Something Strange in Adamawa

By Blessing Tarfa
“We are lions, luvari in Kilba,” my mum says.“Our father was a lion,” Hajiya chimes in.At the mention of her father, my mum clears her throat. Hajiya, her sister, laughs with only breath escaping her mouth, as if she wants to scratch her throat without triggering a cough.
  When an older person wanted to know what mischief the children were up to, they always started by sounding excited to hear what we had to say. Then in the middle of our excited chatter, they would ask an implicating question while still wearing the fake air of being amused by our tale. We knew once these questions were asked, they took the joy out of our storytelling. When I asked my mum and her sister about my grandfather, I saw that I had tampered with the joy in the room. Before then, I was only asking Hajiya to tell me about Mutu.
As children, discussions about Mutu were censored. In a mix of Hausa and Kilba, my mum and aunts would have discussions about an animal caught in a precarious situation. The following condolence visit added to the confusion, as Mutu is similar to the word for ‘death’ in Hausa with a slightly different intonation. While death may not have been far from the Mutu, I couldn’t have been farther from its meaning. I have long outgrown the need for censorship, but the Mutu is still largely a mystery to me. Also, as a teacher and a writer, the lack of knowledge of my history has begun to haunt me. It became imperative to participate in adding the story about the Mutu in a project that is documenting cultural practices in Nigeria.
“Mutu, Mutu a kasan Kilba” Mutu in Kilba land, my mum says.

As soon as I drop my phone, which is my recorder for this conversation, my mother sprints to her sister’s side. The way she adjusts her veil, and pats her shoulder, you would think they were dressing up for school, not that Hajiya is a woman with a 40-year-old son. She will remain to my mother the child unpresentable without the touch of a big sister, and Hajiya basked in the confidence that comes with having one. With a final fluff my mum crown’s Hajiya’s head with the veil, satisfied, she urges Hajiya to speak into the phone. Neither of them are aware the recording has begun.
“Okay?”

“Mutu… a kasan Kilba,” my mum says to her sister again. She wants Hajiya to start from stating that the mutu practice belongs to the Kilba people. Hajiya follows suit, big sister and little sister, a dance I have watched all my life.
The Kilba people (also called Höba) are an ethnic group in the Hong local government area of Adamawa State in Northeastern Nigeria. They have existed since the 13th century and one of their most peculiar practices is the Mutu-the tying of fate with an animal. Being a girl-child, I am aware that to the society I represent the end of two things in my mother’s lineage-her language and her culture. I have already been robbed of the opportunity to learn the language, but not the opportunity to document the culture. The irony is not lost on me, that to preserve the history of the Mutu, I am sat with two women to tell me about the Mutu. I envision myself in the moment as a vessel of this history too, that I do not succumb to the passive knowledge of my mother’s history and inadvertently participate in its erasure. 
Mutu, which may be referred to as a totem, is a common practice in the Kilba land that involves the tying, or cloning of the life, fate and spirit of a human with a wild animal.  The person and animal are thus an alter ego of the other. Every family has the animal that is its own heritage of Mutu. Several families or clans may have the same animal, but never more than one Mutu to a person or family.  The family or person is expected to have the quality of the animal that they are being tied to. Lions are a sign of brevity, wild pigs for hard work, the hyenas for their strength, and elephants for dignity. Monkeys, leopards, and baboons, are not excluded.
Hajiya explained that for every terrestrial animal, there is an aquatic animal that supports the Mutu. She said animals, such as crocodiles, snakes, leeches, are an added component for the purpose of long life but never fish. Snakes, she also added as one of such supportive animals.
Why Mutu? Why are people tying their fate and spirit to a wild animal?
My mother springs from where she is half lying and half sitting on the couch with her back to me, turns to face me fully and says one word ‘Noma.’ Until then, she had let Hajiya do all the talking.
She gestures like she’s ploughing a land and returns to where she was seated on the couch. If the center rug was a piece of land, she would have cleared a good enough patch in those five swift motions. My mother has always been prideful of her farming roots.
We had all stopped to watch my mother’s demonstration. Indeed, a need to cultivate wider portions of land is a plausible reason for Mutu. In the Kilba land, farming is their main source of income therefore a lot of practices are centered around ways to improve farming productivity. From adopting other family members, the wives of other people with children, polygamy and birthing large families. Mutu is no different, families with a wild hog/boar as their Mutu made the most productive farmers. They were often hired to help. Another reason for Mutu is that the wild animals gave them a chance at long life, considering a man or woman with Mutu does not die until their animal dies.
Death is not the only occurrence experienced by the Mutu. Periods of extreme joy or sadness are felt just as strongly and expressed. Often times, in mourning and celebration, humans will let out cries of their animal, and if the telltale signs of their Mutu were never known, these are periods when they will be confirmed. Depressive episodes and celebrations for the animals can also be equally felt by the human, and they live out their own period of unrest, burdensomeness, and sadness as the animal lives out theirs.
When I think about the Mutu, I think of it as a lesson in empathy. Maybe it is because I learnt that my grandfather was a victim of this wonder, or my great grand uncle whom they say slept and woke up with a broken leg, or my aunt who cried like a hyena when she was told that her first daughter had died. For each event, there was another living creature burdened just as they were with the corresponding emotion; perhaps the physical burden is easier to share this way? I can only wonder. I continue with my questions.
How is it the Mutu ritual done?

