Abbega and Dorugu

For the last three years of his journey, from Kukawa to Timbuktu and back, and then on to Tripoli, Barth was accompanied by two young African boys as servants. When he left for home, he took them with him. One scholar has suggested that they were the first northern Nigerians to visit Europe. Their names were Abbega and Dorugu, and their story casts a fascinating sidelight onto Barth’s.

Abbega & Dorugu

Both boys became attached to the expedition as servants of Adolf Overweg, Barth’s fellow German scientist. Overweg bought them as slaves and immediately freed them. Abbega’s early history is sketchy. We know that he came from the Marghi tribe and had been stolen and sold into slavery. When he entered Overweg’s service, he was about 15.

We know more about Dorugu, who was several years younger, because he later told his story to a missionary/linguist who wrote it all down (more on that later). Dorugu was born in a Hausa village about fifty miles southwest of Zinder in present-day Niger. Like Abbega, he was seized in a raid and sold into slavery. His Kanuri master took him to Kukawa, where he was sold to an Arab to pay a debt. This was around 1851 when Dorugu was 11 or 12.

The following year, as Overweg and Barth prepared for their excursion with the rapacious Welid Sliman, Overweg hired Dorugu from the Arab as a camel boy. Overweg must have gotten attached to him, because when they returned, the scientist bought the boy and freed him. Dorugu, little more than a child, stayed with Overweg as a servant.

When Overweg died, Barth assured the two distraught boys that he would take care of them, and they stayed with him for the rest of the expedition. By the time they all returned to the journey’s starting point in Tripoli, Abbega was about 18, Dorugu about 15.

Barth’s invitation to accompany him to Europe must have struck them as a wonderful prospect, made more exciting by the fancy clothes Barth bought for them: trousers of blue wool, tailored jackets of red wool with metal buttons and gold stripes, red wool caps with blue silk tassels. Barth hoped that training in English and other skills would make them useful to future explorers in Africa. He also planned to get linguistic help from them for a book on African languages he intended to write after publishing his journal.

Abbega & Dorugu

Everything about the trip to London amazed the teenagers—the steamer to Malta and Marseilles, the huge smoking iron carriage that sped across France, the strange implements called forks, the complete absence of sand, the chalk-faced women with waists like wasps’.

In early 1856, after a short trip to see Barth’s family in Germany, they returned to London. Barth got to work on Travels and Discoveries. He arranged for the Africans to stay with Reverend J. F. Schön, a missionary who had been on the disastrous Niger expedition of 1841. Schön was also compiling a Hausa dictionary, so Barth knew that Dorugu could be useful to him. Schön interviewed Dorugu extensively about his young life. (The result can be found in West African Travels and Adventures, edited by Anthony Kirk-Greene and Paul Newman.)

While tutoring both boys, Schön also proselytized them, with the goal of sending them back to Africa as missionaries. They were baptized in May 1857. Dorugu was christened James Henry, after Schön and Barth. Abbega was named Frederick Fowell Buxton, after Schön and T. Fowell Buxton, an evangelical abolitionist who convinced the British government to fund the 1841 Niger expedition, and who fervently believed that pagan Africa would be redeemed by “Bible and plough.”

Meanwhile the two boys had become terribly homesick and asked Barth to get them back to Africa. He set about convincing the Foreign Office to pay their return voyage to Tripoli, and arranging with the British consul there to provide them with a camel, a guide to Kano, and the Arabic passports carried by free blacks in defense against slavers.

Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840, by Benjamin Robert Haydon. Buxton at upper left

Next came two kicks to Barth’s head. The Anti-Slavery Society, a powerful force in Britain, accused him of joining in the slave trade while in Africa and of transporting two young slaves to England—Abbega and Dorugu. The source of these scandalous lies may have been a British soldier who had briefly traveled with Barth at the end of his journey and was now seeking revenge for the explorer’s less-than-stellar report about him to the Foreign Office. The accusations stunned and infuriated Barth.

The second kick came when Abbega and Dorugu suddenly informed him they now wanted to stay in England. Barth, angry that his good intentions for them had blown up in his face and that all his labors to get them safely home were now being shrugged off, refused this change of plans—which he had no right to do—and instructed them to take the appointed ship from Southampton. The boys did briefly board, but then disembarked with Schön and went home with him. Barth considered this a betrayal by both the Africans and Schön, whom he accused of hijacking the teenagers for his own purposes.

