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My African Horse Problem

My African Horse Problem

with Samuel Benjamin Miles
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    My African Horse Problem
    Book Description:

    n February 2000, William Miles set off from Massachusetts for a Muslim village in West Africa with his tenyearold son Samuel to settle an inheritance dispute over a horse. National Public Radio was so intrigued with this story that All Things Considered broadcast his predeparture testament, as well as a followup commentary on what actually happened.My African Horse Problem recounts the intricacies of this unusual fatherson expedition, a sometimes harrowing twoweek trip that Samuel joined as “true heir” to the disputed stallion. It relates the circumstances leading up to the dispute and describes the intimacy of a relationship spanning a quarter century between William Miles and the custodians of his family horse—Islamic village friends eking out a precarious existence along the remote subSaharan borderline between Nigeria and Niger. My African Horse Problem is a multilayered narrative—part memoir, part ethnography—reaching back to Miles’s days as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger in the 1970s and a Fulbright scholar in the 1980s. At a deeper level, the story juxtaposes the idealistic and sometimes irresponsible tendencies of a young university graduate with the parental concerns of a middleaged, tenured professor. Miles wonders if he was justified in exposing Sam to some of the worst health risks on earth, mainly to restore tenuous ties with longago friends in the African bush. Was it reckless to make his son illegally cross international boundaries, in a quixotic quest for justice and family honor? My African Horse Problem is more than an adventurer’s tale with a unique story line: it is a fatherson travel rumination, leavened by Sam’s journal entries that help his father see Africa anew through a child’s fresh eyes. In this era of religious and racial tensions, it is also a reaffirmation—within a black Muslim context—of the basic human imperative of trust.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-131-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures, Maps, Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    William F. S. Miles
    (pp. xv-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
    (pp. xix-xxii)
  8. My African Horse Problem

    • 1
      (pp. 1-16)

      You’re home after work, sitting comfortably in the living room, and going through the day’s postal harvest. Bills, advertisements, the usual “special fourth class” (i.e., junk) mail: you flip through them semi-consciously, wondering what you’ll have for dinner, what program you’ll watch that evening. And then you come upon that letter whose handwriting, return address, or canceled stamp rivets you. Even before breaking the seal, you are transported deep into the past, back into those dimly recalled days before you had kids, before you were married, before you landed that job that so defines who you are today.

      It could...

    • 2
      (pp. 17-30)

      Slight in build, Lawali’s limbs would strain with the effort to subdue an uncooperative bull. At other times, under the weight of a fifty-pound sack of millet perched on his head, his neck muscles would bulge frighteningly. He had the broad, flat nose so common to Africans just south of the Sahara; a general openness in his features engendered feelings of trust and sympathy. Despite his approximate twenty-seven years of age (birth records are practically unknown in this part of the world), he looked a mere adolescent.

      But how could we be friends? To a middle-class American college graduate, how...

    • 3
      (pp. 31-41)

      When the emotional toll taken by the Lawali betrayal began to wear off, I started to intellectualize the saga’s lessons. One of them provided a pretext for returning to Hausaland: that traditional chieftaincies may operate more efficiently than modern bureaucracies, especially in international settings. What other aspects of local culture, I wondered, might that borderline illuminate? To what extent does belonging to Nigeria or Niger—those haphazard colonial creations—make a difference to the Hausa peasants who today find themselves on opposite sides of the boundary? Can modern notions of nationalism—Nigerian, Nigérien—compete with longer-standing ties of culture, language,...

    • 4
      (pp. 42-51)

      Three years elapsed before I could return to Hausaland. But in the summer of 1989 the National Boundary Commission of the Presidency of Nigeria invited me to address a conference on the Niger-Nigeria borderlands. In attendance were the Emir of Daura in Nigeria and the Sultan of Zinder in Niger, two powerful chiefs with whom I had long-standing relationships …

      As late as the 1970s one of the informal initiation rituals of a Peace Corps Volunteer in eastern Niger had been to pay honorific greetings to the venerable chief of Damagaram, a dusty but important town that the French had...

