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.

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