Friday, 4 April 2014

Fulani Killers & Victims and Boko Haram

Ever since I arrived in Nigeria nearly three years ago, a civil war of sorts between Fulani herdsmen and the various tribes they settled among has been brewing, resulting in tit-for-tat mass murders, razing of villages and other brutalities as Fulanis kill and are killed.

Now, were the Fulanis the first to attack? Or were they the initial victims simply meting out revenge? I don't know, but the latest news report of the Nigerian army invading a Fulani village in Nasarawa state yesterday morning and killing 30 people, shooting at every Fulani in sight, was troubling (full report here).

According to the report in Premium Times newspaper, Fulani organisation Miyetti Allah confirmed that over 30 Fulani people were killed, mostly old men who were unable to run when the soldiers started firing. The group's secretary Muhammed Husseini accused the Nigerian Government of complicity in the killing and is planning to sue the government.

“I’m presently in the mortuary receiving corpses. They killed over 30 of our men for no reason. This is genocide and we will approach the International Criminal Court, ICC,” he said.

Some of the dead recovered from the invasion

The military had deployed troops to Nasarawa, Benue and Kaduna following attacks on several communities in the states by suspected Fulani herdsmen, leading to the death of scores of people.

Fulanis in rural areas of the North are often victims and perpetrators of attacks, mostly because of age-old territorial disputes and other slights they feel other tribes had perpetrated on themselves and their cattle and property. Some Fulanis are on the rampage over disputed grazing fields for their cattle, and stolen cattle, whilst the town dwellers are also aggrieved when their crops are eaten and trampled on by Fulani cattle.

Ethnic-based enmity is alive and seething in Nigeria y'all.

So the Fulanis attack, and other tribes retaliate; other tribes attack, and the Fulani retaliate. But it seems the Fulani are the ones doing more of the attacks these days. Also, various unconnected Fulani communities and attackers that may not even be Fulani across Nigeria that engage in violent disputes with their neighbours may be called 'Fulani attackers,' making the situation seem even more rife, and the Fulani even more deadly.

On-going disputes in places like Nasarawa, Zamfara and Benue State have caused many villagers to flee after alleged Fulani gunmen storm their locales at night or early in the morning, shooting and killing at random. Recently, a group of 24 Fulani men were arrested with a truckload of guns, machetes, bows and arrows and knives.

However, for decades the nomadic Fulani lived amongst other tribes in peace, inter-marrying and becoming friends. In this report of refugees fleeing from Benue to Abuja following Fulani attacks, one old man said:

"I had to pack and leave with my whole family because I saw the fighters coming in and my Fulani neighbours told me they cannot guarantee my safety if I decided to stay. I have lived there all my life and I don't have anywhere else to call home but I had to leave because the mercenaries were already forming a base there.
"We (Tiv farmers) have never fought with Fulani herders here before. Whenever there are squabbles, we the elders from both ethnic groups come together and settle amicably, so it was strange when they asked me to leave. But they insisted they don't have a problem with us, that it was their people from Benue that asked them to tell us to leave."

Things seem to be heating up.

A taxi driver, upon hearing I was from Adamawa State, beamed and told me he was also from Adamawa (but he wasn't Fulani), then after some pleasantries, he told me of a horrifying visit to the state recently. The car he was travelling in broke down, and as evening had approached before it was finally fixed, both the other passengers in the car and himself were extremely worried because it was general knowledge that the road at night was patrolled by armed robbers.

They travelled on regardless, and soon came to a road block made of sharp materials that punctured the car tires, manned by Fulani men wielding machetes. I asked if he was sure they were Fulani, and he said it was obvious, as Fulanis have a distinct look everyone is familiar with.

They were forced to alight from the car, lie on the ground on their stomachs and remain silent as the Fulani men ransacked their pockets and car and took away all the valuables: their phones, his bag, money etc. If he had tried to escape they would have been killed, as the attackers were known for chopping people up with their machetes.

He said the men also carried locally made guns and communicated by making clicking sounds to each other, and they looked as if they were 'high.' The taxi driver and the other passengers were forced to sleep in the bush until morning when they walked the rest of the way to their destinations.

Now this conversation happened some months back, and my memory can be hazy sometimes, and I've had similar conversations with a variety of people about such car-jackings, although only the taxi driver specified Fulani attackers. So I'm not sure if the following details were told to me by this taxi driver or by someone else, but is interesting to note nonetheless: one of the passengers was a female who lied to attackers that she had HIV to prevent being raped; the carjackers were wearing amulets and other charms that prevented them from being injured by bullets.

So, certain parts of Northern Nigeria aren't too safe right now, what with the sporadic yet increasingly common 'Fulani gunmen,' and Boko Haram insurgents. I'm loathe to imagine that they could be linked, especially since the attacks are similar in nature: young men (sometimes dressed in black or fatigues) with weapons surround a settlement at night and kill indiscriminately, setting fire to houses before escaping in motorcycles, trucks or on foot.

With Boko Haram, questions have been raised (by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan even) about who pays for the sophisticated weaponry (AK47s etc) and brand new vehicles (convoys of Hilux trucks, motorcycles and vans) that aide in their terror campaigns.

Northern leaders recently alleged that helicopters have been seen repeatedly dropping weapons, food, medicine and other equipment in areas occupied by Boko Haram, implying that the militant group had wealthy financiers as well as informants in the military, police and other security agencies.

This leads on to another incident narrated to me by a taxi driver (they are excellent disseminators of information in my experience wherever I am in the world.) This one was from Borno State, and although he had the look and demeanour of a Muslim, I was surprised to learn he's a Christian. He told us his father and other family members were killed recently by Boko Haram in Borno. They surrounded his village one night and started killing people shouting 'Allahu Akbar' before fleeing in a convoy of Hilux trucks.

Then a couple of weeks later, he was supposed to pick me up the coming Monday to work (our car was at the mechanic's) but was unable to make it as he had to travel to Borno with his wife and baby girl, as his father-in-law was one of those killed by Boko Haram in this attack in the state.

It was tragically incredible to note that I knew someone who was personally affected by Boko Haram in such a chilling way, and I felt so bad for the young man, whose family had been so ravaged by the terrorists.

Abuja is still relatively safe (except for this shootout recently), but living in a country where people are regularly killed by a group from your tribe in places not too far away from you, as well as the on-going murders of innocents by state-sponsored enemies of the state is certainly unnerving.

