Professor Murray Last is the kind of person you would call a poplar among the shrubs. A scholar par excellence, he traverses the world of academics like a Colossus. I had been seeing his name in books and journals ever since I started learning ABCD. So meeting him a few months ago was one of the most pleasant moments of my life.
Murray Last is a Emeritus Professor of History based in England. He obtained his PhD from the University of Ibadan, becoming the first person to do so. He is best known as the foremost scholar of the Sokoto Caliphate. He first went to Sokoto in 1962 principally to study the ancient Arabic and Ajami manuscripts that filled the libraries of that headquarters of the defunct Caliphate founded by Sheikh Usmanu Danfodio. He had his tutulege under the great vizier of Sokoto, Waziri Junaidu, a man of immense learning himself. Under the Waziri, the young Last – in his 20s – became the first white man to gain full access to the long scholarly heritage of that intriguing era.
Now in his old age, Prof. Last is in retirement. Nevetheless, he was able to attend an international conference on the preservation of the arabised Hausa script, the Ajami, as well as Arabic manuscripts. I was fortunate to be present at the event, which took place last year at Arewa House, Kaduna, where I booked an appointment with Prof. Last. Accompanied by Prof. Abdalla Uba Adamu of the Bayero University, Kano – another burning light in the sphere of academics in our times, I interviewed Prof. Last in his hotel room on the circumstance of his early foray into studies of the Caliphate, some of the findings of his work and his views on various aspects of contemporary scholarship. His finding that people can decide on when to die (when they are sick, of course) is as controversial today as it was when he first revealed it three years ago.
SHEME: I think it is only reasonable to start by asking what drew your attention in the first place to the study of the Sokoto Caliphate.
PROF. LAST: I came to Nigeria in 1961. I got a grant from Liverpool Foundation for two years to work for my PhD. I had been at Yale where I read Chinese and African history for my M.A. Although I wanted to do Chinese history, in those days you could only go to learn Chinese in Hong Kong. I was very excited with African history since Independence was coming in 1960. I was in Yale from 1959 to 1961, so I was there for the excitement of Independence and everything. I had long been interested in Islamic things. I had traveled to Jordan, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.
When I came to Ibadan to do my PhD, I decided to choose an Islamic subject. There was H.S.C. Smith, who was a professor then, with people like Jacob Ajayi and others, with Kenneth Dike as the vice chancellor. It was then of course known as University College, Ibadan. Abdullahi Smith, as the late H.S.C. Smith later became, suggested that I study the viziers, the Waziris, in Sokoto since there were documentations of the letters from the Waziri to various Emirs, and also letters from the Emirs to the Waziris, so it seemed a very good subject to do. I started in 1961 to do “A Study of Sokoto in the 19th Century, with Special Reference to the Waziris,” which was the title of the thesis.
To start the study, did you have to move to Sokoto?
I first came to Kano in December 1961 and then spent the Christmas in Maiduguri so, I didn’t actually go to Sokoto until Muhammad Ahmad Al-Hajj came up with me to Sokoto, after I had done my first year in Ibadan. I spent the summer in Kaduna, reading in the Archives, staying with Adamu Ciroma and Dahiru Modibbo Girei. Sometimes I played scabbles with Gomwalk and people like Garba Ja Abdulkadir and the Sarkin Jalingo – the Sarkin Muri as he became. So I got my real taste initially in Kaduna and then moved on to Sokoto to settle in the Waziri’s house.
Was it Alhaji Junaidu?
Yes, it was. He was very kind to me; he let me stay in one of his rest houses, next to his own house. Each morning, I would go to his house and sit in the library on the floor and start reading manuscripts, with my dictionary beside me. So me and my dictionary read the books! My Arabic, I had started learning it in Ibadan in 1961 to ’62, so it was getting better by the time.
Were you the first European or white man to undertake a study at that level in those days?
Yes, but at the Antiquities Department in Jos, Dr A.D.H. Bibar had done some cataloguing and preserving some of the manuscripts in the Waziri’s house, particularly the correspondence, and he wrote a few articles. And there was a British non-resident Senior District Officer, H.A. Johnston, who was interested in the history of Sokoto and wrote a book called “The Fulani Empire of Sokoto”, but he basically used the district notebooks. So I was the first student actually to write a doctoral thesis on Sokoto using the Arabic materials and being taught by the Waziri and other people in Sokoto. But I was the first person to get a Nigerian PhD from Ibadan. It was so very exciting!
It must have been a great privilege.
It was fantastic! And of course Ibadan was the best place because it was the only university, so all the brightest Nigerians were there and they were much brighter than I was and of course much more sensible politically wise. It was an exciting place to be. Dr. Afigbo was the other person who finished at about the same time with me but I finished my thesis first.
I learnt that you migrated to Medical Anthropology. So what happened to History?
