Uncategorized

‘Why I deliberately worked violence into my novel’

EE Sule, also known in the academic circles as Sule Emmanuel Egya is the award winning author of Sterile Sky, (Heinemann African Writers Series, 2012) his debut novel which centres around a boy Murtala and his family as the city of Kano descends into religious violence in the early 1990s. The book won the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize for Africa Region, in the last year the prize was awarded. In this engaging interview, the academic, short story writer and poet took time off his duties at IBB University Lapai where he teaches to talk about what influenced his literary choices, reality and fiction in first novels, the place of creative writing in the academia, style, art and causes and the state of literature in Nigeria. A must read. Enjoy!

page-29-12

Your book ‘Sterile Sky’ is about religious violence. In portraying violence in your novel, did you debate about just how much of this violence you wanted to portray? Were you conscious of the impact this would have on readers?

Violence is one thing that powerfully grips my imagination. I have been, all my life, awed or scandalised by human capacity to unleash violence. Imagine if humans would divert all the energies, all the time, all the facilities, they put into making and sustaining violence into something more constructive, how the world would have been much better. My perception of violence has been there from childhood, from the point of innocence, having witnessed a lot of it as a child. You can imagine the impact that would have.

‘Sterile Sky’ is a token, so to say, of that perception. In the novel, I wanted a quantity of violence that would sting the reader, challenge her complacency, cause her nausea. So I consciously worked violence into the novel at different level: personal, familial, societal, national, even international. But I had hoped, and still hope, that the impact it would have on the reader would be such that it would not undermine the force of my thesis, namely that humans on earth are chained by violence and would remain so until there is the courage and the will to change the world order. Most of our traditions, religions, ideologies, education, etc are founded on systems of violence. And we will continue to live with it for a long time.

Speaking about religion, it is important in the novel, as we see through the life of Murtala’s mother and in the sectarian violence it unleashes, but there are always points of convergence between the faiths. Was Imatum’s relation with her Muslim lover an attempt to portray the other side to the conflagration?

That is the point. Imatum is the kind of character I would refer to as an improviser, someone willing to embark on mobility out of the enclosure of the tradition; that is, the will, the agency, to want to break out of the box, to fulfil a dissident desire. It is only with such characters that religion could be properly put in place. Perhaps one of the points I try to make in the novel is that staging religion is one of the problems we have. Religion, in my view, is not to be staged, not to be thingified, not to be made so ostentatious that it overwhelms simple reasoning. I am also interested in pointing out the contradiction that a society that is the most religious (something that should suggest peaceful co-existence) is the most violent.

Interesting. Murtala dreams of the people he knows who have been killed like his brother and his classmates, who were also the closest persons to him. Was this a ploy to explore the issues of trauma in your novel? Do you think trauma has not been addressed enough in literature?

Trauma is there, is always there, in creative works or artistic production. In point of fact, imaginative expression, for quite many people, is a way of expending traumatic feelings, what Jeffrey Alexander, a social trauma theorist, calls a “trauma process”. Writing Sterile Sky was a way of working myself through a trauma process, purging myself, as it were, of the nightmarish trauma bottled up in me. I think every writer, in each imaginative piece, goes through a similar experience. What is grossly insufficient, in my thinking, is literary scholarship that focuses on analyses shaped by theories of trauma. As literary scholars, we need to construct theoretical frameworks based on the possibilities of not just representing trauma in literature but also seeing trauma as an instrument of resistance.

By representing my trauma in writing, for instance, I could be constructing resistance against the very condition of possibility for that trauma. Trauma theories in literature are relatively new; it is an area we expect African literary scholars to explore given the traumatic conditions backgrounding most of our imaginative writings.

Talking about a writer investing himself in his work, Sterile Sky is somewhat autobiographical because you and your family have lived through sectarian violence in Kano. How difficult was it for you to document these things?

On the one hand, it was not really difficult for me because I seemed to have had something like a ready-made material for fiction; on the other hand, I had to struggle to strike a balance between fiction and autobiography. That is to say, I had to constantly remind myself that I was writing a novel, not an autobiography. This, itself, is difficult. And I can’t say what I have made of it; I think the readers would give a better opinion.

It is your first novel. Do you think that the common assumption that first novels tend to be autobiographical holds true?

I think so. I also think that all novels, all imaginative works, are – forget authors’ pretences – autobiographical. There is an element of autobiography in everything a writer produces. As a matter of fact, there is just a thin demarcation, easily blurred, between fiction and non-fiction so that all narratives claiming to be non-fiction have something of fiction in them, and vice versa. Writing is writing, necessarily subjected to tropological figuration, and as such the language of any writing has a way of fictionalising the fact of the writing.

Incidentally, your novel ‘Sterile Sky’ was the last book to win the Commonwealth Writers’s Book Prize in 2013. How do you feel about that? Are you sorry to see that the prize is no longer being awarded?

Oh yes, Abubakar. I’m quite sorry about it. When I was told in Bristol, UK, that the prize was packing up, I felt really sad. It was such a prestigious prize that didn’t have to sink like that; it could have been rescued.

Did winning the prize feel like a validation, especially having had your work rejected by publishers in Nigeria?

Precisely. I had even told myself that if I didn’t get that kind of validation – I mean if no institution, no individuals recognised the book, I would give up writing fiction. Fiction, for me, is a very difficult thing to produce, and one shouldn’t take all that trouble only to produce what is not worthwhile.

It has been years since the publication of your debut novel. What has EE Sule been cooking in the intervening period?

Well, well, well. You know, it’s not easy being a scholar and a writer at the same time. Scholarship is as demanding as literary writing. So I often found myself jealously pulled at both ends. But I have made the best of that jealousy. For instance, any time scholarship takes me out of this country, I ensure that I use some of the time to concentrate on writing fiction, and vice versa. So, I have good news for you. There are three of my works with publishers now: my second novel, a literary biography of Niyi Osundare, and a critical book on Nigerian literature.  So, you see, a lot has been cooking.

That is good news indeed. When are these likely to be available to the public?

I hope three of them would be out in the first half of next year.

As an academic and a writer, should creative writing be offered as a degree course in Nigerian universities?

It should. It definitely should. And I am working on curriculums that I would present to my university for programmes leading to the award of postgraduate diploma and a master’s degree in creative writing. English departments in Nigerian academic system have been, hitherto, reluctant to grant what you might call a degree status to creative writing because some traditional scholars (traditional in their quaint way of thinking) have undermined the skills of creativity. Blessed with great writers and cultural artists, Nigeria needs to give creative writing a prime place in our education system.

As a writer and a critic, what would you say is behind the resurgence in Nigerian literature that we are witnessing?

A number of factors. The relative democratic freedom we are having, against the decades of military despotism that nearly deadened creativity in the past, is one factor that must be reckoned with. Related to that is the dispersal, exilic and migration phase necessitating what today you may see as the diasporisation of Nigerian literature. Not unrelated to that, of course, is the publishing and publicity capital, prizes and all, in the West that has triggered the resurgence.

The Caine Prize, for instance, has a powerful influence on emerging voices in Nigeria, nay African literature. But that is one part of the story. The other part is that the Western capital almost controls the dominant taste of our literary and cultural production in such a way that it seems to me our literature is being colonised, or recolonised, when it is supposed to be an instrument for fighting imperialism.  How else do you explain the phenomenon that most of our best writers are cuddled in the comfort of the West, calibrated as Western commodities that must satisfy the desire of the West?

In comparing the works of the present generation of writers and the previous generations, in what areas do you see a convergence and in which do you see a divergence? Is it in the deployment of language or thematic concerns?

