Social Geogrphy

Sukur social geography

It is now 2020, twenty nine years since we, Nic David and Judy Sterner, first set off in June from Mefir Suku to walk to where the northern paved way begins to climb up the Sukur plateau to greet the then chief, Hidi Ziraŋkwadə, to seek his permission for us to study Sukur culture and history. This was our first exposure to Sukur as a place, and unforgettable especially since Hidi invited us to spend the night in his fascinating residence, what Sukur describe as the “Hidi house”. Returning a year later and living in a small house on the Patla ceremonial are, part shaded by a magnificent baobab and some 40 meters from the Hidi house, our research took us on foot all over the Sukur plateau, to Kurang and Damay, and beyond to Wula and other settlements, mountains and streams. Little by little we began to gain an appreciation of Sukur as a place. Focused as we were on ethnography, history, economy and material culture, we did not investigate but rather familiarized ourselves bit by bit with Sukur’s cultural landscape, within which most Sukur live most of their lives. A sense of place is fundamental to participation in a culture. Compared with a Sukur child’s growing apprehension of his or her world, the researcher’s is far less rich, but we came, as fieldwork proceeded, to grasp the main aspects of its structure. This page is intended to convey the basics of that structure to the reader.

The Maps

The largest scale maps of Sukur available to us are the Nigeria 1:50,000 Madagali sheets 136 NW and SW, published in 1969 by the (British) Directorate of Overseas Services for the Nigeria Government. The air photography was carried out in 1963 with field completion in 1967 by the Northern Nigeria Ministry of Town and Country Planning. The eastern part of these maps extends into Cameroon, additional detail (but not contours) being supplied by 1965 Carte de l’Afrique Centrale 1:50,000 maps prepared by the French Institut Géographique National. These are all not only handsome but also accurate maps insofar as physical features are concerned. However, names for features, for example watercourses, are often in either Hausa or Fulfulde, not corresponding to those used by local residents. Similarly the names of settlements do not always correspond with those current in the 1990s. In some cases this may be due to population movements, in others to misunderstandings between mapmakers, none of whom would have spoken Sakun, and their informants.

Map 1. The Sukur plateau and environs, showing Sukur and its Nigerian neighbors. The Nigeria-Cameroon border is crudely marked by dot-dash and broad pink lines. The Sukur plateau corresponds approximately with the 3000’ contour. On the plateau the small Damay and Kurang chiefdoms are indicated together with Sukur wards (giwa) as they were in 1992. A blackX marks the Hidi house. Spellings overlaid in red, green (mountains) and blue (watercourses) on this 2004 map may not correspond with those presently used. For example Mëldung Mt, the massif west of Sukur, we now term Mədləŋ Massif. See Map 2 for information on ethnicity. Source: Nigeria 1:100,000, Madagali, Sheet 136 (1970), produced by photo-reduction of the 1:50,000 maps based on 1965-67 field data..

Since 2004 we have had access first to Google Earth and then to Google Earth Pro (GEP), both extraordinary software programs of immense value to the field worker since on their satellite images, fused into panoramas, one can distinguish individual trees and buildings, and locate the centers of settlement units, larger shrines and other natural and humanly constructed features. GEP also allows one to view subject areas in many different scales, perspectives and at different dates. Thus, for example, one can tilt the image to gain a better idea of the topography (Map 2), or study the spread at Sukur of corrugated galvanized iron (pan) roofing at the expense of traditional thatching from 2009 to the present. The correlation between the positioning of natural features on GEP and the 1960s maps appears very good. (The summit of Mt (Ŋwa) Muva, the highest point on the Sukur massif, agrees in both latitude and longitude in decimal minutes to the 3rd decimal place.)