“Tsafi ne,” Hajiya begins but the use of that word tsafi doesn’t sit right with her. “It’s like charms,” 

“Like voodoo?” I ask.

“Like witchcraft.” My mother says with finality and ends our attempt at sounding politically correct. Hajiya reluctantly agrees, Mutu is tsafi, witchcraft.
I suspect that it is easy for my mum to dismiss the Mutu practice as witchcraft because of her Christian faith. Hajiya follows suit because her older sister is usually right.

“First, the skin of the animal is cut, and a plant called gadali Hajiya continues but I interrupt her to describe what a gadali is. 

“Is that a Hausa name?”

“Yes. It is Hausa.” 

This comforts me. Kilba may not be a well-documented language but I know I will find gadali on the internet.

“The skin of the animal together with the gadali tied to it, both are put in a calabash with water and stirred, while an incantation is chanted,” she continues.
Hajiya’s left hand is shroud under her veil with only her palm peaking. She curves the left palm with her fingers pointing upwards-the calabash. With her right hand, she makes the stirring motions. She then raises her right hand above her head in swirling motions, describing how the water would begin to foam and rise from inside the calabash. Once, twice, thrice, she does this-stirs, and lifts her hand above her head. She lets go of the calabash as she describes how the animal would jump out from inside the foamy water. There, the young of each animal skin is born.
The animals are not left to their fate. First, a human caregiver hides them under a silo and cares for them. When they are mature enough to live in a pack, an older animal of their kind is summoned to lead them to a thol-cave earmarked for them.
The Kilba people have utilized the northern highlands and its caves in present day Nigeria as their settlement since the 13th century. Even with the recent ongoing insurgency in the northeast, women and children are directed to flee for safety in the caves, a terrain they are familiar with from muscle memory and a history of having lived there. It is in one of those caves that the mba-Mutu rites tying rites are performed. Some caves are also earmarked for the refuge of the animals.
The way Hajiya explains the Mutu ritual makes it sound like something I could do from the comfort of my room if I could access the skin of a crocodile and elephant. It feels harmless. There is more to it, however. When the Mutu is born, a second ritual called the ’teakre’ is performed. Not all Mutu had teakre done to them.
Teakre is the awareness or discernment that is given to the people that have Mutu by the caregiver before the animals are released into the wild. Teakre ensures that both the animal and person have the knowledge of being tied to the other. By having this knowledge, the animal has more self-awareness and is able to care for themselves. Where the animal does not know that they have a human spirit, they risk acting only out of animal instincts leading to premature deaths or casualties. In the same way, the teakre enables the human to channel the animal of their Mutu as an asset, to impersonate the qualities of the animal and harness this divine power for their own benefit. The Mutu kra teakre refers to the Mutu animal that is not aware of their human form.
“My dad was a lion” my mother repeats.

This is the point where stringent emotions walk into the conversation. An unsettling silence envelops the room. It reminds me of the silence one meets when guests leave our house after a funeral, marking the beginning of a lonely period of grieving. The silence when you return to an empty house after dropping a loved one at the airport. My mum breaks it with the clearing of her throat. 

Aunt Hajiya excuses herself to use the bathroom. Or to clear her throat, or to swallow her tears. My mum leaves shortly after her. In this moment, I quickly retrieve my phone from where Hajiya  sat. I search for gadali in English on Google. Gadali is a root plant that looks similar to tumeric. The botanical name is Crinum Jagus, and it is also commonly called “maca root” or okonkilo inyi by the Igede people of Benue state and isu baka by the Yoruba. I learn that it has been explored as a cure for liver disease. But the property I feel most relates it with the Mutu practice is its reproductive properties. For men it is used to cure erectile dysfunction and for women, it helps with fertility and regulation of hormonal imbalances.      

