They are the last of the tribe of mountain dwellers, determined to keep up a tradition which has been eroded by civilisation and economic considerations. Assistant Editor, SEUN AKIOYE reports on the indigenous tribe still inhabiting the Nasarawa Eggon hills and the organisations trying to make life easier. IT was a typical village setting. Mud houses with a sprinkle of brick structures and farms, which extended to the homestead and if one listened early in the morning, one would hear the chipping of birds, crow of the cockerel and the whistle of the wind. Welcome to Ogbagi-Tudu. Ogbagi as the community is generally known is one of the hardest to reach in Nasarawa State and it is located in Nasarawa Eggon Local Government Area of the state, it is estimated to be at least 1,500 metres above sea level, making it one of the highest peaks in the country.
No one remembers how long the community has existed; not even the village head, Chief Tsaku Yusuf. But the oldest man in the village, Enjor Akueku Ekom, said his generation is the third from the founding fathers of the village and judging that Ekom would be around 100 years old, it is safe to say that the community has existed for at least 200 years. The Eggon hills have been the ancestral home of the Eggon people of Nasarawa State, when the tribe migrated from somewhere in Bornu, the ancestors found the allure of the hills irresistible. It was “far from the maddening crowd” and provided a natural defence in the days when the law of the jungle reigned. The land is also fertile, perfect for this agrarian tribe and so they settled there. “Before the missionaries came, we were traditionalists and uneducated; we lived here on the hills and didn’t know other places existed,” Ekom said.
The ignorant bliss in which the people lived came to an end with the arrival of some white missionaries. The exact date could not be ascertained but these brave “warriors for Jesus” managed to convert the Eggon people to the ways of God, brought education and enlightenment. “They gave us Christianity and education, we became more enlightened,” Ekom agreed. But civilisation brought about by education and enlightenment soon reared an ugly head in mass migration. In the quest for a better life, the Eggon people began to move downhill and initially settled in settlements around the hills before moving all over Nasarawa State. At first, only the young and the restless moved, but soon those seeking greener pastures, education and a better life left the hills. Today only about 4,000 indigenes remained, determined to keep up the culture and lifestyle of the ancestral home of the Eggon people. These 4,000 are scattered in the eight communities of Ogbagi-Tudu, Lamga, Aboshon, Lizzi, Wangibi, Neko, Wakama and Ezzen.
Of the remnant Eggon communities, Ogbagi is the biggest and most populated with over 50 houses and more than 1,000 inhabitants. But there are other interesting facts about Eggon hills; it is said to be bigger than Ibadan city. That is when one views all the rolling mountains together and on Wakama- the ancestral home of former Minister for Information, Labaram Maku- is a natural airstrip. “Up there is very flat; it is about two hours of climbing from Ogbagi, but once you are able to get to the top, the beauty is unbelievable. It is a natural airstrip and the first missionaries that came here landed their plane on the hills up there. That place if properly managed is a natural tourist attraction,” Manasseh Seth Enjo said. Manasseh Enjoh has a larger than life image in Ogbagi and the surrounding hills. He is the community facilitator and through him, many social amenities have been brought to the hills. He is also the principal of Ogbagi Community Secondary School; he is the major link between people of the hills and civilisation and one of the few educated Eggon to remain on the hills.
Chief Yusuf agreed on the breathtaking beauty of the hills. He is a man who likes to switch from Eggon to Hausa language in between sentences. He laughs intermittently displaying a set of sharp-coloured teeth and friendly countenance. “Life here is beautiful; as you can see, it is blissful. Whatever we want, we eat because we are farmers, but the only problem about that is that baboons do come here to eat our crops; there are baboons everywhere,” he said. But this little setback is also advantageous to the fast thinking Eggon people. “I talked about the baboons, we kill and eat them too,” Yusuf added with a grin. The people have conquered the hills, making the place a natural fortress which has excluded them from the series of bloodletting and rampage visited on Eggon communities by suspected Fulani herdsmen in 2014. Houses are built in between the rocks so that the uninitiated would never be able to find the people.
The people rear dogs for hunting purposes and one could hear the grunt of the pigs, hemmed together in a pen around many homesteads. This ensures regular food supply for the usually large Eggon families as they believe the more children you have, the more prosperous you will be. The hills are also famous for its precious stones. Tin, Aqua Marine, Torpaz, Quartz are some of the natural resources found on the hills. Along the road to Ogbagi, one could see several wells dug in search of the stones. The stones were said to have been discovered in 1981 by a man named Ayah Eggah but the Hausa miners were the first to benefit from it. “Our people began to mine only six years ago; we came too late as the stones have become more difficult to access. You have to dig up at least 20 feet now to get any stone, but even then, we have not made real money from our natural resources,” Manasseh said.
