Umaru Sanda writes: The untold story of ‘enslaved’ Fulani herdsmen
I am Ghanaian and a Fulani. I needn’t mention my ethnic group because the 1992 Constitution which we subscribe to in this land does not attribute citizenship to ethnicity. However, in recent times, the word Fulani has been used as a synonym for various types of crimes. News headlines are awash with stories about crimes attributed to Fulanis. I see this as ethnic profiling, hatred and scorn.
This is so widespread that even in Accra where I work among very well educated members of the society; people find delight in shouting FULANI whenever I am around with the intent to ridicule me. Call it victimization and you wouldn’t be far from right.
From high school through tertiary to the work environment, I have been mocked for simply being from the Fulani ethnic group. If I hadn’t ignored most of the teasing and grown a tough skin, I wouldn’t have made it past the first stage of my education.
Many people- including members of the media who perpetuate this stereotype against Fulanis are simply ignorant and as a trained journalist, I am scandalized when I see news headlines associating crime with an ethnic group. In recent times, there have been cases of violent conflicts between what the media erroneously refers to as “Fulani herdsmen and indigenes”. This approach creates a two party system and draws the battle lines between them.
Many of these so called Fulani herdsmen are uneducated and as one of the privileged few, I wish to help give us all some education. I describe myself as one of the privileged few because I am the only one in my nuclear family to have gone to school.
I am the 7th and last born of my illiterate parents. My elder siblings- 2 men and 4 women have not had formal education because they have been helping my father herd cattle. My parents arrived at Asutsuare Junction on Thursday, 24th December, 1976, from Mobole near Afienya, both towns in the Greater Accra Region.
They relocated to take up a new job as caretakers of cattle belonging to the richest man at Asutsuare Junction at the time. He was called Owulaku, and was the defacto leader of the community. The new employees were housed in the one bedroom structure put up for them. Because of my father’s commitment to ensuring the job was decently executed, he prevented all his children from attending school so they could help him cater for the cattle.
All seven children, except the last born, was lucky to have been enrolled in school, whereas the others were busy with taking care of cattle.
I was the lucky one, and my schooling would not have happened if my mother with the support of her father had not insisted that I should be enrolled in school. My father was an opinion leader of the village, and was part of the people who attended the weekly Communal Labour which culminated in the construction of the Asutsuare Junction D/C Basic School in 1982/83.
They mixed concrete, dug the foundation, and laid blocks for the setting up of the school. He attended the Parents Teacher Association (PTA) meetings of the school although none of his children was attending the school, and he definitely didn’t intend for any of them to do so – until some ten years later, when I was fortunate to enroll in the nursery school. Indeed, while my father attended PTA meetings and paid dues as a communal duty for the education of children of the village, his own children (both boys and girls) were battling scorpions, snakes and other reptiles as they take the cattle out to the bush.
Owulaku, my father’s master, was a few years older than him. The contract was simple: My father was to do whatever it took to ensure the over one hundred cattle were fed and given water. This means moving them several kilometers into the bush every morning to find pasture and return them in the late afternoon or evening. He would usually do this on an empty stomach, and that was the daily routine until his children were of age to help him do it.
The job is toughest in the dry season when the grass is dry or non-existent, which made the cattle grow lean. During these periods, my father or his children would take the cattle out at midnight, and return at midday the following day. They walked barefoot or when fortunate, in sandals into the dark “jungle of reptiles”.
At the peak of the drought that hit Ghana in the early 80s, my father had to move the cattle completely out of the village to an area along the Volta River at Kpong, where there was still some pasture. He left behind his family and stayed there for months. At the time, people mostly travelled on foot and communication was not advanced. So my parents were somewhat separated for months as my father slaved for Owulaku.
My father’s reward for this “slavery” was simply, the milk from the cows.