In both language and thematic concerns. As a social practice, literature flows with the tides, interacting and inter-animating other social practices that are core to the chemistry of the society. The past generation had some dominant concerns that this generation does not have. Globalisation, for instance, has a huge impact on both the style and the thematics of the present generation. As I said earlier, the shape our literature takes today is mostly determined by forces from the West. Anyway, you could argue that literature in European languages in Africa has always been a thing of the West. But there was a time in the history of our literature that there was a conscious, collective effort to valorise African tradition-based aesthetics.

Do you sometimes feel that writers sacrifice language and aesthetic in order to champion a social cause in their works? Do you think this is a particular African concern that literature must champion social causes in order to have any relevance?

Championing a social cause, itself, does not imply that language and aesthetics have to be undermined, sacrificed. Most great writers (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nadine Godimer, Wole Soyinka, Salman Rushdie, Ben Okri) all have a social cause, are socially relevant, do actually pursue goals aimed at improving the condition of humanity in their works, in their lives. And yet their works are distinguished by the fire of their language and aesthetics. The point is that a piece of writing is not literature without a solid literary language. So, those who are incapable of literary language or enchanting aesthetics are simply not cut out for creative writing. Most times, such people explain away their incompetence by saying they are more concerned about the message, the cause, than the language. I believe that literature cannot escape championing a cause; that is to say, all literature is political, but the writer’s chief preoccupation is to use literary language to veil the politicalness of her writing. This is what makes a great writer.

 

Standard
Uncategorized

The Girl Who Defied Boko Haram

Brave teen Fatima Bukar recounts her seven-month ordeal in the hands of Boko Haram, who used persuasion and threats to get her to marry one of them.

 img_9655

Fatima Bukar. (All photos by Fati Abubakar)

It was September, 2016. Just before dawn gunshots thundered on the outskirts of Maiduguri, rousing the Internally Displaced Persons in the Dalori Camp.

Fatima Bukar, 18, opened her sleepy eyes and looked around at the other IDPs who had sat up, their faces apprehensive, listening to the gunshots, the sounds that had hounded them out of their towns and villages. What could be happening, they wanted to know.

“It is Boko Haram,” Fatima had said nonchalantly and laid her head down to continue her sleep.

“How could it be Boko Haram?” one of the IDPs asked. “This is Maiduguri. It could be the soldiers shooting. How can you be sure it is Boko Haram?”

“I spent seven months with them. I know the sound of their guns,” Fatima said, more annoyed by the disruption of her sleep than afraid of what was happening.

Bittersweet Sixteen?

Before September 2nd, 2014, Fatima had been attending school in Bama, Borno State, where she was born and was looking forward to graduating and whatever else life would throw to her afterwards. But then Boko Haram had come charging into Bama, shattering her dreams and life as she had known it. She was only 16 at the time.

A week after the town fell to the insurgents, Fatima, her mother and her sisters were rounded up by Boko Haram and bundled into a large compound with other women.

“We were about three hundred women and children,” she said, sitting on a desk in a tent that used to be a classroom in the Dalori Camp before it was ripped apart by a sandstorm. She fiddled with a large ring on her finger, occasionally slapping her palms together as she talked, words tumbling out of her mouth. She recalled the uncertainty of those first few days as Boko Haram seemed unsure what to do with the women.

“They said those who agreed with them are free to stay and those who did not could leave,” Fatima said.

Fatima, her mother and her sisters took the latter option. Gathering a few of their belongings, they headed out of Bama on foot. Their destination? Maiduguri. But they didn’t make it out. “We met [Boko Haram] on the bridge and they asked us to turn back or be shot,” she said.

Back in Bama, the women were gathered and addressed by a Boko Haram commander. “We have killed your men,” he said, caressing his gun as he spoke. “Only you are left, and we shall marry you all.”

Fatima snorted. That was something she was determined she would never let happen.

But her captors believed in their methods. They subjected the women to series of lectures and preaching, all designed to indoctrinate them. But the preaching was accompanied by threats of decapitation should any of them attempt to escape.

But while this was going on, one of the insurgents told Fatima and the other women that they were only interested in marrying them, and would surely do so.

Sometimes the insurgents came to the compound, Fatima said, and they would search the faces of the women. “They looked out for the fairer ones, the ones with bright faces, and they took them, sometimes one or two at a time,” she said.  These women were reportedly ‘married’ by sect members. Because she was young and beautiful, Fatima knew that her turn would come. And it did.

“Where are you from?” they asked her on the day they singled her out from the crowd.

She told them she was a native of Bama. She didn’t look like a native of Bama, they said.

“I told them I have been living in Abuja with my husband and they said, you do look like Abuja people,” she said.

They asked her questions and she told them she had been married for less than a year and that she was six months pregnant. “What you will give birth to is a bastard infidel and we would kill him as we have killed all your men,” one of the insurgents told her.

They left her alone for a few days, but their interest in her never waned. And not too long after, the Boko Haram Ameer came by himself to interrogate her. He wanted to know if she was truly married and if she was really pregnant. When she said yes, he asked for a doctor, whom Fatima said had been caught from Konduga to examine her.

The doctor asked to take her outside and asked her if she was pregnant. She said yes. He looked her in the eye and said, “Indeed, you are!”

That proclamation bought Fatima some time.

But the insurgents’ interest in her would only waver. Often they came round to talk to her and one of them confessed to her that he knew that if he left Boko Haram and went back to Maiduguri, he would be killed there because of his association with the terrorists. And if Boko Haram knew he was thinking of leaving them, they would kill him as well.

At other times, Fatima said, they would confront her mother and ask her why Fatima would not marry one of them. Her mother, who was just as feisty as her daughter, would tell them off often exchanging insults with the armed men.

“She would not marry you, even if you would kill her,” her mother said to one of them once. He didn’t take that rebuff too well and wanted to assault her mother.

“She told him he was not man enough to do that,” Fatima said.

Eventually, the insurgent was restrained by his colleagues but it was becoming clear that the women were becoming a handful and the insurgents didn’t know what to do with them.

So they returned days later with trucks and said they were taking the women to Maiduguri. Fearing that they were going to be shot dead in cold blood along the way, the women refused to board the trucks and pleaded for their lives.

Eventually, the insurgents promised they wouldn’t take them to Maiduguri but would set them free, which they did, somewhere in the forest. With no idea where they were, with no food or water, the women were left to wander the wild.

They walked in the wilderness for two days. Hungry and tired, they chanced upon the insurgents yet again. “We have found the infidels of Bama!” Fatima recalls the insurgents saying, before loading them up on the trucks and driving to different camp.

But in this new camp, they were far from safe. The military had identified the camp and constantly, air raids by the Nigerian Air Force threatened their safety, forcing Boko Haram to load them up once again and head back to Bama, which they had declared as the capital of their caliphate.

It was here, in Bama, that Fatima and the others received treatment for their blisters and malnutrition at a Boko Haram-run hospital.

The Not-So-Great Escape img_9668

Weeks later, having recovered from the ordeal of their false release and constantly being threatened by their captors, Fatima’s mother decided that they should take their fate in their hands and escape, head in the direction of Maiduguri, even with the threat of beheading hanging over them.

They managed to escape the compound they were being held in and made it to the outskirts of Bama on foot, but they ran into a Boko Haram patrol and were once more rounded up. This time they were taken to the Bama prison and locked up.

However, ravaged as she was by hunger and fatigue, Fatima still caught the eye of one of her guards in the prison. He said he wanted to marry Fatima and offered her mother N500 to buy drugs for her daughter.

Her mother refused the gift and the insurgent got angry. He went and reported to his ameer, who ordered Fatima be brought to him in the house he had taken residence.

Her guard escorted her to the front of the house and ordered her in but she hid in the vestibule for an hour, until her guard had left then she returned and told them she had seen the ameer.

