Under Control: the Beauty of the Traditional Way

Channel on Lake Chad near Baga

The village head, a tall powerful man dressed in rich robes, sat in a room lit by one dim bulb, watching the news in English on Al Jazeera. His younger brother, clearly subservient, timidly introduced us and our situation. The big man listened without expression, then indicated that I should sit in an easy chair next to the couch where he presided. The two Nasirus sat on the carpeted floor, staying below him as a sign of respect.

After a few minutes of polite back-and-forth, Nasiru Wada broke the ice with some Fulani/Kanuri slave banter, which made the head man smile and reciprocate Nasiru’s threat of slavery. I was tired and hungry, which accentuated my direct American mindset; I assumed that we would ask the head man for accommodations and be on our way. After 10 or 15 minutes of relaxed conversation between the head man and the two Nasirus, my miscalculation became apparent. Protocols had to be followed, which I should have expected from Barth’s account. The two Nasirus and the head man, whose name was Lawal Bana, were settling in for a long palaver in Hausa.

Lawal Bana mentioned that his second wife was from Zinder, an old Sahelian city now in Niger. Ah, said Nasiru Wada, I am thinking of marrying a second wife who lives there. Are marriages to Zinder women expensive?

Oh yes, said Lawal Bana. For the dowry, wedding, and gifts, I spent $2.3 million naira. (About $16,000.)

Nasiru gasped: No!

Oh yes, said Lawal Bana, smiling ruefully.

Eventually Lawal Bana offered us an abandoned house of his on a nearby army base. He rummaged among his couch cushions for the key, unsuccessfully, so he ordered his younger brother, Mina, to pick up a hacksaw and some drinks for us on the way there. “Everything has changed,” said Nasiru Wada as we were en route. “We are no longer in control. We are under control. That is the beauty of the traditional way.”

Mina hacksawed through a padlock and opened the door to a room in a concrete house, in disrepair but snug. Someone soon brought a container of food from Lawal Bana. I bounced the beam of my flashlight off the ceiling so we could see: red stew afloat with globs of white cornmeal. Delicious. To thwart the majority of the mosquitoes, we left the door and windows closed, which turned the room into an oven. Barth often made the same choice. Lying in our sauna, slapping at the occasional skeeter, living under Lawal Bana’s control, I was getting a small taste of Barth’s routine for five years—reach a new place, visit the head man, get assigned quarters, hope that food arrives, spend a semi-sleepless night, move on.

Abdul and Nasiru Datti at our accommodations in Baga

At 5:00 roosters began crowing, followed by goats bleating in the bushes and the weird cries of guinea hens. Breakfast appeared: egg sandwiches, tea with butter, sugar, and condensed milk. Lawal Bana also had arranged for a boat to take us onto Lake Chad. But protocol required another audience at his house first.

Today he wore a lustrous brocaded robe. He was expansive, with a big laugh and fluid gestures. Two cell phones lay on the cushion next to him. The two Nasirus took their positions on the floor. There was no hurry. Several times the languid conversation was interrupted by men entering to do business with our host.

After a while he handed us over to the driver of his SUV. We roared over to the lake, glazing clusters of huts with dust. Our dramatic entrance drew a crowd. We boarded one of the painted boats, accompanied by Mina and two dignitaries–the chairmen of the water board and the boat owners’ association. Our boat ride had become an event.

In front: Nasiru Datti and Mina. Behind Mina, Nasiru Wada

The channel widened slightly, but the excursion strengthened my impression of Chad as a lake impersonating rivers and creeks. Fishermen in dugouts or larger boats disappeared into the reeds, following passages visible only to them. One fisherman floated in the water, draped over a hollow calabash the size of an exercise ball. His belly covered a hole in the top, trapping the air that floated him. His arms and legs dangled in the water, one hand holding a small net. When he caught a fish, he put it in the hollow gourd.

The two Nasirus rarely got the chance for a boat ride. Nasiru Wada paid the boatman an extra 200 naira, about $1.50, to do some fast spins. Nasiru Datti, landlubberly stiff, shook his head in disapproval.

On shore, after distributing “dash” all around (I’ll say more about dash in another post) we headed out in the SUV. Within a few hundred yards, a soldier gestured angrily for us to stop. He began shouting that the driver had sped past him on the way in, instead of stopping at the checkpoint. We could have been shot, he shouted, and if it had been nighttime, we would have been shot. The driver said that Lawal Bana had cleared everything beforehand. No one told me, shouted the soldier, who was soon joined by his shouting superior. Mina announced that he was going over their heads and calling his brother, the head man. OK, bellowed the superior, I’m calling my commander.

Nasiru Wada tried to calm things by offering the superior some dash. The man acted shocked. Are you trying to bribe me, he shouted? No, said Nasiru, it’s just for you to eat kola. Euphemism for dash. The suspicion resurfaced that I might be a foreign agent. The superior ordered his men to search the SUV for signs of spycraft. They overlooked my exploding pen and hollow heel.

Eventually we were ordered to report to the same military base where we had spent the night. The superior assigned a soldier with a rifle to ride with us, ostensibly to prevent us from bolting, but really just because he could, for intimidation. Mina said Lawal Bana was en route to vouch for us. As we prepared to leave, the superior decided that on second thought he could accept a wad of dash, but did so with huffy disdain, as if he were above such venality. This all would have been amusing farce if it hadn’t gone on so long in the intense heat.

At the base, an official welcomed us and questioned me about the purpose of my visit. He chided me for not checking in with military security yesterday. I said I thought I had, by answering questions from various alert agencies at the lake. He shook his head and said he had to check with the deputy commander about how to proceed.

Another soldier with a fancier uniform, probably the deputy commander, appeared and repeated the entire routine—same welcome, questions, admonishments. Lawal Bana showed up and smoothed feathers. Everyone relaxed. One of the officials probed me about my impressions of Nigeria and what I’d heard about his country in the U.S. My description of Barth intrigued him, and he wrote down the explorer’s name and the title of his book. We were now all friends and no one was in a rush.

After exchanging information for an hour under the shade trees, I made a few last disbursements of dash and we hit the road for Kukawa–once the capital of the mighty empire of Bornu, and Barth’s base for a year and a half.

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