Culture, Family, History


EVERY YEAR, about October/November a cattle tax of one-shilling-a-head was levied on every bull, steer, cow or calf throughout all the cattle-holding provinces of Northern Nigeria. This was in accordance with the principle that in order to establish sovereignty of the Crown, every adult in the territory had to pay an appropriate yearly tax to the government. Each Native Authority was responsible for collecting the tax in its own area. The greater part of it was retained by the NA that collected it, and this paid for the salaries of its servants and for the public services that it provided, but a small portion each year was directed to the central government and was then paid into various local government treasuries, thereby maintaining the principle of an appropriate tribute.

Farmers, craftsmen, and employees paid haraji (general tax) set at around ten shillings a head each, while traders, entrepreneurs, and the wealthy were assessed by the NA at sums that could go as high as 10% of estimated profits. (Complaints were heard through a formal review process led by the District Officer, and could result in the tax being decreased or, in rare cases, increased.) In really primitive areas things were simpler, with living-huts being made the basis of taxation and assessed at one shilling each per annum. Nomads, however, who were never settled in any one place, created their own problems and chief amongst these was the question of what to do about taxing the Bororoji (wandering Fulani).

For centuries, the Fulani people had been regarded as an elite. By the eighteenth century, they had fully emerged all over the Western Sudan as brave, resourceful, learned, competent, and capable, with a bent for religious orthodoxy and proselytization, as well as for administration and government.

About this period, or a little earlier, there also arose a divergence of sorts amongst the Fulani themselves, with some clans opting to become settled and becoming known as Filanin Gida (Fulani of the House), while others continued in the old nomadic way and remained identified as the Bororoji.

The language of both Fulani groups, however, remained Fulfulde, though it is true that among the settled Fulani, by the time I arrived, Hausa had largely replaced Fulfulde. Relations between the two branches were meticulously and cordially safeguarded and there was considerable intermarriage and cross-movement especially when, during the dry season, clans of Bororoji (related either by tradition or by blood) and their cattle camped on their patron’s farms, eating the parched grass and returning a good dressing of dung.

With the large numbers of cattle that they owned, many an Ardo–a family or clan head–of the Bororoji was a very wealthy man indeed. It was reckoned that if one had, say, 4,000 cattle in his herd (worth anything between £20,000 and £50,000 at the time) then he could well afford to pay £200 a year as a grazing fee and for his call on the veterinary and other resources that were available to him.

Unfortunately, a Bororo did not always see things in that light and every year there was a tug-of-war between them and the NA, on the one hand, to minimize the collection of jangali, and on the other, to maximize it. Over the preceding decade, and with virtually no government oversight during the war years, there had been a considerable drop in the amounts collected year by year and there was suspicion that there might have been a few ‘fingers in the till’ as well.

As of 1947, it had been decreed from on-high, things were going to be different, efficient, and effective, and this was the task that I was set to accomplish in Yelwa.

I went to Yelwa in the middle of August and set myself up in the government rest-house, which was a large mud and thatch roundhouse high on a hill about two miles outside the town. I sent word to the Emir that I had arrived and that I proposed, if it was convenient, to make a formal call on him at 10 o’clock the next day.

Then I sat outside on the patio and had a cup of tea.

As I was admiring the view, I saw a secretary bird stalking about in the low bush looking for snakes, which form a principal part of its diet. Much later I looked him up in Bannerman to check identification and was amazed to see that there was a record of the same species being observed in that same spot in 1928. My wife and I saw another one there, four or five years later.

Before I had finished my tea, the Emir arrived with an enormous basket of fruit and vegetables and, believe it or not, a small kerosene refrigerator which he insisted on lending me.

We had never met before, but we hit it off from the first moment, and we remained firm and affectionate friends until he died.

Abdullahi, Emir of Yauri, was a legend in his own time. He had the most beautiful handwriting; he was a big man of enormous presence; he ruled his Emirate firmly but fairly; he was very conservative, but nonetheless, he passionately advocated education for both sexes; he loved ‘gadgets,’ and he smoked like a chimney. In our case, Kipling was right. There was neither “East nor West, border, nor breed, nor birth”** to divide us. I had many good friends in Africa, but only one ever surpassed Abdullahi, Emir of Yauri, in mutual affection and that was Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto.

I waited some time before starting on the jangali, in order to let the local district heads get used to my being around, and so they could start to get an idea of the approximate counts and locations of the cattle for the year. And it was during this period of watchful waiting that I learned of one of the Bororoji’s favorite tax-avoidance ploys.

The formal process of collecting taxes consisted of 1) ascertaining the number of head of cattle, 2) the Bororo and the representatives of both the Crown and the Emir (an Emir’s representative traveled with me everywhere) agreeing that was the correct number, 3) the handing over of the correct tax, and 4) the provision of a proper receipt written up by an NA scribe, stating how many cattle had been paid for, the date, and the total monies handed over.