“Not long after, the ameer came by himself, shouting at his men that did they want to eat me, that they won’t send me to him when he had ordered them to,” she said.

The purpose of the order soon became clear to Fatima. The ameer was also interested in her and made his best attempts to woo her. When he was convinced he was gaining her confidence, he told her he was going on a mission and would make plans to marry her when he returned.

He never did.

Neither did many of the insurgents who went with him as they suffered heavy causalities in that mission. But one of them who returned, who knew of the ameer’s interest in Fatima told her about his death.

“Alhamdulillah!” Fatima and her mother exclaimed joyously.

“He got angry that we were rejoicing that one of them had been killed and wanted to deal with us,” Fatima said. “His commanders came and told him to leave us alone.”

Day of Terror

Perhaps reeling from the pain of the loss they suffered in the hand of the Nigerian military, Fatima said her captors became increasingly brutal putting on a spectacle of death, blood and gore.

“They caught a woman fleeing from a village on her way to Maiduguri and brought her to Bama,” Fatima said. “They gathered everyone in Bama and made us watch as they beheaded her. They said ‘see how beautiful this woman is? We have killed her as a warning to any of you who thinks of escaping.”

But that was not the end of the terror. They presented eight men who were accused of adultery. They dug holes in the ground, buried them up to their necks and stoned them to death. The women with whom the men were said to have slept with were lashed a hundred times.

“We were just screaming and screaming,” Fatima said. “But they wouldn’t stop.”

Fatima runs through this account almost mechanically, as if she were in a hurry to get over the story. But that killing spree was not the last she would witness while in captivity.

Shortly after, the insurgents attempted another raid on Konduga but were repelled by the Nigerian Army. As if determined to undo themselves, upon their return, Fatima said, the Boko Haram commanders rounded up between 20 and 30 of the insurgents and executed them for various offences.

The ‘Ameerah’

With Boko Haram weakened, Fatima said her mother was still keen on the idea of an escape, despite the beheading of the beautiful woman. This time they sought the cooperation of a woman whom Boko Haram had appointed as the ‘Ameerah’.

“She was in charge of the women,” Fatima said. “If they bring us food or anything, she is the one who took charge of sharing it.”

Fatima’s mother was worried that her daughter was in danger and that perhaps she could no longer withstand the insurgents if they insisted on ‘marrying’ her daughter, so she reached out to the ameerah, who had a daughter Fatima’s age. The appeal to the ameerah’s maternal instincts, however, failed to score.

The ameerah was afraid. If the escape bid failed, she would be made an example of, having been entrusted with a position of authority by Boko Haram. She feared they would treat her with no mercy.

Undaunted, Fatima’s mother mobilised her children and waited until 1:00 am. They scaled the fence and ran into the night, farther and farther away from the town they had always called home. This time, they made it as far as another village. And for a few hours, they breathed freedom before Boko Haram came charging into the village, shooting people dead.

But the raid this time was intercepted by the air force who dropped bombs on the insurgents, causing everyone to flee into the wild.

End to Innocence

img_9654

“I’d never seen a corpse before Boko Haram came,” Fatima said. “But here we were, surrounded by them. They were littered in the forest and sometimes you would only see a chunk of a human thigh. We jumped over them and ran.”

When Fatima, her mother and siblings emerged from the forest days later, they ran into an army checkpoint.

“One of the soldiers recognised me because he knew me before. He was shocked by my condition because I was all swollen and bloated,” she said. He was sympathetic and told the family that they were now safe and they could walk all the way back to Bama without any fear as the army had retaken the town.

This was in March, 2015, seven months after her ordeal began.

Despite the change in fortunes, Bama was still unsafe and the military evacuated civilians to the Dalori Camp where Fatima, now 18, has been for over a year.

There is some kind of order to her life here among the endless rows of tent shelters, among the other faces that have witnessed death and destruction. She earns stipends from UNICEF to babysit children in the camp, and she is preparing for her School Certificate exams.

She sat on that bench, twiddling the ring on her finger. She is a strong young woman, one could tell from the way she talked. “I don’t dream about anything,” she said. “I don’t think about anything.”

And when she speaks of Boko Haram, it is with a certain irreverence and daring, one coming from someone who believes she has been through the worst and has emerged unscathed. But has she, really?
By Abubakar Adam Ibrahim | First published in Daily Trust,  Oct 29 2016

Standard
Travels, Uncategorized

Losing and Finding Love in the Time of Boko Haram

img_9684

Since the Boko Haram insurgency began in 2011, thousands of women and children have been abducted by the terror group. Many of the women recovered from the forests and villages in which they were forcefully held face challenges being accepted into their communities. Here is a story of a couple separated by Boko Haram and how they found each other again

 

Gunshots echoed and explosions rang out across Bama, the town in Borno State that had come under sporadic attacks from the Boko Haram in the last few months. But the echoes of the explosion this time were ominous. They were those of an occupation force intent on taking full control of the town.
They shot the men and rounded up the women and children. Among them was Maryam Zanna, who was in her early 30s, and her little daughter. They had gone to braid their hair when the attackers came calling.

The women were loaded onto trucks by their captors and driven away. And as Maryam looked back at the burning remains of her hometown, she thought her husband, Zanna Bukar Tombe and the little son she had left at home had been killed.
“I thought I would never see them again,” she said now in Kanuri, sitting on a plastic mat on the floor of her tarpaulin shelter in the Dalori Camp for displaced persons in the outskirts of Maiduguri.
There wasn’t much in the room, just lots of colourful mats, a clothesline on which her clothes, her sons, and some blankets were hung. Behind her, there was a flimsy mattress pushed back against the tarpaulin wall.
There was nothing comfortable here, but it must have been like heaven compared to what she went through when Boko Haram took her and the other women of Bama. They were driven to a village, split into groups and imprisoned in different houses.
Maryam’s good fortune was that among the insurgents, there was one she knew, someone from their neighbourhood in Bama. He recognised her and ensured she was put in a select group of women that enjoyed some level of protection from abuse.
“The ones they maltreat are mostly the ones they caught migrating from their villages on their way to Maiduguri,” she said. “We were kept in a house and were asked to cook for them.”
Eventually, one of the militants set his eyes on Maryam and decided he wanted to take her as a wife. She told them she had a husband already. But deep down, she wasn’t sure her husband was alive. Whether he was or not would have mattered very little to her captors. Maryam’s case was helped by the familiar insurgent.
“It was him who told them to leave me alone,” she said.
And they did. For the six months she was in captivity, cooking food for them and being forced to attend sermons and preaching by Boko Haram commanders. But then one night, the familiar insurgent returned with some urgent news.
“He said they have made plans to marry all the young, unmarried girls and shoot the married ones and those who refused to marry them.”
He helped her with her daughter and two other women to scale the fence of their prison and set off on foot into the wild, running until they could run no longer. So they kept walking in the forest for hours.
But dreams of escape were short lived. The escapees were soon rounded up by another group of Boko Haram insurgents on patrol and were taken to a different camp. There, she was put in another house and locked up alongside other women.
About a month later, soldiers stormed the camp and freed them.
The soldiers drove Maryam and the other women to her hometown, Bama, which at that time had just been recovered by the army and was practically in ruins. They were kept there for a month and questioned by the soldiers. After being screened, a process that took all of one month, Maryam and the other women and children were put into buses and transported to Maiduguri, some 72km away, to the Dalori Camp. As the convoy made its way to the relative safety of Maiduguri, Maryam had no idea what to expect at the camp, but one thing she was sure of was that it would be better than where she had been the last seven months.
As the vehicles arrived the gates of Dalori, Maryam peered out the window to catch glimpses of her new home, the faces that would become her neighbours. But there, among the men guarding the gate, she saw a familiar face, one she thought she would never see again. It was her husband, Zanna.
“When I saw him, my mind was instantly at peace,” she said. She broke down and shed tears of joy as the vehicles drove into the camp.