Map 2. The Sukur plateau and environs seen from the south in a tilted GEP view with vertical scale much exaggerated. The sub-rectangular plateu, some 400m (1350') above the plain, is defined by steeep dropoffs to the north and south, the deep, narrow Təcini valley on the east and the broader Nawu valley on the western side. The steep Muzzawat valley penetrates the northwest corner of the plateau and, once on the plateau, is known as the Guzka stream. The Sukur (Sakun), Damay and Kurang plateau chiefdoms are indicated. The Mefir Suku market center to the north is located on the plain at the tip of a spur running north from the plateau. Base image: Google Earth Pro Landsat-Copernicus image, 2020

The social geography of Sukur that we describe here and in the maps is, as closely as we can reconstruct it, that of the 1990s. At the start of the 20th century montagnard settlements were located on the heights where they could best defend themselves from slave raiders, of whom the most feared was Hamman Yaji, Fulbe ruler of Madagali. Montagnards did not dare to settle on the then largely forested plains unless under his protection — which was expensive. In December 1920 Hamman Yaji was required by the British to desist from slave raiding. At that time there were only two Sukur settlements on the plains around the northern base of the Sukur massif, Mədləŋ (Milding) and “Blama Zugorio’s”, both having made accommodations with Madagali. Hamman Yaji was deposed by the British in 1927 and from this time on montagnards began to descend from the hills in larger numbers, taking advantage of land that had become both available and safe to occupy. With the collapse of the iron industry in the 1950s colonization of the plains picked up speed but the Nigerian maps of the 1960s still show the plains for the most part sparsely occupied, with small built up areas, especially along the main Maiduguri-Bama-Madagali-Mubi-Yola road, and a light scatter of compounds (residences) and buildings elsewhere. Mefir Suku, now the main market serving the Sukur community, does not exist on Map 1 which shows the track from the north ending in an area designated “Mildo”.

Recent GEP images show far denser plains settlement with towns where the maps show only villages. A general increase in population has also led to administrative changes. For example the boundaries of village wards (giwa) are not infrequently adjusted, and a Sukur district was created in 1993. Thus the Sukur we describe is that of our “ethnographic present”, the period 1991-96, as it was shown and described to us by our Sukur informants. Wards are the smallest official administrative unit, primarily used for tax collection but also the basis for community groupings, for example Young Farmers associations. Wards are divided informally into named sub-wards. A complicating factor is that names for residential groupings often appear in sets at different scales. Thus the Sukur plains wards west of the Sukur massif and its northern exension towards Mefir Suku are often collectively referred to as Rugudum but include one ward by the same name; similarly the eastern wards are known collectively as Mataka. Up on the mountain, Duŋgom ward contains within it several sub-wards, one of which is called Duŋgom, and there are other examples.

Our application of the term “Mədləŋ massif” to the massif immediately west of Sukur across the Nawu valley conforms to the advice of our 1992-93 assistants (one of whom was of Mədləŋ clan). The northern extremity of this massif is labeled the “Shelmi hills” on the 1960s maps, indicative of Margi dominance, but the massif as a whole is unnamed on the maps.

Map 3. Sakun (i.e upper Sukur) and selected settlements of near neighbors by dominant ethnicity: Sakun-speaking (yellow), Margi (purple), Kapsiki-Kamwe (pink), Lamang (green), and the Fulbe-dominated but much mixed Madagali (white). The yellow line marks the international boundary, running for much of its length along the scarp on the western edge of the main Mandara mountains chain. The white line separates the Nigerian states of Borno, to the north and west, and Adamawa. Base image: Google Earth Pro Landsat-Copernicus image, 2020.

In Map 3 Sukur-speaking settlements are differentiated from those of their immediate neighbors, while SAKUN indicates Sukur Sama on the western part of the Sukur plateau. The Damay chiefdom is Sukur-speaking but was never subject to Sukur. Margi settlements are located to Sukur’s north, west and south, Kamwe (formerly called Higi) and Kapsiki further south and to the east, with the much smaller Mabas group of Lamang-speakers to the northeast, and the town of Madagali in the north. Madagali was once a Mandara state outpost but in the 19th century was conquered by Adamawa, the southeastern emirate in the Hausa-Fulbe (Fulani) empire of Usman Dan Fodio of Sokoto. At the turn of the 20th century it was held by Fulbe under Ardo Bakari and then his son and successor Hamman Yaji, the notorious slaver. The Fulbe speak a language of the Atlantic (i.e., westernmost) group of the Niger-Congo family. Nowadays the population of Madagali is mixed with many inhabitants of Mandara montagnard origin, including two largely Sukur wards.

All of the montagnard groups are linguistically related to the Sukur, being members of the Biu-Mandara (or Central Chadic) group of the Chadic branch of the Afroasiatic language family (or phylum).

