Folklore And Popular Culture: An Exploration Of Some Traditional Fishing Practices In Hausa Folktales

 Fishing is an age long traditional occupation of a certain section of the Hausa people of Northern Nigeria which may be referred to as artisan fisheries. This occupational phenomenon falls under the cultural aspect of the life of Hausa people. Literature is said to be an art that portrays the imaginative vision of a people and the world in which they live, it therefore reflects the culture of a people. Folktale as one of the genres of literature is simply a traditional narrative, usually anonymous and is handed down to the younger generation by word of mouth. Its example includes fables, fairy tales, legends, etc. Since literature whether oral or written is a mirror which reflects the culture of a people, there is no gain saying the fact that a good number of Hausa folktales are embedded with contents that reflects traditional fishing. It is against this background that this paper wishes to explore the extent to which Sarkanci is reflected in the folktales of the Hausa people.

kamun kifi

Folklore And Popular Culture: An Exploration Of Some Traditional Fishing Practices In Hausa Folktales

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A large number of Hausa people dwell in the rural areas of Northern Nigeria and Southern Niger where the major occupation is agriculture, most especially farming and animal husbandry. Some people engage in artisan fishing. After toiling in the day time, the late evening is devoted to leisure and amusement before retiring to bed. This serves as an avenue for relieve of tension and exhaustion which is usually done through story telling. Folktale is one of such ways by which people especially children get entertained in addition to the lessons they derive regarding good habit, good behavior that conforms with the norms and values of the society.

 The art of storytelling is an important genre of Hausa oral literature. Literature is said to be a mirror that portrays the culture of a people. Hence a great deal of the culture of the Hausa people is reflected in Hausa folktales. This is what informed the decision of this paper to search for Fishing (sarkanci) in Hausa folktales. Sarkanci in Hausa refers to artisanal fishery, an important traditional occupation largely practiced in all areas of Hausa land where there are abundant water resources in the form of rivers, streams, lakes, dams, etc which is the habitat where divergent fish species are found. The Sarkawa who are professional fishermen supplies fish which is an important source of cheap protein to the populace. They also play prominent role in the traditional health care delivery system of the Hausa society. Because of the valuable nature of fishing as an occupation, indeed, Sarkawa and to a large extent, their occupation is so reflected in Hausa folktales such that a good number of folktales contain issues relating to the age long occupation.

It is the intension of this paper to look at the meaning of folktales and Sarkanci before a search could be made for aspects of Sarkanci in Hausa folktales.


 Folktale is an aspect of folklore which constitute among others, beliefs, customs and stories of a people. These are transmitted to the younger generation orally or by word of mouth. Skinner (1980:01) said Tatsuniyoyi (Hausa folktales) are long oral narratives. It is one of the oldest categories of Hausa verbal art tradition. By definition, folktale may be said to be story that is passed down through generations by word of mouth. Story tellers recount folktale adding their own personal touches to entertain listeners and to teach moral or lessons. Though folktales are stories that are passed down by word of mouth, efforts have been made towards collection and compilation of the Hausa folktale in written form. Examples of collections of Hausa folktale includes Frank Edgar in 1911 wrote ‘Littafi Na Tatsuniyoyi Na Hausa, Fletcher’s ‘Hausa Sayings and Folklore was published in 1912. Rattary’s two volume collection ‘Hausa Folklore’, Customs and Proverbs was published in 1913. In 1968, Northern Nigeria Publishing Company, Zaria (NNPC) published ‘Labaru Na Da Da Na Yanzu.’ Yahaya, (1977) collected a number of Hausa tales in his book ‘Tatsuniyoyi da Wasanni’. Usman (2012) also made a giant stride by collecting a large number of Hausa folktales in a book titled ‘ Taskar Tatsuniyoyi Littafi Na Ɗaya Zuwa Na Goma sha Huɗu.’

Collection of Hausa folktales in the form of books is not the only measure taken towards its transmission and preservation. Quite a good number of Hausa folktales have been transformed into films. A good example is the Hausa film titled ‘Daskindariɗi’.

