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Tag: Cyprian Ekwensi

Burning Grass

Spiraling violence between the Fulani herdsmen and different communities in Nigeria; especially farming communities, aroused my need to understand the socio-economic culture of the herdsmen. My search to learn more of what fabric the Fulani’s, the most dispersed and culturally diverse people in Africa were made of, led me to the Burning Grass.IMG_20170720_141146
In this Novella, the narratives of Mai Sunsaye, the chief of Dokan Toro did not disappoint me. Many of the details he gives of the Fulani herdsmen, serves to understand their socio-economic pattern, and why town dwellers and the nomads continue have conflicting relationships.

‘Understand this: We Fulani’s do not like you town dwellers. We love simple life which makes men free and brave and gives women a strong position. Can you understand that?’

For all the years he has lived with his most cherished identity as a Fulani, Mai Sunsaye can tell from nature when it is was time to move South or North. Sitting beside his quiver full of arrows, he smelt the smoke fumes in the air and he knew it was of the burning grass: when the grass begins to burn, it is time for the herdsmen to be moving the cattle southward, to the banks of the great river.
Days are, when they move to escape the tax collectors. But when Mai Sunsaye moved on this faithful day, it was not to escape the tax collector, it was at the order of the Sokugo; ‘the charm of the Fulani cattle men; a magic that turned studios men into wanderers’. This charm that infects its victim with a wandering disease sent by Sunsaye’s enemy Ardo, has been brought upon him by the grey-breasted Senegal dove trailing a talisman.
Unbeknowest to Mai Sunsaye, following the bird’s movement would mean deserting his sense of reason, his wife, his children and his people.When asked about his wandering, Sunsaye will tell anyone that cared to listen that he was in search of Fatimeh, the Kanuri slave girl whom he saved from her masters. Fatimeh was caught up in a love triangle with Sunsaye’s love sick son Rikku and Hodio whom she eloped with. All Sunsaye wanted was to bring Fatimeh back to his most loved son Rikku. But in his search for one, he finds another.
In the course of his journey, Mai Sunsaye opened a window for readers to view the nomadic life of the Fulani. Through lonely hills, rivulets and rocks, the herdsmen will thrive. Loneliness was their drink, they are nomads; wandering cattlemen and women.  As their families are scattered beneath different piece of sky in their moving lives, it is little surprise that Mai Sunsaye walks into the embrace of his first son Jalla who has now grown rich with a thousand cattle in the town of New Chanka.

Fiction and Development

This picture of grazing Cattle was taken in the Mambilla-Plateau area of Nigeria. The Fulani herdsmen and their Mambillas  in Sardauna Local Government Area of Taraba remain in conflict over land dispute, farming and grazing route.

Mai Sunsaye also wanders into the home of his lost son Hodio who informs him he had lost Fatimeh in the process of eloping and then snatched his other brother Jalla’s betrothed Amina to be his wife. More painful for him is the news that Hodio quite the Nomadic life and settled into sugar making.

Sunsaye shook his head disapprovingly, ‘You have given up cattle For this? You whom I brought up with the cattle in your veins?’
Hodio laughed ‘The choice was made for me, after what I had done to Rikku and to Jalla.’

In Sunsaye’s absence, his enemy Ardo becomes Chief, rustles his cattles, burns his home and made of his wife and remaining children Rikku and Liebe wanderers. At the urge of the sukugo spell which he was still under, his wandering sickness finally leads him to the Legendary Wild Woman. She was known to always dress in white, leading white cattles with a lion beside her. Alas she was Fatimeh! He is excited, likewise her. She quickly cures him of the wandering disease.
Back to his senses, Sunsaye was able to gather the broken remnants of his family and also restore his chieftancy. But when love sick Rikku and Fatimeh reunites as Mai Sunsaye had hoped for, things were different as even love can wander away. In the time they were apart, Fatimeh had brought forth twins and therefore was now a free-born who is free to marry, but the love Rikku had for her was no more.
In Sunsaye’s words, ‘on the day of death, there is no medicine.’ After gathering his family round the fire again; each telling what they had seen and heard since their separation, Mai Sunsaye died.
Like the author Cyprain Ekwensi, the colorful nuggets of information the character of Mai Sunsaye gives on the Fulani’s helps in understanding their uniqueness. Through him, we learn about the life and values of the Fulani herdsmen:

‘We are fulani’s , the son of Dan fodio, master magicians, we who fight like cats , who die a hundred deaths and live, we who test out manhood by the Sharro’
 ‘we are men of cattles, our cattles come first and since it is our wish to take them to better pastures, all else must succumb to that wish.’
 ‘There is that immediate instinct of the Nomad, developed over a lifetime of exposure to danger from man, beast and nature.’
 ‘A good herdsman must know each one of his cattle by name, colour and habit: the Fulani does.’
 They could ‘eat kneaded flour in sour milk’ and other things but ‘Fulani would not eat the meat from cattle: it was forbidden by the herdsmen.’
 ‘A town must have the smell of a cattle to please a Fulani. If there is no smell of a cattle-dung, it’s like a hospital.’
 ‘Most of the Fulani girls were lightskin with straight noses and thin lips like those of the white people; they could milk cows, separate butter and cheese from the milk, ferment the milk and cook. She hawks the sour milk.’
 ‘A Fulani youth who had not taken a flogging at the sharro would never find a maiden to marry him’
 Their ‘Custom says that a woman is no wife until she is brought under a hut.’
‘To the herdsmen who has spent most of his time on the move, home was a cluster of huts, anywhere from which no more movement was contemplated.’

Reading this book, I could hear the footsteps of Fulani boy taking that trek that will prove him a man. I could see the jaws of cow grinding their cord, I could almost hear the hoots and guffaws of the herdsmen, the clashing of horns. In this book, people and places were so alive.
Written in 1962, the author Cyprian Ekwensi impressed me again. Just like in his novel ‘Jagua Nana’.  I think I love stories where women not only save men but save themselves. The gender balance in this book is commendable. With characters such as Ligu the champion cattle grazer and Fatimeh the legendary wild woman, The Burning Grass became a story, not just of cattle men, but of cattle women too.
This enthralling story set in Northern Nigeria not only gives insight into understanding this ethnic minority group holding the largest pastoral nomadics in the world. The story helps one to understand the incessant conflicts between the nomadic herdsmen and the town dwellers currently on the rise.
Details given in the Burning Grass helps shed light on why since 1987, ‘nomadic school’ educational projects of Nigerian governments targeted at millions of out of school children of Fulani herdsmen has failed. Herdsmen continue to display apathy towards these government driven educational projects. Though language may serve as an impediment, there is also the lose of grazing areas which may make it impossible for nomad children to negotiate herding and schooling within the same space.
The nomadic Fulani’s until present day remains challenged with incidence of cattle rustling, conflict, rural banditing, animal diseases among others. As Mai Sunsaye said, ‘we (Fulanis) are men of cattles, our cattles come first and since it is our wish to take them to better pastures, all else must succumb to that wish.’ Perhaps in teaching them how to grow their cattle sustainably and make their young increase, we may finally begin their education.
~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Who wears the mask?