But as Leonardo DiCaprio's character in Blood Diamonds said, "TIA. This is Africa."

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Fulani Comic: Wailing Herdsmen Part 2

Part two Fulani comic Wailing Herdsmen 


Part three coming soon

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Little Fulani Cowgirl and other Abuja stories

So I'm still living and working in Abuja, and below I've documented four unique experiences with what some might call 'the lowly' amongst us. In so doing I hope not to make the same mistake US singer Brandy did, of only documenting street kids on dirt-roads from her visit last year to Lagos, and calling it 'Beautiful Africa.' 

Although I joined others in condemning her pictures - what about the fancy hotels, boutiques and plush cars she experienced? Why only show the (overused, clichéd) poverty of Africa? - I now understand her. Coming from her world, the naked poverty in Nigeria grabbed her attention and touched her more than the wealth in the country. She's familiar with luxury hotels and tarred roads, so the unfamiliar is what stood out for her.

So in these stories, which all occurred last year, I describe my encounters with people I'm not used to, often watch from afar and who I'm not able to know very well due to our different stations in life.

The Little Fulani Cowgirl
You could just make out the top of her shaggy head amidst the wide, white flanks of the cows gathered around her. Then she comes into view: a little Fulani girl barely seven years old, with dirt-brown curly hair plaited haphazardly, and the tiny stray strands that escaped forming a fuzzy halo around her little head.

Wearing a blue, oversized T-shirt that reached down past her knees, her thin legs ended in a pair of adult slippers encasing tiny feet caked in the brown dust of the earth that she had no doubt been traversing for hours already that afternoon.
She grasped in her little hand a thin but sturdy stick that was twice her height, which she used as an aid to edge her way past the slow-footed cows and around the side of the road. Now and then she also used the stick to whack a fidgety cow to stop it from heading towards the cars that were waiting for the herd to cross, a scene which occurs periodically on this residential road.

Unafraid, accomplished and proud, the little cowgirl wore a look of experienced calm and maintained an assurance that refused to be intimidated by the animals that were bigger than her or the motorists growing impatient around her.
She wasn’t perturbed by the heat of the sun, the dusty road or the long hilly hike ahead of her, and as I looked she shouted out to the herd with a shrill, tiny voice, and the animals immediately heeded their little mistress and trooped faster past the waiting cars.

She manoeuvred the animals with grace under fire; they trusted her and she understood them. And as she walked behind the last cow crossing, our eyes met and she looked at me for a fraction of a second with cool, haughty eyes betraying little of the innocence no doubt still within.
Here was a little girl in charge of her family’s wealth and pride, single-handedly dealing with the hostilities of the city and the terrain, armed with only a stick and her fierce resolve. She knows the roads, the routes, the hills and the valleys, she probably also knew each cow by name.
Soon she will give up herding and settle into the sedentary life of a wife and mother, but for now it was just her and her herd against the world, roaming wild and free and fearless.
As the proud little cowgirl walked off into the distance with her troop of 15 or so cows trudging obediently behind her, I marvelled at her control and confidence.

She was born to do this.

The Barefooted Prisoner
A barefooted, small-boned man with scraggly hair, a T-shirt full of holes and a hound-dog expression walked up to us one warm weekday evening as we stood in front of a Tapas Bar near the Gudu bypass.

He came to us hesitantly, as if he was a pigeon and we were holding out bread in our palms. We tried to ignore him at first, but the weight of sorrow in his eyes and his obvious vulnerability made us forego our concern that he was a scam-artist begging for money. Like the well-dressed, middle-aged man who alighted from a Jeep and asked us for N10, 000 to pay for his daughter’s medical bills. It was only after we gave him what we could and he drove off that it dawned on us that we’d been swindled.

But this small man was different. He kept scratching himself slowly all over as he told us, in a barely-audible voice, his story. Big tears dropped from his eyes, which he wiped with his shoulder in a move that was so pitiful it was innocent.
Back in Taraba State, he said, he and a group of friends were walking through a market when there was a commotion: someone had been stabbed in a fight. He helped eight others to carry the victim to the hospital, and whilst there the victim died and despite their protests, the police arrested them for murder. They were thrown into jail and later ferried to Kuje Prison in Abuja to complete their sentence. That was nine years ago. He was just released today and wanted to return to his wife and children in Taraba but didn’t know where to go or where to start.

We stared at him in silence. Was this for real? Was this poor man’s life just taken away from him for an instinctual act of kindness?
He stared at the floor whilst we consulted amongst ourselves, now and then shooting more questions at him to ascertain the veracity of his tale. He didn’t even ask for money, he just told his story and kept quiet, waiting for us to pronounce our judgment on him from on high, just like the judge and the police declared their life-changing judgement on him all those years ago.  

He mentioned that one of the friends had died in prison; they were regularly beaten up and hardly given any food. If ever there was an example of someone whose spirit had been broken, it was him.
We pitied him and gave him some of what we had, and pointed to the direction of cars going towards the park where he can get transportation to Taraba. He took the money with both hands, offered a lengthy thanks with more tears, and walked away slowly; a dejected, confused victim of poverty.

If the rage from the injustice he’s suffered caused him to kill tomorrow, I wouldn’t blame him. The depraved amongst us are made so by others, which is why we are told not to judge, for only God knows the full story. It is a wonder more men don’t turn to violence, when such violence is visited upon them daily.

How Much is an Egg Roll?
There’s an instant pleasure one derives from biting into a warm egg roll, especially when the dark brown pastry surrounding it is both savoury and sweet and crumbles in the mouth. With this yearning in mind, I walked out of the office at lunchtime in search of the eggroll sellers, who carry their cheap but sumptuous wares on their heads to many a labourers’ delight.

It was my lucky day: A teenage girl was passing by with a lidded, translucent plastic bucket on her head. I could just about make out the eggrolls inside. As she walked on, skilfully balancing her load on a head, she didn’t even need to use a hand to hold the bucket in place, such was her hawking experience.
One arm hung playfully by her side as the other held a small plastic carrier bag hooked to her wrist, no doubt containing her takings for the day’s sales so far. She walked with an air of confident abandon: “I don’t need to go to school,” she seemed to be saying. “The sun and the breeze and the open road are my education. I know these streets like the back of my hand.”

