| Home | Intro | Tour | Montagnards | Society | Culture |Language | Images | Music | Library | Links |

Anthony Kirk-Greene's "Ichabod" photographs - 1954

Photographs taken by A.H.M. Kirk-Greene in 1954 when he was District Officer, Mubi. They were published in his 1960 paper "The kingdom of Sukur: a Northern Nigerian Ichabod" (Nigerian Field 25 (2): 67-96). This is now available in the Library section of the website.

David Woolman's "Report on a trip to Sukur on Tuesday, December 27, 1966"

David C. Woolman was a Peace Corps volunteer stationed at Mubi where he taught school. He maintained an extensive correspondence with his mother, Janet H. Woolman.The following account of a visit to Sukur, illustrated with a sample of his photographs shot with a Kodak Instamatic camera, is taken from a letter written to her postmarked Kaduna January 3, 1967, and published with his permission and our thanks. If only everyone wrote such letters ... and kept them and their photographs for 40 years! We have added captions, comments and clarifications.

"We (George Spicely [a Peace Corps colleague] and I) drove straight up to Michika from Mubi and settled our lodging in the bush resthouse there … 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.

We 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.

View east under dusty harmattan conditions from Sukur's northern paved way across terraced hillsides.

We 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.

After 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.

After 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 our ascent.

 

 

 

The 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.

Left: View north from under Watse's fig tree, a favorite resting place on the northern paved way.

.

We 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.

View north along the flatter and partially unpaved section of the paved way from Ndilloey ward, occupied by members of the smith-potter caste

We 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!

After 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.

Hidi Usaani Tlagëma

The 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).

As 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 [14] 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 .

The 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."

The 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.

Gateway 17

Several 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.

Hidi 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.

 

 

This 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.

The 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 is vible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before, 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!

One 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 chiefly clan.

We 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.

The 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.

After 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.

 

 

In 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.

It 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.

 

We 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.

 


 

We thank David Woolman for his richly descriptive text. The most important piece of historical information gained from it and the photographs is that Usaani was still Hidi in December 1966; we have previously been able only to give a range 1964-69 for his quiet departure, whether by deposition or abdication, from the chieftaincy. The figure in the photographs could not be his successor Zirangkwade who ruled, with a brief interruption, until 1991.

Little seems to have changed about the Hidi house beyond changes in ephemeral rooms, as for example in sector C, although a probable defensive squeeze in front of the west gate (2) into the main enclosure has been removed. Comparison of the photograph of Usaani standing in gateway 12 with a picture taken in 1992 suggests that this part of the complex was better weeded and maintained in Usaani's time. This is not surprising given that conversion of many Sukur to various Christian sects is starving Sukur religion of resources.

The landscape seen in the background of the photograph of the women returning from the market suggests - but we need to confirm this - that Rugudum quarter on the the plain was significantly less settled and cultivated than it was in the 1990s.

In 1966 both men and women were clearly wearing traditional costume - notably the dzar pubic apron - or, in the case of women, simple skirts. By the 1990s women and girls wore traditional costume only on special occasions, usually ceremonial, and only a few old men wore the loinskin (towa) as everyday wear (despite its comfort and functionality!)

 

Your comments and contributions