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.
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.