Title: Birma Ali : his biography (1973)
Full Citation
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00095978/00001
 Material Information
Title: Birma Ali : his biography (1973)
Physical Description: Archival
Language: English
Creator: Mshelia, Tam
Cohen, Ronald ( Compiler )
Copyright Date: 1973
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: UF00095978
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: Special and Area Studies Collections
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.

Full Text

T. eshelia

Informant: Birma Ali
Age: 57 years
Topio: His Biography

My parents are both Bura of Tarfa clan. I was born in
1916 at Pellachirama a village on the other side of Hawal.
My father is Dzarva and my mother is Gitau.
I was the third born of my parents, a sister and a
brother ahead of me. I was born during the time of Fulani
fight with my clan, and we had to stay in hiding for about a
I went through a normal child birth and there was nothing
wrong during my first year. I was breast fed throughout that
year and was carried on the back.
During my naming ceremony I refused the name given to me.
That is, I was named Ardo Dabu after a popular Fulani man, a
friend to my father but I did not like it and I went thin and
sick. I was taken to witchdoctors and that is how they know I
don't like the name. Not that I say I don't like this name -
I was only six months old but when the name was given to me,
I get sick and they take me to a witch doctor who would tell
them I do not like that name. I was next called with the name
Kulakhi meaning I have no house, that is I was not born in

our house but at Pellachiraaa I did not like that one and I
was sick. I was then given the name Ali which I aooepted.
This refusing of name is not only peculiar to me but does
occur in many families and is not surprising. There is no
special form of naming nor is there a ceremony. A name is
just given to you. At this age, all the Tarfa men were hiding
in the bush and I was with my mother in someone's house. My
mother supported us for a year then, my father used to come
only in the night and then run to the bush away from the
village if any Tarfa man is seen, he would be caught by the
police who were brought to Garkida because of the war the

T. Mshelia 2

Tarfa had with the Fulani I stopped breast feeding after two
years which was normal for Bura children. I started walking
at the age of eleven months rather earlier than normal in
this area usually fifteen months.
We then came back to Garkida where are the royal elan my
clan are the founders and rulers of Garkida. My father was
never a Birma, only my grandfather Bata. He was not allowed to
be Birma because Birma's children cannot become a Birma
immediately after their father. That was just customary in my
clan. No reason why.
My father built a house again still where our former
house stood the burnt one. That was also the site of my
grandfather's house. Xy father had four wives and my mother
is his third wife. Everyone settled still in our house all
family we were at that time fifteen in number, but we had
many servants and a slave he got the slave from my grand-
father who had many bought and also caught in fights. The
servants were not pasd, they just work and farm for us. At
this age, my parents go to the farm, leaving we the small ones
at home with my elder sisters to keep watch over us. At that
time the Hwanas used to come and raid our house looking for
food and goods to take away. This has never happened in our
house. Our house was regarded the best and it was the largest
in my Zara. Many peoplecome to my father for advise, and he
was well respected. He had large farms and we had surplus
food. At this age, my father's house got burnt again and we
did not know how it started. By that time, when a house is
burning, women gather and bring pailfuls of water and many men -
neighbours and friends pour it over the house.
When I was at the age of five, two of my brothers, one
aged +- years and the other about 18 years died of a disease
called seriouses swelling of the stomach and legs. They were
taken to with doctors and were treated but to no avail. It