Abbega left England for Africa later that same year. Dorugu stayed for eight years before going back. Both quickly dropped missionary work; there were more lucrative ways to use their new skills. Dorugu eventually became a schoolteacher. Abbega reverted to Islam and became an interpreter for explorers, British officials, and the Royal Niger Company.

Many years later, when Britain had taken over Nigeria, the colonial government wanted to recover the remains of Overweg, who had died in Britain’s service. For help, they turned to a chief named Maimana—Abbega’s grandson. Maimana went to the village on Lake Chad where Overweg had died and located an 80-year-old woman who knew the gravesite. The British dug and found Overweg’s bones. They were taken to Maiduguri, the new regional capital of Bornu, and now rest in the small European cemetery there.

Cast of Characters: in Africa

Here are a few of the people most important to Barth during his five-year journey, and hence prominent characters in A Labyrinth of Kingdoms:

James Richardson

The expedition’s first leader. A British evangelical abolitionist, Richardson had traveled to Ghat in the Sahara several years earlier to gather facts about the slave trade for Britain’s Anti-Slavery Society. Soon after returning, he began urging the British Foreign Office to fund a more ambitious expedition that would bring back strategic information about caravan routes and the prospects for commercial profit in the little-known immensity called the Sudan. When he finally got the go-ahead in August 1849, he recruited Barth and another young German, Adolf Overweg to handle the science.

Almost from the start, Richardson and Barth chafed each other—too bad for them, fortunate for readers. Barth found Richardson slow, indecisive, and imperceptive in dangerous situations. Richardson considered Barth rash and overeager, and often on the edge of insubordination.

This was partly a matter of age—Richardson was 11 years older—and partly incompatible temperaments and values. For Richardson, science was a secondary issue; for Barth, it was the highest human endeavor. Clashes were inevitable.

Adolf Overweg

German geologist and astronomer. Overweg was born just a year after Barth but seemed much younger because of his boyish enthusiasm and lack of travel experience. Both Barth and Richardson acknowledged that Africans liked Overweg the best among the three Europeans, because of his sunny disposition and his willingness to spend hours trying to repair an African’s broken watch or distributing specks of medicine (he wasn’t a doctor and his prescriptions were random).

Barth regarded Overweg as an amiable, talented younger brother who was sometimes exasperatingly naive and messy. As an explorer and scientist, Overweg was as keen and tireless as Barth, but was less careful in every way, both personally and as a record-keeper.

El Haj Beshir ben Ahmed Tirab, the Vizier of Kukawa

In Kukawa, Barth spent a lot of time with the shrewd, worldly vizier, second-in-command to the Sheikh of Bornu. Barth admired Haj Beshir’s erudition and openness to new ideas, but thought his faults undercut his virtues. His “luxurious disposition” made him “extremely fond of the fair sex”–he had lost exact count of his harem, which numbered between 300 and 400 concubines. He could wax eloquently about Ptolemy, yet his greed and laziness were hastening the decay of Bornu. Barth accompanied Haj Beshir and his army on a horrifying razzia, or slave raid, the most disturbing section of Barth’s book.

Weled Ammer Walati

Scoundrel extraordinaire. Barth met the Walati, as he called him, while en route to Timbuktu. The rogue spoke six languages and knew the country, so Barth hired him as a fixer to ease his passage through unknown territories. “He was one of the cleverest men whom I met on my journey,” wrote Barth, “in spite of the trouble he caused me and the tricks he played me.”

The Walati did occasionally do his job. At one point, for instance, Barth was surrounded by 150 men with spears, “brandished over their heads with warlike gesticulations. The affair seemed rather serious.” The Walati saved the day by shouting that Barth was a friend of the Sheikh of Timbuktu and was bringing him books. “They dropped their spears and thronged around me, requesting me to give them my blessing.”

More typically the Walati saved his own skin while skinning the explorer.

Sidi Ahmed al-Bakkay, Sheikh of Timbuktu

Kunta tribesman, late 1800s

Barth almost surely would have been murdered in Timbuktu if not for the protection of Sheikh al-Bakkay, a member of the Kunta tribe, renowned desert scholars and religious leaders. Timbuktu had been conquered in 1826 by Muslim fanatics and was nominally under the rule of the Emir of Hamdallahi. When Barth arrived, the Emir ordered al-Bakkay to drive the unbeliever out of town. (The same order had been given in 1826 about the presence of Major Alexander Gordon Laing, who was expelled and murdered.) But al-Bakkay, at tremendous risk from both the Emir and his own political enemies, including a couple of his brothers, defied the emir and took Barth under his wing.

