(George Spicely [a Peace Corps colleague] and I) drove straight
up to Michika from Mubi and settled our lodging in the bush resthouse
then into town, where one student invited us into his
father's house and gave us dinner. This was the first time I've
enjoyed guinea corn of all the times I've eaten it - it is the staple
up here - people pound it and mash it down and reconstitute it into
a paste-like substance of meal, which is served hot, and eaten with
the hands by dipping the paste into a type of soup with meat in
it - it is more like gravy than soup - but quite good. The corn
paste was unusually smooth this time, whereas it is so often gritty
from the kernels not having been ground down finely. After this
we went to a bar, the one bar in Michika, and met many other students
and ex-students who are in that town. The moon was up, so there
was dancing later in the street - the tribe there is Higi, and their
dancing is excellent. Many agricultural workers come into town to
dance after the harvest work is done.
got to bed and next morning arose at 6:00 a.m., and it was freezing.
This is the time of intense cold here - harmattan, or desert wind
bearing dust carries the cold in the night off the desert. Visibility
is very limited by dust - dust like a haze - and the temperature
goes into the 40s some nights - though it varies night to night.
After eating two sandwiches and taking water, we went to town to
get Iliya, the boy who had us for dinner - he was going to accompany
us, as he speaks the necessary languages.
east under dusty harmattan conditions from Sukur's northern paved
way across terraced hillsides.
drove north to Gulak, then on six miles to a turnoff to a mission
primary school, then in five miles on a bush track to the school
at the village of Midlu [Mildo Shelmi]. There, we picked up two
other boys of that town who knew the place we wanted to go, though
they had never gone there themselves - one boy was really trying
with English - just in primary school, but he spoke quite well -
Bella, by name. From the primary school, we left the jeep - filled
small flasks with water and were off on foot to the village of Sukur,
high in the mountains [south] of Midlu and Madagali. The trek was
one and a half miles to a market [Mefir Suku], where we ate some
millet cakes cooked in oil, like doughnuts a bit, and bought some
bananas, which turned out to be inedible owing to greenness, and
sugar cane, which was a Godsend when we got to Sukur, as it is sweet
and full of juice, thus giving both liquids and energy.
leaving the market, we made about three miles over undulating country,
which lay in the valley between two ridges of hills which, as we
went eastward, rose increasingly higher and more rugged in shape
and contour. Our path encroached closely on the left hand range
of hills and skirted along the base of this range - several running
streams were crossed, many people passed us going down to the market
we just left - all were friendly and helpful with directions when
we asked them. The hills around us were barely visible at this hour
- 9 a.m. - as the harmattan is heavy in the mornings and impairs
visibility considerably - later in the day it lifts off the land
somewhat, or blows off, actually, once the midday sun causes winds
to shift and intensify. There is still residual cold from the night
at 9, but it is comfortable under the warmth of the sun.
A compound at the base of the climb up the paved
way to Sukur.
three miles of uninhabited land, we passed across a stream and between
two family compounds lying at the base of the first large hill -
the trail or path up now ascended steeply, but as we had heard,
the ancient people of that place had paved the path up these hills
with steps of stone - not perfect steps but ones which - for all
their disuniformity - served the purpose quite admirably of aiding
path rambled up around the contours of the first hill, carrying
us rapidly up to a good 400 to 500 feet over the plain. Beyond one
hill rose another hump and the higher we went the more carefully
the path was paved with stone. Reaching the top of the first hill,
we passed through a modest gateway made up of stone pillars, unhewn
but oblong, waist-high, beyond which the path floated along the
side of a hill going southeastward further into the hills. The path
never rose as steeply as it had at first, but we were up in the
hills, now, and it is beautiful country and the higher we went the
cooler it became.
View north from under Watse's fig tree, a favorite resting place
on the northern paved way.
came to the first inhabited village [Ndilloey ward] and there got
a man who took us up the rest of the way to Sukur. The place was
seemingly deserted, as the people are living around in family groupings
spread all over the hills.
north along the flatter and partially unpaved section of the paved
way from Ndilloey ward, occupied by members of the smith-potter
waited while the elders and chief were called and they appeared
one by one - tribesmen in leather breechcloths with knives and very
remote, anxious looks in their faces. Most speculated that we were
tax collectors - we communicated with them through Iliya, who used
Fulani to speak to them - they understood Higi, but Iliya, who is
Higi, could not hear their tongue, which is apparently a variant
of Higi, but distinct and incomprehensible to a Higi, though Higi
is comprehensible to them. Iliya went over to a mud hut and noticed
a school desk inside, and, asking of it, he was told a schoolteacher
once came there but someone shot him with an arrow and he fled -
no teachers since!
