Changing, Unchanging, Dyeing: Dala, Kurmi, Indigo

The first signs of Kano seen by an overland traveler are the city’s two hills, Dala and Goron Dutse, rising from the plain. The 1,700-foot hike up Dala’s hard red earth is short but steep. Its flat top offers a 360-degree view of Kano, irresistible to visitors.

One of the first Europeans to see Kano, the British explorer Hugh Clapperton, climbed Dala in the 1820s. His guide pointed out the hoof print of the camel “on which the Prophet rode to heaven.” Clapperton asked why the other three prints had disappeared. “God has done it,” said the guide, which Clapperton noted was the all-purpose explanation for any mystery in Islamic Africa.

Kano from Dala hill

Barth climbed Dala and sketched the “glorious panorama” (see previous post). I followed him 159 years later. The view remained superb. Solitary date trees still rose like chlorophyll fireworks above the dust-colored patchwork of buildings. Kano was still a busy commercial city and a magnet for people seeking opportunity. My guide, Nasiru Datti, pointed to the north, where the sky above the settlements was hazy with Saharan sand, and then to the east. That’s where Kano’s newest immigrants live, he said, coming from Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Tunisia, Senegal. Kano has always welcomed new people. But old Kano, added Nasiru, was reserved for natives of the city. Houses there were obtained by inheritance and were never sold to outsiders.

Both Clapperton and Barth were astonished by Kano’s market, the largest in central Africa. The Kurmi market, 600 years old, is still a labyrinth of skinny alleys lined with stalls crammed with every imaginable object and enterprise. Many of the goods mentioned by Barth are still on display. Men chip rocks to make kohl, fashion baskets from reeds, sell spices and chickens and books. Vendors also hawk modern items: steel pipes, auto parts, cell phones, wrecked motherboards, and other digital debris. Herbalists now use a bullhorn to sell remedies for stomach troubles and private rashes. As in Barth’s time, stinking sludge still chokes the Jakara, the filthy elongated pond that borders the market, with the contemporary additions of engine oil and plastic bottles.

The city was, and still is, famous for its fine cotton cloth and beautiful indigo dyes. Kano cloth and garments were coveted throughout central Africa. As soon as he could afford it, Barth splurged on a Kano “guinea-fowl” shirt with a speckled pattern of small blue and white squares.

He mentions Kano’s dye-pits, in use since the end of the 15th century, and the tandem cloth-beaters. Both still operate. The dyers ferment dried indigo, potassium, and papaya ash in the 20-foot pits for four weeks. Then they dip cloth in and out: an hour-and-half for light blue, three hours for deep blue, six hours for blue-black. Patterns are made with the method called “tie-and-dye.”

Today’s residents of Kano still take their cotton robes to the tandem beaters, the way Westerners take shirts to the cleaners. The beaters pound the cloth with huge wooden mallets. Central Africans believe that thumping the cloth in this way preserves the cotton fibers and gives the material a silken glitter, in contrast to ironing, which injures and dulls the fibers. I certainly felt drab next to Nasiru in his resplendent, soundly-beaten robes.

2 thoughts on “Changing, Unchanging, Dyeing: Dala, Kurmi, Indigo

  1. Pingback: Abbega and Dorugu | In the Labyrinth

  2. Pingback: Where the Camel Meets the Canoe | In the Labyrinth

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