 

Maryam Zanna in the tent she now calls hom

Maryam Zanna in the tent she now calls home

Escape from Death
Zanna Bukar Tombe, 44, sat on a bench inside the yellow United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) tent at the Dalori Camp. The sunlight seeping through the yellow tarpaulin cast an eerie glow on his face and everything else in the tent. Behind him, there was a poster advertising “Rape is a Crime.”
While he spoke, Zanna kept his head down, massaging his feet all the time. He was now a member of the Civilian Joint Task Force (JTF) and was part of the group that helps provide security at the Dalori camp.
When Boko Haram attacked Bama, Zanna took his two-year-old son and fled. He was caught off by the insurgents and couldn’t go back for his wife and daughter as Boko Haram was shooting every man they set their eyes on.
It was sad for him to leave Bama, where he had his family, where he had his own house and two cars he used to transport goods from Bama to Maiduguri, 72 km away. And this time, when he made this trip, it was to escape the Boko Haram rampage and deliver his life and that of his son to safety.
For the first two months after the attack, he had no idea where his wife and daughter were.
“I was anxious to see her, to hear news of her and my son because I didn’t know if they were dead or alive,” he said.
Tired of idling away and feeling useless at the camp, he decided to join the Civilian JTF and contribute to the fight against Boko Haram. Patrolling the streets of Maiduguri and helping to secure the city felt far more useful than languishing in the camp.
He didn’t hear any news of his wife and daughter until after two months, when one of his relatives who had been taken along with Maryam somehow managed to escape from Boko Haram and trekked 34 km to Konduga before she was brought toDalori.
The news should have pleased him, but instead Zanna became more anxious.
“When I heard she was alive I was worried because I thought that perhaps the way we were treating Boko Haram suspects here, tying them up and beating them up, was the way they were treating our own families they are holding,” he said.
But beyond this fear, there was a bigger one lurking in his mind. “I had heard that the Boko Haram boys mostly were infected with HIV and they were fond of raping women, young or old.”
This fear impacted so deeply in Zanna that he worried in what state his wife would return, if she ever returned at all.
With no further news of his wife for months, and with a child who needed caring for, Zanna decided to marry a second wife, a fellow IDP at the camp. Plans for the wedding had advanced when one day, while on duty at the gate, Zanna caught glimpse of his wife Maryam being driven into the camp.

Awkward reunion
With the excitement of the reunion over, reality slowly crept in on the couple. Maryam soon learnt that Zanna had plans to marry another wife.
“I didn’t feel awkward that he was getting married because I wasn’t expecting to see him again,” she said, smiling bashfully. Maryam smiled a lot but when asked if she missed her husband while in captivity, she got really emotional and barely restrained herself from crying. When she spoke after that, her voice was softer, tremulous even. It was easy to see how much her husband meant to her.
But the one time she didn’t hold back her tears was when after her return, Zanna had come to see her.
Zanna narrated that encounter.
“When she returned and I went to see her, she joked that she had heard I was going to get married. I laughed and said, well, it was because I had heard that a Boko Haram Ameer [leader] had married her. She broke down and started crying,” he said looking down at his feet as if he still remembered the anguish those words caused her. He had placated her then, telling her he only meant it as a joke.
“I told her that I had only heard she was cooking for the bastards,” he said, almost apologetically.
Maryam was eventually pacified, but they both knew that a really awkward wedge had been driven between them.
Maryam hadn’t returned in the best of conditions and Zanna described how he had seen her then in sympathetic and affectionate tones. She had rashes all over her face, she was lean and her hair was browning because of poor diet.
Much as he cared,Zanna was reluctant for their lives to resume as normal. He was simply finding it hard to take her back as his wife. He felt she had been tainted by the Boko Haram.

The tainted “Boko Haram Wives”
The many women who had been abducted by the Boko Haram and managed to escape or were rescued have had to contend with the challenges of stigmatization. Some are rejected by their husbands who are reluctant to take them back.
This is such a widespread problem that Non-Governmental organisations like Herwa Community Initiative in Maiduguri have taken it upon themselves to organise mediation sessions between the rescued people who they call “survivors” and they relatives or host communities.
“There are many cases,” Alh. Muhammad Alhassan, the Executive Director of Herwa said. “From time to time we have mediation sessions in the camps, in the host communities and bring the survivors and the people together.”
“No one wants to be abducted by Boko Haram, and when this happens, they are massively traumatised and people need to know that these survivors need understanding and support.”
They use religious scholars and logic to persuade people to accept their relatives and neighbours who have been freed from the clutches of Boko Haram. They have succeeded with several cases, but they have also had failures as well.
“There is a man, a religious scholar for that matter, who one would expect would encourage people to take back their wives, but this man swore he would never have anything to do with his wife who had been recovered from Boko Haram. We are still working on that case,” he said.
William Ubimago, the Programme Officer of Herwa, is one of the officers at the forefront of the outreach programmes, providing counselling and skill acquisition training for the survivors. He was very passionate about the Zanna and Maryam case.
“There are many things that people take into consideration, some are social, some feel it is a matter of pride and others feel that they can no longer take back women they think might have been used by Boko Haram, but they tend to forget that these people were forced at gunpoint and if they had been in a similar situation, they would have done the same,” he said.
“When we bring people together and have mediated discussions with all parties involved, we are able to open channels of communications some of them have decided to block,” he added.
That was not dissimilar to what transpired between Zanna and his wife Maryam. When Maryam was still in the den of her captors Zanna developed a closed mind.
“I wasn’t even talking to her father then,” Zanna said. “I avoided him.”
And when Maryam was recovered, even though he genuinely had sympathy for her, he said his fears kept him from taking her back.
“I was afraid,” he said, “I was worried she might have been infected with HIV. If she had, I wouldn’t have rejected her outrightly. I would have taken care of her, even if for nothing but for the sake of our son. I would take her to get her ARVs and all that. But I won’t be intimate with her. I won’t let her fall into neglect and end up in a bad state.”
Even if she had been forcibly married to them, he insisted he would care for her. “There are women who are recovered and were impregnated by Boko Haram and we [Civilian JTF] have been bringing them back and giving them the attention they need. I would have taken care of her and the baby but there won’t be any intimacy between us,” he said.
But fortunately, nothing like that happened with his wife. But when she told him she had not been married to her captors nor had she been violated by them, he was still sceptical.
He was unconvinced and asked her to swear by the Qur’an.
“My uncle said that wasn’t necessary,” Maryam said, “He said I didn’t need to swear because even if anything had happened, it was because I was compelled and Islam does not judge people who have been forced to do things and humans shouldn’t either.”
Zanna acknowledged the role of her uncle in the whole saga. He said the uncle who happened to be a religious scholar had spoken to him at length and convinced him of the folly of his belief.
“I was ignorant,” Zanna said, looking down at his foot on the bench. “I was really ignorant but I was made to realise my mistake and now I feel sorry.”
Finally convinced about his misguided stance, Zanna agreed to take back his wife. They went to a military clinic where they were both tested for HIV and other infections. With the results coming back negative, the road was clear for a proper reunion and renewal of marriage vows.
“When he said he was going to take me back, I was happy because rarely do men take back their wives when they have been abducted by those people,” Maryam said, smiling.
Zanna too was pleased with this development.
“Her uncle told me since I was going to take her back, I should give her something valuable to show her that I really appreciated her and I was happy to take her back,” he said. So he handed her the things he had bought for the new wife he had planned to take.
A year has passed since their reunion.
Living in the dreariness of the camp and waiting for handouts from government and international and local agencies, the couple still glowed with happiness. It was evident in the way they looked at each other and smiled. In the affectionate tone they talked about each other. And in the regret in Zanna’s eyes when he spoke of how he thought of rejecting his wife.
“They are the poster couple of our reunion efforts,” William of Herwa said proudly. “They are our reference point and make all the effort worth it.”
The only blemish to this story was the death of their first daughter, months after their rescue from the Boko Haram. The little girl died of measles. It was something that Maryam thinks about a lot. But regarding her ordeal in the hands of her captors, she was eager to put that behind her.
“I don’t think of them at all,” she said,“I don’t think of them since I have my son and my husband. My only regret is the daughter I lost.”