Pin Color

Biu-Mandara Branch


N langs in branch















Sakun (Sukur)


The extent of linguistic differentiation of these branches indicates that thousands of years have passed since the proto-language began to differentiate and several hundreds of years since Biu-Mandara languages were established in this region. Sakun is the only member of the A6 group and the ritual seniority accorded Sukur by many of its neighbors suggests that the Sakun language has long been evolving on the Sukur plateau.

At the start of the 20th century Madagali was the seat of a powerful predatory Fulbe chieftaincy that formed part of the Adamawa Emirate with its capital at Yola. The speakers of Biu-Mandara languages were organized in small chiefdoms that traded and at times fought with each other, but whose major political aim was to protect their people from enslavement and their livestock from theft, the Fulbe being the main threat. Among the Margi, the Gulak chiefly line claimed descent from that of Sukur.  Several villages had agreements with Hidi Sukur enabling Sukur men to burn charcoal on their territory. This charcoal was essential to Sukur’s iron smelting and forging as was the magnetite iron ore, much of which was collected by Sukur women in Kamwe villages but also eleswhere. The Kamwe and Kapsiki to the south are regarded by Wouter van Beek (e.g., 1987), the anthropologist most closely associated with them, as a single ethnic group split into two by the international border with the Kamwe in Nigeria and Kapsiki in Cameroon. During the mandate period (1920-61) all these groups were progressively integrated into the quasi-colonial French and British systems. Chiefs progressively lost their autonomy and took on various functions as judges and intermediaries between their people and various levels of government, most immediately in Nigeria the Local Government Authorities (LGAs). In the area of Sukur, this is the Madagali LGA which however in the 1990s had its administrative center in Gulak. 

The Sakun speakers

Map 4. The distribution of Sakun-speakers (yellow) and some close Kapsiki-speaking neighbors (pink). Hamlets on the Mədləŋ massif to the west and largely abandoned Muduvu to the northeast are indicated by small upper case text. Villages are indicated by a larger upper-case font. Sakun-speaking wards (giwa) on the plain and on the Sukur plateau, all with larger populations than the hamlets, are labelled in lower-case text. Kasa (Hausa for “down below”) when appended to a village name, as in Damay Kasa, indicates a daughter settlement on the plain. The Sukur plains wards (Rugudum, Mədləŋ, Dlandəv, Muvelim, Mataka Central and Mataka Wakda) can be referred to collectively as Sukur Kasa, and similarly those on the Sukur massif (Duŋgom, Dalak and Midala, and Gwassa, Dzuvok, Gwafak and Daza) as Sukur Sama, sama meaning above in Hausa. The Hidi house is indicated by a symbol. Base image: Google Earth Pro Landsat-Copernicus image, 2020.

Map 4 focuses on the Sakun-speaking inhabitants of the Sukur plateau and the plains at its feet. It should be noted that human occupation on the plateau is concentrated near its edges. The interior is reserved for cultivation of crops and the collection of thatching grass and other wild products (Fig. 1). The upper and lower wards (giwa) of Sakun are named, and the Hidi house, located between the Duŋgom and Gwassa wards, is indicated with a symbol. Wards are the smallest administrative unit with a head (bəlama) appointed by the chief, in this case Hidi Sukur. In Sukur Sama in 1992-3 ward populations ranged from 187 to 328 with an average household size of 8.2. We have not attempted to show giwa boundaries since these seem to be defined in terms of households rather than space and are subject to frequent minor changes.

Sukur Sama's upper (Jira) and lower wards (Təka) and their subwards

The Sukur Sama wards form two groups, the upper, Dungom, Midala and Dalak, collectively known as Jira, geographically higher and politically dominant (Map 5). The chiefly Dur clan and their allies, the Shagwam, Karandu, Kiggi and Zwahəi, live mainly in Jira, whereas in Təka, consisting of Gwassa, Dzuvok, Gwafak and Daza, the Yanna, Habəga and Gadə and Ka-Ozha clans are most numerous. The Hidi house is located physically between the ward groups and is not assigned to either. There are 16 title-holders in Jira, including those closest to Hidi, versus 12 in Təka, the latter including a majority of priestly titles (see Table 1). The political tension between Jira and Təka is evident historically and is apparent in ceremonies such as Ɓər, but was not otherwise obvious to us during our fieldwork.