The business of herding cattle is a skilful and tedious routine. Every night, the herdsman separates the calves (babies) from the cows (mothers). In the morning, he takes the adults far into the bush while his children take the young calves to another part so they could feed on the grass. In the late afternoon or evening (depending on the season), the parties return home and the animals are kept in separate kraals (fences). The tired and hungry herdsman, who has just returned home from grazing, would now have to milk each of the cows whose calves were kept away from the previous night.
The process involves releasing one calf at a time so they could start suckling on their mother’s breasts. The herdsman, who stands aside and watches would wait till the cow eases the milk from the udder. He then separates the calf from the mother before bowing under the cow to milk her. This is done for all the cows involved.
As far as I recall, my father has never returned from the kraal with more than a 34cm bucket full of milk. This translates into 4 gallons of milk. As of 2007 when I totally abandoned cattle herding for Journalism school in Accra, a gallon of milk sold for 5 Ghana Cedis. Multiply that by the maximum 4 gallons a day, and the herdsman was earning an estimated 20 Cedis a day. That was his salary. From that amount, my father would feed and clothe the whole family and if anyone fell ill, that was the money to support the medical bills. Owulaku had no compensation package for my father or insurance for his 7 children or paid school fees for the only one attending school. That has been the situation with my family for nearly 40 years since my parents left one cattle herding job at Mobole to take up one at Asutsuare Junction.
When my sisters got into their teenage age, my father gave them out for marriage so they left to live with their husbands. One of my brothers had had Quranic education so he was made to replace my ageing father as Imam of the central mosque in the village. My second brother became fed up with herding cattle and left to go learn a trade in kente tailoring at Agbozume in the Volta Region.
My mother was busy with buying wagashie (a dairy product) from most cattle settlement areas in the neighbourhood which she hawked daily at the Nima and Tudu markets in Accra.
Meanwhile, the last member of the family was still in the local school and excelling in academics. I had to travel at a point with my teachers to Dodowa, the District Capital for the Inter-Circuit Quiz Competition organized by World Vision.
I was not completely spared though, because when I return from school in the afternoon, it was my responsibility to take the cattle grazing, and on weekends and holidays, the responsibility of grazing the cattle was my sole responsibility to enable my siblings who have been doing it all week to have some rest.
I may not have totally enjoyed staying in the bush with cattle while my classmates get extra tuition, but I made the grazing worth the while. I would usually write the words “story book” on a piece of paper which my mother ties to her cloth before leaving for the market.
This, she would show to book vendors at the market and return home with story books which I read while on the grazing field. On the grazing field, I recall the cowboys numbered up to 20 sometimes. We came from different homes and sometimes while the cattle graze, we played games on trees, chased rabbits or dug out squirrels and rats and swim in the pond that the cattle drink from.
As children, this was a favourite pastime. It is important to state that I was the only Fulani boy among the about 20 children. I remember Christian, Yohanes Ben, Dodzie, Agbenyegah and others who are Ewes. I also remember Akuafo, Isaiah, Kamah and others who are Dangmes.
After all my siblings left our home, my father was left alone to herd Owulaku’s cattle, but when he crossed age 60, he became unfit for the tedious job. So he fell back on his solution of old and withdrew me from school to follow the cattle.
This happened just a term before we were due to write the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE). It took threats of arrest from my head teacher Albert Djangmah and godfather teacher Theophilus Akrobortu for my father to allow me take the BECE.
Frustrated by age, ill-health and lack of support in the krall, my father gave the cattle back to Owulaku and terminated the contract of nearly four decades on a peaceful note. Owulaku thanked him and brought young boys from his home town of Tefle in the Volta Region to take care of the cattle. He didn’t give my father even a single cow as appreciation for the over 40 years of service. That day, my father returned home an empty-handed grey-haired pauper to live in the chamber and hall constructed for him by Owulaku. An old rickety bicycle parked under a tree in the house was all my father could boast of as property. Even the land he was living on with his family did not belong to him until in 2015 when I made payment to the traditional ruler to have that parcel registered in my father’s name.