Hajiya returns to the room and sits. Not having the talent to remain quiet, she fills the room with small talk. Where has my mother disappeared to? Did you change the position of the bookshelf? I respond accordingly, I tell her how long it has been since she last visited, and that my mother too has gone to clear her throat. I tease her because you do that with family sometimes, when you are familiar with their secret patterns of grief. 

“Kina ga na je in yi kuka ne?” She challenges ”Did you think I went to cry?”

“No. If you did not, I know that your sister excused herself to cry.” It has been over 40 years since my grandfather died, but grief has no timeline. “Tell me about your father. Tell me about the lion,” I urge Hajiya.

He was a “Mutu kra teakre”, a Mutu, who do not have the teakre. This meant that the lion my grandfather was tied to did not know he had a human spirit. Hajiya is resigned in the way she acknowledges that the lion played with its life. It lived dangerously and led to her father’s death at the age of 60. He was a strong man, he was fearless, and he never fell ill. He died a sudden death; his lion simply lost a fight.

This is all I am able to muster from her, before she changes the topic to a loss even more recent, yet the one she wishes to discuss in greater detail. “Kin tuna da Aunty M?”

Aunty M died two years ago. To me, Aunty M is ‘Ama’ which is the Kilba word for mother. Ama M died two years ago. When I asked what happened to her, my own Ama had said it was a brief illness.

Hajiya was about to let out the secret to that illness.Being the youngest sibling makes Hajiya the designated family foot soldier. She is also the most accommodating, so she has taken the role of family delegate for visiting other relatives. She keeps the foot at the door for the rest of the family to access their loved ones. It is no surprise she was the only person who saw Aunty M during that period of brief illness.

Aunty M fell ill suddenly and my aunt went to visit her. The doctor could find nothing wrong, and dismissed it as the hypochondria that comes with old age. When Hajiya saw Aunty M, the old woman narrated a dream to her, of having fallen into a dry well. In the dream, she didn’t fall into the pit completely. She was fortunate to clutch to a branch in the well and survive a few hours until a hunter pulled her out. But she had already gotten weary and bled from scratches on her back.

Hajiya decided to check her back in rue of giving her a massage for her aching joints. And there, she discovered the gashes of wounds on her back. Aunty M never fell anywhere in the physical body, it was only a manifestation of her Mutu. Shortly after, a dish of bush meat, a killed hyena, was served somewhere in the forest, and Aunty M was laid to rest. She never recovered from that fall.

Hajiya’s intuition to check my Ama M’s back was just a move to confirm a suspicion, another mutu kra teakre lost to death. Ideally, the caregiver who conducted the Mutu ritual ought to perform the teakre when the animal matures. However, there are instances where the caregiver dies before the animal is mature enough and they die with the knowledge of the animals and their human counterparts, making them the mutu kra teakre.

When I was younger, I used to be teased about the similarities between Hajiya and me. We are both ‘Auta’ in Hausa ‘Kwahir’ in Kilba, the last-born females of a family. Our lean bodies and long necks, the size of our foreheads always compared to that of jinjirin jaki, a baby camel. I grew to laugh about it just as I saw Hajiya do, sucking the air through her open teeth, hugging me to her bony chest and saying “Oho, kyau kenan.” She called me beautiful.

Sitting here like this with Hajiya exposes me to other similarities between us that go beyond our looks and ability to conjure up laughter. I realize that I too, am the family’s delegate, their extension of pleasantries. If there ever is another aunty whose Mutu would be discovered from giving her a back rub, I would be the one to make that discovery.

Learning that the Mutu of my mother’s family is a lion humours me. It is far from the animal I had chosen for myself-a bat. In primary school, I changed my name to fit the new persona of being a nocturnal flying mammal. Instead of Blessing Msirakadifi Tarfa or just Blessing Tarfa, I added my dad’s name Aliyu as my middle name. That’s how I was BAT. I perfected my drawing of the Batman insignia and started to draw it in my exercise books and everywhere else. Instead of the so-so person was here that my peers usually inscribed after being in a place for merely ten minutes, I signed off with the bat. Although my history of Mutu had not been formed then, and I had no knowledge of exploring spirit animals. I was way ahead of my time. 

“Do you know that people seek each other’s Mutu to kill one another?” Hajiya asks.

Do you know that you are yet to tell me a personal benefit of Mutu? I think.. We have only lamented the death of their father and their aunt.

Hajiya brushes over the weaponization of Mutu in the Kilba farming community, to fight over inheritance or titles. In these instances, families would meet in their animal forms and fought. The territorial fights in the animal kingdom transcends to their community. As the animals conquer one another, the person dies. The dying person in the knowledge of their teakre is able to tell the family that he is dying because he lost a fight. The lions suffer an odd fate however in the hands of the porcupine. A few members of the family had died from chronic stomach pains in the past caused by the lion having eaten a porcupine. Ulcers are still a foreign concept.

