Cast of Characters: in Africa

Here are a few of the people most important to Barth during his five-year journey, and hence prominent characters in A Labyrinth of Kingdoms:

James Richardson

The expedition’s first leader. A British evangelical abolitionist, Richardson had traveled to Ghat in the Sahara several years earlier to gather facts about the slave trade for Britain’s Anti-Slavery Society. Soon after returning, he began urging the British Foreign Office to fund a more ambitious expedition that would bring back strategic information about caravan routes and the prospects for commercial profit in the little-known immensity called the Sudan. When he finally got the go-ahead in August 1849, he recruited Barth and another young German, Adolf Overweg to handle the science.

Almost from the start, Richardson and Barth chafed each other—too bad for them, fortunate for readers. Barth found Richardson slow, indecisive, and imperceptive in dangerous situations. Richardson considered Barth rash and overeager, and often on the edge of insubordination.

This was partly a matter of age—Richardson was 11 years older—and partly incompatible temperaments and values. For Richardson, science was a secondary issue; for Barth, it was the highest human endeavor. Clashes were inevitable.

Adolf Overweg

German geologist and astronomer. Overweg was born just a year after Barth but seemed much younger because of his boyish enthusiasm and lack of travel experience. Both Barth and Richardson acknowledged that Africans liked Overweg the best among the three Europeans, because of his sunny disposition and his willingness to spend hours trying to repair an African’s broken watch or distributing specks of medicine (he wasn’t a doctor and his prescriptions were random).

Barth regarded Overweg as an amiable, talented younger brother who was sometimes exasperatingly naive and messy. As an explorer and scientist, Overweg was as keen and tireless as Barth, but was less careful in every way, both personally and as a record-keeper.

El Haj Beshir ben Ahmed Tirab, the Vizier of Kukawa

In Kukawa, Barth spent a lot of time with the shrewd, worldly vizier, second-in-command to the Sheikh of Bornu. Barth admired Haj Beshir’s erudition and openness to new ideas, but thought his faults undercut his virtues. His “luxurious disposition” made him “extremely fond of the fair sex”–he had lost exact count of his harem, which numbered between 300 and 400 concubines. He could wax eloquently about Ptolemy, yet his greed and laziness were hastening the decay of Bornu. Barth accompanied Haj Beshir and his army on a horrifying razzia, or slave raid, the most disturbing section of Barth’s book.

Weled Ammer Walati

Scoundrel extraordinaire. Barth met the Walati, as he called him, while en route to Timbuktu. The rogue spoke six languages and knew the country, so Barth hired him as a fixer to ease his passage through unknown territories. “He was one of the cleverest men whom I met on my journey,” wrote Barth, “in spite of the trouble he caused me and the tricks he played me.”

The Walati did occasionally do his job. At one point, for instance, Barth was surrounded by 150 men with spears, “brandished over their heads with warlike gesticulations. The affair seemed rather serious.” The Walati saved the day by shouting that Barth was a friend of the Sheikh of Timbuktu and was bringing him books. “They dropped their spears and thronged around me, requesting me to give them my blessing.”

More typically the Walati saved his own skin while skinning the explorer.

Sidi Ahmed al-Bakkay, Sheikh of Timbuktu

Kunta tribesman, late 1800s

Barth almost surely would have been murdered in Timbuktu if not for the protection of Sheikh al-Bakkay, a member of the Kunta tribe, renowned desert scholars and religious leaders. Timbuktu had been conquered in 1826 by Muslim fanatics and was nominally under the rule of the Emir of Hamdallahi. When Barth arrived, the Emir ordered al-Bakkay to drive the unbeliever out of town. (The same order had been given in 1826 about the presence of Major Alexander Gordon Laing, who was expelled and murdered.) But al-Bakkay, at tremendous risk from both the Emir and his own political enemies, including a couple of his brothers, defied the emir and took Barth under his wing.

Al-Bakkay alternately charmed and exasperated Barth. The two men intrigued each other and had many intense conversations about history, theology, slavery, polygamy. No African meant more to Barth than al-Bakkay.

These were some of Barth’s companions as he traveled through the Sudan, and they became mine as well, as I traveled through Barth.

