Bukar Usman at 80: Of creativity, prolificacy and cultural advocacy
He enjoyed his juvenile pastimes. He did enjoy the folktales to which his mother treated him under the moonlight. He also progressed into the Qur’anic School like his peers. But, at a point in 1951,at the age of seven, ‘Drarmsheladiwa’ Bukar Usman was dragged by an overzealous palace attendant to the presence of the Emir on royal order. Recalling the experience in his autobiography, Hatching Hopes (2006), the young lass of those days, now a literary celebrity, writes:
‘The Emir was reassuring. The one sentence from his royal lips threw me on an entirely new path. He spoke as if he was addressing me but actually I was arraigned before him along with one other boy called Mamman Tukshil.’
The Emir said calmly but peremptorily, ‘Well, child, you are now ready to go to school and you should proceed.’
The order of a monarch, in this connection, was irreversible. It marked a positive turning- point in the life of someone who will grow to become one of the highly influential Nigerian literary figures in recent history; Dr. Bukar Usman.
On Saturday, December 10, he turned 80. Generally acknowledged as a man of humble bearing and altruistic disposition, his forte goes beyond creative writing. He traverses the realm of public affairs, research, documentation and transmission of folklore, history as well as cultural advocacy.
Having spent 35 years in the civil service from where he retired as a Permanent Secretary in 1999, he has devoted himself unceasingly to the promotion of folklore at the local and international levels. With this preoccupation, he has consistently motivated stakeholders mobilised resources and built networks towards the resurgence of the Nigerian Folklore Society where he now occupies the exalted position of the president.
Usman was born in Biu, a city state about which he has embarked on research, written and published a book, A History Of Biu. He describes his place of birth with relish as ‘the plateau among the plain lands of Borno en route to the Sahara desert.’ Spelling it further, he says, ‘From the tableland of more than 2500 feet above sea level, you could survey the abode of the Kanuri and Fulani, Biu’s northward and southward neighbours.’
Situated between these ancient imperial domains, his own Babur/Bura community is a distinct ethnic nationality in its own right, and he reminisces upon his days as a child in that environment with romantic fervour. The catch is not only about the alluring landscape, flora, fauna and wildlife of Biu. It is also about its cultural manifestations, about the spectacular traditional sports, performing arts, festivals, folklife and folktales. The folktales connect quite firmly with his latter-day reputation as a writer and he bears it unassumingly, yet as a treasure.
Just as an aside before one proceeds into the crux, Dr. Bukar Usman has been a public intellectual from as far back as his days in the public service. For many years, he turned out a number of books on public administration, his major area of professional specialisation. He published Voices In A Choir: Issues In Democratisation And National Stability In Nigeria. Three other books earlier published by him, namely: Press, Policy and Responsibility, The Interface Of The Muse and Government Protocol and Democracy, Human Rights and National Stability were also incorporated in the new title, Voices In A Choir…
Along with Dreams and realities: Issues In Nigeria’s Golden Jubilee Anniversary and Globalisation and The World After Mubarak and Gaddafi, these books accruing from Usman’s resourcefulness as a distinguished public administrator were already evident of his prolificacy and profundity.
However, back to his creative flair, it was from the middle of the first decade of this century that he deployed his skills into the literary field to the fascination and – perhaps – amazement of his close associates and the public at large. Talking, for instance, about his ‘communicative voice’, he said that it changed ‘after Voices In A Choir…’ Throwing more light on the shift, he writes:
‘This change is evident in my newspaper articles published after 1999. The articles were different from my official speeches, not merely in terms of message, but significantly in terms of style of writing. They were simple, more personal and approached issues from the “human interest” angle.
In this connection, Hatching Hopes, Bukar’s first autobiography that had been in the works since 1992, is a consolidation of the literariness in his writing, which had begun to materialise piquantly in his newspaper articles. It later blossomed into full, free-flowing and lucid prose in Hatching Hopes. The non-fictional work gives an account of his childhood, education, studentship at the Borno Provincial Secondary School, Maiduguri, King’s College, Lagos and the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria where he graduated with a B.A. (Hons.) in Public Administration in 1969. His career in the civil service, marital life right up to his retirement in 1999, are also copiously projected in the narrative.
Interestingly, despite his height of attainment in formal education, his cultural orientation from his younger days remains undiminished. The folktales – so to speak – continue to nag his consciousness. Communal legends and myths of origin about his Biu ancestry are taut. All are kept alive in his mind. As such, when he passed the final copy of the manuscript of Hatching Hopes over to his publisher, Duve Nakolisa, in 2005, the latter, knowing his man very well, asked, ‘Why not turn your attention to folktales in your area?’ The question was like igniting a latent energy bidding its time to explode.
