My home town is Biu. I was born there. Biu is the plateau among
the plain lands of Borno en route to the Sahara Desert. From this tableland of some 2500 feet above sea level,
you could survey the abode of the Kanuri and the Fulani, Biu's northward and southward neighbours. The latter's territory
almost extended to the point where, as a child, I dreamily watched the sun set on many evenings. I particularly found the
sun's mysterious orange display at that exit point very captivating.
Biu is the capital of an administrative
unit named after it in the southern part of Borno state. Its capital advantage is its outstanding topography: it is hilly,
unlike most parts of the state which are flat and sandy. Its climate reminds you of the Jos plateau, except that the characteristic
cacti of the Jos area are replaced by Biu's less thorny shrubs.
Biu local government
area, as should be obvious from the topographic outlay, has a good climate. Its regional neighbours, Maiduguri and Yola,
are by comparison hot and humid; the possible exception being Jalingo which, because of the foggy hills of the Mambilla plateau,
is cooler than these two. But Biu has a very clement weather: it is generally cool, a gift to anyone looking for an amiable
weather to convalesce in. Like the rest of Nigeria, Biu has two climatic seasons, the rainy and dry seasons. The rains begin
around April and last till October. In November, the harmattan sets in and lasts up to January. Hence, in the Gregorian calendar
year, only roughly three months are left for the hotter times of the dry season. Even this hot period is tempered by Biu's
nearly year-round breeze.
In the past, I sometimes wondered if the breeze came from the few trees around or maybe partly from somewhere else. Being
a town on the Savannah belt of Nigeria, very close to the Sudan belt, Biu is normally short on bush. Yet, it is very breezy;
thanks, partly, to winds from far-flung trees and expanses. On certain breezy occasions, I perceived what could well be the
desert scent of the Sahara but such experiences were few and far between. Otherwise, the Biu breeze of my childhood was blissful
and clean and hardly ever blew sand all over your body.
What Biu lacks in wild bush it makes up for in agricultural vegetation. During the rainy season, thick
columns of luxuriant sorghum plants greet the visitor. Evidence of mixed-farming could be seen in the two or more forms of
legumes growing beneath the sorghum plants. Felled sorghum stalks carpet several farms during much of the dry season: those
are once proud tall plants, green with life before greying with maturity and bowing to the harvester's sickle.
When I was a child, much of the Biu
sorghum was of the red variety highly priced for making the mildly intoxicating burukutu drink. During the colonial days,
British agriculturalists were said to have introduced the white variety. In my school days, the white variety was already
supplanting the good old red type and by the late 1950s it had substantially reduced the dominance of red sorghum in the area.
I'm not sure if the hyenas my townsmen occasionally combated found cover in the grain farms. It
was a nocturnal affair. But from the plateau where we lived, you could hear the hyenas laughing wildly in the surrounding
hills where they had holed up during the day. So loud and clear were their growls and hoots that you were sometimes sure they
were around the corner. In reality, they were often not less than three miles away. This was a safe distance by village standards.
Hyenas, however, being long-distance runners, occasionally wobbled across the wild to raid animals when people had succumbed
to sleep. If they could not kill and drag them away at once, they usually savaged their victims so viciously that few of them
survived such attacks.
Clumsy and lacking the agility of most carnivores, hyenas sometimes managed
to make lucky raids. On bad days, they simply made do with scavenging around the neighbourhood before staggering back to the
The valleys themselves, and the hillsides too - dotted with farmlands - generally harboured harmless
animals. One day my mother picked up a snake from our farm by the hillside and placed it in her calabash. She covered the
calabash with firewood and placed it on her shoulder. When she returned to the house with the snake, we were all excited at
this special visitor from the farm. One mischief against it from us, the children, gave way to another until it finally died.
The snake she brought home could easily have been one of the few harmful ones. What a risk she had taken! Thank God it was
the type people said slept most of the time.
One thing I can never have too much
of is the sheer pleasure of beholding the Biu landscape, especially the rock formations and the beautiful escarpments arising
from the surrounding heights and surfaces of the plateau and plains. The landscape always has something new to offer to the
viewer. It is not unusual for one piece of rock to call up different images at different times in the mind of the same onlooker.