Dashing Through Nigeria

Naira sign

Symbol for naira, the currency of Nigeria

In one of his emails before my trip to Nigeria, Nasiru Wada forewarned me about a cultural practice: “Please note that in some cases there may be a need to ‘dash’ locals a fairly small amount of money if their services are needed . . . While these [small gifts] may seem odd to Western researchers, do not forget both Heinrich Barth and J. Staudinger (who came to the north of Nigeria in 1880s) had to carry bags of colored beads to negotiate their way.”

The custom of handing out dash—the word functions as both a noun and a verb—has long been part of life in north-central Africa. The word was brought into English by traders along the Guinea Coast, who shortened it from “dashee,” which the OED cites from a list of “Negrish words” published in 1723. A century later, “dash” was common currency in English. Charles Dickens, in a bitter essay on the disastrous Niger River expedition of 1841, in which fevers and other tropical illnesses killed 55 of the 159 Europeans, referred disparagingly to the Africans’ expectation of  “a ‘dash’ or present.”

Dash took many forms. In ascending order of seriousness (and, in most cases, expense): a gratuity for a small service or privilege; a gift-toll or tax for passing through a territory; a bribe; a tribute to curry favor or show respect; an extortion or shakedown; a ransom; simple confiscation. The lines between these categories were often blurry. Paying dash was crucial to a traveler’s progress and even survival. The traveler sometimes received gifts in return, usually food and accommodation, though sometimes items of more value, such as cloth or slaves.


The scholar Louis Brenner noted that the constant gift-giving expected in Africa was often called graft by the British. He added, “Gift exchange, however, was not bribery as it is understood in the western context; it was not an extra-official or extra-legal activity. Rather, it was an integral part of the system and was considered not only proper but mandatory for all.”

Barth’s expedition started off with many camel-loads of dash-gifts, from cheap needles and geegaws to fancy revolvers. More than once, Barth got stalled in places whose head man was unhappy with the quantity or quality of the dash the explorer could offer. Sometimes, to buy security or release, Barth gave dash not only to the leading citizens but to their wives and principal slaves. Dishing out dash was sometimes enjoyable, sometimes irritating, but always inevitable. Barth knew he had to do it or his travels would become unpleasant and probably suspended. Endless outlays of dash are a leitmotif in his journal.naira--200

After a couple of days in Nigeria, I had a firsthand appreciation of this theme. In Kano, Nasiru began teaching me the rudiments of dash and advising me on amounts. I dashed a docent at a museum, a gatekeeper at Dala Hill, and a man who explained the dye pits. I dashed a hotel employee who took my watch to get a new battery, and the manager who sent the employee on the errand. The amounts varied from 100 naira (about 65 cents) to 400 naira (about $2.60), and were given for a service or privilege.

That changed when we hit the road, where Nasiru’s expertise on the intricacies of dash became invaluable. Without him I’m sure I would have given far too much to some people and insulted others by leaving them dashless. At the sheikh’s palace in Maiduguri, for instance, I wasn’t surprised by Nasiru’s suggestion of 500 naira for the palace historian who talked with us beneath a large baobab in the royal courtyard, but I would not have known to give 200 naira to the palace guards and 200 to the idler who fetched the historian for us. Out in the countryside, unsure which dirt track to take, we asked a young man for directions. “Dash him 200,” said Nasiru. At most military roadblocks we were waved through, but at one far from anywhere, a young soldier with an open cut-off shirt and a rifle smiled crazily and asked for 100 naira to pass. Dashed him. Nasiru called this a reasonable request. “Better to pay for security of the road,” he said, “because otherwise robbers put up roadblocks.”naira--500

At an immigration checkpoint about half-way to Baga, four friendly men in uniforms asked us questions, copied down my passport information, cracked jokes with Nasiru, and asked for 200 naira, though no fee is officially required. When we came back through there a day and a half later, the same friendly officials went through the same routine, but this time asked for 600. Nasiru asked about the price increase. They had reconsidered the situation, they replied, and decided they had shortchanged themselves the first time. We settled on 400.

I dished a lot of dash in Baga. A few examples: a couple of thousand distributed among the driver of the boat and the dignitaries who accompanied us on the boat or helped us onto the boat or had anything whatsoever to do with the boat; 500 to the angry soldier who accused us of running a checkpoint–“so you can eat kola,” Nasiru said to him; 200 to the soldier who rode with us back to the army base; 1000 to Lawal Bana, though that was designated “for your children,” so as not to insult him with the notion of payment for his hospitality; various amounts to the officials at the base. In each case, Nasiru was my priceless advisor.