I made short hissing sounds to get her attention, and when she heard, she turned around and walked towards me. As she reached me, she brought down her bucket and opened it. “Good afternoon madam” she said in a sing-song voice. I greeted her and looked inside her pail. There were eggrolls alright, bigger than average and the rough unevenness of the dark-brown dough glistening with grease testified to the fact that the dough will be sufficiently crunchy. But apart from the rounded eggrolls, there were elongated dough of the same colour, moulded into fat, short tubes.

“What are those?” I asked, pointing at one.

“Fish roll” she replied, her inanimate eyes wondering away and resting on the woman walking by.

They look interesting, I thought. “Give me one eggroll and one fish roll” I said, looking forward to biting into one of the moist flour-casing and tasting bits of fish instead of a hard-boiled egg.

The girl took out one small black carrier bag from the bag hooked unto her wrist, spread it out on her cupped hand and used it to scoop up the delicacies, wrapping the bag up around them.

“How much?” I asked.


I looked back at the snacks in the bag. “Remove the fish one” I said. Knowing that the price of eggrolls ranged from N50 to N80 depending on where you bought them, N200 for two – one of which was a flavour unknown to me – was too much. Plus I couldn’t guarantee that these eggrolls will taste good. Looks can be deceiving. And the freshness of the products, now that it was already 2:30pm and there were only a few left in the bucket was uncertain. Wouldn’t all the oil seep down to the last remaining rolls, making them soggy from the extra grease and the accumulated heat-turned-sweat from the sun?

The doubts raised by the extra N120 was immense. Did my clothes or the fatness of my purse fool this girl into thinking it was full or money? Or did the wholesale price of flour and eggs suddenly increase in Abuja so that it translated into an extra N20 charge for an eggroll?

But I didn’t say anything. I paid with N500, and saw that I collected all her change: eight N50 notes. I wondered where the rest of her money was. But the abundance of N50s proved to me that indeed the rolls did retail at half the price. The young swindler was smart. “Thank you ma” she said, as she heaved the bucket back unto her head.

Those three words turned my displeasure into a shrug. Back at the office, I bit into the roll. It was still fresh and uncluttered by too much grease. My N100 was well spent.

My Maiguard is Getting Married
Our maiguard has one of those faces that is neither old nor young; he could be 18, he could be 38. Small in stature and speaking a dialect of Hausa that baffled us, Aminu is a good, if absent-minded guard.

I remember when he first arrived from Zaria straight to our house; he was hunched and hesitant, with overgrown hair and a furtive, haunted look in his eyes. He used to grunt to alert you to his presence, and he had a permanent scowl on his face. But after a few months with us, he became more self-assured, got regular hair-cuts, wore the clothes we gave him with pride and stood taller. He even replaced his grunts with words; it was like seeing the blossoming of a flower. Soon he started cooking for himself and made friends with the other guards in the estate, and he smiled and laughed more. Even his brand of Hausa became more familiar to us.
Yet he remained our lowly, trust-worthy Maiguard, until he told us his intentions to return to his native Zaria to get married. I was surprised. So Aminu, this young (or old, we still couldn’t ascertain his actual age-range) man who opens and closes our gate, weeds the yard, washes the cars and does other necessary work around the house for which we paid him an agreeable amount, wanted to get married?

He said that the girl had already been chosen for him by his family; she was the sister of a girl he had been dating previously, but that girl had been given out in marriage to another man when Aminu came to Abuja, so his family had accepted her sister for him.
I remember entering his messy Maiguard house to drop something for him, and on the floor was a picture of a light-skinned young woman wrapped in a red veil from head to toe. She was lying down on her side and stared blankly at the camera. So when Aminu said he’d never met his bride-to-be but had been sent her picture, my mind recalled the girl in red.

She was rather pretty, I thought. Will she be pleased with Aminu, a diminutive man/boy with a semi-permanent scowl? He told us her bride-price was N70, 000 and he’d been saving up for months for her. I wondered if N70, 000 was considered the price for a top-drawer maiden in rural Zaria.
Last week, Aminu left to get married, I could sense his excitement as he said farewell to us. But he’ll come back soon, as his family have advised him to return to Abuja after marriage because there are no jobs in their community. But he won’t be bringing his wife with him. So after a few days in Zaria, during which time he would not only meet his bride for the first time, but would have married her, he would bid farewell to his life-partner for a few months until he returned to Zaria again. Aminu will then return to us a married man.

I wondered if, nine months later, Mrs Aminu would have a baby. Would Aminu still stay on in Abuja? Will he take on more wives? Can he look after a family on his modest Maiguard wages?
All these questions cast my Maiguard in a whole new light.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Wailing Herdsmen: A (First Ever?) Fulani Comic

Suleiman Enejo Dickson, a cartoonist and Fulani-enthusiast friend of mine (who is married to a Fulani woman) is the creator of the comic strip below. It follows the adventures of two cattle-herding Fulani brothers, their family, home and aspirations.

Here's Part One:

What do you think? I'll post Part Two soon.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

In Which I Wade into the Nigerian Anti-Gay Law Debate

Nigeria has made herself the enemy of the West by banning same-sex marriage, same-sex unions and same-sex associations, with law-breakers facing 14 years in jail.

CNN (International) - Nigeria's premier news channel broadcasting on every, and I mean every, flat screen TV in every bank, shop, office and public area in Abuja 24/7- is particularly pissed about it.
I noticed how much CNN had been pushing the pro-gay agenda prior to this law. One report I remember was when famously gay singer Elton John and famously gay tennis star Billie Jean King spoke to Christianne Amanpour about the recent brouhaha over Russia's anti-gay stance during the Winter Olympics this year.
Will there ever by a Gay Marriage in Nigeria?
And of course CNN's Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon are gay (and Becky Anderson maybe? I always though she was gay. I like to think my gay-dar is strong.) I'm pretty sure they and probably the gay/lesbian CNN producers make sure to highlight injustices against homosexuals around the world and promote gay rights advances wherever it occurs.
Western movies, TV shows and music have also being promoting homosexuality as a 'normal thing,' with gay dads and their adopted daughter on comedy Modern Family and almost every other student coming out as gay in high school musical comedy Glee.
So when Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan came riding rough-shod over the Western media’s delicately-handled ‘Operation re-educate the world about homosexuality’ PR exercise, by passing the 'anti-gay' bill into law earlier this month, the West was livid. They threatened to withhold their aid, spoke strongly against the law calling it a violation of human rights, and Canada even cancelled Jonathan's visit to the country in protest.
CNN led the charge against Nigeria. I'm sure the channel is aware of its huge following here as the most watched and most trusted news station in the country, way ahead of the supposed national news channel NTA, which nobody watches, including me, because the picture quality and sound harkens back to the 1970s and the content is drab and mostly government-sponsored.
Nigerians also invest a huge amount to advertise on CNN International. You would think it was a national station the way Nigerian-sponsored adverts for mobile phone networks like Glo, MTN and Etisalat ,and random door and furniture stores advertise heavily on the station, and I hear these ads are not cheap. The CNN (International ) we watch here is also shown in the UK and other English-speaking African countries (America has its own version), but 50% of the adverts are Nigerian.