My father now solely relied on his wife for survival. My mother at the time was saddled with the upkeep of the home and the purchase of books and other essentials for my study at Tema Secondary School. I didn’t pay school fees because I was awarded a District Scholarship.
Meanwhile, through the business run for him by my father, Owulaku had made so much money from the cattle which multiplied each passing year. He was the first man to own almost everything in the village from the first bicycle to the first cassava and corn mill to the first standpipe to the first benz bus to the first pick-up truck and to the first television which entertained the whole village.
The long relationship notwithstanding, my family paid for every service he rendered to us including the water we fetched from the standpipe in his house. To demonstrate how inhumane this contract was, when I recently paid the water company to have water connected to my house so my parents would no more go through the stress of carrying purchased water in buckets from Owulaku’s house each morning and evening, my father’s former master refused to allow the company. The last born of Owulaku’s first wife who now runs the affairs of the house following his father’s death, rejected all negotiations with my father to have the water connected.
This gentleman was a toddler when my father first arrived in that house. Because the water company would not connect a new customer unless they have authorization from the existing customer, I have had to pay extra money for the company to purchase PVC pipes which they laid all the way to their mains along the main road before water started flowing in my father’s house this week for the first time in history.
I have been wondering if things could have been easier with my family had all my siblings received formal education as I did. I wonder if per chance, they would have been having decent jobs by now and helping me pay the medical bills of my parents, feed them and support the dozens of nieces and nephews at various stages of education now.
Sadly, their lives have wasted away working for a cattle owner who hasn’t shown gratitude. Owulaku’s children attended school at our expense. They probably have an “Owulaku Family WhatsApp” group now for their father’s children while in the case of my father’s children, the story is different.
I cannot even put the phone number of any of my siblings as Emergency Contact when filling forms because they simply cannot communicate with the English speaking official from the Emergency Service at the other end of the line who may call to report a case to the family. Suffice it to say, my teacher filled the Father’s Column on my high school admission forms and scholarship application forms.
You might be wondering where I am heading with the story of my family. I am simply telling you the story of a Fulani herdsman in order to explain why an ethnic group should not be the target of media and public attacks as is being witnessed in this country. The point I intend to convey with this article, is to show that the so-called Fulani herdsmen may not necessarily own the cattle they are being killed for. This point was succinctly made by the Eastern Regional Minister, Eric Kwakye Daffour when he said on Citi FM Eyewitness News of November 3, 2017 that: “You and I, when we buy cattle to rear, we won’t ask our children or kinsmen to take care of them. We rather give them to the Fulanis who are the experts”.
Currently at Asutsuare Junction, there are thousands of cattle in dozens of kraals. Aside the single kraal belonging to the Fulani chief in town, the rest of the cattle belong to either Dangmes or Ewes and Akans among other ethnic group members. There are cattle belonging to to politicians, security personnel and other members of the elite society domiciled in Accra. I know as a matter of fact, that several wealthy people drive to many villages across Ghana over the weekend to check on their cattle which are mostly being herded by Fulani people due to their unique skills in cattle grazing. However, the men directly grazing the cattle are the ones caught in the crossfire. Not the chiefs or clergymen or politicians or media men who are the actual owners.
At the 2006 national event to award best Ghanaian farmers, an Afienya based Dangme man; Tetteh Akpa, was named national best farmer. Prior to this, Akpa had been named Greater Accra Regional best farmer in 1998 and in 2004. He won the National Best Farmer Award in 2006 for his tremendous contributions to Ghana’s agriculture sector. Key among his contribution was the fact that he owned some 6, 800 cattle on the Accra plains. Our village was thrown into jubilation that day when we watched Akpa on television receiving the honours. The jubilation was because this was a man known to even day olds in the village. I often accompanied my mother to his cattle settlement areas to buy wagashie from the Fulani people who grazed his cattle. I knew all the various locations of his kraals, and at the time I was a cowboy, I could make out a cow belonging to Akpa even if I saw it at the chop bar.