After a moment of reflection, the dam was opened for an unbridled flow of recollections of the numerous tales his mother told him as a child and subsequently personal creations of inspiring tales in the fashion of the traditional antecedents. He recalls that, apart from the moonlight tales, he had also benefited as a schoolboy from the classics of the renowned Hausa author, Abubakar Imam. He embarked on researches, went on creative flight. Between 2005 and 2009, he had written and published fourteen books of folktales in Hausa, published by Gidan Dabino Publishers, Kano.
A German NGO, IRENE Sahel sought his permission afterwards, and ‘freely got it’, to publish the stories in ‘Boko’ and ‘Ajami’ for the education of the girl-child in Qur’anic schools in Niger Republic, aside of schools within Nigeria like Capital Primary School, Kano which included Books 1-5 in their curricula. As a further breakthrough, the publications attracted UNESCO particularly as resource material for its initiative of using indigenous languages in teaching.
Thus Bukar delved further into creative writing with an overwhelming acclaim from the international community right up to the University of Cairo where his book of folktales, Taskar Tatsuniyoyi, is also in the curriculum at various levels.
To quickly mention it, prior to all this acclaim and as far back as 2014, the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria had taken account of the productivity, intellectual accomplishment and creative verve of Bukar Usman – perhaps long before the larger public woke up to it – and awarded him a D. Litt. in Public Administration for his outstanding work and research in that field. That was even before his reputation in the area of folklore and literature flourished visibly enough.
All the same, beyond tales in Hausa, Dr. Bukar Usman wrote and published fictional stories in English, which were generally inspired by the folktale motif. They include, The Bride Without Scars and Other Stories, The Stick of Fortune, Girls In Search of Husbands and Other Stories and The Hyena and The Squirrel.
On record, after the publishing of The Bride Without Scars and Other Stories in 2005, Usman has published over 20 books, one of which is the 652-page compendium of his Hausa language folktales.
Another is his literary autobiography, My Literary Journey, published in 2013. There are more, testifying to the author’s versatility and fecundity. And they have generated a lot of interest in the international media and among scholars. For instance, apart from the cerebral support given by renowned, Emeritus Professor Dandatti Abdulkadir at the beginning of Bukar Usman’s foray into folklore research, documentation and creative enterprise, one has had the cause to review Dr. Khalid Imam’s book, Justice, Fairness and The Quest For An Egalitarian Society In Africa: A Reading Of Bukar Usman’s Taskar Tatsuniyoyi (Compendium of Hausa Tales, Books One to Fourteen.) This is one of those books that have given well-deserved critical attention to Usman’s creative explorations. In reviewing the book, one had stated as follows:
‘In Three Chapters comprising 18 sections he (the author) anatomises Bukar Usman’s tales from various perspectives. He highlights their universal significance in correlation with profound thoughts of some of the most respected thinkers in world history. From Plato to Ghandi, to Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, Imam articulates the principles of social justice and fairness, equity and egalitarianism as they abound in the moral statements of the Tatsuniyoyi.
‘He delves into the sociology of oral literature using the example of Hausa folktales. In Usman’s collection, for instance, the virtue of altruism is resonant in Marainiya (the orphan girl-child) who “subjected herself to the dangers of passing through many valleys of death to save the precious life of a prince that was about to die.” In another tale, Munguwar Kishiya (Tale of the Wicked Step-Mother), justice is the key subject matter. And justice, as posited by the author, is the fundamental principle upon which a well-ordered society stands.’
Other works abound, lending insight into the dynamic imagination of Usman as he explores the social and aesthetic attributes of orature and literature as fodder for humanising thoughts and actions. Such books include: A Selection of Nigerian Folktales: Themes and Settings (2018), Gods And Ancestors: Mythic Tales Of Nigeria (2018) And People, Animals, Spirits And Objects: 1000 FOLK STORIES OF NIGERIA (2018), all published by Klamidas. With these and other fresh titles on the shelf, it should leave no one to wonder why, in the past twenty-three years after his retirement; Dr. Bukar Usman has progressively advanced from the brand of the pen to the arena of practical assertions. This is in terms of pushing his passion for the promotion of folklore beyond the writing desk to the frontiers of cultural advocacy.
The Nigerian Folklore Society, of which he is the president, is now a laboratory of some sort, not only for the experimentation of the ideas for which he stands, but for the translation of such ideas into practical achievements in a collaborative sense. And his zeal still remains boundless, even at 80.
* Tomoloju, former Member of the Governing Board of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments and ex-Deputy Editor of
The Guardian is a Playwright and Theatre Director.