Plus almost every other personality on the channel's African Voices is Nigerian. Talk about dominance!
So CNN used its popularity in the country to make a point and ran extended news features decrying Nigeria's latest law, with breathlessly apoplectic journalists reporting from Lagos on the various gay-rights abuses they'd heard about. Christianne Amanpour even interviewed Bisi Alimi, the first man to come out on national TV in Nigeria, following which he had to seek asylum in Britain. He spoke passionately and eloquently on the issue; if I was gay I would have been so proud of him as the spokesman for Nigerian gays.
Bisi Alimi, Nigeria's first man to declare himself gay on TV, on CNN a few days ago
As the debates rage on, if you’re in Nigeria you’re in one of these four camps: 
1. Gays and Gay-lovers: Yes! At last, the gays and lesbians have a voice! Roll on happy gay marriages across the nation and civil rights for gay people everywhere! Today debates, tomorrow full acceptance, maybe even a gay President!

2. The Homophobic Majority: God bless Jonathan for putting those nasty gays in their place! If I catch any of those dirty men ehn, I will...Hmm. Imagine leaving the luscious beauty of a woman and handling the nether regions of my fellow man? Tufiakwa! Abeg, if they even dare to protest I will be the first in line to beat those men-chasers. Imagine!
3. The Ignorant Minority: Wait, there are gay people in Nigeria? Since when? I thought it was only a white man’s disease. Wonders shall never end...
4. The Casual Observers: Wow, all this talk about gayness. I don’t really care if they want to bum each other, that’s their prerogative. They want to marry too? Umm, OK, but just NIMBY (Not in my back yard) please.
The emerging voices of Group 1 loudly drowned out by the distaste of Group 2 has taken over the airwaves, with nary a voice from Group 4 even acknowledged.

Group 3 were previously in the dark about matters of same-sex relationships thanks to the culture of ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ prevalent in Nigeria, and only came across images of homosexuality on Western TV, hence its association with white people. (Which is naive of course, because there have always been homosexuals all across Nigeria - I hear the North plays a major role in this scene too - and it's an open secret that some top politicians are men who like to sleep with other men for homosexual/political/spiritual/financial reasons *cough cough*)
I am firmly in Group 2, whereby I am distinctly nonchalant about the whole discussion. As a non-homosexual with no ties to homosexuals and a balanced view of the Bible, I am blasé about the issue.
I’ve had friends that were gay, and I've read testimonials written by secretly gay Christians who are completely tortured by their desire for the same sex and have prayed, fasted and had counselling to dispel it, some even married and had children, but still they can’t shake it off. If they could take a pill and become heterosexual tomorrow, they would do it in an instant. They often question God in tears asking him why He would inflict them with such a reprehensible affliction.
So I’m sympathetic to their plight, and the desire for those who are happy to be gay to live without discrimination. But I'm concerned about their growing confidence and demand for not only acceptance, but full immersion into the mainstream and for their lifestyle to be accepted as alternative rather than deviant.

Lawmakers used the law to say: “No thanks. The West can legalise homosexuality and go to hell in a hand-basket if it wants, but as for we Nigerians and our country, we will serve the Lord (and punish those homos with their anal activities).”

Africans in general are vehemently anti-gay. It's in their blood. The African man that is pro-gay has either spent some time abroad, is well-read and well-versed in Western culture, or is gay himself (much to his own initial horror and shame I’m sure.) But there are also men who tick all three boxes but who remain outwardly homophobic and inwardly tormented.

Then there are small pockets of Nigerian intellectuals and free-thinkers who argue for the rights of homosexuals in their small enclaves of enlightenment. They have been vocal on Twitter and I've also conversed with a few. They are the well-read, often (but not always) foreign-educated young idealists who are embarrassed by the hate spewed against homosexuals by their fellow countrymen, and often regard such homophobes as inadequately-educated religious zealots.

But Jesus never said a thing about homosexuals. Not one thing. He spoke against greed, pride, the love of money and adultery (all of which occur in spades in Nigeria and around the world), but not a jot about gays, which leads me to believe that in heaven's assessment of sin, homosexuality is not number one. Besides, it was pride that got Satan thrown out of heaven, not homosexuality.

But I do believe that being gay is an unnatural aspect of humanity; a glitch in the matrix, a defect in nature. I compared being born gay to being born without an arm once, and somebody took offence. All humans need eyes and all men and women were given sex organs that compliment each other to enable procreation and pleasure; some are born without eyes, and some are born gay.

To put it in another (more crude) way, if all was well with homosexuality sexually-speaking, why would gay men still need 'a hole' and lesbians an 'artificial penis' to satisfy? The normal way works best after all right?
Though some that are born gay (there are children as young as nine who tell their parents they're gay, and gay adults say they've been aware of their sexual orientation for as long as they can remember), but others become gay following homosexual abuse by the same sex in their childhood. I also believe there is a spirit of homosexuality that can rest on some families, i.e. the issue of the man who has three daughters and two of them are lesbians. I was like, wow, in one family? That's got to be a spiritual thing.
So I have an understanding of the plight of gay people but a distaste for their demands. They are not normal in the full sense of the word, and no I would not want my child to be gay, simply because I wish for my children success, marriage, family and normalcy. And I want grandchildren the old-fashioned way. I don't want my child to be different all their lives or to be ashamed to face God because they feel innately inadequate.
What I don't have is hate for gay people. Why should I hate them simply because they are gay? I've known some lovely gay people, and they are often highly intelligent and hugely hilarious. What they do in their house is their business, but I don't want them to push their agenda or force me to accept their lifestyle as good and pleasing, because I believe it's still wrong to mate with your fellow sex. It's not normal. But if you're gay, it's absolutely fine with me. 