 1.2 The Hausa Traditional Fishing

 There are different words for fishing in Hausa. One of the words is a phrase ‘Kamun kifi’ which literally means ‘catching fish’. It may also be referred to as ‘Su’. The word is however a verbal noun which refers to the actual act or work of catching fish most especially using the traditional fishing gear, the clap net (koma/homa). Professionally, fishing is called ‘Sarkanci’ in Hausa. Professional fishermen are called ‘Sarkawa’. The nomenclature came about as a result of the contact of ‘Kabawa’[1] with the ‘Sorko’ who were said to have gradually migrated from the famous Songhai Empire into the territory of Kebbi. According to Alkali, (1968) migrant ‘Sorko’ fishermen began to arrive in Kebbi at around the 11th century. By the turn of the nineteenth century however, a large number of ‘Sorko’ have settled and became assimilated with the host community. The ‘Sorko’ came into Kebbi with superior fishing gears and techniques which by far surpassed that of the Kabawa (Kebbi people) both in terms of efficiency and efficacy. As a result of this, the ‘Sorko’ exacted their influence in all aspect of fishing not only in Kebbi but also in other areas of Hausa land where fishing strive. This is the reason why the Hausa term for fishing, ‘Kamun kifi’ or ‘Su’ was substituted with ‘Sarkanci’ a derivation from ‘Sorko’. A professional fisherman is called ‘Basarke’.

2.1 Aspects of Fishing Practices In Hausa Folktales.

Folktale is one of the genres of oral literature and literature whether oral or written is said to be a mirror that portrays the norms and values of a society[2] with its customs and costumes. With this in mind, it will not be surprising if traditional fishing practices forms part of the contents of Hausa folktales. It is the wish of this paper to look through a number of folktales with a view to extract those aspects of fishing that appears therein.

2.1.1 Fishermen’s Magical Prowess

The ‘Sarkawa’ who are Hausa professional fishermen are well known as people who possesses strong medicinal and magical powers that enable them to perform wonders when it comes to the execution of their occupation. They have the power to manipulate water and the creatures that inhabits the water. They can for instance spell magic on a stream, river or lake so that it dries up permanently. Through the use of their medicinal and magical powers, they can divert the flow of water from one direction to another. They can also cause fish not to breed in a certain water body of their choice. In a Hausa folktale titled ‘Tasalla Maikifi’, one of the magical prowesses of the ‘Sarkawa’ manifested. The tales goes thus:

            A woman whose name was Tasalla had a pet fish which she breeds in her home. She was so fond of the fish that she takes very good care of it by ensuring regular feeding, draining and changing of the water in which the fish breeds. The fish grew bigger and bigger by the day and became so attach to Tasalla such that she developed high affection for her pet. The level of affection grew to the extent that she cannot stay away from it even if it is for a while. One day it became very necessary for Tasalla to stay away from her fish because she has to travel to a neighboring village for certain purposes. Tasalla became so sad, worried and disturbed because she has to leave her fish at home as she cannot carry it along because she is to travel by foot and cannot carry the container she uses in breeding her fish. In a sober mood, Tasalla left her fish and set on her journey. Unknown to her, some people in her village had made some attempts to steal her pet fish so that they can cook it for dinner. The departure of Tasalla provided good opportunity for them to actualize their plan. They caught the fish and prepared it for their dinner. When Tasalla returned from her journey, she could not find her fish. She therefore made enquiries as to the whereabouts of her fish but her search could not yield any fruit. She became so angry so much so that she resorted to the use of the magical powers she possesses to punish the entire people of her village for stealing her fish and failing to disclose to her the perpetrators of the act. Her magic spell resulted in the dry up of all the sources of drinking water in the village. They remained days with neither the water to wash and bath nor the one to drink. The villagers having realized the hardship they faced resorted to sending emissaries to her for mercy which she declined. It was after much persuasion from her mother that she reverses the situation. In appreciation, the villages bought for her another fish which she took very good care of. The fish blossom to the extent that it multiplied in large numbers and the village became rich in fish resources.