    • 5
      (pp. 52-62)

      For a long time, I had known that I was going to Africa with my dad—going to Africa on an adventure and on a mission. I felt very excited, nervous, and privileged. That I was going to Africa because of the horse was pretty interesting in itself—traveling halfway around the world just so I could see and ride my horse! I felt like some millionaire who had just bought a whole nursery day care center for my two week old baby. It gave me the feeling that I could do anything I wanted, anywhere, anytime. That’s a handful...

    • 6
      (pp. 63-72)

      It is Friday afternoon, the Muslim sabbath. The road trip from Kano has taken only a couple of hours, including stops in the capital of the emirate, Daura. Here, according to ancestral legend, the original seven Hausa nations first emerged after a valiant prince from Baghdad slew thedodo, a fearsome, water well-obstructing dragon. As reward, the Queen of Daura married the prince; their son, together with his six sons, established the “legitimate” Hausa Seven dynasties. An equal number of sons, sired by the Persian prince with a concubine, founded “Seven Bastard” families. My heir and I stop in Daura...

    • Photograph Gallery
      (pp. None)
    • 7
      (pp. 73-81)

      The people were interested in me probably because I looked different, with white skin and lots of hair. I had less interest in them because I had seen black people all the time, while they had never seen a white person before. The kids probably didn’t have a good education, or just didn’t think I was a real kid and didn’t have feelings. They just kept on touching my hair, my skin, etc. They would always surround us and follow dad and I wherever we went. God, could those kids stare! It made me feel on-stage, or in-the-spotlight, with all...

    • 8
      (pp. 82-87)

      We have water bottles to drink from but when we wash our faces, we have a big jug called a tekunia. Right now I’m wearing a backward hat (for my neck) and sunglasses (for my eyes). Pretty soon, we’ll go to the reception or waiting room of the chief to offer the gift of a blue rug. See ya later!

      A wedding! There is little as exciting in village life as the combination of serious ceremonialism and boisterous celebration represented by a Hausa wedding. It is also one of the rare occasions in which there is some semblance of crowd...

    • 9
      (pp. 88-92)

      At the appointed time in the morning of the designated day, a battered Land Rover from Niger rumbles across the frontier into our village. It is under the direction of Jamilu, former King Teaman of Yekuwa, now King of the Motorcars.

      Jamilu, whose birth name is Mansur but whom I always call “King Teaman,” is always with a smile on his lips and joke on his tongue. He is tall and favors short-cropped hair, his missing tooth strangely giving him an even more appealing allure. Jamilu’s nickname for me is “He Who Belongs to Loïza,” my wife whose one-time visit...

    • 10
      (pp. 93-104)

      A delegation of Yekuwa elders in formal gowns and brimless hats await us: why is it that I am treated so formally, so respectfully, as if I were an official dignitary? The elders greet us and bless our stay. Despite the unpleasant sensation of not being able to recognize each face, or even to recognize the exact spot of this location in the village, I feel as if I have returned home.

      When we arrived in Yekuwa we were engulfed not only by as many people as in Yardaje but 5 times more flies! In Yardaje, almost no one spoke...

    • 11
      (pp. 105-112)

      I ask to speak with Alhaji Aminu alone. The squat, round-faced, round-bellied chief in white robe takes me to his compound, the one he has inherited from his late uncle, Chief Danjuma.

      Is this the same compound that I’d occupied over the course of an entire year? Where I’d installed an outdoor bed made out of date tree branches, sewn together with strips of goat hide leather? Where wobbly wooden chairs and tables enabled me to work, cook, and write upright outside, instead of crouching, as is the local practice, on the ground? Where I’d had a real door and...

    • 12
      (pp. 113-121)

      When dad came home from the village chief’s office, we took bottles filled with water and soap and washed. It was refreshing, especially because it was the hottest part of the day—over 40 degrees Andrew Celsius and 100 degrees Fahrenheit! Ouch! We always rest after taking baths because the heat makes people drowsy. I read a book, dad slept, and I started writing. It took me a while to realize that someone was knocking at the door. I hurried to open it. As I was walking (or running) to the door, a reception of lizards scattered. One ran over...