A gay acquaintance and I once quite happily co-existed in a plain of mutual unspoken disapproval about something hugely important to us: he disapproved of my faith, and I of his homosexuality. As long as we didn't go there we got on just fine. I will watch a Gay Rights march with some interest, but not join in or cheer. But if one of the marchers got hurt in any ensuing violence, I would call for help and tend to them. I don't support what they do but I support their right to live, work and be.
And I believe there are Nigerians out there who are also viewing these hot debates with a pinch of salt. The world will not end if gays got married, but we don’t want to see them canoodling in the back-row at the cinemas either. The law has come, good, if it is repealed tomorrow, fine.

Recently I had dinner with a group of ex-pats and other returnees to Nigeria, and one of the women, upon hearing I was Fulani, asked me if the Fulani men she's seen dressed flamboyantly in tight, colourful tops and trousers, with their thin waists, long hair, pretty eyes enhanced with eyeliner and delicate ways are gay. I remember asking the same question myself when I came across a group of similarly-dandified Fulani young men. I am told they're not gay, they just like to dress that way. Fine. Odd, but fine.

They are also not, as far as I know, yan daudus, which are effeminate men from the North who dress like women and are mostly gay. No, this class of Fulani men just like to dress prettily, that's all.
So as a card-carrying member of the Casual Observers Group, I declare that nobody should be lynched or beaten or insulted or discriminated against for being gay, but homosexuals should also temper their demand for acceptance with sensitivity: not everyone likes what you do, so if you must, do it quietly and don’t make a scene.
That is all.

Monday, 6 January 2014

No Validations from Fulanis Required

When I first started this blog, I posted one of my blog posts on Nairaland, a popular website where Nigerians everywhere come together to discuss both serious and fun subjects relating to their country.
It was on that site that I enjoyed the acerbic Nigerian humour and saw that no matter where they were in the world, family, marriage, money, religion, patriotism, education and tribe remained important for Nigerians. Nairaland was my online entry into Nigeria before I physically arrived, and I landed at Abuja’s Nnamdi Azikiwe airport equipped with knowledge about my countrymen.

I learnt a lot from the Nigerians on that site, but one interaction with a Fulani man in particular influenced my view about Fulanis and myself.
I’d posted a link to my blog and in response, the Fulani man proceeded to dismantle all I held sacred about my Fulaniness, calling me a fake, a fraud and a fool and regarding my religion as the greatest and most distasteful barrier towards my acceptance into Fulani-land. He stated that a Yoruba Muslim was more of a kin to him than me, a Fulani Christian, and other unpleasant things. What he said and what I felt gave birth to the post ‘You are a Fake Fulani.’

I started this blog to provide a Fulani voice in the plethora of Southern Nigerian voices online, and part of me also wanted to call attention to Fulanis out there and say: “Hey! Here I am! See, I’m just like you! Kind of anyway. So, what’s up? Let’s hang out.” I wasn’t in need of affirmation but I wanted to be welcomed, as if from a long journey away, and for them to say “Hey, sister! Welcome. Sit down, have some Fura da Nono. You look so much like our cousin Halima...” and other forms of easy acceptance. For them to say “We know you’re not quite ‘it’ but it’s OK. Fulanis of all kinds are welcome here.”
But that was before the Expert Fulani’s comments on Nairaland. It hurt. And it also made me stop requiring acceptance. I became Fulani all by myself: a rare, unique offshoot not seeking reintegration but just flourishing where I am.

Other Fulanis were happy that I was out there blogging, and I’ve since received a ton of kind words, with many Fulanis from around Africa happy to converse with kin online, a place where Fulanis rarely entered (or if they did, they were male or communicated in French or Arabic).

I’ve become pen-pals with some and even met a couple off-line. They’ve added immensely to my knowledge of myself and Fulanis (thank you all so much). Some have tried to convert me too, and my reticence in broaching the subject of religion with Fulani Muslims remains. I always feel like they feel I’ve done something terrible in becoming a Christian, and the issue is often so raw and immense and bigger than me that I avoid it altogether. Mostly Fulanis I meet online understand that I don’t need their approval, I’m just happy for their presence and acknowledgment and knowledge.

The funny thing is that my Fulani identity was rarely brought to the fore prior to my blogging. In England, being Black, being female, being a Christian, being British, being a journalist, being from South London and being Nigerian were all far more active parts of my being than being Fulani. That aspect of my identity was relegated to the background and only emerged as an act of will on my part, when I realised that I came from a little-known (in the West at least) yet highly admired people that were known as much for their beauty as their remoteness.

The exoticism of it all, and the pride in being able to claim as mine this almost mythical tribe of nomads – who settled in various African countries and had a distinct look that harkened to a history of migration from outside sub-Saharan Africa – was fascinatingly wonderful. Now I understood why I didn’t look like or behave like the usual Nigerians and why I took to Britishness better than others: there are aspects of Fulani culture, like the reserve and the modesty, that compliment British middle-class culture.

My family spoke little of our heritage. My father was no longer alive and his side of the family was largely unknown to me, and my mother was immersed in her Britishness and wasn’t given to talk of ‘the old country’ except to criticise it. My siblings didn’t care and we didn’t live among other Fulanis, so I got information about Fulaniness from an aunt and her husband, and at the time I was also dating a Nigerian with a Fulani mother so I got to know about various aspects of my culture. But there were also traces of my culture that was inherently known to me, I don’t exactly know how, and the more I read and heard the more I knew that I knew it. Like hearing the whispers of past generations or imbibing the instincts and culture that swirled around you invisibly, or receiving knowledge passed down through your blood and DNA.
I always knew I was Fulani, but I didn’t care until months before I started this blog.  
So to have someone shatter this new mirror I was now looking at myself through was not nice, but because being knowingly Fulani was a recent addition to my already robust identity, it wasn’t so bad. I’m pretty solid in my internal sense of self to not need external validation.

