About Steve Kemper

Freelance writer and author of A Splendid Savage: the Restless Life of Frederick Russell Burnham (2016), A Labyrinth of Kingdoms (2012), about African explorer Heinrich Barth, and Code Name Ginger, about Dean Kamen and the Segway.

Golden City: the Allure of Timbuktu

When my grandfather wanted to signify something far out of reach or unimaginably far away, the thing or person would be “way out in Timbuktu” or “gone to Timbuktu.” As a child I loved the word’s percussive sound and exotic aura. (For similar purposes he used a musical word that I heard as “Pulchapeck,” which I assumed was another of his fanciful coinages. Decades later while studying an atlas–a favorite pastime–I was shocked to come across Chapultepec. It turned out to be the site of a once-famous battle between U.S. and Mexican troops in 1847, probably the origin of my grandfather’s usage.)

Mansa Musa holding a nugget of gold, from a 1375 Catalan Atlas of the known world

It was years before I learned that Timbuktu existed outside his imagination. I also learned that for centuries of Western history, the imagination had been Timbuktu’s main location. The cause was probably Mansa Musa, emperor of Mali, who once ruled the city. In 1324 he made a haj across Africa through Cairo to Mecca. He traveled with an enormous caravan, including 80 camels that carried 300 pounds of gold each. Along the way he freely lightened these camels, especially in Cairo. Soon Europe was abuzz with rumors about golden cities in the heart of the Sahara. This chimera refused to die for more than five centuries, and many Europeans would die pursuing it.

Title page of Leo Africanus’s book about Africa

Meanwhile African travelers, traders, and scholars streamed through Timbuktu. A few left tantalizing reports. The restless Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta visited around 1352 and wrote a short account that mentioned gold and many naked women. Leo Africanus, a Spanish Moor, reached the city around 1510 and was impressed by the number of scholars and gold plates. Then in 1591 the king of Morocco sent an army that conquered and looted Timbuktu, and marched its scholars to Morocco in chains. To Europe, the place seemed to go dark.

After a few quiet centuries, Europe’s interest in Timbuktu reawakened, and the race to reach it was on. In 1824 the French Société de Géographie offered 10,000 francs to anyone who made it to the city and returned alive. The British were determined to beat the French. Most of the contestants didn’t survive the race.

Alexander Gordon Laing

In the first half of the 19th century, only two Europeans reached Timbuktu. The first was Major Alexander Gordon Laing, who led a British expedition from Tripoli. After being viciously attacked by Tuaregs and left for dead in the middle of the desert, he somehow lashed himself on to Timbuktu, arriving in 1826. The Muslim fundamentalists who controlled the place were incensed that an infidel was polluting their holy city. After five weeks, Laing was expelled. Not far into the desert, his guides murdered him and burned his journals.

René Caillié

A year and a half later, in 1828, another European sneaked into Timbuktu disguised as a poor Muslim traveler. His name was René Caillié, a French dreamer inspired by Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Everything about Caillié’s story defies belief: the years of sacrifice in preparation for the journey to Timbuktu, the horrible afflictions suffered en route and on the way home, the adulation and bestsellerdom followed by humiliation and poverty. He stayed in Timbuktu undetected for two weeks—after hearing about Laing, he decided not to dawdle—but he did return to Europe and collect the prize money, to the dismay of the British.

Twenty-five years passed before another European, also in disguise, dared to enter Timbuktu: Heinrich Barth.

Eating Local: Locusts and Elephants

All African explorers endured afflictions: sickness, biting insects, vile water, dangerous animals, extreme temperatures, miserable accommodations, hostile people. Throughout it all, they needed to eat. Sometimes food eased their miseries, sometimes worsened them. And of course they often went hungry.

Barth’s and Overweg’s contracts with the British government required them to provide their own food. They ate well during the first part of the journey, supplementing rice and grains with the meat of hares or gazelles chased down by greyhounds or bought from hunters. In Murzuk, 500 miles into the Sahara, the pasha served them coffee and sherbet, and the British vice-consul feted them on roasted lamb and dried sardines, accompanied by rum, wine, and bottled stout.