In my mum’s absence, Hajiya leads the discussion in her Hausa lilt, the need for proper presentation long abandoned. She rolls and un-rolls her veil in her hands as she speaks. Every now and then, Kilba sneaks into her speech, a mannerism she struggles to abandon as she converses with her non-kilba speaking niece. Kwahir-she calls me. Hajiya’s shifting legs, and the fidgeting of her hands are not signs of nervousness, she has so much to say that her words tumble in a stammer. ‘Kwama’ guy, she says every so often in her narration, to collect her thoughts.

“Kwahir, have you never noticed how lions drink water?” I respond in the negative. I don’t know anything today.

The lion hunches down on its private parts when it is backing the stream. they never expose them because if an animal grabs it, it would be killed. I have never been privy to the information of why a lion drinks on its hunches. The importance of this knowledge to Hajiya is a personal endeavour-that one most know what they are. And she knows well how they must protect themselves, just as she knows that her older sister will always adjust her veil.

My mother has returned, her voice and her eyes are clear. 

‘Kwa’ala,’ first born female, Hajiya nods in greeting. When my mum sits, Hajiya turns to me “Kwahir.”

It is my turn to ask a question. “What has become of the Mutu practice now?”

Deforestation and hunters are rendering the Mutu practice void because the lives of wild animals are threatened. Here, my mother chips in with her lecturing – climate change, deforestation and the lack of wildlife preservation are affecting humans in more ways than one. To the people with Mutu, it is a direct death sentence, not the slow waning of habitation and its impact on livelihood. Hunting is instant death. The Sambisa forest, which trails the northeast of Nigeria, used to be a safe haven for the animals, some of which were Mutu. The Boko Haram insurgent group and the ensuing armed conflict has also made it unsafe and most of them are fleeing to Cameroon. Some are also hiding in the caves and mountains in the Yankari game reserves. In the past, the Kilba people would not allow non-indigenes to hunt on their highlands, and the use of Dane guns for hunting was frowned upon so that the Mutu were not displaced.

My mind recalls an excursion to the Yankari Game Reserve with my JSS one classmates years ago. I could have claimed any of the lions we saw an uncle or an aunty. My mother says that another threat is the lack of continuity. Neither she nor her sister have been able to trace the people who performed the Mutu for their parents and older siblings. They just cannot be found, and the ritual is not merely taught to anyone. People have left it because it is ungodly in Christianity and Islam.           

   Time and chance happened to the Mutu. Religious enlightenment fostered shame and soon people feared to divulge the truth about their Mutu. Religion reshaped language as language and Mutu became ‘witchcraft’, so it lost its sanctity to the Kilba people. This is why my mother and her sister sit and tell me as much of the truth as they know, but have protected the identities of anyone living who still possesses the Mutu.

We fall quiet. Hajiya is now using the veil to cover her legs, carefully adjusting the leftover fabric to align with the helm of her wrapper above her shin. “Kwama,” she begins, and she has caught my attention. “Kw’ala,” she calls to my mum.

“Kin san ana ce wannan ta na da Mutu?” You know they suspect this person has Mutu? Hajiya says, calling a name I am familiar with.

“Amma ba’a fada.” But we don’t say it. Mother ends the conversation. 

There is a lot that isn’t said. I want to ask if the Mutu was something my mother wanted, but I decide against it. When I said I would ask them questions about Mutu, I did not prepare them to be blasphemous. Hajiya is also a Christian, with the zealousness of a new convert. Asking them if they coveted a practice they condemned as witchcraft earlier would be a crime.

I have often wanted to grow wings when life was not happening the way I wanted. There are situations I wanted to flee from, and those were times I wished being a bat didn’t end with      perfecting the art of doodling the batman insignia.  I am aware that my ability to conjure up the thoughts of fleeing one's problems is a luxury. My parents are both firstborns in their respective families, my mum the first born female and my dad the first born male. This meant that I grew up in the half-way house for uncles, aunts and cousins switching between schools or coming for a holiday. The in-laws related to the family’s patriarch dominate the family. It is in that tongue, Bar-bur, that I count from 1-5, and participate in short errands to bring food and water. My mom cautiously pranced the thin line between the laws that applied to us and the ones that applied to her guests. My mother would always say that we have the pride of our father’s people. The Mutu in her bloodline long forgotten, she does not ascribe my pride to the king of the jungle, luvari. The luxury of leaving a place with your animal being may not come readily to a mother with three daughters tethered to the helm of her wrapper like a lioness with her cubs.