So I got over it, and over the years of blogging my Fulani identity evolved: at first it was a thirst for knowledge, then I married a man also of Fulani heritage who opened my eyes even more to Fulaniness so that it became a familiar enough reality to put to one side, like a new present at Christmas you receive and explore with a hot desire that cools by Boxing Day.
Then a recent comment on the ‘You’re a Fake Fulani’ post by Raji Bello brought back memories of the earlier rejection, only this time my reaction was anger, not hurt. He  said that I was of Fulani origin but I was not Fulani, and my claims to being Fulani were weak. I was like, wait, do you presume to think that I need your permission to be who I am? Later I realised that he didn’t mean any harm, and the truth was that ‘authentic’ Fulanis will always raise their eyebrows and say ‘Hmmmm’ when they hear my story.

Then a follow-up comment on the same post by Aliyu Wali, which spoke about the difference between how I saw myself and how Fulanis see me, brought it all home: I will never be Fulani in the full sense of the word.
Now on the one hand it’s sad, but on the other hand, it doesn’t matter at all. Mostly because such intense discussions of my Fulani identity only occur online; I haven’t surrounded myself with full-blooded Fulanis in the real world (besides, rejection in person would be harder to take), and everybody else in Nigeria sees my Britishness more than anything else. But even if I got their acceptance, what then? It wouldn’t make me taller or wealthier.

I’m loved by God and wonderful people, that’s what matters. I’m just happy to have people reading and learning and enjoying my blog and engaging with me, and I’m even happier to discuss these things with other Fulanis, because I’d never heard their opinions on anything before.

So today, one part of my Fulaniness is an unquenchable glow within, and the other part is fragments I’ve gathered and stuck together. It’s incomplete and crooked and fragile and not as whole as other people’s, but I cherish it and I wear it on my lapel along with the other badges of my identity. The Fulani badge is one of the smallest but often shines the brightest, and sometimes I even forget it’s there, hidden amongst the more robust identities. But when I remember, I touch it and smile.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Yearning for Christmas Spirit in Abuja

This year, come December 25th, Christmas will happen, but not as I know it. In fact Christmas in Abuja is pretty much exactly like any other day, except for the knowledge within that it is Christmas, and perhaps the larger than usual presence of family and friends around, and extra helpings of Jollof rice and fried goat meat.

Christmas Nostalgia

I was supposed to return to England this December, but sadly, a perfect storm of disappointments means I'll be spending my second Christmas in Nigeria. My first was in 2011 when the novelty of heat and sunshine on Christmas Day made it exciting, and a lovely picnic at Millennium Park and a visit to Jos on Boxing Day made for a lovely time.

I was back to London for Christmas 2012, where I gained a new-found love and appreciation for the English version of the occasion, and this year I yearn for that again. This is also because Abuja as a city is absent of any discernible Christmas spirit. There are feeble attempts here and there at marking the occasion, with lights and Christmas trees decorating random shops and homes, and even a snowman display at Silverbird in Abuja, but it all rings false, because there's lack of a national conviction about how to celebrate the event in a Nigerian way.

Snow scene at Silverbird Galleria, Abuja

I've spent Christmas in America and Spain and they all add their own distinct flavours to the Western concept of Christmas (in Spain there's a greater emphasis on the Three Wise Men with festivals and processions celebrating them). But what I see in Abuja are half-hearted attempts at imitating the Western idea of Christmas, with hollow, misunderstood efforts at manufacturing an atmosphere that doesn't fit the region, and attempts to ignite a collective feeling that just isn't there.

The Christmas traditions of particular Nigerians seems to only be exhibited in towns and villages away from the capital, where cattle is slaughtered and the roasted/fried meat is shared out, families and well-wishers gather and rice is the grain of the season. My parents and older relatives speak fondly of their childhood memories of Christmas in Nigeria, but such festivities are harder to replicate in Abuja, a city of wealth-seeking immigrants from other parts of Nigeria who arrive to the city called 'No Man's Land' to work, leaving their traditions and extended families behind in their native state or village.

I've downloaded Christmas carols to listen to and pore over pictures of my younger siblings, nieces and nephews in their various nativity plays to help stem my Christmas homesickness. I could kiss the people behind the BET channel on DSTV for allowing those in Africa access to the British TV adverts they run, which at this time is on Yuletide overload. I'm sure I'm also boring the people around me with "at Christmas in London, we usually..." observations. I'm rarely usually homesick, but this year, at this time, I miss the UK.

Here's the Christmas I'm used to:

One month before Christmas: Shops start stocking Christmas products, much to the chagrin of some newspapers who splash pictures of the too-eager retailers. The nation is abuzz with conversations about Christmas parties, Christmas holidays and 'Where are you spending Christmas?' questions as the countdown to the day begins, with the growing frenzy of 'Only 32 days left to Christmas' and 'Only 28 shopping days left!' all over the streets and the media. It's already pretty freezing outside, and TV guides and television adverts start advertising their special Christmas programming.

On the radio, Christmas carols start playing and Christmas controversies, events and news are discussed, and kids in schools all over the country start their Christmas carol evenings and Nativity plays, where school children dress up as Mary, Joseph, shepherds, sheep and the inn-keeper to recreate the birth of Jesus in their own cute, hilarious and heart-melting ways.

12 Days before Christmas: You've handed out Christmas cards to colleagues at work, having purchased either the Bumper Value Packs of 20 or 50 to give out en masse (you buy a few individual, more expensive ones from Clinton's to give to 'Special people'). You've smirked at the the usual jokes about kissing underneath the mistletoe sprigs hanging over the doors, and repeated the story of where you'll be spending Christmas (at home with the family) dozens of times. There's a Christmas tree with fake gifts underneath and other decorations in the office, and Christmas-related emails and discussions occur.

Bumper Christmas Cards

Office Christmas Party
The Secret Santa gift-giving has yielded much laughter, appreciation and gossip, and the Christmas party has either happened or is about to happen, either in the office specially decorated for the occasion or in a swanky location. There's usually lots of wine, colleagues looking slightly unfamiliar in fancier clothes, a Christmas sit-down dinner/lunch; Abba, Christmas carols and other feel-good music afterwards and merriment or embarrassment ensuing depending on how drunk some colleagues become.

Christmas cards: With the usual designs of the nativity, Father Christmas, Reindeer, red-breasted Robins, snow-covered cottages and Holly and Ivy

Stores and businesses across the country put up their Christmas opening times and the Royal Mail announces it's last posting date. Public transport companies release their Christmas service times, and carols and Christmas-tinged announcements are heard through the tannoy systems in tube and train stations. Billboards and signs all wish everyone a Merry Christmas, with 'Victoria Station wishes you a Merry Christmas' and similar messages scrolling across the electronic timetable system in stations.