Living on the hills is for the brave heart
One might be tempted to imagine that life on Eggon hills is a bliss comprising eating food, killing baboons and rearing children. Ogbagi and the surrounding communities lack every basic amenity that make life less complicated. There are no roads, clean water, schools, health centres and daily needs must be sourced downhill from Nasarawa Eggon, Mada Station or Akwanga towns. This is no easy task as it means a hazardous two hours trek at the least and add 30 minutes to the return journey, it is over four hours. The staple food of the people is tuwo made from maize flour, but to grind the maize, the women had to travel downhill to Nasarawa Eggon. No one shares this burden more than Justina Lega, the deputy woman leader of the community. The 39-year-old and mother of four children said it was “hell” travelling down to Akwanga simply to grind maize. “We lost many hours, we could not attend to our children’s need because the time has been wasted.”
There are few brick buildings in Ogbagi; one of them is the church and the Women Development Centre, a few rich citizens also live in brick houses. However, one may wonder how the people managed to bring cement up to the hills. “They drop the cement in Endehu and strong youths come down to take them up the hills one at a time. They charge N1,000 for each bag of cement,” Manasseh said. For the average youth on the hills, he earns N1,000 for a minimum of four hours of hazardous journey climbing over hills and crossing many rivers. This is the same for every good and produce like toiletries, drinking water, pastries and even school utilities have to be transported by head. The lack of amenities in the hills is more evident in the education and health sector. Even though in Ogbagi and other communities, there is usually a primary school built of mud, but teachers are lacking and the local government authorities would not post teachers. So the schools operate more as remedial classes. If a parent wants proper education, the children would have to do downhill to towns where they will stay with a relative and return during the holidays.
During childbirth, traditional birth attendants are called in to take the delivery but in the case whereby complications arise, the woman is put on a bed and transported on the head down the hills. Due to the rough terrain, more complications arise and there have been reported deaths of some women. Ekom said suffering has become synonymous with Ogbagi people. “We have been suffering, if you don’t suffer, you will not eat,” he said with a tinge of pessimism. One may ask where the farm produce usually end up. “We usually carry our crops to Mada station and Nasarawa Eggon to sell. We carry all the food crops on our head. We make a big bag from animal skin to carry groundnut and maize and make a cage of bamboo to carry it downhill,” he said. But this method has not yielded large profits for the people. Crops are usually sold at rock bottom prices and once the buyers know you are from the hills, then they greatly under-price the goods. The result is that these poor and longsuffering farmers end up not making any profit and sometimes give away the goods in order not to carry them up the hills again.
Building life, one step at a time
In 2,000, the people of Ogbagi came in contact with a non-governmental organisation, Project Agape, based in Nasarawa. Project Agape and a funding partners, Actionaid Nigeria (AAN), were involved in Partnership Against Poverty (PAP) programme. The campaign seeks to empower and provide social amenities for people in hard to reach communities. AAN and Project Agape worked with Ogbagi and Neko communities on the hills. “We held a meeting with them and I was selected as a community facilitator. They took us to many trainings and workshops to build our capacities to organise the people in the communities. Through this project, we were able to get some of the social amenities we had lacked for many years,” Manasseh said. Manasseh’s exposure through the organizations proved a life saver. He realized his level of education would not suffice for the work that was ahead and proceeded to the College of Education in Akwanga where he bagged a National Certificate of Education (NCE) in Business Administration, specializing in Accounting.
We held a meeting with them and I was selected as a community facilitator, they took us to many trainings and workshops to build our capacities to organize the people in the communities, through this project, we were able to get some of the social amenities we had lacked for many years,” Manasseh said. Change came slowly to the communities over a period of 10 years of partnering with AAN and Project Agape. The first empowerment was the provision of a grinding mill, which ensured that the women do not make the journey down the hills just to grind their maize. On the morning of September 10, 2015, the community gathered in the church premises to discuss the success of the partnership and plan for the future. “The grinding mill was a big help, it really solved many problems in this community. Now, all over the hills, there are 16 more grinding mills,” Kefas Enjoh said. The assembly agreed with him; they have been able to dig wells for clean water through self-help method taught by the organisations. But after the first well was dug through a contractor, the smart Ogbagi people decided to build more themselves, now 14 wells adorn several spots in the community.
