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By Romanus Ugwu
In almost every part of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), it is becoming common to see crowds gathered in a circle engulfed in the admiration of scenes created by people manipulating snakes.
From towns on the outskirts like Nyanya, Kuje, Gwagwalada, Bwari, Lugbe to neighbouring border towns like Mararaba, there are spectacles of these mystics do impossible things.
Usually displayed by the roadsides in places like Wuse Market and other markets, snake charmers and performers with exotic animals and reptiles , who sometimes sell wares on he sidelines, have continued to sustain the age-long the trend.
In some instances, there would be deadly snakes like pythons, mambas and cobras and other reptiles on display. At other times, wild animals of different kinds or domesticated monkeys acting like human beings, obeying orders from their masters are the focus of the show.
In most cases, the animals are deployed by local herb vendors to attract patrons to their herbs that are said to cure all manner of illnesses ranging from headaches and back pains to barrenness and HIV.
While some of the vendors engage in the manipulation of the snakes or monkeys, the other business partners would take charge of the microphone announcing their mission, introducing and working on the psyche of the crowd to persuade them about the potency of the herbs. Some others would reach out to the crowd to sell the powdered concoctions and fluids.
Intermittently, a section of the crowd would head in different directions regardless of the dangers of running into a moving vehicles just to escape the more dangerous bite of the snakes surging towards them.
While the show lasts, the crowd that sometimes numbers hundreds of people, comprising the old and young, men and women, would abandon every other commitment to watch the spectacle.
At some other places, the crowd would gather round all kinds of leaves neatly assembled on the flour, which the vendors claimed could cure every health challenge confronting mankind.
Whether one had ailments as threatening as cancer or as minor as headache, the herb vendors would confidently assure the crowd that the final solution to their illness lay in the consumption of the powdered herbs packaged in sachets or bottles or the leaves, as the case may be.
To finally win the interest of some stubbor, reluctant buyers, they would invite random people from the crowd, who in most cases were really members of their group, presumed to have patronised them previously, to testify to the efficacy of the herbs and bury any further doubts.
Unfortunately, this theatre-circus in the FCT has often left in its trail unhappy endings, as most of the people in the crowd would notice rather too late that their valuables, ranging from money to handsets, have mysteriously disappeared from their pockets or bags.
The modus operandi
Many would want to know how the herb sellers manipulate dangerous snakes like cobras without ibeing bitten.
Again, how do we understand and appreciate the efforts and worthwhile exercise that went into the manipulation of the monkeys to submissively interpret and respond to their instructors’ commands to dance, sit, eat, jump and stand on either one or both legs?
Is there really any iota of truth behind the perceived mysticism in the disappearance of the belongings of the onlookers? Beyond the testimonies of secret members of the business groups, how potent and efficient are the herbs and medicinal leaves?
Finally, what gave the vendors the courage and confidence to operate without caring whether the FCT authorities would arrest them? And what are the financial rewards that could make the vendors embark on such a risky venture?
Vendors reveal what goes into the show
One of the members of the cartel, who identified himself as Yakubu, revealed that their first assignment in assembling the group would be to put together a team comprising snake handlers, public announcers, the real vendors responsible for the one-on-one contact with the crowd and other sundry staff.
“Getting to this level of displaying before the crowd involves so many things,” Yakubu managed to say in Pidgin English, adding: “Man must survive now. You have to battle many odds to remain in the business and I know very well that doing this is better than being an armed robber.
“We started by sourcing the snakes and understanding the methodology of their behaviours and how to control them to checkmate them from biting and inflicting pains on the crowd. We first try as much as possible to ensure that nothing rattles the snakes and any of them that tries to become violent we will return it to the wooden box you see here.
“The good thing is that we have not recorded any case of snake bite but we have also gone the extra mile to ensure that we use herbs to remove the venom. Above all, we are very careful in ensuring that the snakes do not go out of control. We have over six big snakes but we have only two on the ground at a time.
“Our first mission is to attract people with the display of the snakes and persuade them to buy our herbs while enjoying watching the animals. Our major target is the sale of the herbs, which have been proven to be good in healing all kinds of sicknesses.
“We don’t sell fake medicines and it is not true that we arrange those testifying on the efficacy of the herbs. They are real people that have used the herbs to cure their illness in the past. Yes, we did not do any laboratory test to know if it can cure AIDS and HIV but I know that the herbs we sell are very strong and effective,” he said.
Joblessness and entertainment boost patronage
Despite the complaints of theft, inefficacy of the herbs and inherent danger that the snakes pose to the audience that have trailed the activities of these herb vendors, their presence has continued to draw even bigger crowds to the scene of the circus.
Speaking to Daily Sun, Eugene, a trader, blamed the rampant joblessness in the country and the unending need of youths to have entertainment as being responsible for the continuous patronage.
“How can a working class person have time for that kind of rubbish? Most of the people there are jobless persons that have no serious thing to do. Look at the risk they expose themselves to watching dangerous , including pythons, crawling inside the circle.
“Majority of the people gathered there may be bored at home and looking for where to while away time and kill boredom. They get entertained by the way the actors display and handle the snakes. Most of them belong to what I may call the entertainment generation. If they are not wasting time and resources at football viewing centres, it will be places like this.
“Again, even if the herbs are effective, how can they cure all kinds of health problems, including back pains, arthritis and HIV, as they claimed? The meaning is that those patronising them have no money to go to the hospital. The herbs are too cheap to cure the range of illnesses they claimed.
“I heard that people were mysteriously robbed of their valuables there. Inasmuch as I won’t put the whole blame on the actors, I want to think that some people may be so engrossed with the snake manipulation that they may not notice when pickpockets remove their belongings. I won’t advice any serious-minded person to waste time watching that trash,” Eugene said.
Reacting to the mysterious robbery, one of the actors said: “I don’t have anything to say about people losing their handsets, money and other belongings. We don’t manipulate the crowd with juju and, if there is anything like robbery, it must be pickpockets taking advantage of the opportunity that our presence provided,” he said.
Failure of FCT regulatory authorities
There is no question about whether their activities spread to every part of the country have been as old as Nigeria’s independent, but of concern should be why the FCT authorities allow them to operate unrestrained in a metropolitan city and seat of power like Abuja.
However, the reasons for the lukewarm response of the authorities may obvious. According to Yakubu, it has so much to do with the psychology and smartness of the vendors.
Responding to what gave them the courage to openly sell unauthorised herbs as drugs, he said: “You know that, psychologically, the monitoring authorities may be afraid to confront us because, I believe that in their thinking, anybody who can manipulate snakes to such submissive extent must have some supernatural powers, equipped with fetish juju.”
“The truth is that it will be difficult for police to arrest us, not because we are above the law but because of fear of the snakes. If they arrest us, where would they keep the snakes at the police station? How many people would be comfortable to stay under the same roof with snakes? What happens to the snakes if we abandoned them in that open place?
“However, on our own, we try not to have any misunderstanding with anybody which might result in the authorities disturbing us. We know very well that we are not above the law of the land but we have to do something to survive,” he quipped.
Police vow to crush the menace
Although the spokesperson of the FCT police command, Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Anjuguri Manza, could not confirm whether police have made any arrest or make any categorical statement of their action plan to deal with the menace, he however only noted that police are collaborating with the FCT Environmental Board.
Asked to confirm the claims of the vendors that police cannot arrest them, DSP Manza told Daily Sun on telephone that: “All I can tell you is that the FCT police command are working with FCT Environmental Board to clear the city of such menace. We will do everything we can”.