A Visit to the Modibo

Modibo Sali's Compound
Last week, Ishmael, dressed in a nice boubou with a Saudi scarf draped around his shoulders and another wrapped around his face and head like a mummy, walked me down Ngatt’s main road amidst the early morning dew and cold. We slowly ambled along the side of the road, drinking in the brisk air and the rising 6:00am sun as men began taking their cows out of their concessions to let them graze on the roadside herbs. Ismael and I were heading to a man I had wanted to have a one-on-one chat with for a while: Modibo Sali. 

Modibo Sali is a regionally well-known Islamic scholar who has seen me out and about Ngatt on many occasions. A few weeks ago he walked me home one afternoon merely so he had time to converse with me in my limited Fulfulde. As he dropped me off at my home he told me, “Now I know where you live, so you have to come visit my house soon”. I figured he was just a kind, wizened Fulbe man who wanted to be hospitable, which is not uncommon in Ngatt. But a few days later, I passed him again, and Ishmael and Oumarou informed me he was a well-known Islamic scholar, and the most prominent person in Ngatt. Another few days passed and I saw Modibo Sali sitting on a roadside log with my landlord, conversing in rapid Fulfulde and watching cars pass (one of the most preferred pastimes in Ngatt). When I approached, he exclaimed to me in Fulfulde, “You still haven’t been to my house!”. I laughed and joked with him a bit, and then we arranged a meeting for me to come to visit him. “Does 6:00am tomorrow work for you?”. Sure! I was so excited to finally have a meeting with Modibo Sali. Given that I'm aiming at getting a Ph.D. focused on insurgency and terrorism, getting a better handle on Islam is definitely of interest to me - not to mention I knew Sali is Nigerian, so I was interested in getting his take on Boko Haram. I spent the night prepping questions should the conversation turn in that direction. I’m such a nerd. 

So there Ishmael and I were, walking to Modibo Sali’s house, which is fairly close to my house at the edge of Ngatt. We approached outside the greeting room/Quran study room. As we neared the doorway, Ismael and I greeted with “A-Salaam Alaikum!”, emphasizing the last syllable while bringing our right feet forward to meet our left foot and stomping it lightly against the dirt and sand floor. We took our shoes off and entered the small hut and settled down on the fuzzy prayer mats with pictures of Mecca’s Grand Mosque on them. After a few minutes, Modibo invited us into his home/bedroom where it was less drafty. 

We migrated to his other house/room, took our shoes off again, and sat cross-legged on the floor as one of Modibo Sali’s kids brought in a pot of burning charcoal for us to cozy up next to. We put our hands out over the charcoal to warm up and began getting to know each other, as BBC Hausa played on the small radio in the corner. 

Besides being an incredibly genial man, Modibo Sali is also knowledgeable and interesting. Modibo is from Yola, Adamawa, Nigeria - a town menaced by Boko Haram. Modibo Sali looked into the burning embers with his arms outstretched in front of him as he shook his head in sorrow and said in Fulfulde, “Boko Haram are bad, and they threaten my dear home”. In his youth, Modibo Sali moved to Kano, Nigeria (another town frequently the victim of Boko Haram attacks) to study Islam under Imam Ibrahim Niass’ family. 

Imam Ibrahim Niass is the leader of the Tareeqa al-Tijaniyya al-Ibrahimiyya branch of the Tijānī Sufi order within the Sunni sect of Islam. Ibran Niass is from Senegal, but his branch of Islam has spread past the borders of the senegambia and throughout North and West Africa. On one of his trips to Mecca, the Emir of Kano Nigeria at the time, Alhaji Abdullahi Bayero, decided to become a disciple to Niass. At this time, Imam Niass gained a huge following in Northern Nigeria that has since spread throughout the Grand North of Cameroon. Now his picture with his bushy white chinstrap beard is posted on stickers in nearly every taxi in the Adamawa. 

Thirty years ago, after studying under Imam Nass’ family for a decade, all the while learning Hausa and Arabic, Modibo Sali decided to travel to Cameroon. He traveled around the Tibati area and realized there was no Modibo (Islamic scholar) in western Adamawa. When he visited Ngatt, he fell in love with the village and decided to stay. Now Modibo Sali is the most prominent Islamic scholar in western Adamawa, and all the Imams come to him if they have questions. In Ngatt, Modibo Sali has the largest Quranic school and our mosque’s Imam studies under him.
Modibo's Compound

Time was running short before his Quranic class began, so Modibo Sali and I didn’t talk as long as I wanted (which would have been all day), but he invited me back for more tea and discussion when I return after the holidays. Even though our discussion on Boko Haram was kept short this time, he told me a bit about the micro-level response to Boko Haram where he’s from in Northeastern Nigeria. He explained to me the about the dambanga, who are the traditional vigilante forces in Northestern Nigeria and the Grand North of Cameroon. 

In Ngatt we have the chief dambanga of all western Adamawa, who coordinates the vigilante response to any security threats. In Ngatt the Dambanga survey the town at night, making sure no mischief is occurring, they take care of the road bandits, and they make note of foreigners in Ngatt. If anyone arrives in Ngatt that looks like they are outside of the Tibati area, the dambanga alert the sous-prefet. The dambanga were created a little over a decade ago when road banditry was at its apex, and now that banditry is less common, they now deal more with thievery and protecting from Boko Haram and any problems the CAR refugees bring with them.
The dambanga in Ngatt are nearly the same thing as the vigilantes fighting Boko Haram in Nigeria. Where the government falls short in terms of security and protection, the village responds by sending out the dambanga. Given that the Nigerian government and military are both severely lacking and under equipped, the vigilantes step in. 

While it’s a bit strange that the military isn’t effective in protecting against Boko Haram despite their guns, tanks and what have you, the dambanga have what they believe to be a more effective weapon: blendé. Blendé is a traditional witchcraft-y ‘remedy’ that is found in the forest, which the dambanga collect and rub all over their body, smoke, and grind to drink. This ‘remedy’ supposedly makes the dambanga ‘invinsible’. During the bandity days of Ngatt the bandits would drop their weapons and surrender at the mere sight of the blendé-protected dambanga. My landlord and friends argue they’ve seen knives bend when someone tries to stab a dambanga. Bullets, grenades, knives - all these are supposedly useless against the dambanga, or so all the villagers say. 

Modibo Sali explained this all to me, and how this is making the dambanga “effective” in combating Boko Haram in Northeast Nigeria - at least when compared to the government army. He also explained to me that it is a common belief among both Cameroonians and Nigerians that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathnan is behind Boko Haram in order to induce chaos in the North to discourage voter turnout in order to turn the election in his favor. They claim Jonathan fears stability and development in northern Nigeria because it would threaten his hold on power and his interests, and while Jonathan might not like Boko Haram’s ideology, he is using them opportunistically to secure the February election. 

While the validity on all that is debatable, although not absurd, it was interesting to hear a local interpretation on the root causes of the conflict. Modibo Sali explained to me that “President Jonathan, poverty, lack of education and misinterpretations of the Quran” are at fault for the creation and strength of Boko Haram. Modibo Sali is a treasure trove of information and opinions, and he was enthusiastic to share his knowledge with me. Around 7:30 children began filtering in the study room with their small chalkboards with Arabic written on them, and they began to sing verses of the Quran. We took that as our cue to leave and bid our goodbyes to Modibo. 

I look forward to the next 9 months I have to pick Modibo’s brain and to learn about Islam and Nigeria. The more time I spend in Ngatt, the more and more I learn that while it is a small village, it has a cast of very interesting characters.


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