about an hour's lying around in the shade of a tree, trying to allay
their speculation and doubts, we finally got up and asked to be
shown around. Iliya was anxious to go back as soon as we arrived
there - he was totally estranged to the situation in the place -
didn't understand what we could possibly want there, or why we ever
came. His world is far apart from what we had come to, and he just
couldn't conceive why expatriates, who represent status and are
supposed to stay in towns, living in comfort, and riding cars, would
go to a place such as this. Well,
we were well shown around the site by the old chief [Usaani Tlagëma],
who was quite a figure - very old and withered - quite tottery and
shaky - wizened - walked around with a horsehair fly switch, which
he drew slowly and meditatively across his chin and face as he sat
under the tree before taking us around.
tour was fascinating. What was there was clearly the remains of
a once-thriving little civilization, which seemed to be but a shell
of its former self. We had initially been sitting at one end of
a tree-canopied clearing [the Patla], at the crest of one hill.
Crossing to the other end of the clearing, we passed to the left
a ramshackle mud-cum-stone-cum-wood altar shed [Bugë, the megalithic
throneroom, and seemingly in poor repair at the time], in or on
which was an altar bearing the gods (?) of the people - a tree,
and outside in front of this altar was another god (?) - a circular,
seemingly roughhewn slab of stone mounted on another pedestal stone
with mud between the two member stones [these two grindstone mortars
constitute the altar served by Midala during the Yama pë Patla
ceremony]. Another god (?) - this is a stone. Around the back of
this structure were a number of hut and wall ruins, overgrown by
grass, and labyrinthal [the remains of stalls and other structures
primarily relating to the former iron market].
Plan of the chief's house with gateways numbered
(Smith and David1995: Fig. 3c).
we came to the end of the clearing, two entrances opened. [Woolman's
group is about to pass around the west side of the chief's house.
The numbers inserted below relate to the gateways indicated on the
plan.] One to our right  we passed by and went on toward the
one made in front of us. These entrance gates had high flanking
pilasters of unhewn but carefully chosen stone - very oblong and
suitable in shape and quite monolithic .
way north from gate 14 along the west side of the chief's house,
"a gently funneling passageway which had wide and deep though
short stone steps."
large gateway before us lay at the end of a gently funneling passageway
which had wide and deep though short stone steps. High and carefully-laid
stone walls began to contain the passageway after passing the pillared
gate. These walls, though unmortared, were carefully constructed
and every stone appeared well fitted with an unusual number of square
joints and a preference for flat facings wherever the natural facing
of the stone made such masonry possible. The walls on either side
of the passage were easily seven to eight feet in height and an
average of a foot thick.
gateways of stone monoliths ["megalithic gateways" would
be a more accurate term since these and most other gates are formed
of blocks of various sizes piled one on another] were at intervals
along this passageway, then squared neatly into the right side of
the gently curving (to the right) passageway, was a doorway or entrance
gate which went into the courtyard between two stone circular huts
in the old chief's compound. This was in fact one of the main entrances
to his compound, but we went on and at the end of the passage was
a well-swept dirt court in front of the entrance to the hut where
he had his horse stabled.
Usaani standing at gate 12, the northern entrance to the Xidi house
complex and one of the most impressive. The two monoliths, each
topped with old grindstones that also serve as altars, are named
after the mythical giants Fula and Dëvë who are said to
have built the chief's house in a single night.
The chief's horse's stable, now
inside the enclosure, was in 1966 located just behind the photographer.
court overlooked a valley which opened up between two ridges (one
of which we were standing on) and compounds were scattered at different
places in the valley. The left side of his hut's entrance had first
the wall of the hut itself flanked by another outer wall which extended
down the side of the valley and out as well. This growing in height
as it went out around the compound and down the hill.
Family compounds in the valley immediately northeast
of the Hidi house.
passageway we had just come through was quite smoothly paved with
flat stones of varied shapes which were concave, rising higher at
the sides and sunken in the center - use and/or perceived drainage?
We didn't enter his, the chief's, compound at this time but went
back and explored other side passages and hut ruins - some huts
were built of rows of stone, interlaid with mud. Walls were lower
here, but of stone and the same preference for flat facing where
these could be found and used. The third entrance we saw to the
chief's compound was at the lower end of a sharply-cornered and
curving leftward passageway. The
entrance had a door of bamboo, fixed vertically as a cage, with
two or three cross-members.