Ostrich egg among smaller yolks, by Rainer Zenz

The menu soon changed. Deeper into the desert, their stores ran short. The few people they came across who didn’t want to rob or kill them didn’t have any spare food to sell. When they found an ostrich egg, wrote Barth, it “caused us more delight, perhaps, than scientific travelers are strictly justified in deriving from such causes.”

After the austerities of the Sahara, Kano was a culinary high point. The market there offered everything a hungry man craved. Barth relished the street food: “Diminutive morsels of meat, attached to a small stick, were roasting, or rather stewing, in such a way that the fat, trickling down from the richer pieces attached to the top of  the stick, basted the lower ones. These dainty bits were sold for a single shell or ‘uri’ each.”

He also enjoyed the market’s roasted locusts, still a valued source of protein in sub-Saharan Africa. Barth called the taste “agreeable.” Many African explorers reviewed the dish. Friedrich Hornemann said roasted locusts had a taste “similar to that of red herrings, but more delicious.” David Livingstone pronounced them “strongly vegetable in taste, the flavor varying with the plants on which they feed. . . . Some are roasted and pounded into meal, which, eaten with a little salt, is palatable. It will keep thus for months. Boiled, they are disagreeable; but when they are roasted I should much prefer locusts to shrimps, though I would avoid both if possible.” Gustav Nachtigal also preferred them roasted. Of the dozen kinds eaten by natives, he was partial to the light-brown ones, though the speckled green-and-whites were also fine.

Barth ate meat whenever he could get it, domesticated or wild. Sometimes when he stopped in a village, the chief would send him a sheep or a bullock. During his first months in Timbuktu he ate pigeons every day. In some areas guinea fowls were common. On rare occasions he ate antelope and aoudad (Barbary sheep). Barth and Overweg agreed about the tastiest meat in Africa: giraffe. They also liked elephant, though its richness tended to cause havoc in the bowels. When possible, they added vegetables such as squash or beans from legume trees to their diet, and fruit such as papayas and tamarinds. In the desert they enjoyed a refreshing drink called rejire made from dried cheese and dates.

Tamarind tree at right

Guinea corn and millet

But most of the time they lived on grains, especially guinea corn, wheat, sorghum, and millet, prepared in dozens of ways—stewed, mashed, baked, roasted, rolled, fried, pancaked—sometimes mixed with milk or vegetables or bits of meat or cheese. En route to Timbuktu Barth’s typical dinner consisted of millet with vegetable paste made from tree-beans; for breakfast he mixed the cold paste with sour milk. He was fond of fura, bean cakes, and various dishes made from white guinea corn. On the other hand, in Musgu he was unable to choke down a paste made from red sorghum. During one long stretch he lived on boiled mashed groundnuts, which he grew to hate.

Guinea corn

His deepest appreciation went to one simple food: “Milk, during the whole of my journey, formed my greatest luxury; but I would advise any African traveler to be particularly careful with this article, which is capable of destroying a weak stomach entirely; and he would do better to make it a rule always to mix it with a little water, or to have it boiled.”

The milk in Kukawa, however, disgusted him, because the Kanuris added cow’s urine to it, imparting a tang that he found repellent. Kanuris (and some Fulanis) still clean their milk bowls with cow urine, believing that it keeps the milk from going sour for several days. This practice nudged Barth towards camel’s milk, which he came to prefer.

I’ve eaten some things considered weird by American tastes–cow’s stomach, pigs’ ears and testicles, fried grasshoppers and fresh-roasted termites, rattlesnake and blue jay, guinea pig and crocodile–all mainstream fare for Barth and other explorers, who always ate the local food.

I thought of Barth in Lagos as I tried nkwobi, a dish the menu described as “soft cow leg pieces in a secretly spiced sauce, with ugba and topped with fresh utazi leaves.” So many unknowns, so irresistible. But the secret sauce covered a mass so repulsively gristly and gelatinous that I couldn’t eject it from my mouth fast enough. “Cow leg pieces” turned out to mean “hooves.” Even Barth might have hesitated.

