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still feeling sheepish

By now the story of the man who turned into a sheep in Ilorin has been circulated and commented upon, and is already fading from the news. But before it slips completely from view, I want to look at some of the stories around it, how those stories were told, and what is revealed by the tellings.

Like everyone else, I found the report tasty. Absurdity has its thrills. But I was also interested in the way the story was reported, particularly the differences between Nigerian and British coverage of the story.

For the BBC, it is important to present such stories as a straight “news of the weird” item, to simplify the narrative and reactions to it as much as possible. The average British reader would have come away from the report thinking, “This is what Nigerians believe.” It wouldn’t be fair to blame the journalists for this; I know that the very question of what story gets run is an editorial matter.

In fact, the BBC’s Abuja correspondent, Andrew Walker, was better than most in this regard, including a range of local opinions. My critique is more about systemic biases than about particular journalists—how, and why, is a story like this packaged for British consumption?

For the Nigerian media – at least in its more enlightened corners—the story was reported much more accurately. It was told as a contest between epistemologies, between theories of knowledge: there were the believers (the leader of the vigilantes, Omoniyi Nasirudeen, and Aafa Onifowose, the local Imam who “confirmed” the story, though he wasn’t an eyewitness); the agnostics, who refused to commit entirely to one version or the other (the police officers); and the non-believers who were a little embarrassed at having to make public statements about such things (the state police commissioner).

All of these are included in the narrative. I especially enjoyed NTA’s ironic angle, encapsulated in the attempt by journalist, Funke Ibidamisan, to talk to the sheep:

“Hello?… (silence). Hello, Sheep? Are you a human being?… (more silence). Well you can see, as expected, the sheep is not answering me. So, what do you think?”

The nub of the issue is precisely that: what do you think? Yes, there are people who excitedly “confirm” the story, but there are also those who scoff at it and refuse to engage. And there’s a third group who see that the story says interesting things about the production of knowledge, that it hints at a larger question: how do we know what we know? Is the Bermuda Triangle real? Do UFOs exist? Is it true or is it not true that God magically made a sheep appear to Abraham just as he was about to sacrifice his boy?

It would be important, in my view, to bring this “what do you think” to the centre of any such story, so that it is clear that there are competing versions of truth. Nothing is settled – this is what British people listening to the BBC need to understand when they are encountering a “weird” story about Nigeria.

They must get it that they are neither more nor less reasonable than their Nigerian counterparts; in all modern societies, people make a distinction between what is scientifically substantiated and what isn’t, and that distinction does not fall uncomplicatedly into “true” and “false.”

But it is perhaps necessary for the BBC, in order to perpetuate the “Rule Britannia” myth, to constantly suggest that “weird” is out there: in Brazil, in Nigeria, in India, anywhere but inside their own civilisation. Whatever happens close to home can be explained and taken seriously. Distance estranges.

Yet, the story of shape-shifting is as old as the hills. We all know the tale of the princess and the frog. She kisses him one day, and the spell is broken: he becomes a prince. Meanwhile, the Greek god Zeus, to trick unsuspecting maidens, took on many guises: bull, cloud, swan, shower of gold. These are the prerogatives of a horny god.

For the Romans, too, shape-shifting was endlessly fascinating. One of their most popular texts was Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which is full of stories of people becoming something other than people. Daphne was turned into a laurel tree in her bid to escape Apollo. Actaeon accidentally offended Artemis, and for his pains was transformed into a stag, and killed by his own hounds.

One of the twentieth-century’s greatest books, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, opens with the line: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” Why has this story become one of the iconic works of literature? Gregor Samsa is a stand-in for those of us who sometimes say, “I just don’t feel like myself today.”

And even in parts of Britain, it is believed that witches convert themselves into hares in order to steal milk and butter. A wonderful recent poem, “The Lammas Hireling” by Ian Duhig, is centred on such a story. Someone hired a farm-worker at a county fair, only to later catch him, one night, turning into a hare.

The point of all these stories is this: the border between humans and animals is porous. This is not a new thing, nor is it a Nigerian thing. It seems to fulfill a deep-seated need—a narrative need—and I think we should resist the temptation to say that the stories that express this need are somehow tied to illiteracy.

After all, on the level of metaphor and religious symbolism, we continue to think of animals as a kind of double for people. Animal sacrifice, as anthropologists have shown, is a substitute for human sacrifice. Sins are transferred to the sheep, to the “scapegoat,” and the animal bears the brunt of human misdemeanour.

So, as goes Rome, goes Ilorin: the police commissioner of Kwara state command eventually ordered the accused sheep auctioned. It was sold off, as “unclaimed goods,” for a mere N300. It is a wonderful story, one Ovid would have been pleased to include in his book.

But I have questions. Did the sheep eventually end up in a bowl of pepper soup? Are those who partook of any such meal at risk of being charged with cannibalism? And do these intrepid souls now feel an occasional urge to go into the crowded city streets and steal a Mazda?

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