In 2005, an amateur photo from Lagos, Nigeria took the world by storm.
It showed men with baboons and hyenas on leashes. In various media reports, these men were identified as drug dealers, debt collectors, street toughs or bodyguards. They are known by locals as Gadawan Kuru, which means ‘hyena handers, guides.’
They are actually a family of minstrels. This group wanders the towns of Nigeria, putting on shows and selling traditional medicines, and passing on their profession from generation to generation. Not long after the first picture hit the web, a South African photographer named Pieter Hugo tracked them down, befriended them, and joined their tour: a group of men, a little girl, four monkeys, three hyenas, and a few rock pythons.
The photographer was fascinated more by the men themselves than their performances. Over eight days – and again two years later, when he returned – he took portraits of the handlers whenever an opportunity presented himself. Once, they all hid in the bushes while one performer secured a cab, and then all piled in at once before the taxi driver could escape.
The first response of many people in the West is to ask about the animals. This concern confuses Nigerians. Here, people do what they must to survive. In the sixth largest exporter of oil in the world, you’re on your own.