Literature:Folklorist Maps History Of Hometown, Biu
ALTHOUGH history is a very interesting and engaging subject that provides a bridge between the past and present and also clears a path to the future, Nigeria has become poorer for taking history out of secondary school curriculum. But this aberration notwithstanding, Dr. Bukar Usman affirms the place of history and the foolhardiness that informed such decision.
His 674-page, beautiful, historical compendium on his hometown, Biu, in Northeast Borno State, A History of Biu (Klamidas Communications Limited, Abuja; 2015) brings out the glory of a community’s history. His effort is passion borne out of his interest in folklore for which he has exerted considerable intellectual energy in discovering and documenting for posterity the ways of life of his ancient Biu people and how age-old Babur/Bura traditions and culture are passed on to generations to come.
Apart from his deep interest in folklore, his first book Hatching Hopes also triggered Usman’s historical journey into his Biu roots. And from the first chapter, readers get a glimpse of the author’s literary sensibility in his romantic description of the topography of the area Biu is founded. His description of the idyllic and tourism-friendly environment of Biu area, a part of the north generally regarded as arid with its harsh weather, presents a seductive vista for the adventurous.
In ‘Location and Physical Features,’ Usman writes, “Above the rivers, the escarpments are stable features of the Biu environment. Their panoramic attraction stretches into the distance, but there’s a topographic realignment as the plateau edges into the plainer woods… Elsewhere, especially towards the southern part of the emirate, a range of shrub-dotted hills, generally flattened at the top, reinforce (sic) Biu’s renown as a recreational resort and the most delightful highland of the Savannah closest to the Sahara Desert”.
And Usman provides glossy photographs to show this genial, enchanting, hilly topography.
In Chapter 2, Usman traces the origin of Biu Kingdom before colonialism later known as Biu Emirate. Yamtarawala, founder of modern Biu arrived from the famous Kanem Borno Empire, bristling with a thwarted ambition of not being crowned king and went on a war campaign and defeated many of the local kingdoms he met and ruled over them. But before Yamatarawala arrived, the history of Biu and its surrounding area, and even beyond, was embroiled in a migratory wave on account of several wars and the rise and fall of empires. First were Songhai Empire and Kanem Borno Empires that waged wars with Biu’s neighbouring Jukun Kingdom.
As the author records it, “Little is known about pre-colonial areas of Nigeria before the 12th century B.C. although there is archeological evidence that a respectable civilization (the Nok culture), dating back to 600 B.C. had thrived in Tariga… By 1000 A.D. large block of tribes had formed around the Biu-Mandara area. The Biu-Mandara tribes, which include Bura, Mandara, Marghi, Chibok and Hona, had their own conflicts and petty wars… By 11th century A.D., Songhai had its capital at Gao, a city located on the bank of the River Niger… Gao was an important route in the trans-Saharan trade, and contest for the control of this trade among political entities was a critical factor in the rise and fall of many kingdoms.
“The Kanem Empire was one of the kingdoms involved in that contest. The Berbers arrived from North Africa and invaded the Lake Chad region and set up the Kanem Empire (ca 700-1376) with the capital at Njimi… The Borno Empire (1380-1893) was in the thick of these crises. The empire’s birth sprang from the defeat of the opposing forces of Berbers, Arabs and Hausa by the Kanembu in 1380…”
Indeed, Usman digs deep into history and paints a moving picture of the ancient period and the socio-political ferment surrounding the area Biu is founded. The author traces the founder of Biu, Yamtarawala, through oral narratives from the king of Ngazargamu, and how he was overlooked for the throne and he had to go away with 72 of his followers and began his campaign of conquest of local peoples on his way before he finally settled in Biu and ruled over the area. He conquered Miringa, Diwar and Mandaragrau. Yamtarawala established Biu dynasty about 1535 and presided over some 20 closely related groups that make up the dynasty.
Like the folklorist that he is, Usman does a comparative history of some Nigerian groups – the Yoruba and Benin – and how history of origin of these groups supports the origin of his native Biu, as having roots only in oral narratives in Africa’s absence of written records. This orality does not make the story less authentic as in all oral communities and peoples.
Usman also keeps track of the ‘Traditional Administration of Biu Kingdom’ and names the Kuthli or kings that came after Yamtarawala, a personage who sank into the earth when he struggled with his son over supremacy. Like most ancient groups, capital for Biu was not a settled matter from start. The capital had moved several times before settling at Biu. But it was Kuthli Mari Biya who made out the plan that was to stand Biu out, as he divided the town into two parts – Wuyaku and S’L-Undla; a third ward Galdimare was added. The Kuthli had Biu Traditional Council assisting him to administer the kingdom together with ‘traditional title holders,’ ‘administrative establishment’ and ‘royal warriors,’ all elaborately laid out by the author in A History of Biu.
In Chapter 5, Usman returns to a familiar terrain and lays out the various sub-groups that make up Biu kingdom. Usman also lays bare the social strata of Biu society and its constituent parts.
Here, the author also laments the loss of local languages in Biu, as it is in other parts of the country. He charges those in authority to put in place policies and structures that could help encourage young people to speak their indigenous languages so as to preserve local languages from going extinct. Also in ‘Cultural Practices in Biu Kingdom Groups,’ Usman maps the cultural ethos of Biu people – marriages, farming, hunting, tribal marks and those peculiar markings that set Biu groups apart from others. At the end of this chapter, he also provides photographic illustrations to show these things, including past kuthlis, their tombs and some landmark places in Biu’s culture and history.
In Section C Chapter 7, Usman deals with ‘Arrival of the British in Biu Kingdom’ and gives an interesting narrative of colonial involvement in Biu socio-political life and how things were never to be the same again thenceforth. The section ends with another photographic illustration of landmark British incursion into Biu – the missionary schools, church, British administrators and missionaries.
Usman’s A History of Biu, is methodical and thorough. He traces Biu’s development to present times, and just as it is in all Nigerian communities, it ends in lamentation of broken political promises. His narration of ‘Biu Dam Debacle’ is instructive of how wrong politics work against the interest of the people. With climatic changes all over the world, a dam such as the one conceived for Biu some 30 years ago in 1982 and yet to be completed in 2015 after so much money has been budgeted for it, does not speak well of development strides.
Usman’s history is forward-looking, and so a living historical narrative. It is an immensely instructive material for Biu people, especially so for young Biu people who need this history to know where they are coming from and the entire country, especially minority groups, to catch up on their group’s journey from time immemorial to modern times. Usman’s historical narrative helps to make sense of such journeys, evaluate present circumstances and project into the future. Usman deserves commendation for his epic, illuminative narrative that does not only shed light on his native Biu but other surrounding towns and the wider Nigerian situation. A History of Biu comes highly recommended.