El Gatroni

Many explorers in Africa traveled with squads of servants. Lack of funds limited Barth to two, sometimes three. The cast changed often, especially in the first year or so when servants often quit or were fired. But one African stayed with Barth for almost the entire expedition. His name was Muhammed al-Gatruni—that is, Muhammed from Gatrun (also spelled Gatrone, Katrun, and Qatrun), a Saharan village in southern Fezzan, in present-day Libya. Barth called him el Gatroni.

Muhammed al-Gatroni--el Gatroni

This remarkable man spent years assisting Europeans in the exploration of Africa. He served not only Barth but several subsequent travelers who hired him because of Barth’s strong recommendation.

El Gatroni was a Teda, a division of the Tebu people. When Barth hired him in Murzuk in mid-1850, he was 17 or 18, “a thin youth of most unattractive appearance,” wrote the explorer, “but who nevertheless was the most useful attendant I ever had; and, though young, he had roamed about a great deal over the whole eastern half of the desert and shared in many adventures of the most serious kind. He possessed, too, a strong sense of honor, and was perfectly to be relied upon.” Whenever Barth mentions el Gatroni in Travels and Discoveries, it’s always with similar appreciation: “our best and most steady servant,” “upon whose discretion and fidelity I could entirely rely.”

El Gatroni stayed with Barth to the end of the expedition in 1855, except for a hiatus when the explorer entrusted him to take Richardson’s effects and precious journals to Murzuk. When Barth decided to try for Timbuktu, an extremely dangerous journey, el Gatroni agreed to accompany him as chief servant. His salary: one horse, four Spanish dollars a month, and a bonus of fifty Spanish dollars if the expedition succeeded (that is, if Barth lived). His assistance was so valuable that at the end of the journey Barth regretted being unable to double el Gatroni’s bonus.

Henri Duveyrier

Some years later, when Barth was writing Travels and Discoveries in London, he met a French teenager named Henri Duveyrier who dreamed of exploring the Sahara. Barth advised him to learn Arabic and, if he ever went to Central Africa, to hire el Gatroni. Duveyrier took this advice. El Gatroni accompanied the Frenchman on some of the travels that made him famous.

In Germany, Barth’s example inspired Karl Moritz von Beurmann to undertake an expedition into Bornu in the early 1860s. Barth again recommended el Gatroni, who guided von Beurmann to Kukawa. The explorer proceeded to Wadai, where he was murdered. Barth also inspired his countryman Friedrich Gerhard Rohlfs, who followed Barth and von Beurmann to Bornu in the mid-1860s. Rohlfs’s guide, on Barth’s suggestion, was el Gatroni.

Friedrich Gerhard Rohlfs

A few years later Rohlfs arranged for el Gatroni to lead Gustav Nachtigal on part of that explorer’s remarkable five-year odyssey through Central Africa. Nachtigal, who called Barth “my constant example,” knew all about el Gatroni and described his first meeting with him in 1869 as the famous guide stuffed pack saddles for their upcoming trip:

“I looked with respectful awe upon his round, black face, with its innumerable wrinkles, his small snub nose with wide nostrils, his toothless mouth, the sparse black and white hairs of his beard, his large ears and his faithful eyes.

“As I had frequent occasion to observe in the years which followed, old Muhammad was not a man of many words. A quiet friendly old man, he was by no means indifferent to the joys of life; he seldom, however, allowed the equanimity which was the result of his temperament and his rich experiences to be disturbed.”

Gustav Nachtigal

Though Nachtigal often called el Gatroni old, the guide was only a year or so senior to the 35-year-old Nachtigal, but his face was carved with a life of rough travels.

When Nachtigal wanted to explore Tibesti, in what is now northern Chad, el Gatroni strongly advised against such a dangerous trip and didn’t want to go. Nachtigal asked him to recommend someone else as a guide. “The worthy man, however, rejected this proposal with some indignation,” wrote Nachtigal. “‘I have promised your friends in Tripoli,’ he added, ‘to bring you safe and sound to Bornu, just as I also guided thither your brothers, ‘Abd el-Kerim (Barth) and Mustafa Bey (Rohlfs). With God’s help we shall achieve this purpose together. Until then I shall not leave you, and should misfortune befall you among the treacherous [Tebu], I want to share it with you.’”