T. Nehelia

was found out from witch doctor that witches were the ones
who caught them. That is they were bewitched and nothing
could be done about it.
At the age of seven I started herding goats. We had no
sheep and our cattle was given to the Fulanis to herd. They
are paid with some guineasorn and there was no cow tax.
All the women had goats, with my father also and we used
to herd them together: a flock with my half-sister the same
father but different mother. The goats numbered about thirty.
We go to the bush at about 8 o'clock and come back about
4 in the evening One of us usually comes home and get our
lunch for us.
In the bush we are many and we herd in Zara by Zara.
Every Zara has got her own bush. We have plays and fights in
the bush. While in the bush we put our goats together. Every
Zara stays in her own field and you don't go to other people's
field, if you do, the boys of that Zara would beat you. This
is because there is some sort of animity between Zaras and we
usually organise fights between Zara. Every Zara has got a
king and we build a royal stool for him a pile of huge
stones and as high as 5ft and he sits on it. When we reach
our fields, we go about with the goats so that they are full.
At about 2 or 1 o'clock we take them to the river and
then we all gather in our Zara fields. The goats are tired
and they just lie down and chew the curd,. everyonee would
bring his food to the king he has a Kokunar also, an
adviser or assistant he would choose the best, usually the
ones with meat and he eats it, the remaining we gather round
every dish and eat it. Not yeu alone eat yours but all of
you. When there is a barrel he settles it* We do not tell
stories but we just sit and chat, we also have long jumps -
we did not copy it from Europeans like high jump.
There are two type of Zara fights when herding. The
other starts when some goat from a different Zara comes into

T. Mashelia

your field. You beat the goat and that starts a fight. No
organisation but just beating. One Zara either runs away or
fight till big men come and separate us.
The other is a more organized one. It usually starts
because the other Zara gossiped about the other Zara just
local gossip at times it starts from no reason. It is the
king that sends his people to go and tell the other Zara
about the fight they would have the next day. They decide
the best place the fight would take place usually by the
Hawal river or near the old market we then out rods and
whips. No weapons. We then come together with songs on wars.
Everyone would choose an enemy partner and start fighting, the
two kings fight each other. At times two people on one
person. The fight is usually very terrible and dangerous -
broken heads and arms one such victim in my days is Eamman
.ili, he had a broken head and he was the king. Big people
do come and separate us. The animals are sometimes beaten.
Their ears are out off or they are killed. No cowardice was
excepted and they are made fun of. I continued herding for
two years. At the age of eight, the lissioneries had arrived.
I stopped herding to start school. I did not like herding
but I enjoyed it a bit. I did not hear about schooling till
after it had begun with six months. I then ran there with
my hoe you have to work as your fees my father did not
like us to go because it was new and people thought it a
waist of time. We work in school and we were paid 6d a week,
we pay fees 2d a week. This was very costly because in those
days Ine kuntu was 3d and today it costs 30s 3d of 50
years ago is the same as 30 shillings today. The herding wts
taken over by my juniors.
By then when I was eight there was no muslim idea very
much not wide spread -and Che missionaries were just
b&genning their activities. We had only haptu to worship -

T. Jaheolia

the children do not participate in worshiping but Just eating
of the ha3 tu foo d a we fear it, We regarded it as a god and
we had twe, one god fro my grandfather and one my father's.
One of the haptu foods feast goes like this a ohiken is
grown and it is known as a haptu chicken, it is not sold or
tampered with, the chicken is grown every year because haptu
food is eaten yearly, On the eve of the day for the haptu
feast, a sort of haptu wine, similar to beer is prepared by
our father, this is kept inside the haptu room. On the feast
day, all our relatives are called and the chicken is killed
and soup and food is prepared. Father then goes in front of
the haptu and goes on clapping his hands thanking the haptu
for that successful year and asking for protection. We are
then given the food to eat and some of the beer. Some of the
meat is placed on the roof for the haptu on a shafa leaf.
The father would later come and eat it. Today we have thrown
the haptu away and are christians.
We used to ear3y in the morning, and in my class once we
were about 45. They were looking for students and anyone
that came was admitted. There were no test, if you become
wise and brainy, you are taken to the next class. Not that we
are promoted every year. The dull ones continued staying i$n
the same class. We started by learning A B 0. Our teacher
were Europeans.. Those who make offence were punished by
hoeing. Our main subject was about the bible. We used to
have breakfast at about 9.30 a.m. and the school ended at
12.00 noon. We had no uniform, only danchiki and bentang. 'I
used to like one of our teachers Mrs. illoit and. I uae&
to buy eggs for her. She did not give me more preference
because of that. ALSO we used to go and help them with their
gardening. I did school for eight years and finished only
class four. We in class fori started teaching. Those in
class four usually, start teaching and wa taught in Bura. We

