, black topiary tail swishing as he goes.
‘You think that was amazing,’ says a voice in my ear. ‘Before the end of today you will see things to make you believe there is magic at work in this village.’
More and more horsemen are coming down the sandy track and taking up their positions in front of the Barani mosque. I can count upwards of thirty horses, all dressed up in their Feshiba best with tasselled bridles, patchwork numnahs and glorious technicolour dream-saddles.
The organisers, young men from the chief’s extended family, are busy setting out chairs under a shade shelter.
‘We’ve borrowed chairs from primary schools as far away as Nouna,’ huffs Sidibe Sita, ‘and still we only have four hundred and twenty. Most people will have to stand.’
Barani has no roads, electricity, running water, secondary school or clinic. It has no phone lines and no mobile network. But today this unprepossessing village will be the focus of a whole country’s attention. The RTB (Radio-Television Burkina) truck has already arrived. Two government ministers are on their way with an armed convoy, and those charged with the speeches are nervously rehearsing the names of multitudinous mayors and countless chiefs. Horses in Burkina Faso have always been symbols of royalty, nobility and wealth, and today’s shenanigans are sure to bring out the kings in droves. For all its reputation as a ceremonial and sporting occasion, FECHIBA is fundamentally a power-fest.
Diallo Sambo, a local Fulani, takes his place beside me under the shade shelter and his first question rather takes me aback: ‘Puccu annduda naa Mobil?’ (Do you know Horse or do you know Car?)
‘Mobil,’ I murmur, feeling almost ashamed to admit it. During the last thirty years, the proliferation of the motor engine all over West Africa has caused a severe decline in horse numbers. Nowadays most Fulani use the word puccu (horse) to mean motorbike, whilst the oddly tautological puccu leebi (hairy horse) has been coined to refer to the animal.
All a far cry from the time of Adama ‘Widi’ Gnôbo, the illustrious chief who ruled the Barani region between 1870 and 1901. Widi loved horses more than any king before or since, and during his reign one good stallion was worth ten slaves.
In the centre of the front row of chairs stands a carved wooden seat with a high angled back. An old man in blue robes comes out of his gate, greets the assembled crowd and walks to the throne. His wrinkled face is angular but kindly.
‘Amiiru Al Haji Sidibe Saali!’ cries a griot, pointing a long finger at the old man. ‘Al Haji Sidibe Saali, chief of Barani, tamer of horses, brother of Al Haji Moktar Alfa.’
The griot continues with the chief’s genealogy, emphasizing each new name with a finger waggle. The tam-tams start up again and right on cue a stallion comes out of line to dance obeisance. He paws the ground, trots on the tips of his hooves, bows, rears and wheels around like a magic teacup rollercoaster ride. I could swear the horse is even wiggling his bottom. The Haarohas begun.
One by one the riders show off their skill, and most of them finish their routine as Sidibe Ousmane did, by bringing their horse to lie down before the chief and then sitting or standing on the horse’s prostrate flank, thereby demonstrating their complete mastery of the animal. There are variations on the theme: one takes off his turban and waves it above his head like a football scarf; another dances a Bob Marley jig across his horse’s ribcage. But it is a blacksmith from Bankass (Mali) who steals the show. Dressed in pristine white robes, Noumu Jor prostrates his horse, hops out of the saddle, sandwiches himself between the animal’s legs and pretends to go to sleep.
Samo and Mossi, Dogon and Dozo, Bambara, Bobo, French and Fulani spectators rise to their feet and crane their necks. There is laughter and thunderous applause. Noumu Jor is using his stallion’s legs as a bedspread! The RTB cameraman scampers about trying to get the best shot. A tide of crazy-toothed griots surges towards the sleeping chevalier and drums him back to life. The mayor of Sokoto leans forward in his seat and waves a five thousand franc note – fit reward for the heroic blacksmith.
A volley of Dozo hunting rifles celebrates the arrival of the Bobo chiefs. Here they come, magnificent in boubous, spectacles, prayer hats and bling, swaggering through the clearing gunpowder smoke like pop divas through dry ice. The sea of griots is eulogizing and genealogizing like mad, holding out hats and palms in earnest supplication. When the Bobo delegation arrives at the gathered ranks of invitees there ensues a joyful frenzy of hand-shaking and elbow-grasping.
‘That’s Sheik Jibiliiru Sangai!’ exclaims my neighbour. ‘And there behind him, Nuuhu Mandé himself!’
The Dozo hunters continue their seventy-gun salute and at every shot the line of horses jumps in fright. For almost two hundred years, horses and rifles have been linked and today’s ceremony evokes those memories of less peaceful times. The nineteenth century Malinke warlord Samory Touré was the first of many military leaders to recognize the quality of Barani’s horses and riders, relying on them throughout his bloodthirsty raids into the West African interior.
I can’t help noticing one stallion in the line that doesn’t jump at the regular rifle-fire. On either side of him the tassels and tails are flying, but this one horse remains a picture of equine equanimity. Its rider is a young man with a trim moustache and a wide grin, wearing the traditional Fulani straw-and-leather hat. This is Paate, son of chief Saali, as cheerful and handsome as his horse is unflappable.
The stage is set. The guests of honour are seated. The tree by the mosque is groaning with the weight of all Barani’s children. Now the Haaro scales new heights of miracle and wonder, with several horses cavorting simultaneously. One is pogo-ing around on its hind legs, another is standing on top of a wooden pounding mortar, and Paate’s steed is dancing an African jig in front of Sheik Jibliiru. The air is thick with dust and gunpowder smoke, and pulses with the relentless clickety-clack of a thousand ringed fingers on a hundred calabashes.
A little man in bright orange robes is tap-dancing amongst the horses, distributing 10,000 franc notes like leaves while onlookers whoop in incredulity. ‘It’s the mayor of Ouonkoro!’ cries my neighbour. ‘Look at him go!’ With Mali only twenty-five kilometres away, many of today’s guests have come from across the border, and Feshiba unites the two nations in shared appreciation of the chevalier’s art. Ouonkoro is Barani’s twin town in Mali, and right now its skipping mayor is doing wonders for international relations.
By midday, the horses are tired of the sun’s fierce heat, and spectators’ throats are all whooped out. Festivities will be suspended until the afternoon, when ten thousand people will gather on the Barani plains to watch the hairy horses race. Young and old, rich and poor, beggar and chief will line up together and race bareback until the dust blots out the sun. For the last two years the chief’s six year-old chestnut stallion has won the final Race of Races, and most people in Barani are hoping for a repeat performance.
Whoever wins the final race, the village will not sleep tonight. The Jumbo truck is in town and a dozen workers are already rigging up a massive wall of amplifiers for an all-night dance party. From dusk till dawn, thousands of villagers will strut their stuff to a heady mix of reggae, hiphop and Jumbo Poulet stock-cube ads.
The horses will not be among those present for they have already danced enough. As a crescent moon rises in a starry sky, the steeds will shed their bangles, down their millet and enjoy a well-earned rest.