Barth became curious about the city of Kano on his trip around the Mediterranean, during a conversation with a Hausa slave in Tunisia. “Seeing the interest I took in his native country,” wrote Barth, “[he] made use of the simple but impressive words, ‘Please God, you shall go and visit Kano.’ These simple words were constantly ringing in my ears . . .”
On February 2, 1851, after almost a year of hard travel, he reached Kano, “the celebrated emporium of Negroland.” It was by far the biggest place he had seen since leaving Tripoli. He was dazzled by “the wonders of this African London, Birmingham, and Manchester.” Kano was already 1,000 years old. Islam had arrived in the 14th century. The city’s existence was unknown in Europe until Leo Africanus mentioned it in his book of travels in the 16th century.
Barth estimated its population at 30,000, not including domestic slaves and periodic swellings from large caravans bringing salt, natron, or slaves to Kano’s vast market. He was amazed by the European goods for sale in this remote place 1,500 miles from Tripoli: cloth from England, beads from Trieste, paper from Venice, razors from Austria, sword blades from Germany.
He would have seen the temporary palace built for the emir in 1442, which still stands. It has been a school, the home of the city’s war chief, and the colonial offices of the British. Today it houses the Gidan Makama Museum, an absorbing introduction to the region’s history and a striking example of Sudanese architecture.
The building’s walls are 10 feet thick, made of clay reinforced with the husks of beans. The annual rains partially dissolve the walls, which are repaired with more earth and fiber, in a seasonal cycle that is centuries old.
The size of a 19th-century African city could be gauged partly by the number of gates that interrupted its fortified walls. Kano had 15. The museum exhibits one of the old gates, a massive thing of rough timber sheathed with iron plates secured by crude rivets.
Many historical items of daily life are on display. A royal drum, the size of a small barrel, was once beaten to announce that the emir was on the move. Some dusty brass bells once adorned warhorses of Kano’s large cavalry. The bells of each kingdom had a different sound, to help soldiers distinguish friends from foe in battle. Displayed nearby were thick heavy swords and shields made of elephant or camel skin. On the pastoral side, there were hoes, sickles, and flutes, and jewelry made of bone and ivory to adorn rich brides. Against one wall was a hut of bamboo and thatch used by a mallam—a teacher of the Qur’an—with the traditional wooden slate on which he and his students wrote verses to be memorized.
Then as now, the people of Kano considered themselves to be living at the cosmopolitan center of the world, like Londoners in Barth’s time or New Yorkers in ours. “The ceremonies to be gone through,” complained Barth, “are scarcely less tedious than those at any European court.” He was annoyed at being detained by the hospitable but avaricious emir, who hoped to squeeze the impecunious infidel for presents, and kept him there for more than a month.