Sunday, July 17, 2005

Independent on Sunday: Really Wild Show

Minstrels have travelled across Nigeria for generations, providing entertainment and selling traditional herbal medicine. And, by including hyenas in their act, this entrepreneurial troupe is laughing all the way to the bank, says Keith Laidlaw. Photographs by Pieter Hugo

Entertainers, charlatans, musicians, animal wrestlers, snake-oil salesmen, fighters, drug smugglers, magicians, extortionists... it's hard to find the right words to describe Abdullahi Amadu and his family of wanderers. Indeed, "family" probably isn't quite the right word either - a concept that is far more loosely defined in this part of the world.

The men describe themselves as minstrels or performers, and they certainly cause a stir when they walk into town with their animals in tow, attracting a crowd as soon as they appear. All they have to do is pass a school for classes to be cancelled as the children run out to follow the men around town for the day instead.

Contrary to what we may imagine, wild animals are a rarity in the south of Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa. Hyenas and snakes in particular create a mixture of fascination and fear among the largely urban-dwelling locals. Quite apart from their size and natural ferocity, hyenas are thought by many to be attached to the spirit world. This is because the genitals of male and female hyenas appear virtually identical, engendering a popular belief that they can change sex at will. Snakes also have a powerful mystical symbolism in a culture whose dominant religions - Islam and Christianity - often play second fiddle to traditional beliefs and superstitions.

A typical performance will start with one of the men being "attacked" by his hyena. Then, once the man has fought and beaten the animal, the monkeys - often dressed up in mini soccer kits to represent famous footballers - appear by flik-flakking their way into the crowd and then "asking" for money by holding out their right paw (Islamic influences mean using the left hand to give or receive here is forbidden).

The show mainly serves as a sales pitch for the various charms and potions the men make. The reason they can handle wild animals safely, so the story goes, is because they are protected by the potency of their muti or magic, and this power can be bought. If any onlookers remain unconvinced by the men fighting off hyenas, which unbeknown to the audience have been rendered docile through a combination of beatings and drugs (indeed, the muzzles the animals wear are largely for effect), then large, poisonous rock pythons are produced to persuade them further.

Photographer Pieter Hugo first became interested in the group after seeing an image of one of the hyena men on a news website. Hugo, a South African photojournalist, has a particular fascination for people who are marginalised from mainstream society, so he set off for Lagos to find them. When he eventually tracked the group down in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, he discovered a group he felt were something akin to new-age travellers. "They don't strike me as corrupt," he explains. "They're just having a good time."

After spending over a week with them, Hugo says they spend much of their free time drinking malt and getting high on a cocktail of marijuana and less familiar but seemingly more potent concoctions. Then, as the sun goes down in the evening, they engage in a ritualised form of fighting common among their tribe, the Hausa, one of Nigeria's three main ethnic groups.

But along with drug-abuse and the hint of extortion in their performances, this troupe are implicated in more serious criminal issues. Before Hugo caught up with the group, a local newspaper had reported that two of the men had been shot by police following an armed robbery. However, the men deny this version of events, saying instead that their comrades were shot attempting to run a roadblock without paying the police one of the bribes that are part and parcel of everyday life in Nigeria. The truth, like so much here, is unclear.

With over 200 languages and endemic corruption, Nigeria is a place that is both cultured and anarchic, and also very difficult for Westerners to understand. Indeed, Nigeria is a very good example of how little most of us know about Africa as a whole: it has a similar land mass to South Africa, boasts a population three times as big and has a far poorer economy. Yet, contrary to what we might expect, in Nigeria literacy rates are higher, life expectancy is longer and, perhaps most dramatically, HIV infection rates are around a quarter of those in the country's richer relative to the south.

So, while we may see superstition and cruelty, the men in the group see things very differently. Amadu's family has lived this way for generations, and the magic they sell seems real enough when they are risking their lives trapping the animals in the wild, or on the rare occasions when the hyenas turn on their handlers for real. As for questions of animal cruelty, this is simply a subject few have even even considered in this part of the world.

And, while these men are largely welcomed for the entertainment they provide and services they sell, we cannot say the same about the way we treat our own travelling populations. Perhaps, to paraphrase Nelson Mandela, the way a society treats its travellers is a reflection of its character.