T. Mshelia

were paid at first 5s a month and later 6s. Some of us had
married by then. I was still in my father's house and in the
evenings I go to the farm after school. Even when I was
teaching at the age of 17 I used to work on my father's
farm. We had our holidays in May, June and July. This is
for us to have the chance to help with farming. I married in
1933 while I was still teaching. It was a normal marriage
with only small competition. I heed for her parents. I had
my first born while still teaching. I later went back to
school after teaching for six years. The first born died
after only eight days from testanus. I came back to school
when English section was started. This was started by Mr.
I continued this school for two years again, learning
Hausa, English and Bura. He came from Zaria. We were
taught Hausa so as to enable us to understand other people of
the country. Dr, Helsa brought this idea and by then there
was a Teacher 's College in Garkida.
The course was two years and we had an exam where I got
a vernacular teacher's certificate.
I started teaching again and I was paid 17s, Some of us
were taken to lassa, Marama and other villages to teach.
I was teaching class two and a teacher teaches only one
, class, I taught them Geography, History, Nature Study and
.Bible. There were no muslims. They thought christians were
pagans and did not want to mix with us. %he geography was
about Nigeria, and also physical geography. History was
about explorers of Nigeria, e.g. Mungo Park, Lord Lugard.
The school ran smoothly and there was no sturboneas. \If
the boys were not shaven their hair was shaved without water.
I built ay house near my father s house and I had my
S farms. I paid labourers to work for me and I farm myself
also. I and my wife Nkwarbal had the same farm. Our
gpanneries were the same. We were a happy couple. I did not

T. Mshelia

marry any other because of my religion christianity. M
wife and family were christians also.
While I was still in school, I had a neck pain for three
months, a swelling and I was treated locally but I was not
allowed to go to the hospital. They did not trust the
hospital and I was frightened by their saying that the
Europeans would out my throats. The doctor eame three times
but he was not allowed to treat me. I nearly died because of
My second born Maggrett had a little trouble her
umblical cord, the same case as the first born. In those
days the umbilical cord was caught off with the back of guinea
corn stalk. Naggretts was caught off with a scissors by Dr.
Brook. I taught for five years and the mission schools were
all shut down. They stepped all schools because children
were concentrating on studies rather than religion. That is,
the missionaries were more interested in we learning Bible.
The boys dispersed and some went to other towns. The Birma
said nothing. The missionaries continued their evangelistic
I then left Garkida for Maiduguri to look for a job. I
went alone I knew nobody there and Iired a house, I worked
for eleven months in siek quarters Air Force before my wife
eame to meet e with my third born Ayuba, Maggrett stayed
with my father and that is why she didn't get proper school.
;1 parents were not inteestsed .in the European activities,
Ayuba was then three years i4 j worked and bought food for
us. My farms at home wab left for relatives to farm. IM
house also. All are still mine, but at this time they used
it for themselves.
I did enjoy working in Haiduguri the Sick Quarter was
for only Europeans. That a6 whien I learnt proper English and
writing. I had no trouble and! had many friends. These