The landscape has an endless power of providing fresh viewing pleasure.
The Biu plateau touches ground in
a rather steep precipitous fashion at the southern end of the "table". Its opposite end evens out less slopingly.
The wider ends of the plateau, to the east and west, possess escarpments naturally calibrated in steps. Several feet beneath,
as you climb down the steps over the long stretch of land, you emerge into a sub-plateau many miles wide, a western "footstool"
to the main Biu plateau.
Stretching further along basins and hills, the plateau merges sublimely into the Hawal river, which itself
empties into the Gongola and then on to the Benue river, the main tributary of River Niger. Viewed aerially and against the
background of the surrounding grandeur of the Adamawa environment and the watery expanse of the river Gongola, Biu lures
every visitor with its somewhat Edenic appeal.
Though classified as volcanic, the Biu
plateau, about 50% of which is made up of basalt, has not erupted in recent times. Evidence of past eruptions is provided
by the surrounding conical hills and craters. Tilla, probably the most enchanting of the craters, attracted many tourists
when we were young. Beautifully rimmed and steeped in wonder, its lake was famous for its numerous crocodiles, noted for their
Climatic change in Biu has been rather dramatic since the 1950s. There has been a transformation in degrees
from wetness to dryness. During my childhood days there were marshy areas. They are no longer there. And the streams which
used to traverse the town have largely dried up: what was once a river bed and a marshy ground has been turned into residential
quarters. In general, the water table has gone down, and gone with it were the brooks of my early days which used to harbour
interesting reptiles. We also found in those brooks ready swimming pools in which my friends and I shared many delightful
Whenever I hear of the greenhouse effect, I remember the
pastoral Biu of my childhood now supplanted by urban concrete layout. The new concrete buildings are not in themselves bad:
they solved accommodation problems and, indeed, provided new comforts. But should they have been built at the expense of the
healthy, if sparse, green vegetation of my youth - at the expense of the brooks and the pools and the cooler climate? Nature
may be blamed somehow here but I think human beings have contributed most to the degradation of the environment. For instance,
for many years, there was hardly a coordinated drainage system in Biu town in spite of demographic pressures.
Increases in population density resulting from
the continuous urbanisation of the Biu area have contributed to such pressures. Biu was one of the former divisions of the
former Borno Province, the precursor of Borno State. Then there were four divisions and an emirate in the province. These
were Biu, Fika, Bede, Bama divisions and Borno Emirate.(Fika and Bede are now in Yobe state.) Since the creation of local
governments, Biu Division has been split into five: Biu, Kwaya Kusar, Hawal, Shani and Bayo local governments. The fourth
was created earlier while the last was carved out from the second in 1996. Biu still remains the capital of new Biu local
While I may state, with dates, the brief history of Biu local government, I'm afraid I cannot be exact
about my birthday. I do have some record of birth but whether I was born that day, that month or even that year remains a
matter for conjecture. As no birth certificate was issued when I was born because of the low-level of literacy prevailing
at the time, it was with difficulty that I later arrived at what now stands as my date of birth.
In certain communities, a baby's date of birth was determined
by reference to, say, the rainy or dry season, the new yam festival, the year or season of an outstanding epidemic, the death
or coronation of a prominent monarch and such other notable or historical events. Reference could even be made to some number
of years before or after the coming of the white man or the conscription of able-bodied members of the community to work with
the imperial army during World Wars I and II.
In determining your date of birth
in those days, easy recourse to some historical events was not enough. You were not there when those events took place, so
you dutifully cross-checked with elderly relations whose memories of such events might usually come in handy to feel the gaps.
If you were born, for instance, about the time the great hunter strangled a lioness with his bare hands, an uncle could recall
that seven market days after the event, your maternal grandfather (who was very fond of your mother) had died - and that that
sad news came the day the good news of your birth was announced. Once you got to know the probable year and month when the
great hunter killed the lioness, you worked out seven market days after that event and, wao! your date of birth had
From such deductions, I have, in accordance with the statutory regulations in the public service,
declared my date of birth to be December 10,1942. This is, therefore, my date of birth.