After I finished my PhD, I came up to Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, to help start the Northern History Research Scheme, from 1965-67. For three years I worked, collecting Arabic and Fulfulde manuscripts and photocopying everything. But then the war started, the (Nigerian) Civil War, and I had friends on both sides. Secondly, when I was in Sokoto, the A.D.O. was an old friend – Dahiru Modibbo Girei, who later became head of BCNN (Broadcasting Corporation of Northern Nigeria). And as A.D.O. he had to decide who was mad in the prison and who was not mad, and we used to talk about it. So from that point, from 1967 or so, I knew really we must try to do work on traditional notions of madness. Thirdly, ABU Teaching Hospital, the medical school, was just starting and Ishaya Audu was the vice-chancellor; he was the medical doctor who was Yakubu Gowon’s personal doctor. So it seemed a good thing for me to study traditional Hausa medicine so that the new medical students and doctors might know something about what their patients felt themselves.
What eventually drew you to the study of the Maguzawa?
When I retrained for doing the anthropology of medicine, of healing, I was linked to ABU. I first went to Dankanjiba, a market town on the edges of Kano and Katsina, in Malumfasi district. I surveyed the entire village. I asked everyone the medical history of their houses. And it became very clear that I could only talk to the male head of house; I couldn’t go inside the house. I then did a study of a Fulani camp where I couldn’t again see the women and the children. Basically, I was only allowed to speak to the men. So I realised that if I had wanted to speak to women and children and see how they got ill and what was wrong, I had to go to a place where I could live inside the house without a problem.
Is it because of the Islamic culture?
Yes. I discovered that 90 per cent of all illnesses was suffered by women and children.
And you could not reach out to them directly.
In a normal Muslim village, you couldn’t be with them all the time. The Maguzawa farm house where I went to stay in was not where the Catholics were, nor was it were the Protestants were, but was where, basically, there wasn’t any proselytisation. So in that sense, it was logical to go to the Maguzawa. And honestly, I thought Maguzawa made some more traditional meaning. So I did (a study of) medicine because it was clearly something that needed to be done because the doctors and the new students (at ABU) didn’t know anything about their patients.
I was told that in one of the lectures you gave some years back, you said that Hausa people chose where to die and when to die. Can you please explain?
It caused a lot of trouble when I said that! But I tried never to publish or give lectures abroad unless I have mentioned it in Nigeria first or at the same time. So I have a rule that if I am going to make any “rash” statement, I must make it here and defend myself from the attack! So I gave this talk in the British Council at their invitation in Kano…
When was that?
Two years ago. Basically, it came out of a work, because I did a survey of a single cemetary in Kano – Dandolo, by Goron Dutse. And the grave digger kept a record for a year of all the burials he did every day. Possibly, the statistics was not perfect but it did suggest that more people died on Friday than on any other day of the week. This came about because one of my old friends at B.U.K., John Levers, who died in Kano and was buried as a Muslim in Dandolo, I used to sometimes go to his grave. And so as happens with a talkative, I talked to the grave digger and by chance asked him, “How many graves do you dig every day?” And his answer was, “Ten graves every day but fifteen on Fridays!” And my jowl dropped. I knew that this was very unusual. And I know that Allah gives a blessing if you die on Friday.
What the statistics actually show is that it’s women and children who die on Fridays more than men do and the argument is: why should that be? But I think it’s the case if you look at it worldwide, that there comes a time when you are close to death that you can decide when to die. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence, both in Nigeria and worldwide, that someone will wait until their children have come and then as soon as they come, they switch off, if you like. So it’s quite interesting. But then the biological problem is, how is it possible to do that? Because if your mind switches off, you go into a coma and the body works automatically. So, biologically and physiologically it’s a real problem which I have no answer to nor do any of my biomedical friends have. But anecdotically one of the striking things is that very often the person dying sends the people around him away, and as soon as they’re gone out of the room or shortly after, he dies. And that happens so commonly both here and elsewhere.
And up till now, nobody has been able to find out why one dies when one wants?
Obviously, there are a lot of cultures where people train themselves on when to die. But in the end, it is very common that you can’t just turn your brain off. What sometimes happens is that in a day or two he will die of the toxins building up in the gut. I know someone whose mother did that, so I am speaking the truth. I know.
Professor, how have you been able to maintain your relationship with Nigerians all these years?
It is mainly because people are so kind and nice to me. But it is extremely pleasant to come back. I always try to visit every year. I always try to come back to Kano and see people there and I come to see friends rather than to do work.
How would you compare the quality of scholarship in your days and now?
I think, to be honest, there are so many universities and so many professors and students and such like that inevitably the selection process is less strict. In the old days, with one, two universities, it was very difficult for students to get into universities and they were driven to do very good work. So I think it is partly the natural consequence of expansion. Many people actually know things that the rest of us didn’t know then. So, in some ways, recent scholarship is more interesting. But I have to admit that the amount of work done on the Sokoto Caliphate is actually little, it is not very great. There is good work, very good work, but by and large there is a tendency not to ask difficult questions.