my.vanderbilt.edugoodpersonpublicationsThe column this week is aligned to the last post. It’s no coincidence that I  choose to be responsive 20130225_IOM_307to an issue that had reoccurred in the media last week. International media captured the ongoing debate on the sex trade law between the United States government and organisations that benefit from the PEPFAR (Presidents Emergency Plan for Aids Relief) funding. Prostitution remains a controversial issue, little wonder I struggle to get an appropriate definition for it.  Hmm… That flesh for cash business; anyone that buys or sells the flesh for cash is a prostitute. Did I hear you say I am wrong? Speaking jocosely, you must be an American politician, a man, a moralist or a judgemental person to disagree with me. You can be everything else but not one of the three gods of Setzuan or Shen te the renowned prostitute.
In the stereotypical way of engaging the issue of prostitution in many societies, Bertolt Brecht Photo by Johny Knightpresents ‘Shen te’ (alias the Prostitute) who lived in ‘Setzuan’ (an imaginary city in China) and relates with masked men. (I say masked men because we rarely know who patronizes a prostitute. Maybe because they are ignored being that their involvement is inexorably, a force of nature that is above the law.) With his noted style of using masks in his work, the writer presents an interplay of characters and scenes that gives insight into survival sex work and the poverty that drives it.
In a time when good nature was rare and the laces of poverty littered everywhere, three gods visited Setzuan in search of one good person. Contrary to the ideals we may expect, the search of the gods yielded ‘Shen te’ as the finest human being in the capitalist impacted city of Setzuan.
In Bertolt Bretchs work, Der gute Mensch von Sezuan literarily translated the good woman of Setzuan; we see a society existing in cycles of poverty. According to Wong (the water seller) there is ‘nothing unusual about poverty’ here. In Setzuan, we are reminded images (1)that goodness and capitalism cannot coexist. The characters in this play proved that evil and criminal acts are necessary for a capitalist system to survive as they grease its wheel. The three gods suffer a dearth in their search because there really may be no good person existing in such a system that is not corrupted by the obscenity of capitalism.images
One begins to question how goodness and morality alike should be prioritized by an individual in the face of hunger, lack of shelter and all the needs that comes with poverty.  How also does a state cladding a capitalist coat suggest that morality should loom over policy decisions that govern issues like prostitution which in many cases, is a detritus of immoral capitalism? A good case in point is this 2003 anti-prostitution law of the American Congress which has not been reversed.
The Anti-prostitution law reads that federal funds may not be used to ‘advocate the practice of prostitution’ or ‘provide assistance to any group or organization that does not have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution’. Hence it requires that all PEPFAR beneficiaries take a pledge in accordance with the law against prostitution.  The United States is the largest governmental donor of HIV/AIDS funds in the world, hence taking the pledge or denouncing it has huge implication for global health. Prostitution inarguably is a strong component in the fight against HIV/AIDS and the broader challenges of Human Trafficking issues amongst others. This cobweb relationship is inextricable and therefore any policy intervention that ignores it is problematic. Engaging this from a law and policy perspective of international development, the review of this law is neccesary. Through the past week, media has captured activities focused on this as the Supreme Court responds to the amicus briefs filed by UNAid and other organizations for its reversal.
httpwww.lowbird.comdataimages200903girls-love-thief-in-the-mask-012931.jpgIn America, likewise many other countries where prostitution is illegal, the laws are based on ideologies which are morally inspired, lacking sincere grasp of realities. The moral ideologies are often deflated by the verity on ground and compounded by the strategies adopted in implementing the law. Many times through enforcing our law, we discriminate participants in the skin trade by continuously masking and protecting the recipients, and prosecuting, humiliating and stigmatizing the service providers. More women have been victims of this unfair rule except for rare situations where men like the morally upright Elliot Laurence Spitzer (the past governor of New York) are exposed for political gains.
It will be short sighted of me to say that the solution for countries that criminalizes prostitution is in adopting a more holistic approach that equally engages both the supply and demand angle of the flesh for cash industry. Short sighted because I think there is need for the policy makers to understand the intricacies and drivers of the sex trade market. Prostitution in many cases is driven by poverty which must be addressed. It’s also worthy of note that prostitution is an addiction, a means of livelihood, a coping mechanism, a hobby amongst others.
Bertolt Bretchs dramatizes poverty and survival sex as a driver for ‘Shen te’ who proclaims that ‘I should love to stay with one man… stock-vector-teardrop-a-woman-touching-a-masked-man-the-characters-and-the-background-are-on-separate-layers-37520596I’ll like to be good but surely there’s rent to pay’. Cyprian Ekwensi’s narrative in ‘Jagua Nana’ presents us a psycho-social case in point in understanding the drivers of prostitution within the urban African society. With the Character of ‘Jagua’, we find a young woman whose sojourn into the skin trade sprang from her restless spirit and a search for adventure.
Though written many decades ago and representing different social contexts, the two writers through their characters, show that empowerment and new preoccupations can wean women off prostitution. The high point for the two protagonists is seen in their shifts into trading and becoming more useful to the society. While ‘Shen te’ opens a tobacco shop and becomes the angel of the slum, Jagua also goes into socially profitable ventures.
If Americans where gods, they will judge Shen te, if they had the power, she would know no empowerment.  Many thanks to the absence of PEPFAR in Setzuan, Shente got a new life as the angel of the slum who ran a tobacco shop.  The three gods of Setzuan were clearly non-judgemental,  It appears reasonable to look beyond the actions of a prostitute and focus on the intent. In the face of stinking poverty and lack which gnawed the three gods in Setzuan, the mask of morality dropped. The gods empowered ‘Shen te’ not on the grounds of morality but that of necessity. Where the gods to be judgemental,  their own morality will be deciphered and hence they will be found wanting for sharing shelter with a prostitute.
Through his master piece character ‘Shen te’, Bertolt Brecht calls for us to think outside the conventional box, it persuades a thorough consideration of many issue of obscenity far and above prostitution. A moral law against prostitution may be ideal but should not be a precondition toimg_125927872942_49207_eventoriginal sustainable development interventions. Apart from a possible negative impact on global health, another implication is that some people’s livelihood will be set on fire, children of prostitutes will walk the streets and yet the world will worse. Rather than shut the door on their faces, we must think of how to shelter them. Maybe replacing a law against prostitution with a law against poverty and inequalities can wean those to whom the flesh for cash business provides bread and butter.