My family house is one of the houses
between the Emir's palace and the prison yard. Between grace and grass, you might humourously say. When I was a child
the two places were connected by an untarred road wide enough to be dualised into a motor carriageway. If you are coming from
the Emir's palace towards the prison yard, our house could be found on the lane to the right of the dualisable road. I
lived there with my parents and my elder sister. My elder brother and his family also lived there. We have lived there for
as long as I can remember. It may be true to say that the interest I developed later in national security had its roots in
this house positioned, as it were, to monitor the prisoners as they went daily to the Divisional Officer's house to work.
Any way, it was from this house I started hatching my very first hopes.
When I was a child, the house was fenced with zana mats - neatly woven dried long grass - firmly tied to
sticks fixed to the ground at a spacing of about one yard from each other. With time, when the men who had placed them had
become too old or too short on funds to replace them, the old mats, weather-beaten, wore out and fell apart. The house thus
exposed, hyenas easily gained entrance in the night to attack donkeys and goats.
The hyenas carried the prey to their den on the outskirts
of the town. They particularly made surprise attacks when it rained in the night. That was when no one heard their noise.
But they usually left behind their footprints and trails of the prey's blood. Horses and sheep were also vulnerable to
such attacks. Livestock were generally molested: cats attacked fowls by day and night while hawks often descended on
chickens. This made rearing poultry on open grounds a difficult venture.
Because I knew of no time when hyenas attacked anybody, I quickly concluded that wild animals must have
some respect for human beings. This assumption turned out to be a childish illusion.
Her cry rang through the neighbourhood. It was
loud and desperate.
"Somebody is being beaten," I said.
"No," my mother interjected, "This
should be something more terrible."
"Scorpion sting, may be?"
"It should be something more
terrible." And, dragging me by the hand, she said, "Let's go and know for sure."
The cry had sounded as coming from
a far distance. I struggled out of my mother's hand and breezed out of our compound to rush to the scene. Then I noticed
the wailing woman being brought to the nearby house, where the native doctor lived.
She had been attacked by a leopard from the forest of Biu. Not everybody could look at her twice. The two or three wounds
on her body were very raw but the most serious was the one on the head: her scalp was torn from the nape of her head! She
was in pains. I positioned myself beside an older boy. I needed to know how the treatment would proceed.
"So, what would the native doctor do to the head?"
The boy looked at me rebukingly
and sneered, "Just watch and see."
I watched as the native doctor placed the victim on a mat inside the house. He brought a black cloth and covered
her before rushing into his room.
"He's gone to recite incantations,"
the boy whispered to me.
"The woman is yet to recover," I observed.
"She will soon. Just watch."
The native doctor emerged from his room carrying a calabash of what looked like water. He placed it
beside the victim. Then his assistant started playing the local guitar while the native doctor nodded to its rhythm.
As the guitarist played on, something began to
happen to the black cloth. It was heaving up and down, as if it was breathing of its accord. I looked at the boy beside me.
His eyes popped out with amazement. Something was about to happen; I didn't know what, but it was not time to disturb
The guitarist played on. The native doctor kept nodding his head but now he seemed to be muttering something as well.
Then it began to come out from the black cloth, distinct, unmistakable - the hair of the leopard! Not a bunch of it but a
few strands that appeared to matter a lot in the scheme of the native doctor's therapy.
"May Allah be praised."
"Allah be praised."
I left the boy and shifted behind
the two adults offering thanks to God. They must know better.
"The leopard's hair is out. She shall be well."
"If it had entered her blood stream..."
"Strange madness would have
afflicted her even after her head was healed."
"Sai Hyel," the other man said, meaning, "Only God knows."
Having driven away the evil spirit of the leopard, as it were, the woman stood up for a more clinical treatment of her head.
As the small crowd dispersed, I heard that she would be subjected to regular doses of diverse herbs.
I kept wondering how the scalp
would be restored. I asked anybody who might know. My mother's answer made the best sense:
"Drarmsheladiwa," she said,
calling me by one of the Babur language pet names she gave me, "if we knew everything the native doctor knows, all of
us would have become native doctors."
The mystery evoked by this response
heightened my sense of wonder when I saw the woman a few weeks later with her scalp back in place, although in a rather uneven
I don't know if the native doctor's mystical powers still hold sway in the Biu of the 21st century.