Map 5. Sukur Sama's Jira (Dungom, Midala and Dalak) wards, and the Teka (Gwassa, Dzuvok, Gwafak, and Daza) wards.

Table 1. Title-holders by clan, ward and subward (1992-96)

Note. A query (?) indicates uncertainty or our ignorance.

Hidi and major supporters     
HidiGezik KanakakauDur Tə Dlagamindependentindependent 
Rwa Tliɗinone in 1991-96Dur   
WakiliIshaya ZiraDur Tə DlagamDalakDeghul 
MakarmaPutaŋa JawuliDur Tə DlagamDalakDeghul ? 
Fa tə HidiAli DaataShagwamDzuvokDzuvok? 
MidalaBizha UsmanaKaranduDuŋgomGurundahwa 
TləsukuBarka TləsukuMədləŋ heiDuŋgomTəMandak 
Tləfu (senior)Zira KonyiKwabalaDzuvokMaveluŋwa 
Tləfu (junior)Putaŋa HammatGadəDuŋgomGurundahwa 
TlagamaKwadaRəvai (ɗai)DuŋgomƊiɗa 
TləgəmUwalya KojiKwazhuwaDuŋgomƊiɗa 
DzarmaShetima JazəvaZwahəiDalakTəButə 
Tlyam mbərəm JiraHundu LowaKiggiMidalaFutialso Barkuma
Tlyam mbərəm TəkaSittana GawriYannaGwafakDugbirialso Jir dək’u
Hidi’s lesser suppporters/retainers     
Makarma bin huɗSinne DlamataDur Tə DlagamDalakDeghul? 
TləmezuiJoshua KarojiKəmavuɗGwassaGoeri 
Camanone in 1991-96Kiggi   
Priestly titles     
DalatəMara PouKuləsəgəi mutlinDzuvokKuləsəgəi*Dzuvok before 1993
MbəzəfwaiTara HajiGadəDzuvokDzuvok 
MbəzəfwaiJatow ZiraHabəga humtəvaDuŋgomƊiɗa 
MbəzəfwaiZerahə MadəRəvai (mbəlim)DalakDeghul 
MbəzəfwaiDlera TarkwomaKa-OzhaGwafakDlan Gwafak ? 
MbəzəfwaiZira BesanbaHabəga ‘waiGwafak? 
MbəzəfwaiTanduwo BubaHwatləDazaDaza 
Jir dək’uSittana GawriYannaGwafakDugbirialso Tlyam mbərəm JIra
BarkumaHundu LowaKiggiMidalaFutu 
Ɗai KurɓaTizhe JamareTəvwaGwassaNdilləi 
Tliɗi Ɗaititle lapsedTəvwaGwassaNdilləi 

Map 6 shows the Sukur subwards by ward.

Map 6. The subwards of the Sukur wards. Duŋgom subwards are indicated by green symbols; Dalak subwards by white circles; Midala by yellow hexagons; Gwassa by hollow red squares; Dzuvok by white stars; Gwafak by golden sun symbols and Daza by concentric blue circles. The Hidi house is indicated. Base image: Google Earth Pro Landsat-Copernicus image, 2020.

Upper wards (Jira)

Duŋgom (pop. ~254): this ward (Fig. 2), immediately west of the Hidi house, may be described as the “court” quarter, in which reside six title-holders, some retainers appointed by Hidi, and descendants of former title-holders, several Dur households and others including of Karandu and Shagwam clans, close allies of the Dur from Gudur days, together with Kiggi and Zwahei, later Dur allies. There are four subwards, Tə Mandak immediately west of the Hidi house and Gurundahwa on the Western side of the path leading south to Dalak. Further west are Ɗida and Duŋgom topping a slope down to the west. Duŋgom subward is mainly occupied by Kiggi.

Figure 2. Part of Duŋgom ward with the millet cut and drying in the fields (14 Dec. 1992).

Dalak (pop. ~230): this ward contains the main Sakun-Sama market, the larger of two primary schools and a Catholic church. There are four subwards with most inhabitants in Deghul and Təsesau south of the market. Təbutə is located to the north towards Dunggom, while Kiggi, occupied mainly by Kiggi clansmen is a kilometer away separated by the mass of Mt Muva (Fig. 3). Of the 28 Dalak households, 14 are of the Dur tə dlagam section. There are six title-holders.