Maryam and Zanna living happily in their tent

Maryam and Zanna living happily in their tent

By Abubakar Adam Ibrahim | First published in Daily Trust, Sep 4 2016

Standard
Travels, Uncategorized

Losing and finding love in the time of Boko Haram

img_9684

Since the Boko Haram insurgency began in 2011, thousands of women and children have been abducted by the terror group. Many of the women recovered from the forests and villages in which they were forcefully held face challenges being accepted into their communities. Here is a story of a couple separated by Boko Haram and how they found each other again

 

Gunshots echoed and explosions rang out across Bama, the town in Borno State that had come under sporadic attacks from the Boko Haram in the last few months. But the echoes of the explosion this time were ominous. They were those of an occupation force intent on taking full control of the town.
They shot the men and rounded up the women and children. Among them was Maryam Zanna, who was in her early 30s, and her little daughter. They had gone to braid their hair when the attackers came calling.

The women were loaded onto trucks by their captors and driven away. And as Maryam looked back at the burning remains of her hometown, she thought her husband, Zanna Bukar Tombe and the little son she had left at home had been killed.
“I thought I would never see them again,” she said now in Kanuri, sitting on a plastic mat on the floor of her tarpaulin shelter in the Dalori Camp for displaced persons in the outskirts of Maiduguri.
There wasn’t much in the room, just lots of colourful mats, a clothesline on which her clothes, her sons, and some blankets were hung. Behind her, there was a flimsy mattress pushed back against the tarpaulin wall.
There was nothing comfortable here, but it must have been like heaven compared to what she went through when Boko Haram took her and the other women of Bama. They were driven to a village, split into groups and imprisoned in different houses.
Maryam’s good fortune was that among the insurgents, there was one she knew, someone from their neighbourhood in Bama. He recognised her and ensured she was put in a select group of women that enjoyed some level of protection from abuse.
“The ones they maltreat are mostly the ones they caught migrating from their villages on their way to Maiduguri,” she said. “We were kept in a house and were asked to cook for them.”
Eventually, one of the militants set his eyes on Maryam and decided he wanted to take her as a wife. She told them she had a husband already. But deep down, she wasn’t sure her husband was alive. Whether he was or not would have mattered very little to her captors. Maryam’s case was helped by the familiar insurgent.
“It was him who told them to leave me alone,” she said.
And they did. For the six months she was in captivity, cooking food for them and being forced to attend sermons and preaching by Boko Haram commanders. But then one night, the familiar insurgent returned with some urgent news.
“He said they have made plans to marry all the young, unmarried girls and shoot the married ones and those who refused to marry them.”
He helped her with her daughter and two other women to scale the fence of their prison and set off on foot into the wild, running until they could run no longer. So they kept walking in the forest for hours.
But dreams of escape were short lived. The escapees were soon rounded up by another group of Boko Haram insurgents on patrol and were taken to a different camp. There, she was put in another house and locked up alongside other women.
About a month later, soldiers stormed the camp and freed them.
The soldiers drove Maryam and the other women to her hometown, Bama, which at that time had just been recovered by the army and was practically in ruins. They were kept there for a month and questioned by the soldiers. After being screened, a process that took all of one month, Maryam and the other women and children were put into buses and transported to Maiduguri, some 72km away, to the Dalori Camp. As the convoy made its way to the relative safety of Maiduguri, Maryam had no idea what to expect at the camp, but one thing she was sure of was that it would be better than where she had been the last seven months.
As the vehicles arrived the gates of Dalori, Maryam peered out the window to catch glimpses of her new home, the faces that would become her neighbours. But there, among the men guarding the gate, she saw a familiar face, one she thought she would never see again. It was her husband, Zanna.
“When I saw him, my mind was instantly at peace,” she said. She broke down and shed tears of joy as the vehicles drove into the camp.

 

Maryam Zanna in the tent she now calls hom

Maryam Zanna in the tent she now calls home

Escape from Death
Zanna Bukar Tombe, 44, sat on a bench inside the yellow United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) tent at the Dalori Camp. The sunlight seeping through the yellow tarpaulin cast an eerie glow on his face and everything else in the tent. Behind him, there was a poster advertising “Rape is a Crime.”
While he spoke, Zanna kept his head down, massaging his feet all the time. He was now a member of the Civilian Joint Task Force (JTF) and was part of the group that helps provide security at the Dalori camp.
When Boko Haram attacked Bama, Zanna took his two-year-old son and fled. He was caught off by the insurgents and couldn’t go back for his wife and daughter as Boko Haram was shooting every man they set their eyes on.
It was sad for him to leave Bama, where he had his family, where he had his own house and two cars he used to transport goods from Bama to Maiduguri, 72 km away. And this time, when he made this trip, it was to escape the Boko Haram rampage and deliver his life and that of his son to safety.
For the first two months after the attack, he had no idea where his wife and daughter were.
“I was anxious to see her, to hear news of her and my son because I didn’t know if they were dead or alive,” he said.
Tired of idling away and feeling useless at the camp, he decided to join the Civilian JTF and contribute to the fight against Boko Haram. Patrolling the streets of Maiduguri and helping to secure the city felt far more useful than languishing in the camp.
He didn’t hear any news of his wife and daughter until after two months, when one of his relatives who had been taken along with Maryam somehow managed to escape from Boko Haram and trekked 34 km to Konduga before she was brought toDalori.
The news should have pleased him, but instead Zanna became more anxious.
“When I heard she was alive I was worried because I thought that perhaps the way we were treating Boko Haram suspects here, tying them up and beating them up, was the way they were treating our own families they are holding,” he said.
But beyond this fear, there was a bigger one lurking in his mind. “I had heard that the Boko Haram boys mostly were infected with HIV and they were fond of raping women, young or old.”
This fear impacted so deeply in Zanna that he worried in what state his wife would return, if she ever returned at all.
With no further news of his wife for months, and with a child who needed caring for, Zanna decided to marry a second wife, a fellow IDP at the camp. Plans for the wedding had advanced when one day, while on duty at the gate, Zanna caught glimpse of his wife Maryam being driven into the camp.

Awkward reunion
With the excitement of the reunion over, reality slowly crept in on the couple. Maryam soon learnt that Zanna had plans to marry another wife.
“I didn’t feel awkward that he was getting married because I wasn’t expecting to see him again,” she said, smiling bashfully. Maryam smiled a lot but when asked if she missed her husband while in captivity, she got really emotional and barely restrained herself from crying. When she spoke after that, her voice was softer, tremulous even. It was easy to see how much her husband meant to her.
But the one time she didn’t hold back her tears was when after her return, Zanna had come to see her.
Zanna narrated that encounter.
“When she returned and I went to see her, she joked that she had heard I was going to get married. I laughed and said, well, it was because I had heard that a Boko Haram Ameer [leader] had married her. She broke down and started crying,” he said looking down at his feet as if he still remembered the anguish those words caused her. He had placated her then, telling her he only meant it as a joke.
“I told her that I had only heard she was cooking for the bastards,” he said, almost apologetically.
Maryam was eventually pacified, but they both knew that a really awkward wedge had been driven between them.
Maryam hadn’t returned in the best of conditions and Zanna described how he had seen her then in sympathetic and affectionate tones. She had rashes all over her face, she was lean and her hair was browning because of poor diet.
Much as he cared,Zanna was reluctant for their lives to resume as normal. He was simply finding it hard to take her back as his wife. He felt she had been tainted by the Boko Haram.