2.1.2 The Source Of Sarkawa’s Medicinal Powers

 Sarkawa being the professional fishermen whose main occupation is fishing irrespective of the seasons are well known for the role they play in traditional health care delivery of Hausa society. They provide fish which has high and cheap protein content suitable for the healthy growth and development of the human body. They also play prominent role in providing medicines for the cure of water borne diseases. It is also their traditional duty to help those who suffer due to problem of fish bone stroke in the mouth or throat. Dispensing of medicine to those folk afflicted with illnesses as a result of unhelpful contact with water spirit is also their traditional role. None ‘Sarkawa’ people of Hausa community have a strong conviction that water spirits with which the ‘Sarkawa associates with are the source of their medicine and magical powers. This is clearly depicted in a Hausa tale called ‘Tatsuniyar Mahaukacin Dansarki’ which may be translated as ‘The Tale of a Mad Prince.’ The tale runs thus:

 In a distant city, there lived a monarch who had a son that became mad in mysterious circumstances. His madness does not warrant him to assault people but rather beats and kill domestic animals that roam the streets. The subjects bitterly complained to the monarch regarding the cruelty and hardships his son inflicts on their domestic animals but the king did not heed to salvage the situation. With time, the state of mind or condition of the prince worsened and resulted to assaulting and killing children. This led to the staging of protest by the people which made the king to decide keeping his mad son in asylum. After a long period, the king foolishly thought that his son has gotten better and therefore decided to get him married. A girl was betrothed to him and after the wedding ceremony; the bride was taken into the room where the prince was kept in asylum. The next day, the dead body of the bride was found outside. The mad prince had killed her and threw her dead body outside.

 The foolishness of the king continued as he made several wicked efforts to coerce girls and their parents to agree marrying his mad son though the mad prince kills brides taken to him as wives. Meanwhile, in the neighborhood there lived a peasant farmer who had two wives. The farmer had so much love for the second wife and she is the favorite wife (Mowa) while the first wife is the unfavorite wife (Bora) because the farmer has little love for her. All the household chores were done by the second wife and her daughter. One day, the farmer asked the daughter of the first wife (the unfavorable wife) go to the river to catch fish for their dinner. The daughter went on fishing and caught lots of fish which she brought home. Because of her ability to catch fish, the father instructed her to be fishing on daily basis.

 At one time, she went on fishing and strived all day without making any catch until late evening when she caught a very large fish. As she was about to take the fish ashore, the fish said to her “please I am a nursing mother, allow me to go and feed my siblings so that they will not starve. I will thereafter come back to you.” After much plea, the girl released the fish back into the water and she waited. In a short while the fish returned back to the girl and asked her to take her home. The girl was however compassionate to the fish. She let the fish go free. The fish went back into the water. Later it reappeared to the girl and brought to her some other fishes which she asked the girl to take home. The fish also taught her certain incantation and asked her to recite it whenever she comes to the river to fish. Since then, the fish always provide the girl with fish which she takes to her parents.

 One day, the king sent for the farmer with two wives and instructed him to give one of his daughters hand in marriage to his mad son. The farmer acknowledged the demand of the king and requested for time to make consultation with his wives and their daughters. The farmer first contacted his favorite wife and intimated her that her daughter will be married up to the mad prince. The wife vehemently protested and vowed never to consent to the marriage. He then called the first wife (the unfavorite wife) and told her that he has given her daughter’s hand in marriage to the mad prince and that the wedding is to take place soon. The wife replied him that since he is the father of her daughter, he can decide on who his daughter should marry as tradition dictates. The girl after returning from fishing was fully notified of the intension of her father to give her hand in marriage to the mad prince. The girl became sober and unhappy on hearing the news. The next day she became so reluctant to go to the river to fish. It was only after much persuasion from her mother that she hesitatingly rose up to go. On reaching the river she recited the incantation as usual and the large fish appeared. Looking at her sober face, the fish asked her why she looks so unhappy. The girl narrated her story to the fish but it told her not to bother as it will help her get out of her predicament. The fish told the girl to come to her whenever the marriage is solemnized so that she will provide her with the medicine that will cure the illness of the mad prince. On the eve of the wedding, the girl went to the river side and chanted the incantations as usual. The large fish appeared before the girl. The fish asked her about her marriage arrangement and she told her that it comes up tomorrow. The fish told the girl that the madness afflicting the prince is due to nine pieces of his hair around the head. It therefore instructed the girl to burn one piece of wrapper each time the prince threw a piece of his hair into the flame during the first night of the marriage conjugation. Nine pieces of wrapper cloth were given to the bride by the fish.