    • 13
      (pp. 122-128)

      Although he will not pass judgment or provide direct advice, our scholarly host, Alhaji Mallam Harouna, is an excellent sounding board. The afternoon has slipped by and I still have not conveyed my decision to the chief and to Brah. Yet what decision is there to make? On what grounds can I refuse the six thousand naira offer, even if I (and Faralu) are skeptical of Brah and his brothers actually getting the money together before Sam’s and my departure? We have come for an inheritance horse, not for monetary compensation. I am mulling things over with my host when,...

    • 14
      (pp. 129-134)

      The road to Magaria was so bumpy that I was sure I’d lose my breakfast. Along the way, in the middle of the road, there was a woman walking along carrying wares on her head. Startled by our car, she started running to the right and so our driver veered to the left. Then, like a panicked bunny, she began running to the left. So the driver veered suddenly to the right and we began to swerve out of control. Just when it looked like we were heading off the road, Dad’s door flew open! We didn’t crash, though. All...

    • 15
      (pp. 135-143)

      “It is as if the years have disappeared.” Mamane’s face looks thinner, the wrinkle lines deeper. Yet the man who first initiated me into Hausa culture as my “boy” even as he catered to my petty needs as a White Man, still smiles. He has not had a salaried job since the Peace Corps pulled out of Magaria in the 1980s. But he now has a more precious status: that of grandfather.

      Look at the power of God,” he tells me repeatedly. “Here we are together again. Just like in the old days. Only now, Allah has granted you a...

    • 16
      (pp. 144-148)

      “When we returned from Magaria,” Chief Alhaji Aminu explains to me back in Yekuwa, recapitulating his tense encounter with Brah, “I told him, ‘Mista Bello has appeared before Sarki, together with his son. The king said that you must return the horse.

      “ ‘Mista Bello displayed patience, taking our advice that he accept horse money instead. That’s the reason we have come, with this paper from the sarki. But you have said that you will restore only half of the money … ’ ” Brah was not easily swayed.

      “ ‘Look,’ the chief reasoned further, ‘it brought us honor, this...

    • 17
      (pp. 149-156)

      “They let them go.” Alhaji Mallam Harouna looks uncharacteristically dejected as he greets us in the morning. As is his wont during these dusty, cold season mornings, he has wrapped a checkered Arabian scarf around his throat. “They shot the innocent Muslim all those times and now they walk free.” He shakes his head, bewildered.

      Even as my Hausa host and I are having this discussion, back home my wife is panicking. Shortly after Sam and I set off on our journey, religious riots broke out in Kaduna, the city in northern Nigeria where I had interned during a summer...

    • 18
      (pp. 157-162)

      For breakfast very early this morning I had chocolate and matzah and (like every other morning) tea. After that I fell asleep again, until Dad started to pack. We’re going back to Yardaje, and all our luggage is going by Land Rover. Dad I and I will go by horseback, me on Sa’a, Dad on the horse of the hakimi. I am almost positive I’m going to have to stop a hundred and three times. I’m going to wear long pants, socks, sandals, and a tee shirt. Today will not be too hot, because there’s a ton of foggy harmattan...

    • 19
      (pp. 163-167)

      It is eerily calm as we traverse Yardaje. Today’s four-hour solar pounding has not ended, and most villagers are still in siesta mode. We are stared at by the few who have stirred. Our arms are burnt red from the sun and singed by the Harmattan: we have taken nearly four hours to make the usual ninety-minute trip. Who voluntarily goes out in the mid-day sun? Mad dogs and Englishmen. Who still travels by horseback when motorcars are available? Mallam Beel and his son Sama’ila.

      When the horse was calmed (and I was done giving reproving glares at the kids)...

    • 20
      (pp. 168-173)

      For Sam’s sake I have been playing it safe. (“Safe?” Bringing a ten-year-old to a remote, disease-ridden, doctor-less poor patch of Africa?) To date, I have not been reckless. But there is a temptation I can no longer resist, on the eve of our return to America: a wild, solo, cut-loose gallop out in the bush. Ostensibly, I am testing Sa’a’s speed. In truth, I am conquering my own fears: fear of riding, fear of aging.

      After I fractured my shoulder, two years earlier, at the Equestrian Club in Mauritius, Dr. Ibrahim Rawkat, a Muslim tennis partner and surgeon, insisted...

  9. Back Matter
    (pp. 174-174)