The tainted “Boko Haram Wives”
The many women who had been abducted by the Boko Haram and managed to escape or were rescued have had to contend with the challenges of stigmatization. Some are rejected by their husbands who are reluctant to take them back.
This is such a widespread problem that Non-Governmental organisations like Herwa Community Initiative in Maiduguri have taken it upon themselves to organise mediation sessions between the rescued people who they call “survivors” and they relatives or host communities.
“There are many cases,” Alh. Muhammad Alhassan, the Executive Director of Herwa said. “From time to time we have mediation sessions in the camps, in the host communities and bring the survivors and the people together.”
“No one wants to be abducted by Boko Haram, and when this happens, they are massively traumatised and people need to know that these survivors need understanding and support.”
They use religious scholars and logic to persuade people to accept their relatives and neighbours who have been freed from the clutches of Boko Haram. They have succeeded with several cases, but they have also had failures as well.
“There is a man, a religious scholar for that matter, who one would expect would encourage people to take back their wives, but this man swore he would never have anything to do with his wife who had been recovered from Boko Haram. We are still working on that case,” he said.
William Ubimago, the Programme Officer of Herwa, is one of the officers at the forefront of the outreach programmes, providing counselling and skill acquisition training for the survivors. He was very passionate about the Zanna and Maryam case.
“There are many things that people take into consideration, some are social, some feel it is a matter of pride and others feel that they can no longer take back women they think might have been used by Boko Haram, but they tend to forget that these people were forced at gunpoint and if they had been in a similar situation, they would have done the same,” he said.
“When we bring people together and have mediated discussions with all parties involved, we are able to open channels of communications some of them have decided to block,” he added.
That was not dissimilar to what transpired between Zanna and his wife Maryam. When Maryam was still in the den of her captors Zanna developed a closed mind.
“I wasn’t even talking to her father then,” Zanna said. “I avoided him.”
And when Maryam was recovered, even though he genuinely had sympathy for her, he said his fears kept him from taking her back.
“I was afraid,” he said, “I was worried she might have been infected with HIV. If she had, I wouldn’t have rejected her outrightly. I would have taken care of her, even if for nothing but for the sake of our son. I would take her to get her ARVs and all that. But I won’t be intimate with her. I won’t let her fall into neglect and end up in a bad state.”
Even if she had been forcibly married to them, he insisted he would care for her. “There are women who are recovered and were impregnated by Boko Haram and we [Civilian JTF] have been bringing them back and giving them the attention they need. I would have taken care of her and the baby but there won’t be any intimacy between us,” he said.
But fortunately, nothing like that happened with his wife. But when she told him she had not been married to her captors nor had she been violated by them, he was still sceptical.
He was unconvinced and asked her to swear by the Qur’an.
“My uncle said that wasn’t necessary,” Maryam said, “He said I didn’t need to swear because even if anything had happened, it was because I was compelled and Islam does not judge people who have been forced to do things and humans shouldn’t either.”
Zanna acknowledged the role of her uncle in the whole saga. He said the uncle who happened to be a religious scholar had spoken to him at length and convinced him of the folly of his belief.
“I was ignorant,” Zanna said, looking down at his foot on the bench. “I was really ignorant but I was made to realise my mistake and now I feel sorry.”
Finally convinced about his misguided stance, Zanna agreed to take back his wife. They went to a military clinic where they were both tested for HIV and other infections. With the results coming back negative, the road was clear for a proper reunion and renewal of marriage vows.
“When he said he was going to take me back, I was happy because rarely do men take back their wives when they have been abducted by those people,” Maryam said, smiling.
Zanna too was pleased with this development.
“Her uncle told me since I was going to take her back, I should give her something valuable to show her that I really appreciated her and I was happy to take her back,” he said. So he handed her the things he had bought for the new wife he had planned to take.
A year has passed since their reunion.
Living in the dreariness of the camp and waiting for handouts from government and international and local agencies, the couple still glowed with happiness. It was evident in the way they looked at each other and smiled. In the affectionate tone they talked about each other. And in the regret in Zanna’s eyes when he spoke of how he thought of rejecting his wife.
“They are the poster couple of our reunion efforts,” William of Herwa said proudly. “They are our reference point and make all the effort worth it.”
The only blemish to this story was the death of their first daughter, months after their rescue from the Boko Haram. The little girl died of measles. It was something that Maryam thinks about a lot. But regarding her ordeal in the hands of her captors, she was eager to put that behind her.
“I don’t think of them at all,” she said,“I don’t think of them since I have my son and my husband. My only regret is the daughter I lost.”

Maryam and Zanna living happily in their tent

Maryam and Zanna living happily in their tent

By Abubakar Adam Ibrahim | First published in Daily Trust, Sep 4 2016

Standard
Uncategorized

‘I’ve always been interested in animation since I was young’

 

Nigerian animator and visual effects artist Michael Rhima caused a stir when he released his short animation film, ‘Shango’. Many people have been blown away by the details of the animation and how good it is, making Michael, an economics graduate from University of Lagos, an instant hit. In this interview with Arts and Ideas, Michael, who also has a Master’s degree in visual effects from a US university spoke about what drove him to animation and the impact it can make.

page 32 (4)

Michael Rhima

 

 

 

We are witnessing the emergence of promising short animations from Nigeria. What is motivating this awakening?
I can’t say there is one particular factor responsible for this awakening. It’s more of a combination of factors like exposure to the internet and the need for diversity.
We are slowly getting past the doctor, lawyer, engineer (No offence) age and millennials are starting to realize that more can be done to add value to our economy.

Why did it take so long for Nigerian creatives to get into animations?
Well, to start with, making animations is time consuming and expensive. Furthermore, there were no revenue gains from creating animations until recently. However, I feel that just like the comedy industry, which is now becoming a big deal, animation is going to slowly creep into the hearts of Nigerians and parents can comfortably tell their friends that their child is an animator.

Your short animation ‘Shango’ has generated a lot of interest since it was released. Did you anticipate this reaction?
No, I didn’t. As a matter of fact, I didn’t want to release it because I thought it wasn’t good enough to be out there, you know we creatives can be hard on ourselves sometime. Overall, I still think it could have been much better but I’m glad a lot of people responded positively to it.

How long did it take you to produce the work?
I would say it took roughly eight months to complete excluding pre-production. Also, there were a lot of times when I was off the project within those eight months.

It was your MA thesis. How well did your supervisor rate it?
To be sincere I don’t even remember. The good thing about Art school over here (in the US) is that its more about growth than grades, since art is subjective there’s really no good or bad. I know most of them were happy with how much I had grown before graduating, some of them even followed up on the progress of the project, even after I had graduated.

A lot of people thought “Shango” was amazing. Others thought it wasn’t entirely faithful to the legend or myth. What would be your response?
Yes, I am aware of that and I can understand why some people had issues with its originality. For one they should understand that every creative aspect was a conscious decision made by myself and my friend, Desmond Inwang, who served as the concept artist. The Ifa religion is practised by a lot of people around the world and in fact, Brazilians constitute the most of my fanbase since I have been into this stuff. So when making ‘Shango’ I had to make it in such a way that it satisfied several parties. The title ‘Shango’ also sparked controversies as most people preferred the word ‘Sango’ instead, I felt that ‘Sango’ without the ami ohun (Yoruba marks indicating pronunciation) means something different and should be thus spelt “Shango” in order that people who are new to this can pronounce it better. Another issue was the sound and visual aesthetics ofthe film. Like I said above, art is a very subjective thing and everyone would have their own opinion on a particular work of art. All I can say is that I strive to do my best within my own capability and leave the rest.

