In the lush, rich valley at the point where the Niger and Kaduna rivers meet, you’ll find Nigeria’s industrial “river folk” the Nupe: a proud, community-minded kingdom of fiercely upheld values in which respect, faith, family and strength are highly prized.
One of Nigeria’s most fascinating ancient cultures centres on the Nupe people: a Nupoid-speaking ancestral group found in a low fertile basin, at the confluence of the Niger and Kaduna rivers, in Nigeria’s west-central region. Formed of a number of different ethnic sub-tribes such as Beni, Benu, Kusopa, Dibo, Gana-Gana, Kakanda, Basa, Cekpan, Kede, and Kupa, the Nupe people are agrarian population river folk who subsist by fishing and trading crops of millet, sorghum, yams, and rice. Nigeria-wide they are synonymous with beautiful glass beads, skilful leather work, brass trays, and fine woven cloth. Bida, the “capital” of Nupe land, is the spiritual and geographical home of the Nupe people. The territory of the Nupe is large: with a northern border from Legba on the Niger, eastward to Kataereg and The Niger, flowing almost straight north-south between Legba and Jebba, dividing Nupe land from Yoruba in the west. The slowly rising terrain east of Lapai and Gidi, sloping upward towards the hills of Gbara Kingdom, forms the eastern boundary of Nupe. This vast kingdom incorporates a wide range of topographical characteristics together with two distinctly different dialects – Nupe central and Nupe Tako – and a zillion different linguistic styles and tones. Of the 3.5 Nupe people, around 600,000 are found in Bida.
The Nupe live in large villages or towns (ezi) or smaller neighbouring communities (tunga) made up of a number of walled compounds divided by expanses of pasture and fields. Originally encircled by a robust rock-built wall to protect people from attack, the Nupe towns were strong and well-defended. Huts – mostly built of clay to a circular shape with thatched roofs – were constructed in tight clusters to accommodate large, extended families. Today, concrete and corrugated iron have replaced the tradition materials through the traditional layout, and its reliance on agriculture and the river, remains.
The Nupe believe in a strong connection between the fertility of their land with its people, crops and the bountifulness of its produce. By placing themselves in the hands of the sky god, ancestral spirits, and other supernatural forces, the Nupe have remained spiritually strong. King Jibiri, who reigned around 1770, was the first Nupe king to become Muslim. For health and well-being, the Nupe belief in the therapeutic powers of natural materials created from herbs, grasses, roots, and the leaves of trees, which are processed by pulverizing, boiling, or mixing. Curative lotions are often applied involving invocations of deities and sacrifices. Islam brought charms or amulets prepared in accordance with Islamic belief – and some regions have good Western medicine – though traditional medicine tends to be better trusted and is less expensive. Faiths are upheld and religious convictions still have an important role in society. Agricultural heritage has also ensured widely-held, traditional beliefs are passed on to each generation, together with farming skills, customs and associated verbally-transmitted legends. Many Nupe converted to Islam at the end of the eighteenth century. Today, the Muslim faith is the predominant belief, with Christianity common in a few communities and superstitions, magic, myth, rituals and taboos practiced. Lavish ceremonial events play a major role in the social life of the Nupe on occasions such as funerals, weddings, birth of a baby, the crowning of a new chief, the anniversary of Nigeria’s independence from Britain and dates in the Islamic and church calendar. Typically, the Nupe sacrifice of a ram to commemorate the name of God. Feasts are prepared and people wear their best clothes to spend time with close friends and family and pay their respect to community elders. Societal values centre on cooperation, shared resources, helpfulness and respect. There is very little tolerance for irresponsible social behaviour. Nupe are fiercely proud of their culture and creed. Elders and superiors are held in particularly high regard.
Using a large, heavy hoe (zuku) and a small hoe (dugba), the Nupe system of agriculture is a low-intensity style of farming in which flooded marshland (fadama) supports rice, sugarcane, and onions and allowed more of the original savanna to survive. On the banks of the Niger and Kaduna rivers and their tributaries, Nupe fishermen in drag their daily catches of cat fish to the villages that line the water’s edge. Cattle herds are moved from one pasture to another, according to the season. In olden days, Nupeland was perfectly placed on an important regional trade route. Today, the development of cash crops has bolstered domestic trade with rice, kola nuts, smoked fish, palm kernels, shea nuts, shea butter, groundnuts, and craft items sold to other parts of Nigeria.
Eating mainly fish and rice, smoked and fresh fish are found in abundance in Nupe kitchens where a delicious rice and fish soup is traditionally prepared to welcome visitors. Other popular delicacies include a mashed meal of sorghum, maize and millet (eje boci), a bean stew (ezowa) and a filling dish of ground millet porridge (kuna). Cooking is very much the role of a Nupe woman who is expected to prepare meals for the family, perform child care, wash clothes, and bring firewood and water. Men fish, farm, cultivate crops, transport trade and harvest and fulfil the role of the head of the house – often overseeing an extended family. Polygynous marriages are very common in Nupe culture and have continued after the introduction of the Islamic faith. Marriage is a sacred institution, entered into for procreation. In a polygynous setting each wife has her own living quarters, and in many cases the women eat together. A couple’s inability to bear children regarded as a curse. Divorce rarely occurs. Children are cared for by the combined efforts of all the family – with both parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles and older siblings each playing a part.
Nupeland is famous for its calendar of colourful festivals, from the decorated canoes of the Pategi Regata on River Niger in Pategi and the Bariki celebrations in Bida – The fifth day of Sallah festival of both Id-fitr and Id-Kabir celebrations in Bida to the annual boxing contest that draws large crowds from different parts of Nupeland and beyond at the Gani festival in Kutigi . As musical people who enjoy song and dance, the Nupe art scene is well known for its folksongs, praise singers and drumming. In 2009, the Etsu Nupe, Alhaji Yahaya Abubakar introduced National Nupe Day in honour of the Nupe culture. Today, on June 26, this annual event commemorates the day Nupe warriors repelled British colonial forces in 1896 and celebrates the extraordinary culture and rich tradition of the Nupe people, from the ancient art of body and face markings and the great Nupe achievements in history to the healing powers of Nupe herbal medicine and the proverbs found in Nupe culture.
Typical Nupe proverbs