By Pelu Awofeso
Plateau State is the twelfth largest state of Nigeria, and is located approximately in the center of the country. Carved out of the old Benue-Plateau State in 1976, Hausa is the main and generally acceptable means of communication in this newly formed region, but there are over 35 ethnic groups in Plateau State. One of those groups comes with centuries of tradition: the Assak. The Assak people raise their men as hunters and have their own unique traditional way of: dressing, dancing, festival and religion. Pelu Awofeso, Nigeria’s travel guru, gives us an inside look into the Assak culture and tradition with his visit to the annual Achoncho Festival held in the spring or early summer.
In this Wakaabout Series, Pelu uses the pidgin English term for “one who is always on the move”, waka about to guide you through the happenings of the festival.
The months of March through May present the yearly season of ceremonies for the indigenous communities of Plateau State in the Middle Belt of Nigeria. Within this period no less than thirty festivals, popular and otherwise take place.
One is the Anchoncho, a hunting festival of the Assak natives of the Rukuba chiefdom in the Bassa Region of Plateau State (the Bassa Region makes up the tip of the “Iceberg” called Plateau). More than 100 particpants walk many kilometers to the meeting point at the hilly part of town. They represent every clan in the town and look every inch of what they are supposed to be: Hunters.
A curious bit of dressing is the paint smeared on their faces, a blend of herbs known locally as Ikuk. Its purpose is fourfold: one, it enhances the wearer’s vision and wards off dizziness; next, it imbues alertness at all times, thirdly, camouflages the hunter in the grove; and lastly, it is said to protect the hunter from all possible spiritual and evil attack.
The Assak people, along with their Jere and Rabina brothers, believe their forebearers must have moved down from a place called Penganna Hills, which is further north of their present abode. The festival’s main aim is therefore to trace the original dwelling, and not, as one would have assumed, for the kills.
“If we don’t do this in a year,” says the most elderly of the lot, calamaties will visit.” The most feared of these being that of poor harvests in the cropping season, which the Achoncho is supposed to herald.
The exception is when a respected member of the community passes on or it is the Ichii’s year (when the rites of passage for the youth come up).
Women don’t show up when these men-hunters gather. Their duty on this day is to prepare all known local cuisine preparatory to welcoming their husbands and sons at dusk. The celebration usually ends with horse racing, arguably the high point of the evening session, involving various clans.