Two views of the exterior of gate 2 with its bamboo
door. The photograph on the left shows a small defensive structure
in the passageway which has since been removed. At the top left
of the picture on the right the inner house where the chief lives
when we were at the extreme back entrance, I looked around and saw
other evidence of the nature of their worship - flat stones - one
was placed in the fork of a young tree at the edge of the valley
on a knob of rock and dirt which overlooked the valley. Going back
to the front, the ruined huts had some cabinets and desks in them
- unused and just thrown there, evidence that at some time there
had been someone who had interest in carrying accoutrements of the
20th century to this remote corner of Africa!
young stalwart tribesman who had continued to show us around after
the old chief had disappeared into his compound, and seemed more
interested in us and friendly than the elder, now offered to show
us, after we asked about it, the pit where bulls were fattened for
two years before slaughter. His compound had such a bull; the old
chief was without one at present. We walked about one quarter mile
along the sides of a hill beneath the many scattered compounds all
around on hills to a rocky side of one hill where his home was built
into a shady, rocky knoll. The
entrance was through a carefully-constructed stone wall, in which,
as I remember, and photographs should bear out, the rocks were perfectly
flat in facing.
The entrance to the guide's house. Note the smooth
facade on the left (male) side of the entrance. The lintel over
the doorway indicates that the house belongs to a member of the
went through one hut into a gravel-covered courtyard, then into
another low chamber in which, to our right, was a semi-circular
mud bench, built right against one side of the room. He bade us
sit here and I was not sure why, until I had sat down and looked
in front of me across the passageway running through the hut to
the other side, where, set in the center of the wall, was an arched
mud window, which projected into the room where we were sitting,
and in which appeared the head of a fat bull. This window was along
the top of one side of the room, where the bull was sealed up to
be fattened. The floor of the room was a good eight feet below our
own, and we could look down on the bull inside the room, a Brahma
bull, well-fattened by now and destined to be killed this year [at
the Hëndlë feast held in February-March]. It was kept
sedentary like that to get more fat and to protect it from hyenas.
entrance to the bull's room was at a lower level. Above my head,
in the side of the sitting room, was another half-circular entrance
to another room on a higher level. The idea of split-level construction
to accommodate building on hillsides, was part of these people's
achievements. The basic structural unit is circular, but as I mentioned,
stone walls were flat-faced where the nature of the stone was such.
The roof of the sitting room was an irregular cone supported with
straight cross-members of wood - two to three inch branches were
used for this. Considerable blackness in the roof testified to the
smokiness of these homes when fire is used inside for warmth, which
is essentially in nights. Much of their farming is done in the bottom
of valleys, and it is not unusual for them to travel long distances
down the hills to get suitable valley plots.
A Sukur compound lacking a lintelled entrance
and occupied by a commoner.
he had offered us Bambara nuts [Voandzeia subterranea] we
sat and talked a half hour or so then went out and back to the old
chief's area. There we sat down outside and rested for one hour
under a tree - my stomach was rumbling from emptiness and general
disorder at getting used to a new substance, i.e., the Bambara nuts!
George asked about pipes and he was shown one of bronze (?) [almost
certainly brass] which was quite nicely crafted. The people refused
to sell it to him though he wanted it badly. After small time it
was 3 p.m. and we got up to go back. We went to the chief's compound
and were offered wine, honey and finally, a chicken. We gave them
a few shillings and were on our way. The compound of the chief was
quite a labyrinth of passageways and huts.
the foreground are remains of rooms in the central area (sector
C) of the chief's house that were once occupied by wives and children.
Across the valley is Mixyrux hill. Underneath the two huge boulders
at its top, which resemble the entrance to a house, is Sukur's preeminent
shrine, served at Zoku by the Gadë Mbësefwoy.
On the return, we met many women returning from market up
the mountains, and also encountered a large group of baboons. These
women are so lithe and many are young - one was particularly interested
in us, and posed, dancing, for a photograph. Many very young girls
were carrying loads on their heads up that mountain. Men carry heavier
loads, like sacks of corn, down to the market. Women have calabashes
with lighter loads.
Women returning from the Mefir Suku market, some
wearing the traditional costume that is today worn only at ceremonies.
all makes for striking postures, though. It took us just two hours
back to the jeep. (We) passed many pagan girls washing in the streams
on their way back from market. By the time we had returned to the
small Midlu market, the day's trading had ended and dancing and
beer drinking was in progress - tired, hungry and thirsty, we retraced
our tracks to the jeep, and drank and bid farewell to the two young
lads who had acted as guides from there.
Girls climbing up to Sukur with their loads.
took the jeep out to the main road, then down to Gulak, eleven miles,
stopped at the old Church of the Brethren Mission doctor, Homer
Burke, who obliged us with juice and bananas and coffee, breakfast
sweet rolls his wife had made. Then on to Michika, where Iliya was
warmly greeted at his home, and we had bread and tea there, then
on to the bar where two beers and several sticks of roasted, peppered
meat was satisfying. After this, back to the resthouse to sleep
- only to find the place was full of bats - we snuck in and went
to bed under the netting. Next day we went to Michika, the town
market, which was on Wednesday - bought chickens and bid good day
to Iliya and other students - back to Mubi.