Al-Bakkay alternately charmed and exasperated Barth. The two men intrigued each other and had many intense conversations about history, theology, slavery, polygamy. No African meant more to Barth than al-Bakkay.

These were some of Barth’s companions as he traveled through the Sudan, and they became mine as well, as I traveled through Barth.

Kukawa and Its Keepers

The dendal in Kukawa, from Travels and Discoveries

On April 2, 1851, a year to the day after the expedition started from the outskirts of Tripoli, Barth reached Kukawa, capital of the Bornu empire. He estimated its population at 30,000, periodically swelled by caravans and pilgrims making the haj to Mecca. Barth was befriended there, after a fashion, by Bornu’s ruler, Sheikh (or Shehu) Umar, and by Umar’s scheming vizier (prime minister), Haj Beshir.

From Kukawa he made four major excursions. All turned into quasi- misadventures (details in my book): south into Adamawa, northeast into Kanem, southeast into Musgu territory, and then farther southeast into Bagirmi.

In Barth’s era, Kukawa was actually two walled towns, each roughly a mile-and-a-half square. The sheikh, nobles, and their slaves lived in eastern Kukawa, the regular citizens in the western town. A broad avenue called the dendal connected them. “Rides along this main thoroughfare were always of novel and enthralling interest for me,” wrote the explorer Gustav Nachtigal, who reached Kukawa about 20 years after Barth, “revealing a life of such variety and even splendor as a European can scarcely associate with the idea of a Negro town.”

Barth and Nachtigal both described a kingdom weakened by corruption and indolence. In 1893 the renegade warlord Rabih sacked and burned Kukawa. The Sheikh of Bornu moved his capital to Maiduguri, where it remains.

Today Kukawa is a small dusty place. Evidently white visitors are still rare. When we exited the car at the residence of the district head, school was getting out, and a crowd of 40 children rushed towards us, laughing and pointing and shouting, “Baturi!” (white man!). Above the children’s shouts we heard amplified agitated preaching from the nearby mosque.

Some men led us through a rough courtyard to the district head. We took off our shoes and entered a dark room whose only light came from the doorway. The head man sat on carpets in the cool murk of the far corner. He leaned back against pillows, his water bottle and cell phone within easy reach. He looked like an old turtle, wary and slow-blinking.

Nasiru Wada introduced us and described my project. He pointed out that my visit here had been endorsed by the sheikh’s historian, whom we had met at the palace in Maiduguri. The district head listened with a stone face. When Nasiru finished, the man asked if we had a letter from the sheikh or his secretary. No? Then he regretted that he could not give us any information or allow us to talk to anyone or even to walk around. In fact, it would be best to leave right away. The old turtle, a bureaucrat through and through, liked his shell. I didn’t speak Hausa, but the tone and body language were international.

Nasiru, a bit stunned, put it all into words as we walked back to the car. The district head still seemed nervous because of the violence that had touched Kukawa some months earlier, instigated by the extremist group Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is forbidden.” He had only recently allowed preaching to resume at the mosque. In his view, a white westerner asking questions probably embodied Boko Haram’s aversions and spelled trouble. It was a small reminder of the times when edgy officials refused Barth’s requests to visit or explore their districts.

We considered asking the police for permission, but the district head was their boss, and besides, I didn’t want to go through the security rigmarole again. The two Nasirus shrugged and said there was nothing to be done. I understood the head man’s caution, but Kukawa was an important place for Barth and for my book, and I told the Nasirus that I wasn’t leaving until I saw what remained of it. After a long silence, they had an urgent conversation in Hausa. The men who had taken us to the head man watched us from the residence. Amplified shouting continued from the mosque.

To buy time, we slowly drove to a sugar-cane stand a few hundred yards up the road. As we paused there, a young man from the district head’s residence walked toward us. We expected him to say, “Move along.” Instead he said that he didn’t agree with the district head and would like to help us. For instance, he continued, the cinderblock wall 100 yards across from the cane stand marked the boundaries of the old palace walls within the destroyed royal town. Would we like to meet “the keeper of the old city”? Indeed we would.

Gate in wall surrounding former palace grounds

The keeper, informed about the district head’s rebuff, smiled and invited us through a gate in the wall. He would be glad to tell us part of Kukawa’s story. He was a young man who lived with his wife in a traditional hut just inside, on the old palace grounds. The walls now enclosed mostly sand.

