When Nasiru Datti was a boy in Kano, one of his jobs was to buy kola nuts for his father in the market. It was an honor and a big responsibility. In West and Central Africa, kola (also called goro and guro) has always been serious business, in all senses of that phrase. For the people there, noted Barth, kola was “as necessary as coffee or tea to us.”
The Arabs, devoted coffee drinkers, called kola “the coffee of Sudan.” This was true in several ways. Like coffee and tea, kola delivered a caffeine kick and was used partly as a pick-me-up. Laborers chewed kola to overcome fatigue and to blunt hunger and discomfort, in the same way that Andean peoples chew coca leaves. (In the late 19th century, an American combined carbonated sugar-water with extracts from coca leaves and kola nuts: Coca-Cola.) Kola also had some of the same social functions as coffee. Just as Turks and Arabs immediately served guests a cup of java, West Africans traditionally offered guests a kola nut.
But kola carried far more social weight than coffee. Hugh Clapperton, a British explorer of the Sudan in the 1820s, described its significance:
“This nut, which is in high esteem and general use all through the interior, is frequently applied to the same purpose as the calumet of peace amongst the North American Indians, and is likewise used on all public occasions to testify the good understanding that prevails in the assembly: when presented to private individuals, it signifies that there is peace between the donor and receiver.”
Kola nuts were essential at naming ceremonies, weddings, and funerals. People swore oaths, cemented business deals, and pledged daughters in marriage by breaking kola together. On important holidays, rich people distributed kola nuts to the poor as alms. In Chinua Achebe’s germinal novels, Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease, the ritual sharing of kola nuts signifies traditional values, a ritual threatened by new historical forces.
Kola differed from coffee in another way: cost. Though considered indispensible by rich and poor, kola was also a luxury. In Barth’s day, one nut cost as much as many cups of coffee.
Naturally the kola trade was big business. In Timbuktu, wrote Barth, the nuts trailed only gold and salt in commercial importance. Kola was also central to Kano’s economy. Barth researched the kola trade with his usual thoroughness. The nuts came from two species of trees, but much variety occurred within the species in size, color, and quality. In Kano, for instance, he found four distinct kinds of nuts, all with different names. These four were further divided into three categories based on the season when the nuts were gathered. Kola reached the city each year on the backs of about 500 asses–5,000 to 6,000 nuts, wrote Barth, “constitute an ass-load.”
To get the nuts, Kano’s traders traveled west for several hundred miles to a small town called Selga in what is now Burkina Faso. There they haggled with Ashantis, the main suppliers of kola, who had come from the forests of Ghana. If the Kano traders didn’t bring enough asses, or if some of theirs had died en route, Mossi livestock dealers stood by to sell them replacements at three times the Kano price. Selga was a miserable place with little water, so water merchants hawked their product at exorbitant prices. The Kano traders didn’t linger in Selga. On the way home, they paid levies to every chief along the route. By the time Barth arrived, this commerce between forest and savannah had been going on for at least six centuries.
The German explorer Gustav Nachtigal, who reached Bornu 20 years after Barth, described the careful measures required to transport kola nuts from the source to market. The trip took several months, and unless the trader was careful, his stock would spoil. Kola is finicky, requiring the right amounts of moisture and coolness—not easy to maintain in central Africa. The traders packed the nuts in baskets lined and topped with thick layers of damp leaves. During the rainy season the traders unloaded the baskets twice a month, spread them on the ground to air out, discarded any that were spoiling or worm-eaten, then sprinkled the rest with water and repacked the baskets. In the dry season they followed this procedure twice a week.
The time, expense, and trouble paid off if the traders reached a big market with most of their stock intact, because customers craved their product. Nachtigal confessed that when he couldn’t get kola, he missed it more than coffee, tea, or tobacco. “It is regarded as a general calamity,” he wrote, “if a harvest failure or military operations diminish the flow into the market. . . . When one has been deprived of this luxury for a long time, the greatest sacrifices are made to get hold of it, and a Kanuri does not hesitate, for example, for this purpose to sell his horse or his concubine, the most valuable earthly possessions he has. A gift of [kola] nuts is always a mark of particular friendship, and a few of them are sufficient to purchase the favour of a frivolous girl.”
One song from Bornu lamented that one of the worst things about being captured as a slave and sent to the Barbary Coast was the scarcity of kola there. In fact the nuts were exported to northern Africa and fetched high prices, noted Nachtigal, but they usually arrived in such a dry wrinkled state that only the poorest people in Bornu would have deigned to chew such sorry specimens.
So for Nasiru, choosing his father’s kola nuts was a major responsibility. He learned how to judge them. The nuts needed to be smooth, plump, and uniformly colored. Too many brown spots suggested spoilage. Shriveled casings meant tough, dry kernels.
Before we left Maiduguri he bought some on the street and passed them around. About the size of walnuts, they were dusty maroon in color. He and Nasiru Wada expertly cracked theirs open at the seam, revealing kernels that were a lovely deep pink. They offered me one. When I bit into it, my face involuntarily puckered at the bitter astringency. They burst into laughter, then resumed chewing. “These are excellent kolas,” said Nasiru Datti.