Book Title: Burning Grass
Author: Cyprian Ekwensi
Genre: Prose Fiction
Year of publication: 1962
Reviewer: Adeniyi Taiwo Kunnu
Two years after the nation’s independence, Cyprian Ekwensi presented to the world, what was considered a piece of literature which serves to complement the highly commended and reviewed ‘Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe in 1958. In it, he explored the traditional culture and civilisation of present day South East Nigeria, to deconstruct and reconstruct the many wrong and poor depictions of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, thereby presenting an unarguable documentation to the world from his very outstanding perspective.
Four years after the birth of what is considered the ‘Mother of African Fiction’ and 52 years down the line, Ekwensi’s literary material has become a fiction of facts, in which another valuable perspective of the people of Northern Nigeria has been made available and the auspicious time to leverage the evergreen piece of creative expression has come. It is unquestionable to state that this work explores a very important practice of the people of Northern Nigeria.
The author whose ancestry is the South East, but born and raised for a period in the North and traversed the Nigerian landscape in the course of acquiring education and work, could be said to have a most ideal certification to broach a subject matter that seems cocooned in what may not be properly dissected or at best left un-grasped.
Quite significantly, the book opens with a peculiar insignia of the activities of cattle herders. On page one the first few lines go thus: “When they begin to burn the grass in Northern Nigeria, It is time for the herdsmen to be moving the cattle southwards to the banks of the great river. And the hunters, lurking on the edge of the flames with dane gun, bow and arrow, sniff the fumes and train their eyes to catch the faintest flicker of beasts hastening from their hiding places.”
From the excerpt, a number of instructive incidences are painted and worthy of attention. First, burning of grass signifies a time to move, prompted by the dryness of the leaves which may not supply needed and sustaining nutrients for the animals that are to be kept alive. Two, the hunters also see this as their time to kill animals, whose fear of death from fumes and fire sends them scurrying for safety but unfortunately into the waiting bullets of game lovers. A third and most important part not talked about would be those who own the expanse of land that usually gets burnt at this period of the year, and the South to which they travel, whose occupants at their ancestral homes by the river may have their survival from their farmlands threatened by these herders.
Introspection into what obtains in the entire 24 chapters is primarily revealed at the beginning when Mai Sunsaye had to rescue a Kanuri girl from the slave hold of Shehu, a badass retired soldier and trouble monger. He takes us further by his actions and those of his family, the peculiar ways of a group of people, whose ideals needs be understood and re-invented for the sake of harmonious co-existence.
Sunsaye has fathered three sons and a daughter, with his wife Shaitu representing the figure that every man wishes to have. This picture, however, becomes discountenance when the head of a family is charmed, bringing us to the supernatural juncture of this work. Chief Ardo’s desire to become the Chief of Dokan Toro reveals his bestial side with what is known as Sokugo, the charm which causes one to lose his sense of direction, wandering away from home, leaving his family, which in turn brings suffering.
Although tendency abounds to want this portion overlooked, but the reality is that, it may be another important revelation to be considered by the investigative authorities, whose seeming incapability has left many wondering about the kind of intelligence deployed in the battle to secure lives and property where these killings have been rife.
From cattle rustling, to running from tax officers, to escaping death in the hands of Mai Sunsaye’s enemies, the procedures for getting married among the Fulani, other actions, reactions and further interjections put this work on the front page of national discourse, so as to understand precedents, have a grasp of antecedents, with a view to dispassionately intervening when issues of this nature comes up for serious discourse and consequent attention.
On page 76, an instructive revelation comes to the fore when Jalla in a conversation with his father said, “… We are men of cattle. Our cattle come first, and since it is our wish to take them to their pastures, all else must succumb to that wish”.
Again, the mindset of a people’s reality looks us in the eyes with these words. There seems a deliberate disregard for other opinion by whomsoever, because these animals, as it appears have assumed an important rank seemingly superior to those of humans.
Cyprian Ekwensi may have given the world a piece of prose fiction, helping to aid knowledge within the literary circles in the manner he has done, but it behooves those whose hindsight remains intact, and their foresight devoid of blurry encumbrance, to ingest, digest and attempt not to puke over these research piece that has enabled us become acquainted with the Ideological battle that Nigeria and millions of Nigerians find challenging to grapple in its entirety.
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