THE HYENA MEN OF NIGERIA
"This business helps us make money," said Yahaya Ahmadu. "We use the money to help our families. It rescues us from poverty."
You wouldn't have guessed that Yahaya's business is taking about wild animals such as hyenas, baboons, monkeys and snakes round Nigeria and surrounding West African countries for shows on city streets. The business has been quite sustaining also. It has attracted many other young men from the northern part of Nigeria to the south, building camps on the fringe of towns and cities, making living in 'no man's land' a way of life, making money to keep body and soul together.
When Yahaya dropped out of secondary school a few years ago, and with scarcity of jobs due to the economic depression in Katsina State, his home state, carrying wild animals about became an option, especially as it was a family tradition. The same with his brothers, cousins, uncles and other members of the extended family, who all see their work as a way to beat crushing poverty. Today, all have their hands full.
One Sunday at Ogere-Remo in Ikenne Local Council of Ogun State in Nigeria, Yahaya and his relatives earned about twenty six thousand naira from being hired for a photo session for three hours by a photographer who had come to town just to capture them in his lenses,
Yahaya and his brothers were elated by the money. But they also made more from a cut from the drivers they contacted to help convey the animals for the session, as well as from others enthralled by the antics of the beasts and were only too pleased to part with their money.
As youth unemployment continue to bite hard in Nigeria - along with the associated poverty - many are using their talents to devise whatever ways of making money for survival. Hyena handlers told this reporter that apart from street shows they also take part in film projects. Some money is also being made from selling some of the animals they carry about. As they move from city to city in their itinerant life, they carry herbs for sale.
"Its not easy doing this kind of thing at all," says Abdullahi Mohammed, "A quiet young man of about twenty five, who is responsible for a baboon called Frayo. "But we have to do it. I have been in it since childhood."
They were initiated into the business, they said, by Nalado Ahmadu, the family patriarch, who began about twenty years ago to take them to the caves and forests of Northern Nigeria to catch the animals, along with teaching them how to control them, as well as introducing them to charms that helped in subduing them.
Concretely, this reporter gathered that they drink a protective syrup and use the rest of it for bathing before they set out on an expedition to capture the hyena. Taking along with them hunting dogs to assist them in sniffing out the animal in its hideout, they move to caves and forests in Gombe, Bauchi, Taraba and other places where the prey can be found. When the dogs sniffs out the hyena, the young men enter the cave or forest, holding a powerful torch to light way through the darkness, believing the charm they drank earlier makes them invisible to the animal. On getting to it, they chant incantations and blow a profuse amount of a white powder on its face, rendering it senseless and easy to subdue and then chain it. After a struggle which might take days, they succeed in taking out their prey to their settlement, where it is taught how to familiar with human beings
"The animal has helped us,\" says Abdullahi Mohammed. "The money we make gives us food everyday. This runs into a few thousands of naira. We use some of the money to establish maize and yam farms in our place. I, for instance, own a farm in Danja in Katsina State." While this reporter followed them from Ogere-Remo top bar Beach at Victoria Island in Lagos, scores of fascinated people could be seen entranced by the spectacle of the hyena, along with the baboons and the snakes, walking along the street. When for instance the baboons dance and execute somersaults or jump on the back of a motor-cycle at any stop on the street, onlookers are mesmerized. Commercial buses and private cars stop, creating a traffic jam, while passengers gape at the animals as they perform their tricks. Within seconds, people gather, and a crowd is formed, everyone staring in wonder, and some of the brave ones shake the outstretched arms of the dancing baboons, those not brave enough scampering away.