Christmas Shopping
Every business relays a Christmas message to its customers and clients and every store you go into on the high street plays Christmas carols, and there are lights, trees and decorations inside the majority. Signs advertising 'Christmas sales or Special Discounts abound, all designed with Christmas iconography. Price tags, shopping bags and store receipts have been re-designed for the holidays and red and green is the colour of the season and is worn by people, animals and inanimate objects. Christmas accessories, advent calendars and sections for Christmas presents For Mum, For Dad, For that Special Someone and gift wrapping sections spring up in stores, with sales girls wearing the ubiquitous red woolly hat with white furry trimming and bobble.

Christmas deocorations outside Boots in London's Oxford Street

Everybody looks forward to the Christmas and New Year sales, and tons of Christmas wrapping paper depicting seasonal imagery is bought at 'Two for Three' or 'Buy one get one free' discounts. People rush around getting presents for family and friends before the shops sell out or shut, although stores open till late for the holiday season. Things are cheaper or more expensive for Christmas, but either way there's a feeling of rush and capitalism-inspired sentiment in action.

Christmas inside stores

Christmas in the Media
Every other Television programme is a Christmas Special or Celebrity Christmas Special of the usual show, and the Channel icons are festively-decorated and TV presenters wear Christmas hats and allude to other Christmas paraphernalia, clichés and stereotypes (Scrooge, Tiny Tim etc). Billboards also advertise Christmas deals, events and products, and on TV, print and radio adverts for Christmas food and gift ideas are everywhere, with advertisers adapting well-known carols and jingling bells to suit their brands' message. The light jingling of the Christmas bells becomes the soundtrack of the season.

My favourite Christmas TV advert song is by Coca Cola, with the lyrics: "Holidays are coming, Holidays are coming, watch out, look around, something's coming, coming to town, Lalalalala...tis the season it's always the real thing, always Coca Cola." I look forward to it every Christmas.

Holidays are favourite Christmas advert by Coca Cola

Newspapers and magazines bring out their Christmas editions packed with Christmas-themed programming, articles, features, news, coupons and adverts, and at the theatre, Pantomimes take over with festive adaptations of classic fairy tales.

Christmas Edition of Radio Times TV Guide

Family film classics like Mary Poppins and It's a Wonderful Life start showing on TV, including animated favourites like The Snowman and Wallace and Grommit. Christmas songs are heard everywhere, one of the favourites being Mariah Carey's All I Want For Christmas. Music artists release Christmas albums and singles, and the Christmas Number one in the Pop Charts receives much media attention.

Christmas Lights
The switching on of the Christmas lights in Oxford Street by the biggest celebrity of the moment is a major event and crowds gather to count-down to the moment the sky is colourfully illuminated with ever more elaborate neon lighting, and the scene is replicated in city centres across the country. 


The lights in Oxford Street 

Christmas lights are put up in almost every home, with the media getting excited about 'The Most Lit-up Street in Britain' or 'The Man who Spent 30, 000 pounds on Christmas Decorations.' The shorter days and longer nights are illuminated with twinkling, neon Christmas lights, which light up the houses in many areas. Some houses have elaborate displays complete with fake snow and a Father Christmas mannequin riding a sledge fixed on the roof, to simple lights with a Christmas wreath hung on the door.

A house lit up for Christmas
Carol singers (is that Father Christmas joining in?)

Christmas Carols
Churches around the country hold Christingle and special carol services, and listening to choirs singing Handel's Messiah in a cathedral in London is my favourite thing to do, along with going to numerous carol by candlelight services, where mince pies and mulled wine is served afterwards. Since I learnt dozens of carols in Primary school for various nativities and Christmas choir events, most of them are stuck in my head, and repeated listens every Christmas further embeds them into my memory. My favourites include 'O Little Town of Bethlehem' 'Once in Royal David's City' and 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing'. But I love them all really; the power and depth of the words, the distinct melodies and the sanctity of what they represent; singing them en masse becomes a spiritual experience.

My Favourite

Christmas carol singers gather outside many train and tube stations to sing carols for charity, and men and women dressed in Santa outfits collect money for their charities, wishing you a merry Christmas as you drop a coin in their coin-collectors.

Christmas Traditions
'Ho Ho Ho' and 'Merry Christmas' are the most used phrase this season. There are also visits to Santa's Grotto hosted by various department stores, ice skating, the brilliant Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park and various Christmas markets and fairs. Chestnuts roasted on a semi-open fire by the road sides are sold on high streets, and Christmas-only drinks like egg-nog and mulled wine appear.

Wrapped up in all this is the chill of December, meaning coats, boots, scarves, gloves and woolly hats are necessities. Although it rarely snows on Christmas Day, there's often snow before or after. A fireplace, heaters, hot water bottles and cups of tea keep you warm inside the house.

Christmas Day: Some go to church in the morning, but almost everyone begins the day very early when everyone, still in their pyjamas, excitedly open their presents that have been waiting under the Christmas tree for days. For some, this is the best part about Christmas.

Oh Christmas Tree Oh Christmas Tree!

After everyone gets dressed, Christmas lunch is laid on a table decorated with special crockery, Christmas table-cloth and Christmas crackers. There's turkey, roast potatoes, stuffing, gravy, brussel sprouts and other vegetables (in our house we also have jollof rice, fried rice and chicken) with Christmas pudding, Christmas cake, mince pies, ice-cream and custard for dessert. Large tins of Celebration or Quality Street chocolates are also quaffed, the Christmas crackers are pulled apart (Marks and Spencer's make the best), the little gifts that come out of it scrutinized, the jokes are read out and the paper hats worn on the head - the one day in the year when everyone happily wears flimsy paper hats around the table.

Christmas Lunch

Photos are taken, songs are sung, and the big Christmas movie plays on TV, as does the Queen's Christmas Speech which everyone tunes if for at around 3pm. Then some take naps, others plays games and make Christmas visits and phone calls, text messages and emails wishing the receiver a Merry Christmas. Tomorrow at boxing day the leftovers of the feast will be eaten, the gifts further explored, more TV will be watched and trips to shopping centres with friends to explore the Boxing Day sales will be made to spend the Christmas money you received.

