If you’re having a first-timer’s visit at the Kurmi market, there’s a good chance that you’ll get lost in it. The extensive lines of stalls form a giant maze that makes navigating it a great challenge. You’ll probably need help with wading through it.
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There’s nothing really unique about this; many markets elsewhere in the country have layouts that are just as confusing. But Kurmi does distinguish itself from other trading centres in Nigeria. It’s a living relic from a distant past, the sort that only a small number of markets around the world can measure up to.
Kurmi’s history goes back to the 15th century—well before colonial times. It was set up as a trading and warehouse centre to accommodate Kano’s growing commercial activities. At the time, the city was gaining prominence as a hub for the southern end of the trans-Saharan trade, and it needed more space for its merchants and goods.
The market was set up in the Jakara area of Kano by the city’s monarch, Muhammad Rumfa (he reigned from 1463-1499). It was one of the king’s many accomplishments, others being the extension of the city walls and building a large palace. Today, the market sits close to the centre of Kano, not far away from the Emir’s palace.
Even in the past, Kurmi was organised along fairly defined lines. Stalls made out of bamboo formed rows that functioned as narrow streets. The market was divided into several quarters, each selling a specific product. Order was maintained by individuals who oversaw each quarter.
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Merchants at Kurmi traded leather and textiles, among other things. But there was also a dark segment of commerce that took place there: the trade in slaves. Kurmi was a major point from which captured individuals were sold as slaves to North Africans and Arabs.
The market was demolished in 1904, rebuilt, and reopened in 1909. As time went on, Kurmi expanded. Trade was also reoriented away from North Africa and towards Southern Nigeria and Europeans (including the British).
Closer to the present, the government of the city has encouraged the establishment of specialised markets. One such market is Kantin Kwari, which is now one of the biggest textile markets in Nigeria. Many traders moved to some of these newer markets. As a result, Kurmi has lost some of its lustres, and now largely serves local customers.
Still, this market continues to thrive. Contemporary Kurmi consists of thousands of stalls sitting in a 16-hectare area. Things on sale there include local textiles, leatherworks, dyed materials, souvenirs, beads, and chains. It continues to attract tourists, who have to engage traders in drawn-out negotiations for a fair price for the product the latter sells.
If you’re going to visit Kurmi, you’re better off doing so during the dry season. The ground tends to muddy when it rains, as it’s mostly not tarred.
Kurmi is a cross between the past and the present. Its age makes it an interesting place to visit, as do its metal crafts, leather works, and fabrics. It will continue to fascinate tourists for years to come.
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