But more importantly for the people of Ogbagi is the new four-classroom building built in 2005 by the organisations. On the day it opened, over 100 children came through its doors. Today, many of the children have gone on to secondary school. “Before the school was built, our children used to attend school downhill and it was very difficult for us, but since this school and the one in Neko were built, all the children of the hills attended school here on the hills. There is no more dangerous journey down the hills and we are very grateful for that,” Chief Yusuf said. He spoke the mind of the community. Since the two organisations began to work in Ogbagi, the community has been taught how to be self-sufficient and also to demand for their rights from the government. That campaign was called Local Rights Project (LRP); Through this campaign, State Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB) and the community jointly built a secondary school in order to retain the children who wished to study further on the hills. The secondary school was almost dead on arrival, save for the building no other facility exists and no teacher would agree to be posted to the hill. The community then resorted to self help by employing private teachers. Now there are six teachers for the three classes in the school, with the government finally paying two of them while the community pays the salaries of the remaining four teachers. The school began with 12 students but has increased to 54 today.
The community pays an average of N12,000 for the teachers but with the falling economic power of the community, the teachers are currently being owed three months salary. Manasseh, who has been asked to step in as the principal of the secondary school, is also deeply involved in teaching the students who could relate to him being one of their own. But Manasseh has not always been up there, he paid his dues. He finished his primary education in 1984 and had to wait until his parents could afford the fees for secondary school. That wait lasted 10 years and in 1989, he got married. But in 1994 at the age of 21 years and married, he started his secondary education. “ When younger siblings started going to secondary school I said, I must also complete my education, that was how I went to secondary school even though I was old, then I also asked my wife to go too, now she has her high school certificate,” he said. Not many people could do that. A lot of young men who would have wanted to further their education were too ashamed to attend school in the cities because of their age so they remain uneducated. The secondary school in Ogbagi was a blessing for the people of the hills, but with little funds and unpaid wages, the school is in danger of being closed down. The students pay a stipend of N4, 000 per term as fees but it is yet too much for many of the people of the community. So Manasseh many times uses his personal funds to run the affairs of the school. When The Nation visited, school had already resumed but there were no students in sight. “Some of the students generally don’t come to school until several weeks into resumption, sometimes, they just show up to see if lessons are going on and if much is not happening, they return to the farm to go and make money,” Manasseh said.
Through self-help, Ogbagi also built a health centre outpost. Government sent a nursing staff and infrequently sends drugs. The nurse trained, Florence Yusuf, deputises when the nurse is unavailable. “I only administer little drugs and first aid. I cannot treat major sicknesses; we will have to refer such cases to a bigger hospital,” she told The Nation. The women of Ogbagi have profited from the awareness campaign organized by Actionaid and Project Agape. Trained in financial management scheme, they organized a system of savings and loans called ‘Adashi’. Through this, they acquired financial freedom and one woman even started a mini supermarket from her Adashi. Actionaid also built a Women Development Centre in 2005, where adult literacy classes took place and also the women learnt the art of cloth making. But the teacher taking the women in tailoring died suddenly last year and “since then we have not been sewing,” Lega said. Now the Centre has been converted temporarily to a nursery for children who are not of school age where they learn simple nursery rhymes and poems. Sometimes the hall is also rented out to those who had social events like weddings and other ceremonies at a cost. The revenue is an addition to the finances of the community.
The community also demanded for and got a polling booth from the government and elections held on the hills during the 2015 general elections. Manasseh said youths from the community “dropped” to pick the electoral officers and the security details. At some point some officials collapsed with fatigue and they had to be carried, “ even the policemen.” Getting advocacy to the government was never easy, when letters are written either to the local government or the state, they hardly received replies. If they do, it usually takes three months and that is after the community had sent messengers to the officials and laid siege at their offices and homes. “But Actionaid and Project Agape taught us never to give up, if we don’t demand for our rights, we would be forgotten,” Esson Yusuf, whose siblings were lucky to have attended the local secondary school, said. But Alhaji Bawa Ajegena, a former Education Secretary in Nasarawa Eggon local government said government was incapacitated because of the difficult terrain.
“Those places are hard to reach communities and if you post teachers there you have to motivate them by increasing their salaries. There was a Mr. Enjo who was on level four and we had to move him to five and then six. It was very common for teachers to think that they have committed an offence and they were being punished by posting to the hill.” Ajegena said. Manasseh is even dreaming higher. The community has petitioned the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to establish a ward on the hill. “ Once that is done, I will be contesting for councilor to represent my people in government,” he revealed.
Like Neko, Like Ogbagi
About 50 minutes from Ogbagi is Neko village of about 200 inhabitants; though lacking in the prosperity of Ogbagi, it nevertheless has some basic amenities like a primary school and a guest house built by AAN and Project Agape. The guest house caters to those who come to the hills every year for revival and crusades. The profit from it is ploughed back in to the community. It also has the distinct honour of hosting the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) clinic, which serves the eight communities. The clinic was a product of a joint advocacy campaign from the people of the hills; it was one of the lessons learnt from AAN and Project Agape.