The expertise and steadfastness of men such as el Gatroni helped make possible the exploration of Africa by Europeans.

Abbega and Dorugu

For the last three years of his journey, from Kukawa to Timbuktu and back, and then on to Tripoli, Barth was accompanied by two young African boys as servants. When he left for home, he took them with him. One scholar has suggested that they were the first northern Nigerians to visit Europe. Their names were Abbega and Dorugu, and their story casts a fascinating sidelight onto Barth’s.

Abbega & Dorugu

Both boys became attached to the expedition as servants of Adolf Overweg, Barth’s fellow German scientist. Overweg bought them as slaves and immediately freed them. Abbega’s early history is sketchy. We know that he came from the Marghi tribe and had been stolen and sold into slavery. When he entered Overweg’s service, he was about 15.

We know more about Dorugu, who was several years younger, because he later told his story to a missionary/linguist who wrote it all down (more on that later). Dorugu was born in a Hausa village about fifty miles southwest of Zinder in present-day Niger. Like Abbega, he was seized in a raid and sold into slavery. His Kanuri master took him to Kukawa, where he was sold to an Arab to pay a debt. This was around 1851 when Dorugu was 11 or 12.

The following year, as Overweg and Barth prepared for their excursion with the rapacious Welid Sliman, Overweg hired Dorugu from the Arab as a camel boy. Overweg must have gotten attached to him, because when they returned, the scientist bought the boy and freed him. Dorugu, little more than a child, stayed with Overweg as a servant.

When Overweg died, Barth assured the two distraught boys that he would take care of them, and they stayed with him for the rest of the expedition. By the time they all returned to the journey’s starting point in Tripoli, Abbega was about 18, Dorugu about 15.

Barth’s invitation to accompany him to Europe must have struck them as a wonderful prospect, made more exciting by the fancy clothes Barth bought for them: trousers of blue wool, tailored jackets of red wool with metal buttons and gold stripes, red wool caps with blue silk tassels. Barth hoped that training in English and other skills would make them useful to future explorers in Africa. He also planned to get linguistic help from them for a book on African languages he intended to write after publishing his journal.

Abbega & Dorugu

Everything about the trip to London amazed the teenagers—the steamer to Malta and Marseilles, the huge smoking iron carriage that sped across France, the strange implements called forks, the complete absence of sand, the chalk-faced women with waists like wasps’.

In early 1856, after a short trip to see Barth’s family in Germany, they returned to London. Barth got to work on Travels and Discoveries. He arranged for the Africans to stay with Reverend J. F. Schön, a missionary who had been on the disastrous Niger expedition of 1841. Schön was also compiling a Hausa dictionary, so Barth knew that Dorugu could be useful to him. Schön interviewed Dorugu extensively about his young life. (The result can be found in West African Travels and Adventures, edited by Anthony Kirk-Greene and Paul Newman.)

While tutoring both boys, Schön also proselytized them, with the goal of sending them back to Africa as missionaries. They were baptized in May 1857. Dorugu was christened James Henry, after Schön and Barth. Abbega was named Frederick Fowell Buxton, after Schön and T. Fowell Buxton, an evangelical abolitionist who convinced the British government to fund the 1841 Niger expedition, and who fervently believed that pagan Africa would be redeemed by “Bible and plough.”

Meanwhile the two boys had become terribly homesick and asked Barth to get them back to Africa. He set about convincing the Foreign Office to pay their return voyage to Tripoli, and arranging with the British consul there to provide them with a camel, a guide to Kano, and the Arabic passports carried by free blacks in defense against slavers.

Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840, by Benjamin Robert Haydon. Buxton at upper left

Next came two kicks to Barth’s head. The Anti-Slavery Society, a powerful force in Britain, accused him of joining in the slave trade while in Africa and of transporting two young slaves to England—Abbega and Dorugu. The source of these scandalous lies may have been a British soldier who had briefly traveled with Barth at the end of his journey and was now seeking revenge for the explorer’s less-than-stellar report about him to the Foreign Office. The accusations stunned and infuriated Barth.

The second kick came when Abbega and Dorugu suddenly informed him they now wanted to stay in England. Barth, angry that his good intentions for them had blown up in his face and that all his labors to get them safely home were now being shrugged off, refused this change of plans—which he had no right to do—and instructed them to take the appointed ship from Southampton. The boys did briefly board, but then disembarked with Schön and went home with him. Barth considered this a betrayal by both the Africans and Schön, whom he accused of hijacking the teenagers for his own purposes.

Abbega left England for Africa later that same year. Dorugu stayed for eight years before going back. Both quickly dropped missionary work; there were more lucrative ways to use their new skills. Dorugu eventually became a schoolteacher. Abbega reverted to Islam and became an interpreter for explorers, British officials, and the Royal Niger Company.

Many years later, when Britain had taken over Nigeria, the colonial government wanted to recover the remains of Overweg, who had died in Britain’s service. For help, they turned to a chief named Maimana—Abbega’s grandson. Maimana went to the village on Lake Chad where Overweg had died and located an 80-year-old woman who knew the gravesite. The British dug and found Overweg’s bones. They were taken to Maiduguri, the new regional capital of Bornu, and now rest in the small European cemetery there.

How Do You Spell That?

Western spellings of African names and places are notoriously various. Until all the versions of certain words became familiar to me, the discrepancies sometimes made my eyes spin (and my spell-checker run red).

The causes of confusion seem clear. Imagine a panel of 17th-century Europeans—a Spaniard, a Portuguese, a Frenchman, an Englishman, and a German—listening to a Wampanoag Indian say the word that we have come to know as “Massachusetts.” Now imagine how each panelist would spell that new word after filtering its sounds through the phonics, diphthongs, diacritics, and other idiosyncrasies peculiar to his native language. It’s safe to predict that the resulting phonetic guesses would not be uniform.

Similar “sounds-like” spellings occurred when explorers asked Africans the name of some river or mountain. The confusion was further complicated because different peoples in Africa spoke unrelated languages, and naturally had different names for the same places, tribes, landmarks, plants, and animals. Travelers brought all the different words home and put them onto maps and into accounts and letters.

Sometimes the variations are easy to decipher. For instance, in the journals of Barth and James Richardson, and in dispatches by Foreign Office personnel, Richardson’s interpreter is variously referred to as Yusuf, Yusef, Yousef, and Youseff, with a last name of Moknee, Mukni, Muckeni, and Mokumee. The founder of Islam is likewise recognizable whether spelled Mohammed, Muhammad, or Muhammed.

Murzuk, from Travels and Discoveries

Things can get a bit more confusing with geographic names. In different accounts, the desert town of Murzuk, for example, is called Murzuq, Mourzuk, Morzouk, and Murzuch. There’s Timbuktu, Timbuctoo, and Tombouctou. Lake Chad also appears as Tschad and Tchad.

Tribal names often undergo phonetic mutations. The Tebu people of Niger and Chad may be called Toubou, Tibbu, Tibu, Tubu, Tebou, or Tibboo. The great ethnic group who dominate the Central Sudan may be referred to as Fula, Fulani, Fellani, or Fulbe. Barth rode for a while with a tribe of mercenary Arabs, “certainly the most lawless robbers in the world,” whom he called the Welad Sliman–but other writers spell their initial name Walid, Ouled, Oulad, or Uelad, sometimes followed by Soliman, Suliman, or Suleiman. A researcher needs to recognize the many possible combinations.

Tuareg” comes in multiple alternate spellings: Tawarek (Barth), Tuarick (Richardson), Touareg (French), and Twareg, among others. The same is true for the Tuaregs’ name for themselves: Imoshagh, Imohag, Imohagh, Imashaghen, Imuhagh, Imajaghan, Imajughen, and Imazaghan are a few of the variations. The Tuaregs’ language is usually, but not always, spelled Tamasheq, Tamashek, or Tamajaq, which uses an alphabet called Tifinagh.