A wordle generated specially for the series on prostitution. I have been inspired by the many names I could derive from sex trade.

Jagua Nana's Daughters

Some topics make you have premature writer’s block, not because you don’t know what to write about but more because you suffer15027760-masked-man-portrait a creative blockage in struggling with how to take it on. This I experience every time I try discussing  issues around  the Skin trade. Where does one start from? do I hold on to the faceless clients of the sisters in the red light district or do I talk about their pimp? Maybe I should focus on the sisters and brothers of the brothel who have been mercilessly judged in different mediums or do I focus on the law that criminalizes or decriminalizes them? As is the case in life, you have to play a game of letting go and holding on at different times in order to gain balance. So I decided to play a game, the game of naming. The world calls the flesh for cash business ‘Prostitution‘ but there are many more names than one can imagine that takes its bearing from this sector. To get started, I went for a wordle game that will help me appreciate all the names I know referring to this controversial profession.  This is what I produced.


While its amusing to see how much name can be derived from one sector of the economy, I must agree that this has charged me up.  Worthy of note is the fact that for once on this page, the client of the red light district is not masked, he is called ‘John’.

jagua_nanaI explored Cyprian Ekwensi’s ‘Jagua Nana’ recently and I must say it was ingenious in many ways especially when I consider the time it was published. I cannot help but link its characters and narratives to the realities of prostitution in our world. Prostitution is dynamic in the sense that the sentiment around it is very relative. In many countries, I find that it is legalized and regulated, but isn’t it astonishing that ten most happiest countries in  the world’s  are places where the skin trade is legal? From Sweden, Denmark, New Zealand, Norway, Ireland, to Canada, Belgium , Switzerland, Finland and the Netherlands,  we find that most of the world’s strongest economies legalize the flesh for cash business. On a lighter side, I wonder if it could be a recipe for a happy and economically strong country?

In America and most of Africa, prostitution remains illegal. In fact many commercial  sex workers in Africa are known to engage in survival sex as a result of the poverty they experience. But this is not the case for ‘Jagua’ in Ekwensi’s Novel published in 1961. Having been pressured to marry a young man in the coal city, her marriage was no bliss as infertility loomed over for some years. The strains of infertility coupled with her stifled feeling of carrying on with the role of a house wife led her to the train station and thus her  journey on the Lagos fast lane began. Jagua was not presented as a victim of poverty, neither was her husband poor,  her drive for the skin trade can be judged as a product of adventure.Maybe in our generation, it will be tagged  ‘coping mechanism’.Talking about being in the skin trade as a coping mechanism, Suzy Favour Hamilton comes to mind.

suzy-favor-hamiltonI do not remember Mrs. Hamilton for her masked persona, I remember her as the Olympic medallist, a hard working woman who has achieved so much that we should be proud for. However, a phenomenon relevant to this discussion is well captured in her life’s experience. When she said she had mistakenly joined the sex trade as a coping mechanism against the challenges around her life, it got me thinking. She precisely gave me a mental shift towards the understanding of the drivers of prostitution. She provoked a thinking outside the conventional box of what could make anyone engage in the skin trade. While I still try to probe further, her statement on her disgust for the ‘JOHN’ that broke the honour code and exposed her made me stop.“I can’t expect you to understand, you aren’t in that world… you don’t know this world. You’re making judgements on what you see on television or what you perceive,” she said. Now I agree that some things are not meant to be understood. Even as I hate that she alone was exposed, even as I feel its unfair that  the face of this JOHN did not splash on the screen and in the papers like her’s, and no one asked for him, I may never understand w6323246-carnival-mask-close-up-to-masked-womanhy.

 Jagua and Suzy alike makes me think that there is need to understand the intricacies of this sector before we engage in naming it or better still executing the trade.What does this have to do with international development you may ask? Everything from global health  to unemployment, Human trafficking and poverty amongst others. In the wake of high HIV/AIDS prevalence, trafficking of young women and abusing their right to freedom, with litters of poverty all around us, this issues must be faced.   Hence we must think  and think again, in the light of what we know about the different perceptions of prostitution world over, should it be eradicated or should it be managed?

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