But there was a building with a tin roof, the size of a three-car garage. We walked to it and entered. Inside stood two crumbling mud-brick mounds with squat wooden doors—the graves of the old sheikhs of Bornu, Umar and his father, Muhammed al-Kanemi. I had read many accounts, including Barth’s, about the men whose bones moldered in this modest place. They had once ruled an empire.

The keeper offered to show us the former boundaries of the old royal city. We drove about a mile into the empty countryside west of town. The keeper said all this had once been inside the walls. We stopped where a low broken wall surrounded a tall baobab tree—in Hausa, a kuka. The keeper said it was Kukawa’s namesake tree.

Barth mentions that Sheikh al-Kanemi supposedly built his new capital at Kukawa because of a young baobab there. The keeper told us a refinement of this local legend: the tree inside the broken wall had been a sapling when the adolescent al-Kanemi used to lean against it and dream of glory—that’s why he later sited his capital here. This pleasing story was flawed only by impossibility; al-Kanemi spent his boyhood far from Kukawa.

We walked across the flat empty land for another quarter mile, until the keeper said that we had reached the boundary of old Kukawa, before Rabih destroyed it. The keeper waved his arm in a circle that now took in nothing but sand, bushes, and scattered kukas. Shards of pottery testified on the ground all around us.

I asked him if he had ever heard of Barth. Yes, he said, his father and grandfather knew stories about the explorer, but he himself knew little beyond the name. He had no idea where Barth’s house had stood in old Kukawa. And anyway, he added, Rabih had destroyed it.

On the way back into town to drop off the keeper, we passed an old empty market, no doubt similar to the one once visited here by Barth. The desert wind whistled through its crooked poles and toupees of dry reeds. Lost empires, forgotten visitors, sacked cities. The remnants and vanities of dead men. At least in Kukawa they still had a keeper–not so different, in some ways, from a writer of history.

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.

Drinkers, Traders, Soldiers, Spies

The nomads at the muddy pond were Arabs from Agadez, an old Saharan entrepot in present-day Niger. Their 60 camels drank and looked supercilious.

A boy and a small girl in a multicolored robe stood behind the herd. The girl was a dynamo, scolding the camels in a shrill voice and whacking their legs with a stick if they tried to stray.

Nasiru Wada said it would be OK to take her picture, but to give her a small gift of money. She stared at the bills in her hand in amazement. Nasiru, a joker who favored ironic teasing, said to her, “You will be”—he hooked his little finger—“my wife.” Instantly, the wonder on her face turned to disgust. She dropped the bills as if they were turds. “Forgive me,” Nasiru said quickly. “It was a joke.” She studied him, picked up the money, and spun away.

Long stretches of this road toward Lake Chad were undrivable because of craters and broken asphalt, so we followed the dirt track alongside it. In the middle of nowhere, a huge crumbling billboard featured the gigantic name and photo of some politician advertising himself as the “Lion of the Desert.” Sometimes many dirt tracks converged in a village and then scattered, so we had to ask for directions.

The thatched roofs changed from the bowl-shaped design of the Fulanis to the triangular twists of the Kanuris, echoed by the stacks of guinea corn in flat fields that went to the horizon. The flatness conspired with the intense heat to play visual tricks. Distant trees shimmered and floated on the horizon, creating the mirage of a lake shore. But Lake Chad doesn’t reveal itself so easily.

At 5:00 we reached Baga, a freckle of a town on a finger jutting into the lake. The water itself remained invisible. Baga’s only hotel was part of a walled open-air bar with a shed roof. At the back stood a row of  metal doors set into a windowless bunker of concrete—the hotel portion of the establishment. Men and women drinking beer turned to examine us, then resumed their conversations as a soccer game played on television.

The two Nasirus consulted and said we were leaving. I assumed that, as Muslims, the drinking offended them, but their concern was security. “People see a white person and might think you have money, and want to rob you,” said Nasiru Datti. We later learned that Baga’s few visitors had stopped taking the hotel van because the driver had been tipping off his buddies when white people were coming; the buddies would ambush the van and plunder the passengers.

The next closest lodging was in Kukawa, 20 bumpy miles west. I wanted to see the lake, so we put our plans for lodging on hold and asked some men sitting on a bench in Baga for directions to the water. You’ll never find it, they said. One young man offered to get in the car and guide us there.