I could have used him at the airport in Maiduguri. As I sat waiting for my flight, an immigration policewoman ordered me to follow her. In her office, she wrote down the usual information. “And the fee for registration is 1000 naira,” she said. I knew there was no fee, and mentioned my understanding of this fact. She shrugged. The fee to leave Maiduguri, she repeated, was 1000 naira. I dashed her.

During the security check, a soldier rustled through my bag, pulled out my flashlight, and took the batteries. “Sir, these are not allowed.” Are you kidding? “No. There are chemicals inside.” If he had noticed the half-dozen spares in a ziplock, he might have called the bomb squad. Dangerous? Nah. Good batteries are expensive in Nigeria. Confiscated as dash, the price of moving on.

Kukawa and Its Keepers

The dendal in Kukawa, from Travels and Discoveries

On April 2, 1851, a year to the day after the expedition started from the outskirts of Tripoli, Barth reached Kukawa, capital of the Bornu empire. He estimated its population at 30,000, periodically swelled by caravans and pilgrims making the haj to Mecca. Barth was befriended there, after a fashion, by Bornu’s ruler, Sheikh (or Shehu) Umar, and by Umar’s scheming vizier (prime minister), Haj Beshir.

From Kukawa he made four major excursions. All turned into quasi- misadventures (details in my book): south into Adamawa, northeast into Kanem, southeast into Musgu territory, and then farther southeast into Bagirmi.

In Barth’s era, Kukawa was actually two walled towns, each roughly a mile-and-a-half square. The sheikh, nobles, and their slaves lived in eastern Kukawa, the regular citizens in the western town. A broad avenue called the dendal connected them. “Rides along this main thoroughfare were always of novel and enthralling interest for me,” wrote the explorer Gustav Nachtigal, who reached Kukawa about 20 years after Barth, “revealing a life of such variety and even splendor as a European can scarcely associate with the idea of a Negro town.”

Barth and Nachtigal both described a kingdom weakened by corruption and indolence. In 1893 the renegade warlord Rabih sacked and burned Kukawa. The Sheikh of Bornu moved his capital to Maiduguri, where it remains.

Today Kukawa is a small dusty place. Evidently white visitors are still rare. When we exited the car at the residence of the district head, school was getting out, and a crowd of 40 children rushed towards us, laughing and pointing and shouting, “Baturi!” (white man!). Above the children’s shouts we heard amplified agitated preaching from the nearby mosque.

Some men led us through a rough courtyard to the district head. We took off our shoes and entered a dark room whose only light came from the doorway. The head man sat on carpets in the cool murk of the far corner. He leaned back against pillows, his water bottle and cell phone within easy reach. He looked like an old turtle, wary and slow-blinking.

Nasiru Wada introduced us and described my project. He pointed out that my visit here had been endorsed by the sheikh’s historian, whom we had met at the palace in Maiduguri. The district head listened with a stone face. When Nasiru finished, the man asked if we had a letter from the sheikh or his secretary. No? Then he regretted that he could not give us any information or allow us to talk to anyone or even to walk around. In fact, it would be best to leave right away. The old turtle, a bureaucrat through and through, liked his shell. I didn’t speak Hausa, but the tone and body language were international.

Nasiru, a bit stunned, put it all into words as we walked back to the car. The district head still seemed nervous because of the violence that had touched Kukawa some months earlier, instigated by the extremist group Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is forbidden.” He had only recently allowed preaching to resume at the mosque. In his view, a white westerner asking questions probably embodied Boko Haram’s aversions and spelled trouble. It was a small reminder of the times when edgy officials refused Barth’s requests to visit or explore their districts.

We considered asking the police for permission, but the district head was their boss, and besides, I didn’t want to go through the security rigmarole again. The two Nasirus shrugged and said there was nothing to be done. I understood the head man’s caution, but Kukawa was an important place for Barth and for my book, and I told the Nasirus that I wasn’t leaving until I saw what remained of it. After a long silence, they had an urgent conversation in Hausa. The men who had taken us to the head man watched us from the residence. Amplified shouting continued from the mosque.

