Jump directly to the page contents

Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, who later became prime minister of Nigeria, wrote Shaihu Umar in 1955. Originally written in Hausa, it became a bestseller. The story of the titular scholar and his odyssey through West and North Africa, which still bore the scars of slave trading, was turned into a film in 1970.
It was long thought lost, before being rediscovered in the Nigerian Film Corporation’s archives. Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art has now restored the film to premiere at the Berlinale.

Chapter One

God is the king who is greater than all other kings in glory, He is the most holy of all things, He is the king unto whom there is none like. Near the walled city of Bauci there is a little town called Rauta. In this little town there was once a certain malam, learned in the stars, in the Koran, and in the scriptures, and an upholder of the Faith. This malam was one of the men of this world to whom God has given the gift of knowledge, His name was Shaihu Umar. So great were his learning and wisdom that news of him reached countries far distant from where he lived. Men would come from other countries, travelling to him in order to seek knowledge. Before long the people coming to him foregathered, and became so numerous that they had no place to set up their compounds, so it became necessary for some of them to seek compounds in the little villages near to Rauta.
None who had studied under Shaihu Umar had ever known him impatient, nor had they ever known a day when they had come to study, and he had said that he was tired, except perhaps if he were unwell. And even if ill-health afflicted him, if it were not severe, he would without fail come out to teach. This Shaihu Umar was a man beyond all others, the like of whom is not likely to be found again. Whatever evil thing befell him, he would say, ‘It is God who relieves all our troubles.’ He never became angry, his face was always gentle, he never interfered in what did not concern him, and he never wrangled with anyone, let alone did he ever show even the slightest cantankerousness. Why, because of this character of his, it came about that in the whole country no-one ever criticised him, and many people began to say, ‘Certainly this is no mere man, he is a Saint.’

One day, just before evening prayer, after Shaihu Umar had been teaching his students, they were all sitting discussing the affairs of the world, when one student asked him ‘Master, I would like to ask you a little question, but I hesitate in case you should think that it is disrespect towards you that makes me ask’. Shaihu Umar answered him, ‘Why, knowledge is never made complete except by asking, and what is more, no man knows everything. So ask me whatever you need to know, and have no fear in your mind. As for me, may God grant that I know what you ask me.’

The questioner said, ‘May God grant you his forgiveness Malam, the things I want to know from you are two. First, that you should tell me from whence you come, and that you should tell me about your country. Are all the people of your country as you are? For, as for me, you certainly amaze me. And not only me; whoever knows you will be amazed at you. Secondly, I want you to tell me your origin, for I see that you are not like the people of our country. You have learning and speech like that of the Arabs, yet I see that you do not give yourself airs as they do.’

Umar answered him, ‘Certainly you have asked me very sensible questions, to which I can, without doubt, give you the answers. But you have asked for a long story, and one which will cause wonder and pity in all who hear it. Now I will try to tell you about my country and my origin, and about my wanderings, and the difficulties I endured before I arrived here in your town.’

I am a native of Kagara

Away back (began Shaihu Umar) I was a native of this country, but even so, I did not grow up and pass my boyhood here. It was far away in the country of the Arabs that I grew up. Long long ago I was a native of a certain country near Bida, and the name of our town was Kagara. My father was a tall light-skinned man whose craft was leather-working. My mother was a native of Fatika. Now when my mother was carrying me, my father died and left me an inheritance of six cows, three sheep, and his riding mare. At this time the mare was in foal. All these things were handed over to my mother, who was told to keep them until in God’s good time she should give birth, for they were the property of her son, since this husband of hers had no other relatives to claim the inheritance.

So things went on until one day I was born, and I turned out to be a boy. Now when the naming day came round, my mother had one of my rams caught and slaughtered, and the name of ‘Umar’ was whispered in my ear. Time passed until, when I was two years old (that is, the time for weaning), my grandmother on my father’s side took me to wean me. I lived with her until the time came when my mother wanted to marry again. Then my mother said to my grandmother, ‘You know that apart from you, I have no relations in this town besides this boy, and now I want to marry. What is more, many suitors have come forward to press their suit, saying that I must marry the one that I like best. I have come to you for advice. So-and-so and so-and-so seek my hand, but up to now I have not made up my mind which one I like best. I want first to hear what you have to say. Among them is a certain courtier, especially close to the Chief, called Makau.’

