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.
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.”
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.