I. iNhelia

Buoopean ALr Porce were there be oanue of the world war.
After the warld war, they left for lagos and that place was
shut down. I worked there for only 2F years. I then came
back to Garkida and then went to Zaria, I did not look for
another job because I had an opportunity at Zaria. rs.
&oger told me to come and work in the Whasasa hospital, She
was in Garkida until when the schools were shut down and she
went and joined Wusasa hospital when the schools were shut,
people did not beg them to continue, some older men were even
happy because the children would no more waste time sitting in
school instead of farming.
I went to Wusfgsa in 1946 with my wife and Maggrett and
Ayuba. I sent them to school and I worked in the hospital as
a nurse. Ny wife occupied her time weaving. I had no trouble
with the people.
Wy 1949, most of my father's family had died of sickness.
I did not know what sort. Only he and my mother were left
with another wife also. He was weak and needed help, also his
time is drawing near because he was about 85 so I left Wusasaa
in 1949, Ny wife got very sick also while I was still at
Wussasa, she nearly died of it. I then came home to Garkida.
I got a job in the Garkida general hospital still as a nurse,
I then bought a house again. I left the former one to my
brother. I started my farms again and worked on them by the
help of labourers. I found my work interesting and I worked
peacefully. My wife was farming. I had no animals because
there was no one to look after them. The children had started
school again it was opened by the help of some other mia-
sioneries. I had am fourth and fifth born when at Zaria.
One of my relatives Joro watshahi got sick and I looked
after him for seven days and night. I used to sleep in a
chair, I became the head of dispensary of the hospital by
then 1952. I used to help my parents finanoiagly and ay
father died in 1953. .is compound scattered. My mother cae

T. Mshelia

and stayed with me. I continued in the hospital from 1949 to
1968 when I was chosen Chief Birai of Gartida.
I did not re&13y want to leave the hospital job because
it was enjoyable, But many people and the elders begged me
and advised that hospital work is labourer work, and chief-
tainoy is my grandparents duty. They preferred me because
they admired my relation with the people of the village. I
told them that there was not enough payment in ehieftainey
to keep my children in school as I could with hospital pay.
They succeeded and I started Birmaship after Birma :asan -
my father's brother's son. e Birma Usman had to leave this
post so as to be an Alkali at Gaanda. This was n deeision by
the Authority.
The hospital staff were not pleased to let me go but they
did make me a send off party.
I: started the duties of a Birma but was not yet the
Birma not yet enthroned. But Birma Usman had already gone.
The duties are to settle quarrels. Send thieves to
Gombi where they are sentenced to jail by Alkali, collection
of tax. These I did for six months before I was enthroned1
by Zemido's representatives a councilor and Divisional
Officer, The Lamido sent the chieftaincy's gown and turban.
Thee village people gathered in front of Birma Usman's
house and I was enthroned and brought to my house on a horse
back. The horse belonged to Mr. .Rough a missionery. There
is no Birma's horse, The bicycle is much easier to keep than
a horse.. '
Drummers followed and the Lamido's speech was delivered -
good will wishes the women had mpili in their hands waving
and the men had bpwa, spears and swords. There was bonasuie
Sdance for two weeks it was on the 24th of December 'and it
was customary to dance bonesw also for christmas, these two
c/ combined, made it longer than was usual for christmas a
week. A cow was killed and food was prepared for people to eat.

T, I48holia

Z did not participate vigorousl or eat very well to all
this because I was still under the effect of the death of
Ayuba my eldest son in the army.
Bat I did feel happy at the sight and cheerfulness of my
The duty is interesting but involves a lot of thi-kize
and forced interest even when you don't want to. I then con-
tinued ay duties. I have always being given gifts and also the
missionaries gave me a bicycle.
I an now a happy man with two daughters Maggret and
Haimana fou sons Simon, working as an Agricultural
Superintendent; Yusufa, a worker in Handala Hotel;j alidu, a
teacher and Asher who is still in Secondary School. Maggret
is married to the Village's Headmaster and she has given me
six grandchildren, the eldest has finished Secondary School.
When I was enthroned I married another wife Laraba so
as to help my first wife with house duties, especially as I
get a lot of visitors now.
From the bigenning I was christian with all my family and
I an still a ehristian.
During my chieftaincy, Garkida has increased ln size and
population about seventy families from 1969 Mostly after
Bura villages, HEana, Hausa and Fulani. When they came, they
come and ask me for land and I show them where they can live.
They don't pay money for the land.
Also, the village is improving commercially. bhree
commercial vehicles have been bought to convey people from
Garkida to Biu and Gombi, Also, the hospital secretary,
) allam Umaurn has bought a private oar. There is also a
cotton collecting ground built by the government.
A big friday Mosque has also been built.

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