Were that woman to be attacked by a leopard today, the emergency section of the local hospital would very probably be the
first port of call. But the native doctor may still be needed to deal with the spiritual side of the mishap, the leopard's
hair angle. And even now, some native doctors are still regarded as the best bone-setters: where modern-day doctors would
opt for amputation, native doctors are known to have restored fractured limbs to perfection. Maidugu Mamza was one of the
native doctors noted for this when I was a child. He tied his patients' fractured limbs with strips of dried bamboo after
setting their bones.
Biu has developed rapidly since the days of hyenas and leopard attacks. It has had water supply from boreholes
since 1955. Yet, water supply remained a problem up to the end of the century. As at 2002, water supply to Biu was supplemented
by no less than eleven independent boreholes provided largely through community effort. A state government dam project has
been in the pipeline for quite some time. Electricity and telephones came decades after the first boreholes. And with them
urbanisation and renovation of buildings.
My family was not left out of the wave
of building reconstruction. The original family houses consisted of four round mud huts, with thatched roofs made of bamboo
framework and grass. The roof was often erected on the ground and lifted up through communal effort. Labour was not hired
from outside. Members of the community helped each other in building their houses.
Of the four mud huts one belonged to my father, another to my mother; one, open on either side, served as the
entrance to the compound as well as the guest room while the fourth was used as the kitchen. Each hut had a door but no window.
This made the rooms dark; when you were inside you got accustomed to the darkness and you were able to see. My mum's room
had a bed which was just a slab-like mound of clay built into a wall.
As a child, I slept on this bed when I wasn't sleeping
on a mat spread on the ground. The latter option often arose because of my habit of bed wetting. If it was wet, the
mat could at least be spread out in the sun the following day to make it dry and prevent maggot infestation. This was a remedy
I could not apply to a bed fixed to the wall. I got over this shortcoming only in secondary school.
To pave way for a new family house, made of concrete
and roofed with sheets of corrugated zinc, all the huts were pulled down. The new family house may be more modern but the
huts had this peculiar advantage of not retaining heat. They were always very cool because of their thatched roofs. And there
was this cute small garden behind those huts where we planted maize, tomatoes, okra, pepper, garden egg and other vegetables.
When I felt like eating garden egg I simply strolled to the backyard. Even when it was raining, it was still convenient to
get some cobs of maize to roast. Like cucumber-like melon, the bitter garden egg, the small green variety, is a delicacy and
a valued gift among Biu people.
Miles away from our residence stood the mbulamail, the huge
tamarind tree inside and around which supernatural activities were said to take place. In the night, people would show
you some kind of light emanating from the tree and tell you it was the witches starting their devices. Such stories made the
night very scary and restrained me from straying into any dark paths without company. Everything made sense to my delicate
mind only in the light of their being human or supernatural.
My parents had five surviving children. The oldest is Muhammadu, alias Dan Jos (because of his long sojourn
in that town). He was followed by Marabi, my elder sister. I am third in rank. After me my mum gave birth to five other children.
The first three died. They were named Abali, Hauwa and Umaru in that order. Abali died somewhat tragically at about the age
of five. He wanted to fetch drinking water from a large cylinderical pot fixed to the ground but fell into the pot and was
unable to pull himself out. He died. My mother returned from the market only to be confronted with this sad event. Attempts
to revive him through artificial respiration failed. It was too late. After Abali came other children all of whom died as
infants. My brother, Abdu, is the next surviving child while my sister, Mairo, now married, is the last child of my parents.
Because of the many deaths preceding Abdu's birth, my mother apprehensively nicknamed him Yabunkrmi, meaning, "With
what shall I protect this child?"
I was about the closest to my mum
and could be regarded as her pet. This was partly because my elder brother left our town very early to study the Quran around
Maiduguri and Marabi got married while I was still in primary school. Thus, with much of the house work now left to me, I
became my mother's close asssistant at home. I helped her also on the farm. We had six plots of farmland in different
locations around Biu. We grew mainly guinea corn interlaced with beans, melon, groundnut and vegetables. One of the plots
was devoted to rice cultivation; another, to groundnuts, sweet potatoes and locust beans. The practice then was for my mother
and me to go to the farm in the morning, and come back late in the evening, usually with firewood or fodder for the donkey
and the few goats we reared.
