The cattle market of Ilela

It was 2009, during my trip to Sokoto that one of my interpreters told me about the little known town of Ilela, North of Sokoto city.

The conversation started with my inquiry on the many truck trailers carrying heads of cattle through the city during my field visits, and thats when he revealed that these cattle were being transported from a town called Ilela.

I was interested and requested for a trip down there….Mohammed‘s reaction was a mix of nervousness and surprise. I got that, and when I asked him, he simply said…”master, its dangerous for you….”

I was not one to give up so easily, so I insisted and he relented.

Next day we were off, myself, my driver, the security detail and Mohammed. It took us all of 4 hours to get to this dusty town called Ilela, and on the way we must have passed some 3-5 truck loads of lean cattle.

The scene was ripped off a Hollywood western ; only difference, there we have cowboys, here we had a motley bunch of Nigerians of all sizes, wearing the traditional “Buba” and cap, some in not -so-traditional T’s, shirts, pants, jeans….

Mohammed made the initial inquiries about the Ilela cattle market and in a short while we were there….

there were no vehicles, only loads of cattle head bobbing about in separate pens, goat, Cows (no pigs mind you, this is a strict Muslim land, where Sharia is the law!!)

Mohammed again made the inquiries, and came back to me to let me know that the guy incharge of the operations , Alhaji (one who has been to the Haj in Mecca), Mudasir was in and that he would be more than happy to welcome me to his office.

I stepped off the car gingerly , and as I did, a slow gasp went off in the group, who were probably not expecting a white foreigner to come all to the way to their little known town!!


I smiled to them, and without an exchange of glances, wished them all good morning in Hausa, the local language, and that seemed to ease these guys a whole lot….

I walked with Mohammed , my driver and the security detail in tow towards the Alhaji’s “office” ,which was nothing but a desk and chair on a carpet inside a tent!


As I entered , I was introduced in Hausa by Mohamed, I kept my eyes on the Alhaji at all times, smiling at him, as Mohamed continued speaking, and when he stopped and looked at me, I greeted the Alhaji in Hausa, which perhaps shocked him, and he immediately started beaming, and asking me in Hausa, if I was a muslim. I smiled and politely said I was not.

It was alright….and the Alhaji bid me sit on a chair brought into his tent by one of the errand boys ( I guess).


Mohamed became our interpreter as the Alhaji and I were engrossed in animated conversation, about the place, its history, the economics etc

After sometime, the Alhaji offered to give me a guided tour of the operations and I took him up on his offer…with my detail in tow, we stepped out of the tent and strolled into the pens…

it was there that I first encountered an ethnic group that I had only read about..the Tuareg.

The tuareg have been portrayed in history and marauding bandits of the Sahara, hardy people’s uniquely adapted to the harsh reality of their land. They are associated with the indigo died cloth that they wear and with the ornate jewelry and traditional arms that they bear- it should be mentioned here, that nowadays they carry the Kalashnikov.


The tuareg come down to this town with heads of cattle to barter for grain and millets.

It was amusing and enlightening to see the Tuareg negotiating endlessly with the “manager” over cups of black sweet tea, over how many sacks of maize would be take for his cow.

When I inquired about the source of the cow that was being bartered by the Tuareg, the sense that I got was this; the Tuareg are not pastoral people and therefore the cow could have been “acquired” from any known source in “any manner”

Bemused I walked with the Alhaji and my detail to the part of the market where they were loading these cows on to large 19 wheel cattle truck trains…