When my grandmother heard the name of Makau among the suitors, she said, ‘My daughter, indeed God has brought you great good fortune!  When there is one with good eyesight, would you marry a blind man? If you ask my advice, you should marry none save Makau. I know that he is a modest man, who is in no way mean-minded, and certainly if you marry him your home will be a happy one.’

My mother accepted this advice. The next day the marriage ceremony was performed, and a day was appointed upon which she was to move into her husband’s compound. When the time came my mother went to live in her own hut, and I remained with my grandmother. I lived happily with my grandmother, and then one day a fatal illness came upon her. When she realised that she was not to recover, she sent for my mother to warn her, saying: ‘See now, I do not think that I shall rise again from this illness, so I want you to take this boy home with you, because I do not want to see him cry even a single tear. It would make me very unhappy to see that.’ My mother replied, ‘Very well.’

Shortly after we had left, my grandmother died. Many people assembled, prayers were said over her, and she was laid in her grave.

When this was all over, I was living comfortably with my mother in Makau’s compound, when one day the Chief had all his courtiers summoned. When they had assembled he said to them, ‘The reason I have summoned you is this. I want you to make ready, and set out on a raid on my behalf to Gwari country. I am in dire need, and therefore I want you to make haste to set out, in the hope that you will return quickly.’

When the courtiers heard what the Chief had to say, they all went mad with joy. They were delighted, saying, ‘Just give us half a chance, and we’ll be off!‘The reason for their delight was because, as you know, on a raid they would gain many cattle, and slaves as well, And then when they returned, the Chief would give them a part of everything which they had won. Thus if a man were to capture three slaves, the Chief would take two of them, and he would be allowed to keep one.
The reason for this raid that the Chief was planning, was that he wanted to obtain some slaves.
Some he would put with his own, and send to Kano so that clothes and saddlery might be bought and sent back to him, while others he would send to Bida in order to procure muskets.

Among the horsemen whom the Chief had appointed as raiders was Makau. When the time came for their departure, after the Chief had sought an auspicious hour from a certain malam , Makau came into his compound and gathered his family together. He said to them, ‘Now you know that I am going on a raid to Gwari country, and I do not know when I shall return. Whether I shall be killed there, God knows best. For this reason I want to bid you all farewell, and I want you to forgive me for all that I have done to you, for any man in this world, if you live with him, some day you are bound to cause him unhappiness.’

His family all spoke up together. ‘By God, you have never done anything to make us unhappy. We wish you a safe journey, and a safe return.’ Thereupon all of us burst out crying, so that none of us could hear the other!

The raiders all began to make ready, and in the early dawn they set out and made for the interior of Gwari country. They continued until they reached a small pagan village on a rocky stronghold in the forest. On their arrival in this place, they all dismounted from their horses, and lay down at the foot of some thick shady trees, where no-one could see them. At this season the rains had begun to set in, and all the farmers were about to clear their farms. Now there was no way that these pagans could sow a crop sufficient to feed them for a whole year, so they had to come out of their towns and come down to the low ground to lay out their farms in the plain. Despite this however, they were not able to tend their farms properly, for fear of raiders.

When the raiders reached the village they hid on the edge of the farms. Early in the morning, just before the time of prayer, the pagans began to come out from their villages, making for their farms. The raiders crouched silently, watching everything that they were doing. They held back until all the people had come out, Then, after they had settled down to work, thinking that nothing would happen to them, the raiders fell upon them all at once, and seized men and women, and even small children. Before the pagans had realised what was happening, the raiders had already done the damage. At once other pagans began to sally forth, preparing to fight to wrest back their brothers who had been captured. Af! Before they were ready, the raiders were far away. They started to follow them, but they had no chance of catching them. Those in front got clean away, leaving their pursuers far behind.

Funded by:

  • Logo Minister of State for Culture and the Media
  • Logo des Programms NeuStart Kultur