Figure 3. The small Kiggi sub-ward of Dalak, seen from Mt Muva on 10 July 1996. It is inhabited mainly by Kiggi clansmen and their families.

Midala (pop. ~336): to the north and east of Dalak the populous Midala ward lies mainly to the north of a path going east that, at the top of a slope, changes into a beautiful section of paved way leading down to the central part of the Sukur plateau. Its name recalls its association with the Midala title-holder and his Karandu clan, the most numerous in the ward, closely followed by Dur of both sections. (The Midala of 1991-6 had moved to Duŋgom ward as his children kept dying.) There are four subwards, Funjiwun, Devdagwa and Tədlan, with Futu, occupied mainly by Kiggi to the southeast. There are presently two title-holders in this ward.

Lower wards (Təka)

Gwassa (pop. ~180): this disparate ward is categorized as part of lower Sukur but has its own distinct characteristics (see Table 2). Dur, Shagwam and Kəmavuɗ clan households cluster beneath beneath the Hidi house in Gwassa subward (Fig. 4). Further north and west are smith/potters of Təvwa clan, located in Ndilləi on a fine stretch of the northern paved way, and nearby their close associates the Dəmsa in Goeri. Both were diminishing in numbers in the 1990s. Members of the Mədləŋ ləiwaɗ clan section specializing in cattle raising live in Bahwa above the steep drop into the Guzka valley. In 1991-96 there were no title-holders resident in Gwassa, however it contains the family compound of late Hidi Ziraŋkwadə Matlay who died in 1991.

Table 2. Clan households in Jira, Gwassa and rest of Təka

Habega ‘wai002
Habega humtəva1011
Mədləŋ həi3010
Mədləŋ ləiwaɗ006
Kuləsəgəi mutlin060
Kuləsəgəi zagwam010
Dur tə dlagam1400
Dur təka1322
Figure 4. Gwassa subward of Gwassa ward seen from the Hidi house (6 June 1991). The light-colored thatching of rooms and granaries was done during the preceding dry season, mostly from February to May. Note the leafless white acacia (A. albida) on the left.

Dzuvok (pop. ~328): This ward is the most populous in lower Sukur, and it was perhaps for this reason that five households were transferred from it to Midala in December 1992. Subwards include Kuləsəgəi, Dzuvok, the largest, and a kilometer to the east, Fa and Maveluŋwa, with 1.3 km further east and slightly south of Fa, the near-abandoned subward of Medo, itself about a kilometer west of the edge of the deep Tecini valley. The Yanna, Gadə (including the associated Ka-Ozha) and Shagwam clans are the most numerous in this ward. The Kuləsəgəi subward includes the house of the Dalatə, popularily described as Sukur’s chief priest and in fact the descendant of the chiefly dynasty preceding and replaced by the Dur. Besides the Dalatə, there are three other title-holders, the Fa tə Tliɗi, the senior Tləfu and one of the Mbəzəfwai.

Gwafak (pop. ~189) Gwafak ward is located to the north of Dzuvok and coprises three subwards: Dugbiri just south of the Guzka valley, Səsau to the east and west of the Gwafak stream (Dlan Gwafak), a north flowing tributary of the Guzka, and a subward called Dlan Gwafak east of that stream. Eighteen of the households are of the Yanna and Mədləŋ clans. There are four title-holders, one being Tlyam mbərəm Təka, the Hidi’s “ear” in lower Sukur, and three in the priestly category.

Daza (pop. ~271) Daza, across the Guzka stream, is the northernmost ward and includes subwards Guzka to the east and Daza to the west and north. Habəga humtəva, Mədləŋ həi, and Ka-Mariya clan households are most common, the latter being relatively recent smith/potter immigrants from the east, via Damay. A Mbəzəfwai is the only title-holder.

Our knowledge of Sukur is not enough for us to explore the significance of the subwards in relationship to politics or any other aspect of life. We leave that topic for future researchers.

TO BE CONTINUED! ND hopes to add other information on paved ways, shrines, etc, ……. but not for a while.

Culture Of The Mandara Mountains.