Nomads and Explorers

The landscape after Gashua became flat scrub, offering long views in a palette of tans, browns, and dabs of dusty green. Nasiru Datti said it could be farmland but had fallen into disuse as the government ignored everything except oil. The land was also abandoned when Barth traveled through here. The cause then was slave raiders. Barth called the waste shameful, and blamed the greed and apathy of Bornu’s leaders. “Even the best of these mighty men,” he wrote, “cares more for the silver ornaments of his numerous wives than for the welfare of his people.”

We began passing watering places bunched with cattle. Some were community wells, some were national. The national water was free. At community wells, there was a fee. We stopped at a place where Fulani nomads were watering their herd. The well was stone-lined, three feet in diameter, and 40 feet deep. A teepee of logs and big wooden pulleys stood over it. The nomads attached one end of a rope to a plastic bucket and the other end to a camel, which hauled up the water with help from the men. They poured it into metal canisters for the jostling cattle.

The men were quick and animated. They wore drab dirty clothing, though one of them sported the traditional conical Fulani hat. The women, in brightly patterned robes, carried themselves elegantly amidst the cows and mud. “They would make good wives,” said Nasiru Wada, partly joking. “They work hard, and they would walk to Gashua and never call a cab.”

Nomads still come to Kano to sell natron or dates or camel-milk cheese, he added. They buy indigo, head scarves, sugar, and tea. As in Barth’s time, they roam freely across the landscape. “No one would stop them,” said Nasiru Datti.

Explorers and nomads share some traits: restlessness, constant movement, the austerities of a portable way of life that requires hauling one’s food, shelter, and belongings from place to place. It’s a hard existence, which is why Africans were often suspicious about the arrival of itinerant white men who claimed to have left their families and traveled thousands of miles, risking death under harsh conditions, for no reason except knowledge. To most Africans, including nomads, that sounded crazy. They had an excellent point.

“The notion of traveling for curiosity was new to him,” wrote the explorer Mungo Park about a wary African ruler. “He thought it impossible, he said, that any man in his senses would undertake so dangerous a journey merely to look at the country and its inhabitants.”

More than once, Barth set off alarms when he told African officials that he was visiting their territory not to buy or sell, but solely to learn about their history, customs, and beliefs. Surely, assumed many of these officials, this was a ruse to steal trade secrets, or a ploy to scout the country in preparation for an invasion. (This paranoia would eventually be justified when European nations carved up the continent among themselves.) In Timbuktu, the Moorish merchants who controlled the trade between the desert and the Mediterranean believed that Barth and the British were plotting to take over their lucrative trade, so they plotted Barth’s death.

Nomads are born into their itinerant life, but explorers choose it. That’s why, depending on one’s point of view, explorers look heroic or half-cracked (and are often both). From any perspective, they were mindboggling.

Examples are as numerous as flies around a caravan: Mungo Park, while searching for the Niger, dying of thirst after being plundered, stripped, and abandoned—and then returning for a second attempt. Alexander Gordon Laing, trying for Timbuktu, left for dead by Tuaregs in the Sahara, with five severe lacerations on top of his head, four across his temples, one through his cheek and ear, and another “dreadful gash” on the back of his neck—and then deciding to continue towards Timbuktu anyway. Richard Burton, seeking the source of the Nile, skewered through the mouth with a spear, his tongue so ulcerated he couldn’t speak and his body so wasted by fever he couldn’t walk unsupported for 11 months.

And why? For adventure, certainly. For glory, if they survived. All wanted to solve some geographical riddle and claim the honor for their country and themselves. Barth, like the rest, endured horrible sufferings and dangers, in his case for the sake of scientific discovery. Such perseverance, kept up for more than five years and 10,000 miles, verges on devotion.

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.


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


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.

Tending the Low Flame

Like most people, Nasiru Wada had never heard of Barth. When Nasiru agreed to be my guide, I sent him a link to a digital edition of Travels and Discoveries. By the time I reached Kano, he was deep into the book and had printed hundreds of pages to bring on the trip. “I think he’s superhuman,” he said. “To do everything he did, to notice it and to write it all down—I am amazed. I want to be him.”

One of the Foreign Office volumes on the Central African Expedition

Over the years, similar responses have kept Barth from falling completely off the world’s radar. His work remained valuable to scholars, his name familiar to aficionados of exploration. Basil Davidson, for instance, a prominent historian of Africa, wrote that Barth was “surely the most intelligent of all the nineteenth century travelers in Africa, and sailed these historical narrows with a mastery and brilliance that none has yet repeated.”

A few other comments about him:

“Perhaps the greatest traveler there has ever been in Africa.”–Francis Rennell Rodd, explorer and author of People of the Veil 

“Of the major African explorers, there is no doubt that Heinrich Barth has been much neglected . . . He deserves greater attention, at least equal to what has been given to other African explorers of the nineteenth century.”–R. Mansell Prothero, British historian and geographer of Africa

“Barth had the temper and training which led him to ask historical questions of a kind no European has asked before. He never described the contemporary situation of the various African communities through which he travelled without attempting to relate it to the past; so that his work, unlike almost all preceding European studies, is a work of exploration in a double sense—in time as well as space.”–Thomas Hodgkin, British historian

“It is one of the fascinating paradoxes of the history of African exploration that the greatest of the explorers is the most neglected.”–Adu Boahen, historian of Africa

“Of Africa’s eminent explorers, none has been so neglected by posterity as Heinrich Barth.”–A. H. M. Kirk-Greene, historian of Africa

The thought that rings through these like a chorus is “neglect.” No one tended Barth’s low flame more faithfully than A. H. M. Kirk-Greene. He became fascinated by Barth while serving as a British district officer in northeastern Nigeria (Adamawa and Bornu) before going on to an eminent academic career at Oxford. Between the late 1950s and early 1970s he wrote half a dozen enlightening essays about the explorer. He also persuaded Oxford to publish Barth’s Travels in Nigeria, a book of edited extracts from the Nigerian section of Barth’s account, to which Kirk-Greene added a 70-page biographical introduction, by far the longest such essay about Barth in English.

Kirk-Greene was following in the footsteps of another British district officer named P. A. Benton, who also had come under Barth’s spell while serving in northern Nigeria. Benton turned into a productive part-time scholar about the Central African expedition. For instance, he knew that in 1852 Barth had sent a letter from Kukawa, capital of the Bornu empire, that included the vocabularies of twenty-four dialects collected during the expedition’s first stage. But the vocabularies had been missing for nearly 60 years.

In 1910 Benton found the vocabularies in a Foreign Office file. He culled many treasures about the expedition from those huge repositories, and sometimes added clarifying commentary. His findings and writings were collected in The Languages and Peoples of Bornu (Frank Cass, 1968), with a helpful introduction by his worthy successor—A. H. M. Kirk-Greene.

Comparative vocabulary from Barth's notebooks