 The next day, the marriage was solemnized and the bride was taken to the bridegroom. During the night, the mad prince woke up and asked his bride who she was. In the course of the discussion, the prince scratched and plucked one piece of his hair and threw it into the burning flames. The bride took one wrapper cloth and threw it into the flames as was instructed by the fish. This continued up to nine times and each time the prince threw his hair into the flames, the bride will threw her wrapper into the fire. Alas! At the ninth time, the prince came into his senses and was cured from his illness. They discussed and enjoyed themselves throughout the night. In the morning it was discovered that the prince has regained his health and the courtiers of the king took the information to him. Alas! The whole of the village went agog with celebrations. The prince was crown as the heir to the throne of the kingdom and the bride became the princess. Her parents were showered with gifts both in cash and in kind. A large palace was constructed by the king and the couples were asked to dwell in it.

2.1.3 Fishing Techniques

 Sarkanci (professional fishing) is an occupation that requires knowledge of the techniques and ability to construct effective fishing gears that will enhance good catch. This is so because fish is an aquatic creature that is known to resist been caught. The fishermen have to be very skillful in the execution of the occupation. ‘Sarkawa’ employ the use of quite a number of gears and adopt effective techniques so as to enhance catch. A number of these techniques are been made mentioned in some Hausa tales. An example of Hausa folktale that depicts this aspect of fishing is ‘Tatsuniyar Gizo Da Ƙoƙi Da Botorami’[3], The Tale of the Spider, His Wife And the Giant.’ The tale is as follows:

 The Spider (Gizo) and wife, Ƙoƙi wanted to cook for dinner but did not have fire to cook. The wife therefore went to the house of their neighbor, Botorami (the giant) to get fire. Having finished cooking the fish he caught, Botorami gave her some fish and the fire she went to get. Ƙoƙi, ate the fish and gave a little of it to her husband, the Spider. The Spider enjoyed the fish so much and wanted to have more. He therefore went to the house of Botorami with the pretence of wanting to have fire. Botorami gave some fish to the Spider but he ate the fish and quenched the fire. He went back to Botorami again pretending that the fire got quenched before he reached home. Spider’s intrigue continued and his neighbor, Botorami became fed up. He invited the Spider to come his house tomorrow so that they go for fishing together. The Spider was so anxious and curiously awaits the break of the dawn. Early morning, he headed for Botorami’s house and together they went on fishing. On reaching the lake, the Spider was asked to drink all of the water in the lake which he tried but with no effect. Botorami then squatted and drank all the water in the lake. This exposed all the fishes in the lake and they took a lot of fish that will sustain them for some days. The Spider wastefully ate all the fish he caught and decided to go fishing along with his wife but tactfully avoided his neighbor, Botorami. When they reached the pond, he asked his wife, Ƙoƙi to drink all the water so that it becomes drained. She did her best but there were lots of water. The Spider then bent dawn to drain the water by drinking all of it but all their efforts became fruitless. They therefore returned home with no catch at all.

 This tale categorically depicts one of the traditional techniques the ‘Sarkawa’ use in catching fish. That is they drain shallow lakes and ponds using pans and buckets so that the fish is left openly in the mud. Now with the availability of water pumping machines, they employ its usage to drain shallow water with a view to catch all the fish with ease using bare hands. This technique is called ‘kwalfe’ in Hausa.