Many twists and turns later, a couple of miles out of town, we reached a row of boats painted with geometric designs, on the shore of what appeared to be a river about 50 yards wide. In fact it was one of the myriad reed-flanked channels that constitute Lake Chad. When Barth saw the lake’s marshy waterways and tall reeds, he realized that one of the mission’s tasks would be impossible: to map Lake Chad’s borders. The boundaries between land and water were indistinct and changed each season. He saw large numbers of waterfowl, crocodiles, and hippopotamuses.

He also glimpsed the mysterious people whom the Kanuris called the Budduma, “people of the grass,” who lived on islands in the lake, where they raised cattle. They called themselves Yedina and spoke their own language. Notorious pirates, they raided shoreline villages and vanished back into the lake’s wilderness of reeds and channels. Neither of the Nasirus had heard of the Budduma. “Barth is teaching us,” said Nasiru Wada. I asked our Baga passenger if the Budduma still existed. Oh yes, he said, on the islands. At the lake, he pointed out a Budduma woman speaking the language.

Lake Chad’s labyrinthine channels still provide excellent cover for smugglers and illegal immigrants–the lake touches Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad–so entry-points like Baga are filled with security personnel. Though the shoreline was crowded with people selling and socializing, our arrival immediately drew the attention of the marine police, the regular police, soldiers, customs officials, and immigration officers. To deflect suspicion, I presented myself as a historian, not a journalist. Their questions soon moved from wary to curious and friendly. The Nigerian “underwear bomber” had recently been nabbed while trying to blow up a U. S. airliner, igniting dark mistrust of Nigerians in America. The paranoia went in both directions: Nasuri Wada later told me that the lake authorities at first suspected me of being a CIA agent.

Night fell. We still needed a place to stay. Our Baga passenger overheard our dilemma and insisted on taking us to see his brother, the village head, who had authority over all such matters. Having no alternative, we agreed.

Road Ways

The green sticker that Nasiru Wada put on the dashboard declared “Judiciary” in white letters. “It should help us at roadblocks,” he said. We hit three before Gumel. Soldiers glanced and waved us through. After Gumel the thin traffic dwindled to a trickle. The road roughened. Sometimes thirty minutes went by between cars.

Bundled silage

A few times the road led past young men who, when they saw us coming, jumped up and vigorously hoed or raked dirt into deep potholes, producing more dust than repairs. As we got close, they raised their fists, then extended their hands for money. An ambiguous signal. They looked rough and tattered. We slowed to ease around the ruts but never stopped. Nasiru said these men tore up the roads to force cars to brake, then tried to extort a fee for their brief improvements, which they would immediately undo. “You don’t want to be on this road at night,” he added. “They make you pay, and anything can happen.”

In these lands between Gumel and Kukawa, capital of Bornu, Barth passed empty villages devastated by rebels and slave raiders. Whenever the region’s rulers needed money, he noted, they attacked settlements and carried off human plunder. Such dangers discouraged travel, and traffic was sparse. The roads kept splitting into paths that also split.

Barth needed a guide through this maze, but applicants were scarce because everyone was afraid of being seized by slave-raiders. Even two tough-looking Manga warriors, with their leather aprons, battle axes, and bows and arrows, quickly developed the heebie-jeebies and quit in the middle of their first day. The region also swarmed with thieves. On most evenings Barth fired his gun to inform everyone in the vicinity that his camp was well-armed.

We stopped for the night at Nguru, the end of line for the railroad from Lagos, a sign of remoteness and greater remoteness to come. When Barth reached Nguru, he called on the governor, hoping to find a guide. This man, named Omar, received Barth while “lying on an elevated platform or divan spread with a carpet.” Barth presented him with the obligatory gifts: an English razor and clasp-knife, a German mirror, some darning needles, plus “half a pound of cloves, and a piece of scented soap.” Omar was pleased, at first, but later sent a servant to ask for “calico, sugar, rose oil, and sundry other articles.” Such gifts were expected, sometimes demanded, occasionally simply taken. After dark Barth heard music in the streets and women singing.

Nasiru Datti and I took a walk before dinner. I admired a shed skillfully woven from reeds. Nasiru looked amused. “It’s a public bathroom,” he said.

Some children followed us, laughing and pointing and shouting a phrase. “They’re calling you baturi,” said Nasiru. “It means ‘white man’ in Hausaba  is ‘from,’ turai is ‘Europe.’”

Nneamaka: a female name meaning "beautiful mother" in Igbo

We ate in a tiny restaurant owned by an Igbo family from Christian southern Nigeria. Many such immigrants had come north to seek better lives. That night they were serving pepper soup—thin and spicy, with a wisp of chicken in it—and beans and rice doused with a delicious red sauce sparsely inhabited by flavorful but chew-resistant chunks of beef. Napkins took the form of two stainless steel bowls filled with water, which we passed around.