Why not? Are people afraid to ask questions?
My notion crudely is that I expect to be laughed at but it is what I call the use of old history of Kano, Sokoto, Zaria, Katsina. It is good for schools, good for undergraduate courses; it promotes the establishment of what I sometimes call the golden realm, that in a sense the Shehu’s age or Muhammadu Bello’s age was the golden age, as it were. You might not agree but there was a decline over the century but people are willing to say, people like Shehu Galadanchi, that there was a decline and that was why Allah brought the Nasara (the Europeans) almost as a punishment for the failings of the Sarakai or the Sarauta class. And my argument is that you can’t imagine that the Christians (the colonialists) are stronger than the Muslims. Some say that colonialism came about as ikon Allah (predestined) ; it was a calamity, a disaster.
Some people are at the moment clamouring for the removal of Arabic inscription in the naira and it is generating a lot of debate. Interestingly, nobody knows how the inscription got onto the naira. Would you shed light on this?
It was on the pound, the colonial Nigerian pound. I was going to comment on that. As you probably know, it was the (Christian) missions that took up Ajami (the arabised Hausa scripts) more than anyone else. It was the missions who translated the Bible into Ajami. It was the colonial authorities that gradually moved into boko, into Roman scripts. To be honest, I think the British used Ajami from quite an early time. One of the officers, in 1904-1905, used to write letters to his soldiers, who were Kanawa (Kano indigenes) in Ajami. So it was assumed that it was normal to use Ajami in some of your own Nigerian relations. And the Army too; because remember the commands given at the battle of Sokoto to the British soldiers were given in Hausa; the white Nasara officers gave their commands in Hausa. So you’ve got to see this extraordinary use of Hausa. You couldn’t get promotion as a colonial officer without passing your exams in Hausa from a very early time. And remember Richard Palmer, who became Resident in Katsina, used to kneel down to his malam with his gafaka (leather bag) and take Arabic lessons in Katsina town.
So the British actually promoted the concept of the use of Ajami.
They took it over.
Were there any attempts to find out from other groups whether they had their own script that you are aware of, maybe the Yoruba or any other tribes?
Obviously the Yorubas could have used the Ajami, but as I said in the conference, if you are doing a tonal language in Ajami how do you tell the tone? First, there wasn’t a standard Yoruba, and as you probably know it was the missions that created a standard Ibo, which a lot of Igbos disliked. But why bother? Both the Igbo and the Yoruba were more interested in getting education using Roman scripts. And in the 19th century they were using English in Lagos. The Yoruba elite too were becoming Christians although there was a majority Muslim population amongst the Yoruba. And to be honest, if you were going to break into the new world of learning of geography, science and medicine, all the books were in European writing.
Did you encounter any hostilities in the beginning of your research work into the Sokoto Caliphate, being a white man living in Sokoto?
Never in Sokoto. Or if I did, I might have been insensitive to it. The point is that I was an almajiri sort of person, a student, very thin and badly dressed. And living in the Waziri’s house, I was fed by the Waziri’s servants – not the best food, I might say! So I just lived on tuwo miyar kuka and tuwo miyar kuka. Fura if I was lucky. I was the only white person of that stature. I was in my twenties, and Sarkin Kudu, the late (Sultan) Maccido once referred to me when someone asked seeing me there, saying, “Dan gida ne” (He’s one of us). Of which I was terribly proud. I wasn’t a threat to anyone. The only place I was called a Nasara was in Kano Kurmi market when looking at the Arabic books – you know that section by the mosque. Well, it was not offensive to be called Nasara, because once you cross out of Nigeria and go to Niger, Europeans are all called Nasara, Turawa or Bature.
What advice would you give young and upcoming scholars?
The greatest mistake that I made and therefore would warn others not to is not to systematically talk to every old person I could find. That is to say by concentrating on Arabic manuscripts, which don’t die like people do. For instance, I met an old woman who sent to me the Hausa songs of the Fulani who lost their cattle during the epidemics of the 1890s because I didn’t have a tape recorder with me. When I went back three weeks later, she had died.
I will want the young scholars to talk to their grandparents as often as possible about what they knew and treat them like a real living source. Not that the old people will always tell them the truth, that is not the point, but at least you must find out what they knew and then get it back.
The other thing I will advise students to do is to get out of their cars and walk around the countryside. For instance, the other time I was walking just outside the wall of Kano, and I discovered an old shrine where they used to swear by goats and I spoke to few people around and they all knew about it. Is there anyone in B.U.K. who is still interested in doing that kind of thing?
The scholars in Nigeria complain of lack of funding.
To be honest, this is a serious issue. During my days as a student, I was living on 500 pounds per year, and my car consumed half of it because I drove around a lot. To me, I found the countryside more interesting, but the average Nigerian finds it boring. I would like Nigerian students to explore European, Indian and American cultures and they would be surprised at what they will find.
This interview was published in Leadership newspaper, Abuja, on Wednesday, January 16, 2008