The approaching footfalls didn’t detract the concentration of the little boy. Even as the steps deadened a couple of metres from his position, his face bore no emotion. It was midmorning, and there was no time to waste. Gently, he rowed an improvised raft made of two 25-litre jerry cans with his hands, stalking the sly tilapia fish.
He stopped momentarily to retrieve a couple of tilapia fish stuck to his baits. A smile flitted across his face, as the gentle wave of the water lapped intermittently. He glued his eyes on the water once again with studied silence. The day was still young, and the nimble cluster of fish in the midst of encroaching weeds had to be outwitted sooner than later.
12-year old Tukur Yamta is a solitary fisherman at Tilla Lake. In his world, the more the merrier doesn’t make sense. For him, the fewer, the better. Each day, on his own, he makes good catches capable of earning him, at least, N5, 000 at the nearly Kwaya Bura Market. Good business, that is.
Young Tukur Yamta should thank his God. Many years ago, he wouldn’t have cast a still look at Tilla Lake or fished in its waters. Why? He would have been blinded instantly or would have been scared off by the presence of sacred crocodiles that abound in the lake.
Tilla Lake, located in Kwaya Bura, 10 kilometres southwest of Biu town, in Biu Local Government Area of Borno State, is a mystery lake. Little wonder, it has continued to inspire visits and research interests from far and wide.
Tilla Lake is located behind the gigantic Tilla Hill, the highest point of elevation in Biu Emirate, standing at over 800 metres above sea level. It is a crater lake believed to be volcanic. Two decades ago, it dried up completely, only to miraculously resurge. Surrounded by hills, the bowl-shaped scenery of the lake makes it a wonder to behold. With its amazing cool weather, it has all it takes to woo camping and picnic habitués.
It is a mystery how Tilla Lake came to be habouring freshwater fish. It is a saltwater lake, and historical account had it that, due to its salinity, it didn’t habour fish; rather, it was infested with crocodiles of many colours until recently when the crocodiles were evacuated to a zoo in Maiduguri, the state capital, to make room for fishing and tourism development.
Scientifically, only salmon and some sharks can live in both fresh and salt water. Most freshwater fish cannot live in salt water and vice versa due to their evolution and dependency for their suitable habitat. The diadromous fish, which travel between salt and fresh water, and amphidromous fish, which travel between fresh and salt water, are rare in this part – which is why Tilla Lake doesn’t cease to amaze with its freshwater fish.
Fish literally breathe water through their gills, which means that their blood stream is exposed to the surrounding water across a large area of permeable membrane. But salt tends to move across such a membrane from high concentration to low. The blood of any organism must maintain a narrow level of salt concentration for the organism to live. In fresh water, salt must be retained. In salt water, like Tilla Lake, salt must be excluded. Very few fish can do both, with the exception of salmon, eels, and some sharks.
Defying the strict habitat of salt water, freshwater fish like tilapia and catfish have found a home in Tilla Lake. This miracle is the fishermen’s gains. Mohammed Umar has been a fisherman here for two years. He catches a reasonable amount of fish daily, and makes an average of N6,000 naira from daily sales.
When this reporter visited the lake, his fishing bucket was rather lean, but his tenacity would soon turn the still tide. He told Daily Sun: “I have only caught few fish since morning. Fish is harder to catch during the dry season. But, during the rainy season, from May to August, things improve dramatically.”
For Tilla Lake fishermen, patience is the key. During windy times, like now, Mohammed and his colleagues sat under a shade, hoping that, as the afternoon heat simmered on the water, the retreated swarm of fish would move close to the sea surface for their nets and hooks to feast on.
With his face festooned with a wan smile, Mohammed said: “I am not bothered. We are used to the antics of the Tilla Lake fishes. When the heat is on, the fishes will come out from hiding below, and we make more catches.”
Searching through his phone pictures, he showed the reporter, with glee, some of the biggest catches he had made in the past, much bigger than what he had now. He boasted: “I am famed for catching the biggest fish, even during competitions.”
However, the fishing competitions don’t take place all the time. They mostly hold during the rainy season when the lake is filled with water and more fish abound. Mohammed and his colleagues are nomad fishermen. Much of their time is dedicated to fishing, and the bounty of Tilla Lake is too tempting to resist.
Just as the freshwater fish in the lake is a miracle, there is a bigger miracle associated with Tilla Lake. Locals believe the water of Tilla Lake is medicinal, with the potential to cure itching. In the past, it used to cure permanent and temporary insanity. Multicoloured crocodiles also abounded.
The spiritual herbalist of Tilla Lake, Mr. Garba Bauda was 108 when he died in 2003. He was a pagan but non of his children took over the practice of healing mad people with water from the lake.
“The crocodiles are believed to be sacred and represent ‘the spirit of doubles’ of the royal clans of Biu. When a crocodile dies, its spirit doubles. Hence, there were a lot of ceremonies attached to the burials of crocodiles,” explained the historian, Bukar Usman, author of A History of Biu.
Many years ago, the crocodiles were said to have wandered freely about in the village and laid their eggs in people’s houses unperturbed. They ate up animals, but were never recorded to have attacked humans. If all crocodiles were as friendly as Tilla Lake’s, hundreds of people killed annually by ravenous crocodiles would probably still be alive.
It was even believed that the lake was connected to an underground stream at the old site of Balbaya town on the hill. Usman informed that, in those days, when a maize comb was dropped in Tilla Lake, it would surface, according to respondents, at the underground stream in Balbaya, a distance of about 78 kilometres away from Kwaya Bura, the location of the lake.
Septuagenarians from the surrounding environs admitted that, as kids, they used to listen to the flow of the underground stream, a phenomenon that no longer exists today. Such is the wonder of the lake.
For many generations, the fear of Tilla Lake was the beginning of wisdom. Before 1932, when the spell was finally broken by Mai Ari Dogo, who was the emir then, it was dreaded to look at Tilla Lake, for it would make one blind.
There are many unexplained mysteries surrounding the lake. At a point, it suffered a setback when it was hit by a severe drought from 1976-1995. Within that period, it intermittently dried up in the dry season and filled up during the rainy season.
When it dried up in the late in 1970s, locals used to dig up potash at its bed. At its peak in 1960, the lake was about seven kilometres in length and breath. Now, it has been reduced to 5.8 kilometres, said Usman.
In 1997, something phenomenal happened at Tilla Lake. After a visit by a German scholar, Dr. Hans-Jurgen Sturm, who was on a joint research project organised by the University of Frankfurt and the University of Maiduguri, the lake mysteriously came back to life.
However, the development of Tilla Lake into a tourist haven has been going on at a snail’s pace. The road leading to it is still untarred and it takes some doing to climb down the steep descent. Yet the charm of the lake still inspires awe and allure, not just to the tenacious fishermen but also to the wayfarer and the curious.
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