But despite the amenities, life, as in the other communities, is hard for the people of Neko and money is scarce. Neko, which is roughly translated as “the battle ground,” is flat and dusty and the houses are scattered across the plain. The farmers face the arduous task of ferrying their produce to the market downhill consuming time and energy. The women too had to grind their maize into tuwo in Nasarawa Eggon. But that was before a grinding machine was provided by AAN. It proved a savior as some communities also grind from them. “The money we make from there goes into the community purse,” Abigail Magani said.
Meshach emerged in the gathering. He is a seven-year-old boy attending the community school on the hills, and the story of his birth illustrated the burden of the people of the hills in accessing basic amenities. Meshach’s labour had endured for three days when his father, Ayah Magani, decided to take the mother to Mada Station hospital. A shamuk-bamboo bed- was constructed and the pregnant woman was put inside. Two men carried her on their head; she was followed by some women. Halfway, the woman gave birth to a baby boy by the river Mogu. “We just turned back and came home,” Ayah said. Meshach has lived seven years on the hills and has never gone down. Like so many other children, it means he has never seen a car or a road or any house made of bricks. But he is a good farmer and he has started hunting little games. If he chooses to remain on the hills, it may be many more years before he would see his first vehicle or enter into it. For now, however, hunting games and running around the rocks is a relished pastime.
His 12-year-old brother, Isaac, is more fortunate. He attends a secondary school in Akwanga and also learns the trade of motor mechanic. By his choice of profession, Isaac seems to have sealed his fate: he would not be a man of the hills when he grows up, unless by some measure of fate, a road is constructed through to Neko and cars become aplenty in the village, but this does not look likely in the future. Isaac is also a talented artist. “I love arts, I just love to draw,” he said. His father, Ayah, corroborated his claim, saying: “He is very good at drawing.” Isaac brought out one of his paintings, it was a picture of a rich looking man with a car and a bicycle. Could this be the image playing in the mind of Isaac, a picture of his preferred future? “I just draw whatever I see or if it comes to my head,” he said. His sister, Happy is also determined to live downhill. At 17 years, she is only in Senior Secondary 1 in a school in Akwanga. “I don’t like this place, we have to be climbing every time. I want to live somewhere else,” she said.
So will she come to Lagos?
“Never, I don’t like Lagos. I have heard about the place and I am terrified. It is too big for me and I may get lost,” she replied. Danjuma strolled into the gathering and his presence generated a universal acknowledgement, from his looks he would be over 70 years but his sprints suggested otherwise. He wore a tolerably clean jean shirt over a pair of dirty black singlet. His cap covered his gray head but his beard was stashed in a way that reminds one of Adolf Hitler. Danjuma is a perpetual drunk and the village entertainer; he spoke some English but generally preferred to confer in Eggon. His words are akin to those spoken in honour of palm wine; he has a talent for cutting off conversations of others and he relishes being a nuisance. The people say he does not contain a drop of human presence.
“Give me money, any amount and take her (Happy) with you. She will be your wife, you don’t need to bring anything else,” he said in drunken stupor, his body reeking of a recently downed alcohol. After N100 exchanged hands, he gave a smart salute and said “thank you” in English. “Yes, me I sabi English, you sabi Eggon?” he blurted out. Happy’s elder brother, also named Ayah, has been battling to fix his motorcycle all morning. He had trained in motorcycle mechanic in Nasarawa Eggon where he works during the week. But Ayah had bigger plans like going to college which cannot be achieved by his meager earnings as a mechanic. So he has joined others in the other lucrative but increasingly difficult business of mining. “I mine aqua marine and other precious stones. In the past, it used to be easy but now, you have to dig deep into the ground to find any stones. My regular customer is one Hausa man and I sell a handful of aqua marine for N2,000,” he said. It is not clear if he will be able to save enough to acquire the college degree he so desires, but time it seems is the luxury he cannot afford. But Ayah has a plan, one that seems foolproof. “This okada is not my own, it belongs to my oga. If I work hard and buy my own, I can use it to work and save money for school,” he reasoned.
For the others, who remain on the hills and have no desire of going to college, their desires are of a different spectrum from this. For Cecilia Haliru Mgbaka, a 48-year-old mother of eight children, a road to Ogbagi would be the best. “The road is bad, despite the hospital, we still take the women downhill if they develop complications. Some of us who still want to give birth are afraid of what will happen if we have complications during childbirth,” she said. She found an ally in Ewuga Abimiku but for different reasons. He complained about difficulty in transporting cement to the community and for this reason, a road is essential. But not all the people agree to a road to the hills. “The unique selling point of these communities is the relative peace we enjoy because we are inaccessible. If a road is built, that peace and myth would be lost, people would invade our land and the allure will be gone, we might be tempted to move further up the hills again,” Manasseh said.