Is there a longer version of ‘Shango’ coming up?
No, I don’t think so. Right now it’s hard for me to do a feature length. Although I plan on making more short films featuring other Orishas of the Yoruba religion.

Page 32x

Rhima’s version of Shango

Computer generated animations have obviously made things easier for animators. Are you nostalgic about traditional hand-drawn animations?
No, I won’t say I’m nostalgic for the fact that I still help out in making some traditional animations. I guess both are still used today and no one method trumps the other.

What made you go into animation? Was there a particular moment or incident that set you off on the path to becoming an animator?
Wow. That is a tough one. I’ve always been interested in games and animation since I was young. One major moment though, was when my elder brother brought home a Japanese animated movie called ‘Final Fantasy: Advent Children’, before then I hadn’t seen anything like that and just seeing the visuals and movement of those characters blew my mind. I think deep down since then I told myself I was going to do something like that.
After graduating from Unilag as an economist I got the chance to work part time in several studios and my love for animation solidified, so thankfully with the help of my parents I got the chance to travel abroad and study visual effects for film.

Speaking of visual effect, in Nollywood visual effects have left a lot to be desired. How do you think you can improve this?
Good Visual effects requires a lot of time and money, something that most Nigerian movies can’t really afford at the moment. I think they should focus more on story and good cinematography before jumping into CGI movies.

So what are you working on now? What should people look forward to from you?

Well I’m taking a rest and using my time to learn some softwares that are crucial to the visual effects industry. We are also on the pre-production stage of another short film, which should come out next year, this time around we are trying to get our foundations right before jumping into production. I hope the next short we get on would be much better than the first.

 

 

Standard
Travels, Uncategorized

Hahoe: The ancient village where Korea’s essence is preserved

The abode of the goddess. This tree is 600 years old and is at the centre of Hahoe. The white strips sorrounding it are prayers stuck up by people.

In South Korea for the Journalists Forum for World Peace,I visited the historical village of Hahoe, in Andong Province, which is 500 years old and has been preserved in its original state. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and draws in thousands of tourists yearly who come to explore the sites and the spiritual connotations at the heart of this village.

There are wooden gods scattered here. Faces carved into logs that have been erected at the entrance of the historical village of Hahoe, which is reputed to be some 500 years old. These gods in ruins are the ancestral deities charged with the task of protecting this little farming and fishing village. A responsibility they have been saddled with since the village was established in the 16th century Joseon Dynasty.
Going by this, it becomes clear that Hahoe was established, and has been preserved, with the Korean essence of spirituality and discipline at heart. And it was here that some famous Koreans were born; brothers Ryu Unryong and Ryu Sengryong being the most well-known. The former was a great Confucian scholar of the Joseon Dynasty and has the honour of being represented on a Korean banknote, while the latter was the prime minister during the Japanese invasion of 1592 to 1598.
How Hahoe survived the times, and especially Korea’s 1970s housing whirlwind that saw the government bulldozing most villages and replacing them with urban sky-rises, constructs that are now drab-looking 1970s architecture, is something muted in conversations.
Koreans owe this to a descendant of the famous Ryu clan, who established the village. The businessman, who happened to be a powerful arms manufacturer in the 1970s and enjoyed the confidence of the Korean president at the time was said to have persuaded the president to spare Hahoe from mordernisation. He made a convincing argument and the president struck Hahoe off the list of villages to be demolished.
Four decades later, in 2010, Hahoe, with its straw and tile roof structures in traditional Korean architecture was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Cultural Heritage by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
With Mount Hwa hedging the village from the east, and the River Nakdong curling around it like a snoozing serpent in the shape of the letter S, Hahoe (which translates as River Bend or River Meander) is thought to be a good place to live. These geographic features have led to connotations that Hahoe looks like the yin-yang on the Korean national flag – a statement that carries some spiritual potency. It has also been suggested that the village, cradled between the river and the mountain, looks like a lotus flower floating on water.
Remarkably, the houses in Hahoe are not just an open-air museum relic, they are actually inhabited by the over 200 people who still call this village home. For the inhabitants, the fame of their village has been a mixed blessing. While the government pays them to maintain their houses in pristine conditions, the influx of tourists has been nothing short of an invasion, of their privacy at least, with tourists often peeking over low fences to catch glimpses of what the interiors look like, stealing glances at the inhabitants through half opened doors.
“They don’t like tourists that much,” the guide explained, smiling almost apologetically.
Most of these inhabitants are old, practicing traditional occupations like agriculture, as their forefathers had done before, and if not for their modern clothing, one would have thought he had travelled back in time some five centuries at least.
The tile-roofed houses belonged to the nobility. They were the ones who could afford baked tiles from which the famous curved roofs of traditional Korean architecture are fashioned, something that is distinct to Asia.
Evidence of the superstitions and spirituality at the heart of the village is planted even in the architecture, on the engravings on the roofing tiles, on inscriptions on door panels. But curiously even the houses of the nobles have mud fences – or used to have mud fences, which are often topped with roofing tiles to prevent the rain from washing them away.
There was a reason for this as the superstitious villagers believed their canoes would be doomed if they are passed by concrete or stone fences.
But now that most of the villagers have outgrown their dependence on canoes, it is not uncommon to see stone walls, topped with tiles, in the traditional fashion replacing the old ones.
In the midst of Hahoe, right in the centre of the village is a glorious looking zelkova tree with some impressive proportions. The tree called Samsindang is reputed to be at least 600 years old and is thought to be the abode of the goddess Samsin. Here too, there is a carving, like the gods scattered at the entrance of the village, planted prominently before the tree, which is surrounded by strings upon which prayers, scribbled on papers are hung, forming a blind of prayer papers.
The goddess Samsin is thought to have powers over pregnancy, child birth and fostering. In other words, she is the goddess of fertility.
With the tree at the centre of the village, most houses in Hahoe take the liberty to be built facing the river or the mountains, unlike most houses in Korea, which are built to face the South or Southeast.
But with the decline of religious beliefs in Korea, with about 50 percent dissociating themselves from any religious belief, Sam sindang may in the nearest future serve only historical and aesthetic purposes in the village. And maybe the commemoration tree, Queen Elizabeth had planted in the house of one the nobles, may have acquired more prominence by then.
Walking back towards the entrance, this time through the pine forest bordering the village on one side, one is filled with the serenity that the residents of this village would otherwise enjoy on a normal day. The Mansongjeong Pine Forest is reputed to contain about 6,000 pine trees, but even a cursory look will reveal that this figure is greatly exaggerated. The forest was planted to compensate for the exposure of the village to the wind as there are no natural features providing cover from that side.
With the forest on your left, one can see the folk play yard, equipped with traditionally built swings and seesaws, where children of the ancients had probably played and fought; where children of the village still play.
If one had boarded the ferry and crossed to the other side of the river, one would have seen the famous Hwacheon Confucian Academy as well as the Gyeoman Pavilion.
Intangible Heritage
Some 200 metres from the entrance, where the wooden gods stand guard, there is an open air theatre. It is here that Hahoe’s intangible heritage is preserved. In the old days, the Byeolsingut Mask Dance used to be an avenue for the commoners to make fun of the nobility by wearing masks and performing satirical plays.
The masks are carved with 11 expressions, some more famous than the others, but all intended to conceal the identity of the wearer so as to capture without fear, the folly of the nobility of the times.
Now the masks have become famous symbols of Hahoe and are sold as souvenirs to the visitors of the village.
At the theatre, there are actors who still enact the plays, which like most satires are characterised by caricatures, exaggerated comical movements and dances before a large audience that knows it is witnessing something rare and historic.
Korea is a country that has grown tremendously in the last few decades, but it is here in Hahoe, the historic village of Korea, that some of its essence is preserved, where a traveller feels like he has travelled several centuries back in time.