To buy time, we slowly drove to a sugar-cane stand a few hundred yards up the road. As we paused there, a young man from the district head’s residence walked toward us. We expected him to say, “Move along.” Instead he said that he didn’t agree with the district head and would like to help us. For instance, he continued, the cinderblock wall 100 yards across from the cane stand marked the boundaries of the old palace walls within the destroyed royal town. Would we like to meet “the keeper of the old city”? Indeed we would.

Gate in wall surrounding former palace grounds

The keeper, informed about the district head’s rebuff, smiled and invited us through a gate in the wall. He would be glad to tell us part of Kukawa’s story. He was a young man who lived with his wife in a traditional hut just inside, on the old palace grounds. The walls now enclosed mostly sand.

But there was a building with a tin roof, the size of a three-car garage. We walked to it and entered. Inside stood two crumbling mud-brick mounds with squat wooden doors—the graves of the old sheikhs of Bornu, Umar and his father, Muhammed al-Kanemi. I had read many accounts, including Barth’s, about the men whose bones moldered in this modest place. They had once ruled an empire.

The keeper offered to show us the former boundaries of the old royal city. We drove about a mile into the empty countryside west of town. The keeper said all this had once been inside the walls. We stopped where a low broken wall surrounded a tall baobab tree—in Hausa, a kuka. The keeper said it was Kukawa’s namesake tree.

Barth mentions that Sheikh al-Kanemi supposedly built his new capital at Kukawa because of a young baobab there. The keeper told us a refinement of this local legend: the tree inside the broken wall had been a sapling when the adolescent al-Kanemi used to lean against it and dream of glory—that’s why he later sited his capital here. This pleasing story was flawed only by impossibility; al-Kanemi spent his boyhood far from Kukawa.

We walked across the flat empty land for another quarter mile, until the keeper said that we had reached the boundary of old Kukawa, before Rabih destroyed it. The keeper waved his arm in a circle that now took in nothing but sand, bushes, and scattered kukas. Shards of pottery testified on the ground all around us.

I asked him if he had ever heard of Barth. Yes, he said, his father and grandfather knew stories about the explorer, but he himself knew little beyond the name. He had no idea where Barth’s house had stood in old Kukawa. And anyway, he added, Rabih had destroyed it.

On the way back into town to drop off the keeper, we passed an old empty market, no doubt similar to the one once visited here by Barth. The desert wind whistled through its crooked poles and toupees of dry reeds. Lost empires, forgotten visitors, sacked cities. The remnants and vanities of dead men. At least in Kukawa they still had a keeper–not so different, in some ways, from a writer of history.

Under Control: the Beauty of the Traditional Way

Channel on Lake Chad near Baga

The village head, a tall powerful man dressed in rich robes, sat in a room lit by one dim bulb, watching the news in English on Al Jazeera. His younger brother, clearly subservient, timidly introduced us and our situation. The big man listened without expression, then indicated that I should sit in an easy chair next to the couch where he presided. The two Nasirus sat on the carpeted floor, staying below him as a sign of respect.

After a few minutes of polite back-and-forth, Nasiru Wada broke the ice with some Fulani/Kanuri slave banter, which made the head man smile and reciprocate Nasiru’s threat of slavery. I was tired and hungry, which accentuated my direct American mindset; I assumed that we would ask the head man for accommodations and be on our way. After 10 or 15 minutes of relaxed conversation between the head man and the two Nasirus, my miscalculation became apparent. Protocols had to be followed, which I should have expected from Barth’s account. The two Nasirus and the head man, whose name was Lawal Bana, were settling in for a long palaver in Hausa.

Lawal Bana mentioned that his second wife was from Zinder, an old Sahelian city now in Niger. Ah, said Nasiru Wada, I am thinking of marrying a second wife who lives there. Are marriages to Zinder women expensive?

Oh yes, said Lawal Bana. For the dowry, wedding, and gifts, I spent $2.3 million naira. (About $16,000.)

Nasiru gasped: No!

Oh yes, said Lawal Bana, smiling ruefully.

Eventually Lawal Bana offered us an abandoned house of his on a nearby army base. He rummaged among his couch cushions for the key, unsuccessfully, so he ordered his younger brother, Mina, to pick up a hacksaw and some drinks for us on the way there. “Everything has changed,” said Nasiru Wada as we were en route. “We are no longer in control. We are under control. That is the beauty of the traditional way.”