At Ogere-Remo is a menagerie of two hyenas, four baboons and snakes which the handlers insist helpes them in their struggle against poverty and unemployment. "This business is a family one," states Yahaya, the only one in the lot who can speak fluent English. "All of us are members of the same extended family. It is only those in the family or selected friends of the family who can join our group. All of us learnt it from Nalado Ahmadu, or grandfather." Eloquent and suave, Yahaya tells how the animals enables them to generate money: "When we get to a place, we make the baboons do somersaults, jump on the back of motor cycles and shake peoples' hands. The people watching are impressed with our animals. Before you know it, naira notes start to fly here and there. Some throw them at the baboons. Others give them directly. The baboons bring the money to us and put it in the common till." Yahaya tells of another source of making money through carrying the animals about: "Among us are traditional healers. They make herbs to take care of problems such as snake bites, scorpion attacks, and other animal problems. We also have herbs that take care of spiritual problems of people. We have traditional herbs for ssuchn illnesses as typhoid fever, malaria, syphilis, and others. When we get to a market, street junction or public place, people gather to watch us. We use the opportunity to sell these herbs to them." Another racket which the men are involved in is the direct sale of the wild animals. "Our business is to catch wild animals. Any animal that people want we go to the forests and caves for them. But they must pay an advance for this. When this is done, we supply the animals when we get them," Yahaya says. He told this reporter that through this process they have supplied hyenas, pythons and others to zoos in Ikorodu, Port Harcourt, Jos, Maiduguri, Kano, benin and others. "A matured hyena is sold for one hundred and fifty thousand naira but the cub is higher at two hundred and fifty thousand naira. This is because while a matured may not be trainable the cub can be trained. A baboon goes for fifteen thousand naira, while the young one goes for eight thousand. A python goes for the same price and might get to ten, depending on the size." This business of selling wild animals to zoos is not limited to only to Nigeria. According to Yahaya, zoos in Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Benin republic and others patronize them. He says they have had to nationalise in these countries so they can go about their business there. "Lastly, we survive by taking part in films," says Yahaya. "Not the Nigerian Nollywood, which does not understand us, but in Benin republic. Sufiya telescope has given us big business in that country. We're hoping to get such opportunity in Nigeria." Through making money from diverse activities such as these, these reporter gathered that they are planning to invest heavily in another line of business. "We're planning that when we really make big money we'll establish a big cassava farm. We're going to locate it at Ogene-Ofada in Offa Local Government Area of Kogi State. We want the farm here because the soil is good for cassava production. We'll pay money to the villagers there to farm for us, as a large parcel of land has been given to us by the community," Yahaya says.
The hyena handlers told this reporter that the hunting dogs that accompany them in their search for wild animals are also useful in another direction. Konyami Murtala, who handles a baboon called Mora, says the dogs are used to trap rabbit, grass cutters, antelopes and other small animals in the forests surrounding their camps. The killed animals, Murtala says, are skinned and eaten or offered for sale to generate money for the group.
The hyena men are not the only ones smiling from making money from the fringe. Others connected top them directly or indirectly are also smiling.
To transport their animals from town to town, a variety of commercial bus drivers are needed. Some of these say the risk involved in transporting the animals has meant the rates being charged hyena handlers are different from those charged ordinary passengers. Says Lekan Fabuyi, a driver who plies the Ogere-Remo - Lagos route: "Normally, because of the wild animals, they pay higher than others. It is to their advantage because no bus driver would carry them except us. The increased price is also to our advantage. We're making money."
Another group of people at the margin of society who benefit are the provision store owners, food vendors and others who locate their small businesses at the outskirts of towns, where the hyena handlers usually set up their wooden, make-shift huts amidst abandoned houses, clusters of shacks and the inevitable cattle markets where Hausas mill about.
Says Biola Adekumi, a store owner :"These people are our customers. They buy things from, us. When they're around we sell more. Also, they give us fun, especially the younger ones. Their animals make us laugh, make us feel lively."
Unemployed youths, beating traditional Hausa drums, are part of the group. As the hyena men move from city to city, carrying their animals around, the drummers follow. This reporter noted that their job is to beat the drums so that when the baboons hear they start to dance.
"We're part of the group," states one of the drummers. "At the end of the day, when money has to be shared, they put us in the picture. "This is how we make our money."
The hyena men complain that though they have licenses to operate their business from many states in Nigeria people harass them and prevent them moving their animals about. "Since we started this business twenty years ago," says Abdullahi Ahmadu , "No animal has escaped from our hands. We've got papers to operate from Kaduna, Bauchi, Katsina, FCT Abuja, Kano and others. We have also had to get papers from zoos and veterinary doctors. This is because officials always call for these papers and when we give them they stop disturbing us. But despite this, forestry people in some states like Ondo State disturb us. In some other cases, those who have no business to do so always want to disturb our business."
officials in Ondo state contacted declined comment but one official gave insight into why hyena handlers who come to the state may be prevented from carrying their animals from place to place unhindered.
"The official said: "These animals are wild. No mater how you handle these things an animal is always an animal. Tame an animals for ten years and one day it'll behave like an animal. For instance, if the hyena breaks loose it can attack and kill people. I don't think these people should be allowed to carry these animals about."
But those who profit from the business claim that such talk shows insensitivity to the hyena men. Lekan, the bus driver, says: "They eat by taking these animals all around. Stop them and they take to criminality. Those criticising cannot give them another job." The handlers argue that they have been able to completely tame the animals. Even if they escape, according to Abdullahi, they have been inoculated while the jaws of the hyena has been clamped together by having a matting pushed about it.
While this reporter was preparing to leave after three days of following them about, the handlers brought their menagerie of animals to the side of a road in Lagos. The drummers struck a beat and the baboons pranced about and jumped. Passing cars stopped and their passengers craned their necks through the windows and gaped. Motor-bike riders parked at the fringe of a gathering crowd and stared in fascination. The handlers shouted at the baboons and they somersaulted and performed other acrobatic movements. Before long naira notes started being thrown at them. Says an onlooker: "Though their way of making money is odd, these people are in real business."