This man was named national best farmer and as the camera flashes mixed with the thunderous applause at the beautiful ceremony organized in the far away Ashanti Region town of Nkawie on that day, no mention was made, that the real winners of the award were the children of the dozens of Fulani parents who grazed his cattle in what could best be described as “slave conditions” at Afienya, Mampong, Lorlorvor and other villages located in the then Dangme West District of the Greater Accra Region.
Cattle are animals in search of greenery, and they do not differentiate between cultivated and uncultivated fields. When they bow their heads to chew the grass they may accidentally stray into crop farms. As far as I recollect, my father has never fought any farmer over the destruction of crops by his cattle. Even when his cattle accidentally stray into crop farms, he would quickly drive them out and send a message to the owner of the farm to value the destruction and send a bill which was duly paid.
The fatal battle between crop farmers and herdsmen can be reduced to a simple issue of cattle destroy crops, and the ensuing lack of understanding between the two farmers. This leads to a conflict which quickly develops into a full blown war of guns. I am not by this article portraying members of the Fulani ethnic group as saints. But I believe that these recurring troubles could be easily averted if the crimes committed on either side are dealt with as crime rather than boxing a whole ethnic group together.
Labelling an ethnic group opens it for attacks and like the former boss of the West Africa Network for Peace-building (WANEP), Emmanuel Bombande once told me, if you put a group in a single box, it would fight back, and the result is what we are seeing in various communities across the country.
Treating Fulanis as aliens who must be driven out of Ghana is the laziest and most useless way of tackling this issue, and it only goes further to strengthen the stereotypes. For those who do not know, there are Fulani District Chief Executives, there are Fulani Members of Parliament, Fulani government officials and indeed, the current 2nd lady of Ghana, Her Excellency Samira Bawumia is a proud Fulani.
Until you rush your pregnant wife to Ghana’s premier hospital at Korle Bu to discover that the head of the Obstetrics and Gynaecology Department is a proud Ghanaian and a Fulani, you would not understand how many human beings you are hurting with your labeling and stereotypes. And indeed, until you have a serious issue of infringement and come to Citi FM for help only to discover that the journalist receiving you is a Fulani, you wouldn’t know how many human beings you are hurting with your labeling and stereotypes.
Many Fulani people in Ghana may not have had formal education because they are in the business of herding cattle owned by members of the elite in society. This makes it difficult, if not impossible for them to take part in national debates, but any attempt to label and group them into an unwanted class, would amount to a defilement of the state of Ghana which they have helped establish and are currently serving. I know Fulani people serving in the Ghana Armed Forces, Ghana Police Service, Ghana Immigration Service, Ghana Education Service and the Ghana Civil Service. So when we go about stereotyping, let us be wary of the number of human beings we are hurting.
The Fulani ethnic group has more than 40 million members spread across West Africa and this includes Ghana. There are Fulani people who have been in Ghana long before colonialism. Have you ever wondered who were the ones herding the cattle in the pre-independence Accra locality known as Cowlane? Stereotyping is what led to historic disasters such as the Rwandan Genocide and the Holocaust as well as the recent ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
Like I stated earlier, when I was a cowboy barely ten years ago, I was on the grazing field with boys from diverse ethnic groups. We were brothers because we ate together, played together and slept together. It would have amounted to hate speech should the news portals at the time caption our occasional teenage misconduct of stealing corn to feed our hungry stomachs as “pilfering Fulani cowboys caught!”
The audio beneath is a documentary by Citi News’ Umaru Sanda titled Fulani Revealed. This was done some four years ago.
The writer is a journalist with Citi FM. He was honoured at the 2012 Radio for Peace-building Awards held in Rwanda for his radio documentary titled “The Fulani Revealed.”