Sabina took me under her wing when I moved into her home near the Tender Mercies International School in Kwali at the end of last month. On my first afternoon she showed me the bustling vibrant market and we also took a walk to the local beauty spot: the Dam. As we strolled in the glow of a setting sun, I asked, partly in jest, ‘Are there crocodiles in the lake?’
‘I don’t think so, Ma,’ she said, ‘But some people blamed crocodiles when a headless corpse was found here.’
My thirteen-year-old guide seemed on edge, especially when three men appeared and seemed to follow us. They weren’t. We survived.
Some days later, Sabina and I were alone for the evening and the power was off again. I missed the cooling fan but I found it something of a relief when the TV was silent for a change. The huge flat-screen monster was switched on within minutes of my arrival in the house and was seldom switched off. The choices of channel seemed to be limited to a few violent Nigerian dramas (some of which were in pidgin), Indian soaps (dubbed into English by Aussies), Mexican and Columbian dramas (also dubbed into English) and endless earnest and very dull discussions on Nigerian politics or English football. I tried to show willing but in my first 36-hours in Kwali I had already seen several of the dramas twice or even three times. Sabine knew some of the scripts and still she ogled the screen with stock-fish eyes. One drama was an especially unsavoury tale of a date rape that ended in the death of the victim in the perpetrator’s home and when his mother came home to find him asleep in bed with the corpse, she ran screaming from the room flailing her arms.
My hostess and her sister guffawed at this. They also seemed to find the burial of the body and the frequent appearances of the tortured ghost of the victim funny, though I have to admit that when the ghost burst into song, I laughed too.
So – for once – the TV was mercifully blank, and Sabina and I talked. Something I said made her launch into a tirade about the Igbo tribe (the g isn’t pronounced). I’d been reading Half of a Yellow Sun and knew mainly from this source that many of the people who declared Biafra independent from the rest of Nigeria in the late 1960s were Igbo. The resulting civil war led to genocide, a humanitarian crisis and mass starvation. Tribal disharmonies continue but the Igbo seem especially mistrusted and disliked.
Sabina said, ‘They are only interested in money. They even kill their own family members for “blood money”. They kill people in rituals. Sometimes they eat human meat.’ She went on, ‘They practise black magic. Simply by putting a hand on your head, they can turn you into a tortoise! They might drop something interesting on the ground and when a person picks it up they are transported away. Later their naked body is found in the forest or they are found hanging with blood dripping from them.’
I was taken aback but the gruesome image and tried to argue, ‘But not all Igbo are so very wicked, surely?’
She continued to talk of killings. ‘I went to a special human meat restaurant where there was a finger in my meat dish.’
‘That must have been a monkey or baboon, surely?’
‘No, Ma, I ate human flesh.’
Sabina’s married sister confirmed that the Igbo were cannibals and would do anything for money and cited an example of falling out with her Igbo neighbour over a small loan. It soured their friendship. But money does that, doesn’t it?
Aware of these tribal tensions, the Nigerian government set up the National Youth Service. Every new graduate has to work away from home for a year: young people are sent to live in an entirely different part of the country with the idea of fostering better understanding between different tribes. Sadly, this excellent scheme has been terribly undermined. People routinely pay bribes so they can avoid being sent – say – to the north or east of the country and so the prejudices continue.
I asked another Nigerian about cannibalism. She, an educated 20-something who was more worldly-wise than my host sisters, said, ‘Yes, it happened in some remote community – in the east.’ That’s Igbo country. ‘There were ritual murders then the flesh was cooked and consumed. The police arrested the cult leader who had many human remains in his home.
My interest was piqued now so I asked a fourth person – a well-travelled professional. Gift said, ‘There are occasional reports of cannibalism but these are rare. Generally, arrests are swift, so no, cannibalism isn’t really a problem in Nigeria.’
I mentioned Sabina’s finger. ‘Perhaps the finger she found in her food was a monkey’s?’
‘Yes, Gift said, ‘“bush meat” is a delicacy….’
I’d begun to suspect as much. For a tropical country, there was a distinct lack of small and medium-sized wildlife in Nigeria fields and gardens.
‘So, what kinds of animals are served up?’
‘Rabbits, grass-cutters, lizards, snakes…’
‘They’re something like an otter. I don’t know why they are called grass-cutters – ’
These turned out to be the greater cane rat – a substantial rodent of the rivers, which recalls a beaver but has a tiny tail. They weigh up to about 8kg. and eat sugar cane and maize so are considered pests. Some people farmed them; they’re a delicacy.
We were travelling together towards Abuja and Gift said, ‘We’ll drive past a place where people sell bush meat at the roadside – we might be able to see… although it is getting late so the best delicacies may be sold out. They’ll probably only have stock-fish left now. Bush meat is so very popular….’
‘Even when the link was suggested between eating bush meat and Ebola?’
‘Yes. I remember lots of announcements saying we should avoid bush meat in those days but Ebola has gone now…’
‘What do you think about black magic?’
‘You know cannibalism is very rare but black magic is something that happens here. There are definitely shape-shifters and people who are capable of powerful witchcraft. They drop something interesting, like some money, on the ground and when an unsuspecting person picks up the bait, they might be turned into a chicken.’
‘But you don’t believe that can really happen?’
‘I know it does. You can commission someone to perform spells on your enemies.’
‘But surely black magic is used by murderers to cover their tracks?’
‘No, no, no. The case where someone was turned into a chicken happened in a public place – a car park. The perpetrator was observed, the police called and an arrest made.’
‘Now,’ I laughed, ‘I thought you might confirm cannibalism but I didn’t expect you to say that black magic was a real phenomenon!’
Gift was laughing too. ‘Yes, I know. It took me a long time to be convinced….’