My mother reciprocated my support by the affection she showered on me and the maintenance allowance she gave me while I was
in school. She gave me money whenever I was going back to school. This was accompanied by other things such as ground pepper,
cow butter and similar provision. That love lasted beyond my school days. Long after I started work, she still insisted on
loading me with different edibles each time I paid her a visit. Sometimes, I declined because of the inconvenience of carrying
them to Lagos.
As I observed earlier, my mother paid dedicated attention
to my education. She invested in my education more than my father. She wanted me to have every possible comfort.
One day she called me.
"Drarmsheladiwa, I see you are now in secondary school...it's
time for you to have a bicycle."
But, mother, how -- "
worry. You will have it, barkar Hyel."
Shortly after, she bought me the bicycle. It was a very
rare privilege for a boy in secondary school to own a bicycle - a brand new aluminium-painted bicycle. I redoubled my efforts
in school because of this singular gift. I learnt early that reward for work done spurred one to do more.
My father had his own unique qualities. He was more of a disciplinarian than my mother. He made sure
I did not stay too long into the night whenever I went out to play. He also made sure that I did not eat out, the rationale
being that eating out might create the impression that you were not well fed at home or might make you vulnerable to poisoning
by some secret enemy of your parents. Moreover, a child was supposed to be satisfied with the food provided for him in the
house: accepting food outside the home was thus a sign of greediness. Although he was not very supportive of my educational
pursuit, he paid keen attention to my character formation.
While my mother and I embraced the
farm, my father was engaged in trading. He bought farm produce such as groundnuts and pepper which he took to markets in Kano
and Jos. He then used the proceeds to buy clothing materials which he resold at home in Biu and other nearby towns. He dealt
in mainly "matram", "oloyo" and "baft" materials. "Matram" was an expensive local
cloth brought from Marghiland and valued highly as a burial cloth for the privileged members of the society. It was woven
in roughly one-inch wide strips. My father also sold needles which I helped him to hawk on market days. None of these
items thrived well enough to make him a rich man. The trade merely enabled him to keep his head above water.
My father gave me general guidance and took care of my comportment. Whenever I was sick, he was the
one who decided the mode and place of treatment, whether I would be taken to the hospital or to the local dispensary. For
common ailments such as stomach pain and cold, he offered the treatment himself. Usually, he prescribed local medicaments.
For instance, he administered soot drink whenever I had worms; for cold, he gave me garlic. Whooping cough was treated by
eating the flesh of a male lizard. For some strange ailments, my mum took me to the native doctor on a few occasions.
He was known to be an energetic person, my father. This was reflected in his being nicknamed Namiji which in
Hausa means somebody who is very energetic. It was later he adopted the Islamic name, Usman.
Although Biu people were generally reputed to be transparently honest, trustworthy and hospitable, qualities
which endeared them to colonial officers with whom they had related, my father was especially noted in the town for the last
quality. He was also a quiet man. Villagers who came from other towns to the Biu weekly market as well as those who
came for the settlement of disputes, mostly matrimonial cases in the customary courts, were often accommodated in our
house free of charge. Most of the time, he didn't even know them. It turned out that those who had stayed in our house
in earlier times had spread the word about his hospitality thereby ensuring a continual influx of guests to our house.
Some of those accommodated
included Marghi (whom the Babur popularly refer to as Thla), Fulani, Kanuri, Kilba and Hona. Hona people displayed a remarkable
endurance against cold. They wore scanty clothes even during the cold harmattan season. They were a strong breed in more ways
than one. One of them, simply known as Alhaji Hona by my relations in Biu, continued to associate warmly with the family years
after my father's death. My father had treated his several guests well. He welcomed every one, including those who were
coming for the first time. A visitor was often welcomed with a bowl of cold water and a sour morsel.
My home life was very short because
I started schooling at about the age of seven and it was only in the first four years of my primary education that I attended
school from home.
(Excerpt from Hatching Hopes by Bukar Usman. All rights reserved.)
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