Christmas Feeling
The usual activities - tinged with sadness if loved ones are missing, or excitement if new additions are present - also adds to the uniqueness of the occasion, but apart from all the activities, there's a Christmas glow, a warm fuzziness illuminated by neon lights, a heightened excitement, a feeling that is hard to express and even harder to manufacture outside of the season.

There's the cosiness and the coming together of family mixed in with the anticipation of gifts and frantic preparations for the day; the buying, wrapping and labelling of presents and writing in cards, and the buying, storing, preparing and eating of the mountains of food. You become soaked in Christmas, it's all around you and  permeates almost every aspect of normal life, until it is over and the new Year comes round.

However, the reason for the season, the birth of Jesus Christ, is often lost amongst the presents and turkey and tree, much to the consternation of Christians everywhere. But I think the fact that the occasion is still so well observed, and an emphasis is placed on family, love, sharing and giving marks the original event well enough.

The reason for the season: The birth of Jesus Christ

Christmas is an occasion, but it's also an emotion fuelled by long-held traditions, national events and the anticipation and excitement that surrounds it.

I shall miss all that this year.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Adamawa: The Hometown I Have Never Visited

It’s odd, that when people ask me where I’m from I have to tell them the state my parents come from. I learnt that the hard way, because during my first days in Nigeria I told people that I come from the UK and received blank stares and raised eyebrows, as if I was claiming something I’m not. They wanted to know which Nigerian State I call my own, a place I return to for Christmas, weddings and funerals. But I return to England for Christmas. I have no grandparents or close relations left in any Nigerian state; my family is in England.

Yet it seems that unless you're an obvious foreigner, i.e. white, you have to claim somewhere in Nigeria as yours. So I now I say that I am British, but my parents are from Adamawa. This seems to satisfy the people who always want to place me somewhere. Perhaps it makes it easier for them to compartmentalise you, so that they can reach for the popular stereotypes and received wisdom about your hometown and its natives which then gives them the tools with which to talk to you and deal with you.

Mandara Mountains in Adamawa State

Your hometown, your state, is such a defining factor in Nigerian life that it has to be written prominently on your CV and it can determine your job or school and who you marry. It is also what people will ask about you after your name in order to familiarise themselves with you. "That Warri girl" says a lot about the woman, even more than her education or current situation ever could. "Don't worry, he's from Edo" or "Now I understand, she is from Kaduna. Kaduna people are always..." Your state can speak louder than your words or deeds ever could.
Yet I have friends in the UK whose parents are Nigerian but they don't speak a word of their native language, have never been to Nigeria, to talk less of their hometown and have only a vague understanding of what their hometown is and what coming from there means. They are British, except for their skin colour and their names which harken back to a different origin, one they are estranged from. And they feel no loss at not knowing. England is enough. So would such people still carry the markers of their states in their DNA enough for it to matter? Should they be judged on where their parents came from?
Many ask if I’ve been to Adamawa, and when I tell them I haven’t they are surprised and say “Oh, you must go and visit your hometown!” But it isn’t my hometown. I believe that your hometown is where you most identify with, where you feel most comfortable, where you came of age. It should be where the bulk of your memories about your family and home emerge from.

Adamawa is in North-Eastern Nigeria
In that sense, my hometown is Croydon, which is where I lived during most of my youth and where I went to school (before that we lived in Plaistow in East London, but that’s not a place I want to claim). In Croydon and nearby New Addington and Thornton Heath I know the streets, shops, train stations, friends’ houses, hairdressers, corner shops, local Tesco’s, GP's office, parks and libraries like the back of my hand, and the places still evoke feelings of nostalgia.

There’s the bus stop where I collapsed on the ground after school one day because of searing period pain, and a lady spoke kind words to me until my bus arrived and then I threw up in the back seat on the top deck. Then there’s the place in Croydon Shopping Centre where my mother slapped me because I'd misplaced a Blender she’d just bought and left in my care. Croydon and its surroundings is my hometown, the place I cried, laughed, fell in and out of love, partied and consciously evolved. Epsom in Surrey also has much more of a claim on my heart than Adamawa, because it is where my family moved to in my late teens and where they currently reside. It is where my younger siblings would call their hometown. Even Maida Vale where I lived and worked for two years is more of a home to me than Adamawa.

City centre in Adamawa's capital Yola
Adamawa is only my hometown in the sense that it produced the two people that produced me. Yet it is - to many people in Nigeria - where my identity and my humanity lies. But that is wrong. To look at me through the prism of what you know about Adamawa will be to equate my being with something completely unconnected to me as a person.
I am not my hometown.
I have no desire to visit Adamawa, yet for as long as I can remember the state has been a constant companion, right back to when it was called Gongola. In England I used to tell the few (Nigerian) people that asked that I was from Gongola, and when the name of the state changed in the early 90s I had to change too and say I was from Adamawa, but in my mind's eye the place itself remained an abstract collection of dirt-roads and hazy hills, a far-off place I never imagined I would ever go to.
After all, what will I do when I get there? There is no family compound to return to or leaping, grinning young cousins to welcome me back, no aunts or in-laws to pinch my cheeks or cook special delicacies or tell me I’ve lost weight; no tree or clearing or road that holds a special history for my family that I am aware of. If I go I would be just another tourist. Perhaps I might share a resemblance with some of the inhabitants. Maybe some older Adamawains will look upon me with vague recognition. Maybe.
Sometimes I feel that I owe it to my future interrogators to actually visit the place I claim as my own. I have heard that it is quite beautiful, and is known for its mountains and scenic tourist parks. Some family members might still be there, although I don’t know where they are exactly or even who they are. It could happen that I can go to Adamawa and pass my cousin or uncle on the road without knowing.  

But I can live the rest of my life quite happily without visiting a place only connected to me by history. I am one generation removed from closeness to it, a lifetime removed from familiarity with it.
Maybe one day I will go to Adamawa. Who knows, I might feel this strong sense of affinity with the state, as if I’d been there before. Things I didn’t know were missing in my life might suddenly fall into place and I’ll feel more whole for having made the journey. I might love it and want to return again and again and later share it with my own children. But it is difficult to be enthusiastic about your place of origin if your parents were not. The roots have long dried up and fallen away so I would have to plant seeds of my own, seeds that have already sprouted and budded elsewhere. I would be re-planting flowers already in full-bloom.

But do I really need to tether myself to a particular Nigerian state in order to be fully African, and authentically Fulani?