Fanatics, Infidels, and Guides

Barth’s journey had three key locales, which formed a rough triangle. The triangle’s northern point was Aïr, a Saharan mountain range in present-day Niger, where Barth’s party was pillaged by Tuareg raiders and barely escaped execution. The triangle’s eastern point was Lake Chad, Barth’s base for a year and a half. The western point was Timbuktu in present-day Mali, where he was detained under threat of death for seven months.

Aïr, from Travels and Discoveries

I wanted to see the cultures and landscapes that Barth had seen, to smell some of the same odors, touch some of the same textures, eat some of the same foods. Politics and tight restrictions on travel eliminated Libya from my itinerary. Political unrest eliminated Niger; Aïr, still a stronghold of rebellious Tuaregs, was off-limits to travelers.

That left the stretch between Lake Chad and Timbuktu. I eventually decided to travel east from Kano in northern Nigeria to Lake Chad, about 350 miles as the crow flies. In Barth’s day Kano had been the largest and most important city in north-central Africa, a position it retains, with a population of more than five million. (Some estimates say nine million. Until I read Barth, I had never heard of Kano, despite its size. In some ways Africa is still unknown.) From Lake Chad I would make my way by air to Timbuktu.

In Barth’s era, travel in remote areas of Islamic Africa could be fatal for a white Christian. Christians were evil infidels, odious unbelievers, fit only for slavery or death. Barth heard that a lot. Yet he also found tolerance and hospitality.

North-central Africa still breeds Islamic fanatics. As in Barth’s day, their religious zeal is sometimes a veneer to justify thuggery and greed—for example, the small terrorist group that calls itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) plants bombs and occasionally kidnaps Western travelers, whom they ransom or murder. Other factions, such as Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria, are more old-school in their ways and religious fervor, simply condemning everything Christian and Western in their sometimes violent quest to force a return to what they consider a purer form of Islam. AQIM and Boko Haram both would be familiar types to Barth.

Like him, I wanted a savvy guide to help me negotiate the complexities of northern Nigeria. The internet made it easy to throw out many lines asking for help. Most were ignored, but a professor named Abdalla Uba Adamu at Bayero University in Kano wrote that he knew the perfect man: Nasiru Wada Khalil, head of IT for the Sharia court of Kano, who had a scholarly bent. In our email exchanges before the trip, Nasiru wisely persuaded me to hire Nasiru Datti Ahmed, a teacher at an Islamic secondary school for girls in Kano, as our driver. These two learned, curious men provided invaluable guidance of many kinds, as well as amiable company and friendship. All this, too, would have been familiar to Barth.

At Lake Chad: infidel flanked by Nasiru Datti (left) and Nasiru Wada (right). Abdul in back.

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