Mina hacksawed through a padlock and opened the door to a room in a concrete house, in disrepair but snug. Someone soon brought a container of food from Lawal Bana. I bounced the beam of my flashlight off the ceiling so we could see: red stew afloat with globs of white cornmeal. Delicious. To thwart the majority of the mosquitoes, we left the door and windows closed, which turned the room into an oven. Barth often made the same choice. Lying in our sauna, slapping at the occasional skeeter, living under Lawal Bana’s control, I was getting a small taste of Barth’s routine for five years—reach a new place, visit the head man, get assigned quarters, hope that food arrives, spend a semi-sleepless night, move on.

Abdul and Nasiru Datti at our accommodations in Baga

At 5:00 roosters began crowing, followed by goats bleating in the bushes and the weird cries of guinea hens. Breakfast appeared: egg sandwiches, tea with butter, sugar, and condensed milk. Lawal Bana also had arranged for a boat to take us onto Lake Chad. But protocol required another audience at his house first.

Today he wore a lustrous brocaded robe. He was expansive, with a big laugh and fluid gestures. Two cell phones lay on the cushion next to him. The two Nasirus took their positions on the floor. There was no hurry. Several times the languid conversation was interrupted by men entering to do business with our host.

After a while he handed us over to the driver of his SUV. We roared over to the lake, glazing clusters of huts with dust. Our dramatic entrance drew a crowd. We boarded one of the painted boats, accompanied by Mina and two dignitaries–the chairmen of the water board and the boat owners’ association. Our boat ride had become an event.

In front: Nasiru Datti and Mina. Behind Mina, Nasiru Wada

The channel widened slightly, but the excursion strengthened my impression of Chad as a lake impersonating rivers and creeks. Fishermen in dugouts or larger boats disappeared into the reeds, following passages visible only to them. One fisherman floated in the water, draped over a hollow calabash the size of an exercise ball. His belly covered a hole in the top, trapping the air that floated him. His arms and legs dangled in the water, one hand holding a small net. When he caught a fish, he put it in the hollow gourd.

The two Nasirus rarely got the chance for a boat ride. Nasiru Wada paid the boatman an extra 200 naira, about $1.50, to do some fast spins. Nasiru Datti, landlubberly stiff, shook his head in disapproval.

On shore, after distributing “dash” all around (I’ll say more about dash in another post) we headed out in the SUV. Within a few hundred yards, a soldier gestured angrily for us to stop. He began shouting that the driver had sped past him on the way in, instead of stopping at the checkpoint. We could have been shot, he shouted, and if it had been nighttime, we would have been shot. The driver said that Lawal Bana had cleared everything beforehand. No one told me, shouted the soldier, who was soon joined by his shouting superior. Mina announced that he was going over their heads and calling his brother, the head man. OK, bellowed the superior, I’m calling my commander.

Nasiru Wada tried to calm things by offering the superior some dash. The man acted shocked. Are you trying to bribe me, he shouted? No, said Nasiru, it’s just for you to eat kola. Euphemism for dash. The suspicion resurfaced that I might be a foreign agent. The superior ordered his men to search the SUV for signs of spycraft. They overlooked my exploding pen and hollow heel.

Eventually we were ordered to report to the same military base where we had spent the night. The superior assigned a soldier with a rifle to ride with us, ostensibly to prevent us from bolting, but really just because he could, for intimidation. Mina said Lawal Bana was en route to vouch for us. As we prepared to leave, the superior decided that on second thought he could accept a wad of dash, but did so with huffy disdain, as if he were above such venality. This all would have been amusing farce if it hadn’t gone on so long in the intense heat.

At the base, an official welcomed us and questioned me about the purpose of my visit. He chided me for not checking in with military security yesterday. I said I thought I had, by answering questions from various alert agencies at the lake. He shook his head and said he had to check with the deputy commander about how to proceed.

Another soldier with a fancier uniform, probably the deputy commander, appeared and repeated the entire routine—same welcome, questions, admonishments. Lawal Bana showed up and smoothed feathers. Everyone relaxed. One of the officials probed me about my impressions of Nigeria and what I’d heard about his country in the U.S. My description of Barth intrigued him, and he wrote down the explorer’s name and the title of his book. We were now all friends and no one was in a rush.

After exchanging information for an hour under the shade trees, I made a few last disbursements of dash and we hit the road for Kukawa–once the capital of the mighty empire of Bornu, and Barth’s base for a year and a half.