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Sukur: When The Gods Dance…

They just placed the stones upon one another without sand, and it stands for decades.This is a technique people need to research into, to understand…

They just placed the stones upon one another without sand, and it stands for decades.This is a technique people need to research into, to understand the techniques employed’. Yusuf Abdallah Usman, Director-General, National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) also commenting on the stone architecture says: “The Sukur stone architecture is unique in Africa, and it is the best example that can be found in the world. With that type of construction a room is made warm when it is cold, and cold when it is warm.” Michael Thomas, a graduate-student of the University of Colorado, USA is presently studying the Sakun (Sukur) language, and has aready spent some months at Sukur doing linguistic studies. Speaking on the significance of the stones, he tells Sunday Trust ‘I was amazed when I saw them build a wall at the bottom of the footpath.Here were thirty people working with stones, and in three hours the wall was up. It reminds me of similar scenes in Korea and South East Asia.I was very surprised and happy to see a thing like this here.”

Yawal is a festival of thanksgiving to the Almighty, as well as to the gods and the ancestors. It is an appeal for a good harvest, and there are prayers for a good new year too. Among the people, Piss is the sun god, Tia is the moon god, and the god of stars is Maila. Sukur-Yam is the rain-god.The people have always wondered about the beautiful cosmos. No wonder then that they keep a lunar calendar which lasts for ten months. When the moon is sighted then the festival holds. It can be called a festival of the moon, and in a sense the gods can be said to come down and dance with men. “If there is sadness in the land, or there has been a bad harvest then the festival does not hold,” says Anthony Sham, Curator of the Yola Museum and Manager Sukur Heritage Site. There is no rigidity about the festival. Also the people are fond of the round shape. Some of their dances are round, and their songs and words seem round too or complete, if you listen just a bit carefully. Maybe they are thinking about the stars and of the sun. It seems that at such festivals all these gods are really not too far from the living. They can be said to have come down and are keeping a close watch on things.The environment even supports such godly  visit:the happy  hills,deep valleys and beautifully hewn  stones confirm  this striking  impression .By the time you have made the one hour climb uphill, your  spirit would have been purified  of all base thoughts.

Many ritual personalities are present. Symbolic rituals are performed on the way to the various staging grounds of the festival, and also just before the Hidi leaves his stone palace. Pots of beer buried a year ago are unveiled, and the elders bend to have a drink. Something new and exciting has come to the kingdom. Another pot of local beer is buried. It will be opened at the next Yawal festival, a year from now.Two sacred snakes guard the spot where the pot lies. 

Dalatu, the prominent ritual personality, who is a key factor in the festival, and is clad in animal skin, is ecstatic. His head is bald except for a lock of hair which lies just above his forehead. When he dies the lock of hair is cut off. He carries out many of the rituals   during the Yawal festival such as the sacrifice which is made at a height. He is always in the Hidi’s palace, which is the living heart of the festival. The Hidi’s palace combines the sacred and the secular.It is a potent meeting point for the visible and the invisible: The world of the ancestors, the gods and the living. The stone pavement which stretches from the base of the hill to the palace reflects the link between the King and his people,and dramatically  speaks of a beginning and an end. Two giants named Fla and Duvu, are said to have built the palace a long time ago. They worked at night and nobody saw them while they worked. The story seems to suggest that the palace was built by the gods. The Hidi as king is seen as a ‘wife’ and not as a father, as occurs   in other African cultures. He seems to embody both male and female energies. The place of the woman is revered in this society. During the festival a day is set aside in honour of the Queen Mother. She is not necessarily the biological mother of the Hidi. A woman is simply appointed to that position.

The people here have a long history of working with stone and iron, and it is remarkable that they have formed a whole series of light dances, and even speak a soft language, that sits easily on the tongue. It is striking that from the heavy stones has emerged a people noted for their light dances, swift movements and soft words.

 The Yawal festival lasts four days. Anthony Sham says of the festival “The Chief of Sukur is the one who organises the festival, together with the twenty two title holders of Sukur.When they sight the moon, they then agree on a date for the festival to hold.” According to him, the first day of the festival, known locally as Yawal Dubba, is the moment when sacrifices are made at the many local shrines as the official commencement of the celebration. Yawal Paltha is the second day of the festival , and is largely in honour of the Hidi’s palace.Yawal Matuhidi, the third day of the festival, is marked  in honour of the Queen mother.The fourth day is the final day of the festival known as the Yawal Nduli. The Hidi, his chiefs and titled men come out in a procession, and dance all the way to Yawal Gam,which is about an hours walk from the Hidi’s impressive palace.At Yawal Gam there are more dances by members of the 25 clans of the Sukur Kingdom. The dances usually take a round form. Sometimes the people dance in a straight line. It is all very colourful. The Hidi stands in close connection with the gods, according to popular belief, and dance and music are a powerful means of drawing closer to the gods as well. On the way to Yawal Gam, prayers and rituals are offered to protect the Hidi, and all those who are involved in the festival. Finally, the Hidi leaves on horseback to his palace, after participating in many of the dances.

Dankano Chise says of the festival “it has many values attached to it. It’s a period when the King, the Hidi does the royal dance steps.The festival signifies an appreciation to the gods for a very good season that has just passed.It prepares the people for the next planting season.” On Saturday February 20, the last day of the festival, men and women dance in excited groups at the hill summit. Slowly, the festival of thanksgiving begins to look like a festival of colourful umbrellas, for everyone, both men and women, dance beneath an umbrella, which forms a shield against the heat of the sun. The happy half circle formed by the umbrellas, all over a round portion of the hilltop, is a very lofty sight. But the cheerful people don’t seem aware of this stirring spectacle. Also the head of the blacksmiths plays a great role in the course of the festival. He does not come face to face with the Hidi. According to tradition when the Hidi dies, the head of the blacksmiths buries him. As the procession draws closer to the hilltop the head of the blacksmiths turns his back, so that he does not see the face of the Hidi as the latter draws near .There are many symbolic movements in the course of the festival, which reflects significant events in the 500-year history of the kingdom.

There were some additions to this year’s festival. First, there was the brewing and drinking contest. Hanatu Iliya emerged as the best brewer, while Yusuf Luka also emerged as the best drinker when he drank three litres of the local drink in 38 seconds. A marathon from the foot of the hills to the summit was organised as well, and a beauty pageant was held. It is hoped that through these avenues big sponsors will be drawn to the festival in the future. Yusuf Abdallah Usman, DG, NCMM, speaking through a representative, donated N100,000.00 in support of the next Yawal festival. He also saluted the people of Sukur for preserving their rich traditions “which continue to enrich our national cultural milieu.” Next, he saluted the Adamawa State Government, and the State Agency for Museums and Monuments which have both actively supported the Sukur site. Anthony Shams says that what is required for the Yawal festival now is a greater participation from the government and NGOs. His words ‘If these organisations can render both financial and moral support, this will uplift the standard of the festival’.

On the final day of the festival, Wadada Irmiya rode a motorcycle from the foot of the hill to the summit. This has never been done before. Interestingly, Sukur is also an ancient site of iron working. It was as though Wadada was responding to a powerful call from the magnetic energies around the iron working sites, energies which will certainly be quite alive, or considerably heightened at festival time. An energy which summoned up a form (the motorcycle) which was similar to itself. In other words iron calls out to iron. There is a lot to see at Sukur where the gods come out to dance once a year.


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