So let’s say that an Ardo had 500 cattle in his ruga (encampment). He might divide his herd into five, with exactly the same number in each division. One division would be kept fairly close to the ruga. The other four would then be dispersed into the bush, a mile or two away, in various directions.

When a tax collector visited the ruga, the decoy division would be there, close to it, either with a receipt for the tax already paid for that year for 100 cattle in that Ardo’s name or with the money already counted and waiting to be handed over, with many a protestation of willingness to do so. Sometimes, if you chanced upon one of the dispersed divisions first, then one of the herdsmen would offer to guide you to the ruga, where the Ardo had the receipt in safekeeping and would be only too happy to show it to you.

You could be very sure that while you were being led through the bush by a roundabout route, a small boy was on his way, in a straight line and fast, to the ruga to get the cattle present there driven off so that the place would be bare when you arrived, save for the odd cow with a newly born calf, and that the receipt would be very ostentatiously produced for examination when you arrived at the door.

I am sure I fell for this quite a few times before I realized that it was standard operating procedure, and decided to do something about it. It was about that same time, too, that I realized I had an ally, and one that the Fulani, for all their tracking and herding skills could do nothing to counter. Its name was bubulcus ibis–the cattle egret.

These birds are very gregarious roosters. They are also very tame and they like roosting near human habitation and do so in great numbers. I once stopped counting at five hundred on one tree near my garden in Numan. But in the morning light, they fly off in groups to find the cattle, for they feed on the insects that congregate on, and around, them.

This is how I found the missing cattle: Get up early, locate your ruga (but do not enter it), certain that the Fulani will have got up earlier than you and that they will be there with their cattle, and then wait for the groups of egret to show you exactly where the rest of the cattle actually are!

After that discovery, one day’s jangali was much like any other.

And that is how Yelwa almost quadrupled its jangali proceeds in 1947.

One event in particular stands out in my memory, even though it has nothing to do with jangali. I was in Rijau district, around a village called Bakin Turu. We had had some success and were, in fact, working our way down to Yelwa as it was by now getting very nearly the end of jangali and I was due back in Birnin Kebbi within not much more than a week.

Late in the afternoon, we came upon a considerable ruga of about 600 cattle, all penned in. As expected, the Ardo had only got a receipt for a hundred, so it was a fair cop and he paid up his twenty-five pounds in shillings without a murmur. Then he asked me if I had got any aspirin with me. As it happened, I had, but I was not going to hand the bottle over without knowing why.

I asked him, and he told me that his daughter had been in labor for nearly two days and was in sore need of maganin Turawa (medicine of Europeans). What can you do, miles from anywhere, when you have a couple or three dozen aspirin tablets in a bottle in your pocket and you are asked for help like that?

I was assured by Frank Budden, the doctor in Sokoto (who at the time was the only one in the province apart from the one who ran the hospital at railhead in Gusau) that what followed was utter (even culpable) stupidity on my part; that I had acted irrationally and ignorantly; that I should be ashamed of myself; and that I could have been held criminally responsible if there had been any adverse consequences. As I said to him “My only defense is that it worked!”

I told the Ardo that I would give his daughter six aspirin tablets, but they were for her alone and nobody else. Quite touchingly, he took me by the hand and led me to a wigwam on the other side of the ruga. In it were three old women and a young girl, obviously in a very bad state indeed. She was being supported in the birthing position and they had whipped her flanks and belly in order to try and induce contractions.

I think she was appalled at my presence, for she struggled with those who were holding her. It was at that moment that one tiny foot appeared. Looking back, why I did what I did, I cannot possibly imagine, but I had once seen a calf delivered feet first and the farmer had pulled. So I pulled.

The baby came out like a champagne cork! I caught him and hurriedly handed him over, umbilicus and all, to one of the aged crones. I gave the Ardo eighteen aspirin, saying she was to have six, in twos, overnight, with the last two at dawn and the rest throughout tomorrow and the next day, with the last two at dusk on the second evening.

Then I fled! The next day, we made our way back to Yelwa. Quite frankly, I was too scared to enquire further, for fear of what I might have done.

I should not have worried. I had not been at Yelwa three days, when the girl herself arrived, with her baby, sent by her father to say thank you. She asked me to name the child–a boy. I said Dauda, for that was the Hausa for my own name. She was delighted with that, and with the five pounds that I gave her, saying that it would buy the bull-calf that every Fulani boy is reared with and which, as his ‘birth-bull,’ would come to answer his every beck and call, as a pet dog does–and which would lead his herd throughout its life.

She had walked the sixteen miles to Yelwa and was unconcerned that next day she would walk the same distance back. She was not worried, she said, for her father had accompanied her on the journey and would do so on her return.

As she strode off down the hill with her baby swaddled against her spine on her way to the town and to her father, I watched her for a long time. She had taught me a very great deal that day; about society; about gratitude; about fortitude–and about plain good manners. I felt very humble.

David Muffett: March 6, 1919–September 30, 2007

**Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face. though they come from the ends of the earth!
–Rudyard Kipling, The Ballad of East and West

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