The horsemen of Djougou

They are traders in exotic products, company managers, schoolteachers and truck drivers. They’re all different, yet they share a common passion: the purebred Arabian horse. We’re in Djougou, a small crossroads town in northwest Benin, forty kilometers from the Togo border and four hundred kilometers from Cotonou, Benin’s economic capital.

Legend has it that pagan Arab tribes fled Mecca when it was Islamized. On horseback, they crossed Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria… In Benin, they set up their kingdom in the central Nikki region.

They are commonly known as “Bariba”, which means “many horses” in Dendi, a dialect of Niger. Islam caught up with them and today they are Muslims, Christians and animists. They have kept their passion for the Arabian horse. For them, the horse is part of their family, their tradition and even their identity.

There is no horse breeding in Benin; stallions are bought in Niger…

When there’s a party, the riders organize a Gaani. There’s at least one big Gaani a year: on the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday. Gaanis are also organized to mark the election of kings or other important events in the lives of riders.

Gaani, the word meaning joy or victory, is the African version of Morocco’s Fantasia. It’s a custom straight from Arabia. Riders and their richly adorned Dongola horses perform choreographed routines to the sound of tom-toms, and mock battles are played out, followed by cavalcades and dressage demonstrations.

Recently, the riders have organized themselves into an association: their president is the son of a former French President.

The photos presented in this report cover a wide range and focus on the integration of the horse into the daily life of these men (there are no women riders yet), training, horse transport, Gaani, racing, etc….

Tarek Charara

Texte & pictures © Tarek Charara/Kaleidos images.
All rights reserved