Dawn brought the African soundtrack of roosters and amplified prayers chanted by a muezzin, followed by the repetitive thudding beat of a woman pounding millet next door. A baby slept on her back.

The morning was beautiful–soft breezes, 70 degrees. “A bit cold,” complained Nasiru Datti. When we left Nguru nearly two hours later, the woman was still pounding millet. Her child still dozed on her back, lulled by a rhythm as strong, familiar, relentless, and fundamental as his mother’s heartbeat.

Fura

After escaping the avaricious emir of Kano, Barth moved east towards Kukawa, capital of the kingdom of Bornu. He expected to reunite there with his two European colleagues. Meanwhile he was broke. He fell in with a worldly Arab trader traveling with his concubine and her slaves. When the trader offered Barth coffee and fine pastries served on napkins, the explorer was mortified that he could offer nothing in return but “a couple of young onions.”

He passed through small towns with busy markets, through grass-hut villages where women sold foodstuffs on the roadside. He admired the stately trees—figs, tamarinds, acacias, shea butters, kapoks, occasional doum palms and baobabs. He noted fields of corn and millet, and granaries woven from reeds and built off the ground to foil rodents. Silage nestled in the crooks of trees, beyond the reach of the lyre-horned cattle. Slender graceful women walked to market carrying towers of calabashes filled with milk on their heads—a feat that would thrill a circus audience but was here an everyday skill. Such scenes hadn’t changed in the 150 years since.

Millet and guinea corn

Granaries

His first major stop was Gumel, four days and 85 miles northeast of Kano. It was “a most fortunate and lucky day for me,” he wrote, because he found mail waiting for him—his first messages from Europe in 10 months. Almost nothing buoyed the spirits of an explorer more than letters, or depressed him more than long silences from home. For Barth the mail was doubly exhilarating, since one envelop was heavy with two Spanish dollars, salvation for a man who had been living on “air and debts.”

Barth called Gumel a frontier town because it marked the westernmost outpost of the Bornu empire. It was a cultural and linguistic frontier as well. Hausa and Fulani began giving way to Kanuri, and still do. When Barth first visited in 1851, Gumel was calm and prosperous, with 300 market stalls. When he returned in 1854, war had scorched the region. Barth called on Gumel’s emir in the charred ruins of the royal residence.

Emir’s palace, Gumel

When we arrived, Gumel was again a bustling place of entrepreneurial mayhem. The emir’s palace looked rundown, with busted windows, yet two royal guards in red and green lounged near the entrance. Outside of town, several cheerful women were talking and pounding millet. I asked to take their picture. Wonderful! they said, never altering their throbbing rhythm. Then one of them asked for $200. The others laughed and promised, in high voices that carried over the thudding of their wooden pestles, to pray for us.

At Hadejia we turned northeast towards the Sahara. Dust thickened the air and the land flattened. By this point in his journey, Barth had become “very fond” of a dish called fura in Hausa, ghussub in Kanuri. He often depended on it for nutrition.

Fura remains essential in central Africa. Nasiru Wada and Nasiru Datti both were devotees. Near the town of Birniwa we saw two women selling the dish on the side of the road and pulled off for a fura break. Nearby, men in Islamic robes squated on their haunches beneath neem trees. Dogs panted in the red dust.

Nasiru asked one of the women to make us some fura. The process was still just as Barth described it. She uncovered a calabash of sour milk and dipped out enough to fill a larger calabash about halfway. From another calabash she took some dense gray-brown orbs the size of ping-pong balls. These were made from millet flour that had been moistened into paste, rolled into balls, and simmered in water. Some women flavor their fura with cloves or other spices. In the Sahara, Tuaregs often add powdered cheese.

The woman put the fura balls into the calabash of milk, sprinkled in sugar, and began stirring vigorously with a large spoon, mashing the balls to thicken the milk. When the dish was ready, we passed the calabash around, gulping from the dipper. It was delicious and tartly refreshing, like clumpy thin yogurt. The bill was 50 naira, about 35 cents.

Shadows were lengthening, and we were her last customers. She stood up. She had been sitting on a 16-ounce can. To close shop, she built layers on her head: first a thick folded cloth, then the can, then a thin woven ring as a stabilizer or trivet, then the three covered calabashes. On top went a small pot of water. She joined her fura colleague and sauntered casually toward home beneath her vertical inventory.