Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts, don’t put up with those who are reckless with yours – Mary Schmich
It must have been over four decades ago that I read Cyprian Ekwensi’s 1962 novel The Burning Grass published under the imprint of the now rested African Writers’ Series edited by the immortal Chinua Achebe.
Taking into cognizance the fact that it has taken that long since I read the novel, I can still remember some of the kernel of the story about the Fulani herder Mai Sunsaye who was hit by the sokugo spirit. As a child of the north, born, raised and educated in that part of the country, I could identify very clearly with Ekwensi’s story of the life and times of the Fulani nomads. But that was then and in the past. I grew up seeing the nomads with their sticks slung around the shoulder taking their flocks in search of green fauna. The cover picture of the novel published by Heinemann also did justice to this by making the cover with the Fulani herder and his ubiquitous stick across his shoulder herding his cattle.
Now in the 21st century, because everything has changed; the herdsmen no longer carry their sticks but AK-47 riffles. What do they need these for? They have a clear answer in the Bauchi State Governor, Alhaji Bala Mohammed, a former minister of the Federal Capital Territory, who said they had to carry riffles to defend their cattle!
Who, you may ask are the defending their cattle against? The cattle rustlers? Are the rustlers the people being killed, kidnapped and ransom demanded from their families? Are they the ones at the end of the firepower uncorked by the Fulani herders AK-47? Are the rustlers the one whose farms are being trampled upon and destroyed by these cattle? Are the cattle rustlers the peasant farmers in Ondo, Oke-Ogun, and Igboho areas in the southern part of the country? What about those in the Benue troves and Tiv land and the South East?
The logic of the Bauchi State helmsman is this: “The Fulani man is practising the tradition of trans-human, pastoralism. He has been exposed to the dangers of the forests, the animals, and now, the cattle rustlers, who carry guns, kill him and take away his commonwealth, his cows, he had no option than to carry AK-47 and defend himself because the society and the government are not protecting him. It is not his fault, it is the fault of the government and the people; you don’t criminalise all of them because in every tribe there are criminals.”
For those who have read Ekwensi’s The Burning Grass, they are familiar with the trans-human pastoralism that the governor is talking about. It is what the ingenious writer called the “Sokugo spirit”. What then is this spirit? According to the writer, the Sokugo spirit is the “wandering sickness”, a magic charm that “turned studious men into wanderers, that led husbands to desert their wives, Chiefs their people, and sane men their reason.”
Can you see the drift? The government, according to the governor has failed to protect the Fulani herders and their old trade and they in turn have taken the laws into their hands and are free to unleash terror on law abiding citizens. Is it right that they unleash this brutal terror on farmers by killing, maiming, raping and trampling on their farms? If we have the abundant meat to eat and no food can we survive? Or why is the world, or Nigeria upside down? Why are we stunted in growth?
Our chiefs (read leaders) have lost their heads and the sane ones among us are already going insane by backing terror and not taking the lead to bring sanity to the world we live in.
In Ekwensi’s world, Mai Sunsaye is an adventurer whose canvass is across the country and the continent. For that time and period, it was tolerable because all the herders were sensitive to their surroundings and their cattle. We are in a different world now and the time has changed, things of old are no longer permissible and legal. The governor that has become the mouth-piece and defender of the killers and torturers of fellow citizens needs to do a rethink.
We are not living in a world of fiction, not on the pages of Ekwensi, this is real life and things must change. Those who have been hit by the sokugo spirit must be cured. They must be brought to the world we live in now and let them come to the reality that the world has advanced beyond what their trade. They need to up their game. Cattle rearing is a business and an investment. The time when there were free green fields where their cattle graze freely and drop their dung is fast over.
We must not allow this to continue and it is time to stop thinking it is one part of the country trying to stop the trade of another. Can the governor swear now that the way chickens were reared before is the same way they are today? No.
We must not allow the sokugo spirit to consume our land. If Ekwensi were to be alive today and he wants to rewrite that book or write a sequel as he did to Jagua Nana in Jagua Nana’s Daughter will he still invest Sunsaye with his stick or with an AK-47? Will Heinemann also illustrate the cover with a stick bearing herdsman or with an AK-47?
The great novelist, who many literary critics referred to as the Daniel Defoe of Africa, has left us with a metaphor in The Burning Grass. The grasses are no longer burning, it is the farms that are being burnt and the farmers that are being killed mercilessly. Are we going to sacrifice human lives for cattle? Has the sokugo spirit captured those who should act? Leaving them wandering and without any solution to the crises at hand.
Let’s banish this spirit of sokugo; it is evil.