 2.1.4 Fish Preservation Methods

 It is generally believed that fish is very rich in protein content. It is therefore very susceptible to fungal attack which makes its spoilage easier. A large quantity of fish is lost on daily basis due to its easy infestation by fungi and other worms. This therefore makes its preservation imperative. The ‘Sarkawa’ fishermen have various ways by which they preserve fish. Some time it is refrigerated but due to inadequacy of electricity supply and the expensive nature of refrigerators which the fishermen cannot afford to buy, they fry, smoke or dry the surplus catch which is taken to the market for sale. Hausa tales do contain the traditional practices of the Hausa fishermen regarding the preservation of fish. This is clearly manifest in a tale titled ‘The Spider (Gizo) and the Lion.

 In the tale, it was the Spider, Gizo that went on fishing and made lots of catch that he cannot consumed instantly. The Spider therefore sat down to smoke (banda) the fish in order to preserve it for future consumption. As he was busy with his work, the Lion came up to him and asked, ‘what are you doing here? The Spider replied, ‘I am smoking the fish I caught for future use. The Lion further quizzed, ‘Would you give me some to eat as I am very hungry? The Spider gave the Lion some fish which he ate. Having enjoyed the fish so much, the Lion forced the Spider to give him more and more until he ate the whole fish leaving the Spider with nothing to take home. The Spider became unhappy with what the Lion has done to him. While he was thinking of how to retaliate, a wild guinea fowl appeared making crow, kuker! kuker!! kuker!!!. The Spider in a deceitful manner said to the fowl. “Look at her! As if I am not the one that designed for her those beautiful pattern on her feather. Having heard what the Spider said, the Lion became surprised and interested in having his body decorated like the fowl. He said to the Spider, “you must design the beautiful pattern on my body the same way you did to the fowl.”The Spider replied, “You cannot endure it.” The Lion persisted in his demand. The Spider then asked the Lion to hunt for a buffalo whose skin will be used to make rope with which the Lion will be tied to a stake.

 The Lion went into the bush and hunted a buffalo bull which he brought to the Spider. The Spider skinned the hunted buffalo and twinned the skin into a rope. The Lion was very tightly tied to a stake. The Spider put a rod of iron into the fire until it became very hot. The Spider used the iron to make markings on the body of the Lion. The Lion groan and groan because of the pain. As the Spider puts the red hot iron on the Lion’s body, he groans and the Spider repeatedly says, “Where is my tilapia (gargaza) fish? Where is my mud fish (ramboshi)? Where is my cat fish (tarwaɗa)? Where is my nile perch (giwan ruwa)? Where is my herring (rajiya)? The Spider kept listing and mentioning different fish species that inhabit the waters of Hausa land. He went away and left the Lion in great pains.

 This tale shows not only the preservation of fish, ‘banda’ smoking of fish but also mention is made of the various fish species found in the water of ‘ƙasar Hausa’ (Hausa land). The knowledge of the names of different fishes is not well known to many Hausa people. A great deal of knowledge on fish, its names, various uses and its preservation is obtainable in a number of Hausa folktales as portrayed in the tale above.

2.1.5 Fish as Medicine

 For ages, fish has been and still remains an important ingredient in the preparation of medicinal concoctions use in the treatment of some illnesses and ailments. It is also made use of in the preparation of charms and amulets meant for protection against enemies whether of mankind or the Jinn. It is also used in the preparation of love portion and other related issues. This traditional practice is portrayed in the tale of ‘Ɗankutungayya’. It goes as follows.

 In a certain village, there lived a Spirit that transforms into human form to torment people. In the village also lived a fearless, courageous and mysterious boy named Ɗankutungayya. The Spirit will deceitfully relate with people and later cause their death or cause misfortune to befall them. This instilled fear into the minds of the villagers. One day the fearless Ɗankutungayya deceitfully made the Spirit to slaughter her own children. In an attempt to take revenge, the Spirit transformed into a very beautiful lady. The eldest brother to Ɗankutungayya fell in love with the beautiful lady and proposed marriage to her. She readily accepted to marry him. He was however advised not to marry her but because of the deep love he has for her, he went ahead with the marriage proposal.