 

First published in the Daily Trust,  May 7 2016

Standard
Uncategorized

The Frustrations of a White Nigerian

 

Inventor and business man Mike Akkary is a white Nigerian of Lebanese decent. Even though his family arrived Nigeria in 1910 and Mike, who speaks Hausa with a Zamfara accent, has won three National Merit awards, he still finds the embrace of his country a bit callous.

 

DSCN1723

Mike Akkary

When Abraham Abdallah Akkary left his village of Miziara, in Northern Lebanon and set sail for Brazil in the early 1900s, he was only doing what millions of Lebanese have been doing for years, especially in the late 19th and early 20th century—migrating.

Over a hundred years later, his descendant, Mike Akkary, 55, sitting in the lobby of his hotel in Minna, northern Nigeria says, “There is no reason for the Lebanese to say we have to immigrate, they just immigrate. And when they go, they just go.”

How four generations of the Abdallah Akkary family came to call Nigeria their country is a mix of fate and deception.

When the ship on which Abraham Akkary was traveling alongside other Lebanese emigrants berthed in the port of Lagos in 1910, they were told they had arrived Brazil.

Not knowing any better, they disembarked, determined to set up home and business in a new country. It is not clear when exactly they discovered they had been conned, or why they didn’t push out to Brazil afterwards.

“They survive where they are and die where they are,” Mike says about Lebanese emigrants. “And when they die, they say bury us here. Other nationalities go back, but not the Lebanese.”

So Abraham Akkary decided to survive the territory the British would later call Nigeria, crossing its rain forest and its savannah, pushing further into the hinterland all the way to the northern town of Gusau, some 860 kilometres from Lagos. He was later joined by his brother, Michael Akkary.

He made money selling colourful beads he had brought with him from his homeland. But even this was not without some difficulties. Villagers he tried to interest in his beads, having never seen a white person before, fled, thinking he was a ghost. But Abraham persevered and eventually won over the locals.

And he was eventually joined by his brother Michael Akkary and together the brothers built a family business that involved trade in textiles and later, diversified into cinemas.

But the matter of skin colour did not end with the first Akkary brothers, who eventually passed away in the 1960s. It is also the bane of Michael’s grandson, Mike, a third generation Nigerian for an altogether different reason.

“There are areas where kidnappers are lurking. It is safe for me to go around but it is not safe if I don’t take care. We hope this will be taken care of with the new president so that we can have a free country like we had in the ‘60s where we were only afraid of animals,” he says.

What most people don’t quite realise is that Mike is a local, his family has lived here even before Nigeria became a country in 1914, he has lived all his life in Nigeria and speaks Hausa with a Zamfara accent. He thinks very much like a Nigerian. When he says, “We are Nigerians,” it is with a mix of pride and exasperation, like a typical Nigerian that has been cuddled and bruised by this country.

Several times, he has been to Miziara, the village in Lebanon where his family stemmed from.

“Sometimes we go once every five years. There is a time we didn’t go for 16 years. There are Lebanese-Brazilians; they don’t know Lebanon because they’ve never been there. There are Lebanese-Australians, they don’t know Lebanon. But we go sometimes,” he says.

But despite the visits, Mike feels like a foreigner amongst his kin. His entire life is based in Nigeria. This is the country where if he gets into money troubles, he has people to fall back on, the same people he helps out when they have money troubles of their own. He does not have a similar network in Lebanon.

“We came here in the 1900s. We become multinationals. We are Nigerians, yes and no. We are Lebanese, yes and no. Maybe we would fit more in Nigeria than in the Arab world, because even our communication is no longer the same,” he says, staring ahead reflectively.

It is not only in terms of communication that Mike sees a difference. Even their mindset is different.

“A typical Lebanese will come here looking for money for himself. We, who have been here, we will be looking for money to pay our staff, to keep them going with their family. We are working for here, they are working for there,” he says.

The staff Mike refers to are the 200 people who had been on his payroll, working in his hotel and his Akkary factory, which has been closed down for a couple of years now. It is not far from the hotel, this factory, and there, the heavy machineries stand in a mildewed building gathering dust. In its productive days, the factory functioned as a fertilizer blending plant, a tricycle manufacturing and modifying unit, where Mike produced tricycle ambulances, water tanks, and even refuse trucks for use in rural areas. They are designed to withstand the rigours of Nigeria’s rugged terrain.

Mike is an engineer and inventor of repute and is keen on using local raw materials for his products. But this passion has caused him as much pride as it has caused him anguish.

“We have been researching on how to manufacture automobiles using locally-sourced material but we haven’t had any kind of support [from the government] despite there being a Raw Material Research Council,” he says standing by the machines that now look like the carcases of hope.

Amongst his machines, Mike is full of pride as he explains his inventions and their capabilities. But when he talks about his frustrations and how lack of government patronage forced him to close down, his eyes dim and his shoulders slouch. His speech is often punctuated with exasperated shrugs. It is with this sad expression that he pulls the door close, solemnly, like one putting a sick child to sleep.

His first venture into manufacturing was in the 1980s when he set up a macaroni company in Lagos. But in the wake of the unrest that followed the June 12, 1993 elections, his employees were attacked, forcing him to close down his business and move back to the North.

Back in his hotel lobby, Mike looks around at the framed photos on the wall. In some he poses with former Nigeria rulers, General Yakubu Gowon, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, And General Ibrahim Babangida. In one he was captured in a handshake with President Olusegun Obasanjo.

It was taken during a National Merit Award ceremony and in here, Mike has found some recognition for his works. He has received National Merits Awards from three Heads of States, as well as a host of awards from trade fairs and various government agencies.

“I am a general in my field,” he says proudly. “I have earned several awards for my works. I have succeeded through my awards to get my rank.”

But like everything that has to do with his country Nigeria, it always comes with an element of frustration. He is worried that these awards have not translated into the kind of success that would allow him support his employees. When he speaks of this, his voice is heavy and there is a shadow in his eyes, eyes that have seen Nigeria grow from a newly independent British colony, to a floundering giant of Africa.

“We are approaching 60 now and we are still working like before but we can’t move around all that much. We look in the mirror and say we are ageing o,” he says.

It is this fear of ageing and what this would mean in a Nigeria that has refused to embrace him whole-heartedly and allow him to help her grow that has made him seriously consider moving to another country – not Lebanon, but perhaps North America.

His children found Lebanon harsh when he sent them there for their university education. The culture was too different from what they had grown into in Nigeria.

But when it comes to leaving, Mike is reluctant, especially after every election. “We have hope that this change will bring something different. It is the hope that we have that we could do something and they will see. That they will call us and say what can you do and I will say I can produce tricycles and water purification plants and fertilizer plants. Every four years we give it a chance but age is not giving us a chance. We must look for retirement somewhere.”

If he does leave eventually, he won’t be the first Lebanese-Nigerian to. At some point Mike estimated that there were around 500, 000 Lebanese in Nigeria. Now he says that figure has dropped to just about 100, 000. Many of them got frustrated with the system and moved on.

With the new government in Niger State promising to help revive the factory through a scheme that will see Mike training some 200 people on manufacturing spare parts, he is willing to give it another shot.

“We are still around. We hope it works out but if it doesn’t maybe we too have to head somewhere,” he says, looking blandly into space.

But it looks like Mike will be staying after all, with the Governor of Niger State, Abubakar Sani Bello committing to reviving the Akkary Factory by not procuring from elsewhere what the company can manufacture. This news has brought the tinkle back in Mike’s voice and made him a more optimistic Nigerian.

Standard