In the remote village of Barani in Burkina Faso, close to the Mali border, people are busy preparing for the annual FECHIBA festival which this year will be from 8 to 9 March. The security threat is sure to impact the number of foreigners travelling for the festival, but there will still be plenty of attendees. Chiefs, ministers and tourists from all over Burkina and Mali will arrive for two days of horse centered celebrations. There will be much prancing, dancing, racing and discussion of all things equine. It is a chance for the few horsemen left in the region to put on their finery and get together to indulge their love of a tradition which is becoming increasingly rare in West Africa.
Back in 2008, my husband and I travelled to Kaya, a town in central Burkina, to find out how the traditional saddles we had seen at FECHIBA were made.
We met Bukari Jaandé and his brothers Yuusuf and Korka, who are saddle-makers (jappaaqe, or singular jappaajo). They live in Hoggoore Seeno, a small settlement close to the cattle market on the outskirts of Kaya.
The craft of saddle-making in Hoggoore Seeno has been passed from father to son for as long as anyone can remember. Bukari himself started when he was ten years old, helping his father with simple tasks like washing the goat skins and sewing up the saddles. When Bukari was sixteen, his father’s eyesight began to fail so Bukari gradually took over the family business.
Bukari makes his saddles to commission. In the last five years he has made fifteen saddles for horsemen around the country, hardly enough to live on. Bukari’s children do not see saddle-making as a lucrative business and they are not interested in learning the trade.
As he worked, a group of men gathered to admire Bukari’s skill. One of them whispered to his neighbour, ‘Even if I had all the wood in the forest and all the cows in the bush and a hundred years of work, I would never be able to make a saddle like that.’
There are two kinds of saddle: the gaalal (wide-backed saddle used by chiefs and nobles) and the murlal (a narrow-backed saddle with a padded seat). A good saddle can last up to twenty years, though ten years is more common. Bukari is sometimes called on to repair saddles which have broken.
The best trees for making a traditional saddle are the boogaahi (Latin: bombax consatum, English: red kapok) and the less common anakeehi (Latin: boswellia dalzielii), which both grow in the northern savannah. The heart of the boogaahi trunk is reddish in colour and very strong.
To make a gaalal saddle, a segment of trunk about a metre long is split lengthways with an axe (Image 21) and then split again to form the three core pieces of the saddle – one back-rest (gazayal) and two side-pieces (beccewal). A pommel (yeesowal) is fashioned from a forked branch of a rearby acacia tree (tanni), which is also very strong.
The chopping and shaping of the saddle-pieces is done with four different tools: a sharpened crowbar (barmin), a machete (laqi mawki) and two different axes (jambere and pesagaare). The head of the jambere makes a vertical cut whilst the right-angled head of the pesagaare makes a horizontal cut. A V-shape is cut into the back-rest (Image 22), so that the angled side pieces can be slotted in. The four wooden pieces are pierced at their intersections and then goat-skin cords are threaded back and forth through the holes, binding the front and back of the saddle fimly to the side pieces.
The saddle is covered with a cow hide which has been soaking in water overnight to make it pliable (Image 23). Then the edges of the skin are gathered up and sewn together with wet goat-skin cords.
The pommel is bulked up with layers of fabric applied papier-mâché-style with millet paste (nyiiri) for glue (Image 24), which might be left over from breakfast! Two goat skins are then washed, wrung out and stretched across the saddle – one for the seat (Image 25) and another for the reverse side of the back-rest. Where they meet they are sewn together with fine white thread, using a fat needle with a wooden handle (kural).
Once covered, the saddle is painted in bright colours (Image 26). The base colour is always yellow, applied quickly and liberally with a damp sponge. A traditional design is then scored onto the leather using the edge of a smooth wooden tablet called a nakadeyal. Black paint is made by soaking scrap metal in tamarind water, and is applied to the leather using a sharpened millet stalk (kuzol), following the pre-scored lines. Red or green dye is then daubed between the lines using a very blunt millet stalk.
Finally, eight holes are bored through the lower edge of the saddle with a red-hot poker (Image 27). These holes will be needed for attaching stirrup-leather hooks to the saddle, and the saddle to the numnah.
The back-rest of a murlal saddle is only 15 to 20 inches wide, whereas the gaalal can be as wide as 30 inches. A sausage-shaped cushion filled with millet husks is sewn onto the seat of the murlal, and then the saddle is covered with goat skin and painted as above.