 After a brief period of courtship, the marriage was solemnized and the bride was ceremoniously taken to the house of the bridegroom. As time passes by, the bride mysteriously plucked one of the eye of her bridegroom. She left her matrimonial home leaving the husband in the pool of his own blood. Luckily, the wound sustained was healed through the effort of the mysterious Ɗankutungayya but the bridegroom was left with one eye. Ɗankutungayya however pledged to take revenge on the Spirit. He therefore disguised himself as a Fulani maid who sales cow’s soar milk. The Fulani maid entered into the Spirit’s house offering her milk for sale. The Spirit bought the milk for a meager amount but the maid in an attempt to establish good rapport with the Spirit, gave her a lot of milk worth than the money offered. These transactions went on for some time and a good cordial relationship and understanding was established between them.

 One day, the deceitful Fulani maid went to the house of the Spirit looking dejected and disturbed. The Spirit enquired what made the maid unhappy. The maid told the Spirit that it was one man called Ɗankumale who has caused misfortune to them and has made their lives miserable by causing large number of their cattle to die in mysterious circumstances. The Spirit told the maid that the name of the man that caused them misfortune is not Ɗankumale but Ɗankutungayya. “He is so wicked that at one time he deceitfully made me to kill ten of my children.” said the Spirit. “I have however taken revenge as I have plucked out one eye of his elder brother which I now jealously keep.” she continued. The Spirit seriously warned the Fulani maid to guard against Ɗankutungayya so that he cause them no further losses. The Fulani maid solicited for the assistance of the Spirit by way of giving her the eye she keeps so that it is used as replacement on her younger brother who lost one of his eye as a result of a hard kick he received on the eye from one of their bulls.

 The Spirit agreed to the demand of the Fulani maid and further pledged to assist her with a potent medicine that will help in the success of the eye replacement and quick recovery. The Spirit urged the maid to source for the eggs of four different fish species, the liver of a black dog, seven ants and leaves of parasitic plant found on acacia tree. All these will be dried and grinded into powder. The powder is to be applied into the eye for three days. On the fourth day the eye replacement is effected and it becomes successful.

 This tale cited as an example and indeed many other tales depicts the traditional practice of the ‘Sarkawa’ fishermen who use fish either as medicine or as ingredient for the preparation of medicinal concoctions in the treatment of some human or animal illnesses and for securing magical powers. This traditional act is still been put into practice despite the people’s awareness regarding the efficacy and advantage the conventional medical practices enjoys over the traditional medical practices.

 3. Conclusion

 This paper has clearly attested further the stand of prominent scholars that literature is a mirror that reflects the culture of a society. Folktale, an important genre of literature can be used to study the popular culture of a society because it deeply contains the cultural practices of a people whether religious or temporal. It is the ardent hope of this paper that the Hausa and indeed other societies should seriously safe guard their folktales to protect it against loss. Any society that losses its folktales have indeed lost a great deal of its culture and the consequences for this is very great. This call became necessary considering the relegation folktales suffer due to increasing popularity which the modern films enjoy. This in fact is obviously detrimental to folktales. The present trend of committing folktales to writing and making films to reflect the themes of Hausa folktale is a welcome development that is worthy of been pursued vigorously.



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[1] They are the people of Kebbi kingdom who inhabits the flood plain areas of River Sokoto. They are mostly fishermen who also partakes in agriculture most especially the cultivation of rice in the ‘fadama’ or flood plain of the famous river Kebbi , venue of the annual Argungu international fishing festival which takes place in Kebbi state, north west Nigeria.

[2]Dangambo, A. (1984) Rabe-Raben Adabin Hausa Da Muhimmancinsa Ga Rayuwar Hausawa Triumph, Kano, Nigeria. Page 2.

[3] This tale can be found in Bukar, U. (2012) Taskar Tatsuniyoyi Littafi Na Ɗaya Zuwa Na Goma Sha Biyu Gidan Dabino Publishers, Kano, Nigeria. PP. 602-605.

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