Review: William F. S. Miles' My African Horse Problem

Reviewer Tom Hebert (Nigeria 1962-64) is a writer and policy consultant living on the Umatilla Indian Reservation outside Pendleton, Oregon. Here Tom reviews William F.S. Miles book My African Horse Problem published by the University of Massachusetts Press.

my-african-horse-problem-140My African Horse Problem
by William F. S. Miles (Niger 1977-79) with Samuel B. Miles
University of Massachusetts Press
208 pages, 26 illustrations

Reviewed by Tom Hebert (Nigeria 1962–64)

My African Horse Problem recounts the intricacies [sic] of this unusual father-son expedition, a sometimes harrowing two-week trip that Samuel joined as “true heir” to the disputed stallion. It relates the circumstances leading up to the dispute and describes the intimacy of a relationship spanning a quarter century between William Miles and the custodians of his family horse — Islamic village friends eking out a precarious existence along the remote sub-Saharan borderline between Nigeria and Niger.

Bill Miles is a professor of political science at Northeastern University in Boston. His son, Sam Miles who, as a 10 year-old lad, wrote an italicized interlinear of his own journal entries printed in his dad’s book. Sam is now an undergraduate at Yale University.

It’s part ethnography, part coming-of-age story, part adventure, part mystery. And Miles can tell a story. Plus there are over 20 photographs.

Miles’ story begins with his work as a Peace Corps teacher, extending into his return as a Fulbright Scholar, and then his later work as a specialist accepted by both sides in the ongoing border disputes between Niger and its Southern neighbor, Nigeria.

The downside of all this is that Miles has written a too-complex book that requires four pages of front-matter including a Dramatis Personae, a Glossary, and a list of Geographical References. Because the book leaps forward and backward over two decades, to help the reader hold it together it also required a tick-tock, a Time Line.

In February 2000, father and son traveled back to Miles’ village of Peace Corps service (and later the site of his Fulbright-funded work in 1983 on) in the Hausa-speaking borderland between Nigeria and Niger to settle a horse problem. This tale had its beginnings over two decades earlier but now has erupted into Miles’s life. Because in 1998, back home in Boston, he receives a handwritten letter from Niger, West Africa notifying him that there was a serious village dispute involving a descendant of  the “gorgeous dark brown stallion, swift but obedient” he had left behind in 1983 when he had returned to Niger on business involving his knowledge of the borderlands.

(The story turns on a village election when the loser claimed the old chief’s belongings, including the horse from its rightful owner, who was, according to Hausa custom, still Bill Miles!)

In his thoughtful preparation for this trip, Miles spoke with his rabbi concerning this confusing “multi-layered” tale of “disputed ownership of a dead chief’s twice-removed horse” and get such advice as he might. Not only wise, here you will see why this book has a power that comes from the power of the horse.

As I explained the detailed reasons for my son’s and my immanent African journey, seeking some Semitic precedent of possible relevance, Rabbi Franklin took an unexpected tack. Rather than providing a detached talmudic perspective based on rabbinic reason, this modern, clean-shaven, ever-poised cleric of a Conservative Temple turned kabbalistic on me.

“You’ve left part of your neshuma there,” he pronounced.

Even before my likening of the Hausa village to a pre-Holocaust shtetl, a community in which everyone is connected and a place to which you viscerally belonged, my rabbi understood. He saw that there still was a part of my neshuma, my soul, wandering horseback south of the Sahara. Did this neshuma, now sobered by fatherhood, still require an actual horse to claim as its own in Africa?

Horses will do that to you, trust me on that.

Much of the book tells about his Peace Corps service, teaching school in this tiny dirt-poor Nígerian village of Yekuwa, and how he fell in with a PCV already there who had a horse. He found the old horse culture was falling apart: “For even in Yekuwa, the prenuptial practice of bringing the virgin girl on horseback to her groom’s house has now been abandoned.”

But even decades later when he describes how his horse “scampered” through the bush, we know horses and Miles aren’t yet an item. Horses don’t scamper. But Miles fully admits that he is no horseman and he does learn the basics and learns to love and care for his horse. Wait, that does make him a horseman. The basic definition of a horseman being someone who likes to sit in the corner of his horse’s stall and drink a beer. Miles could do that.

Stewart Brand’s old Whole Earth Catalog — more book reviews than anything else — would always give a succinct description/evaluation of a recommended book, then let it speak for itself for several long paragraphs. This to give the reader actual useful information as well as a taste of the book itself. While this is not a book on how to get on in the world successfully and sustainably, the scenes that describe his many meetings with village and regional leaders that led up to the satisfactory settlement bring us into those subtle but gentile African village minds-we wish we had been there too — Third Goal stuff.

The following dialog is Miles’ translation of the original Hausa.

I ask to speak with Alhaji Aminu alone. The squat, round-faced, round-bellied chief in white robe take me to his compound. . . . I extend my right hand and, taking his, also grasp it with my left.

“Salaam Aleikum,” says the chief. In a new sitting situation, we need to greet anew. “You are welcome. It is a pleasure to see you. How was your journey?”

“It passed in health.”

“How is the mistress of the household?”

“Loiza asked me to greet you.”

“Ah, thanks, thanks.”

“And she said to greet the entire community.”

“The entire community? We are thankful. We are thankful.” He waits.

“Alhahi Aminu. I received word about the demise of the old chief.”

“May he rest in peace,” says the new chief in Arabic., a bolt of grief pocking his face and inflecting his voice.

“May Allah rest his soul,” I commiserate in Hausa. “May Allah preserve us all. May Allah allow the old chief to rest in peace.”


“This is the first thing I wanted to say.”

“There is no fault in it.”

“I remember him. Just like before, when I used to live here as a son of the village.”

“It is so.”

“That is the reason I have come. With Sama’ila. Together with him.”

“We are thankful.”

Here another scene from near the end of the book:

Even on this momentous day, joining son with horse and successfully riding duo out in the West African bush, I am a flawed father: I yell at Sam for not watching where he puts his feet. Later I shall apologize, and he shall forgive me, breaking my heart as he blames himself for his clumsiness. Why cannot I be more like my own father, who never raised his voice at me?

The same event from Miles’ son Sam’s journal:

After dinner of couscous, beans and tuna I went to bed and forgot to brush my teeth. Whoopsies!

. . . . These are the moments I cherish most in Hausaland: sitting outside in the quiet night air, no distractions, just a few friends discussing the village day, pondering world events (as recounted in Hausa by the BBC and Voice of America) and reinforcing our human solidarity by sheer congregation. Except for nearby Yardaje there is not other community the world where I can casually and routinely sit down with half a dozen men who care as intensely about the health and welfare of my  family and myself as here in Yekuwa. . . .  This bonding is not based on shared class or education or religion. Its core is rather a constant and unqualified embrace of the human condition, actualized through the repeated miracle of “seeing and being seen,” and undergirded by an abiding belief in the dignity of life.

I fully appreciate the irony: I am so thoroughly accepted here precisely because I am an anomaly, a White (and therefore rich) Man from a greatly distant but widely admired country. But skin color and Americanhood do not guarantee my place in this corner of Muslim Black Africa.; for sure, neither does being Jewish. I have earned my friendships in Hausaland. . . .

So, along with Bill Miles, his young but wiser son Sam, and all the Hausas, Bill Miles kept in his heart for decades, let us say goodbye one last time to the beautiful horse, Sa’a (sob) and as Sam says goodbye to the Sarkin Fulani — the Chief-let’s listen while Sam plays the Sarkin a farewell song on his violin.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Copyright © 2022. Peace Corps Worldwide.