Carving in Tifinagh script ©Tim Brookes 2011

To a researcher combing through books and encountering these peoples under all their different names, it’s as if they carry multiple passports and wear disguises, a mustache in one place, an eyepatch in another.

Sometimes the disguises are confounding. Old travel accounts and histories may refer to the Niger River as the Isa, Quorra, Kworra, or Kwara. The Niger’s major tributary, the Benue, might appear under the names Shary, Shari, Tchadda, or Chadda. Such wild discrepancies also underline the unsettled state of geographic knowledge about these river systems in the 18th and 19th centuries.

To make sense of old accounts and historical documents, a researcher must learn to recognize the variants. Otherwise, references will be missed or misunderstood. Someone inexperienced who searched Barth’s index for “Tuareg,” for instance, could get the misimpression that the explorer had nothing to say about that extraordinary desert tribe, when in fact he spent a good portion of his journey among them.

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.

naira--100

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.

Drinkers, Traders, Soldiers, Spies

The nomads at the muddy pond were Arabs from Agadez, an old Saharan entrepot in present-day Niger. Their 60 camels drank and looked supercilious.

A boy and a small girl in a multicolored robe stood behind the herd. The girl was a dynamo, scolding the camels in a shrill voice and whacking their legs with a stick if they tried to stray.

Nasiru Wada said it would be OK to take her picture, but to give her a small gift of money. She stared at the bills in her hand in amazement. Nasiru, a joker who favored ironic teasing, said to her, “You will be”—he hooked his little finger—“my wife.” Instantly, the wonder on her face turned to disgust. She dropped the bills as if they were turds. “Forgive me,” Nasiru said quickly. “It was a joke.” She studied him, picked up the money, and spun away.

Long stretches of this road toward Lake Chad were undrivable because of craters and broken asphalt, so we followed the dirt track alongside it. In the middle of nowhere, a huge crumbling billboard featured the gigantic name and photo of some politician advertising himself as the “Lion of the Desert.” Sometimes many dirt tracks converged in a village and then scattered, so we had to ask for directions.

The thatched roofs changed from the bowl-shaped design of the Fulanis to the triangular twists of the Kanuris, echoed by the stacks of guinea corn in flat fields that went to the horizon. The flatness conspired with the intense heat to play visual tricks. Distant trees shimmered and floated on the horizon, creating the mirage of a lake shore. But Lake Chad doesn’t reveal itself so easily.

At 5:00 we reached Baga, a freckle of a town on a finger jutting into the lake. The water itself remained invisible. Baga’s only hotel was part of a walled open-air bar with a shed roof. At the back stood a row of  metal doors set into a windowless bunker of concrete—the hotel portion of the establishment. Men and women drinking beer turned to examine us, then resumed their conversations as a soccer game played on television.

The two Nasirus consulted and said we were leaving. I assumed that, as Muslims, the drinking offended them, but their concern was security. “People see a white person and might think you have money, and want to rob you,” said Nasiru Datti. We later learned that Baga’s few visitors had stopped taking the hotel van because the driver had been tipping off his buddies when white people were coming; the buddies would ambush the van and plunder the passengers.

The next closest lodging was in Kukawa, 20 bumpy miles west. I wanted to see the lake, so we put our plans for lodging on hold and asked some men sitting on a bench in Baga for directions to the water. You’ll never find it, they said. One young man offered to get in the car and guide us there.

Many twists and turns later, a couple of miles out of town, we reached a row of boats painted with geometric designs, on the shore of what appeared to be a river about 50 yards wide. In fact it was one of the myriad reed-flanked channels that constitute Lake Chad. When Barth saw the lake’s marshy waterways and tall reeds, he realized that one of the mission’s tasks would be impossible: to map Lake Chad’s borders. The boundaries between land and water were indistinct and changed each season. He saw large numbers of waterfowl, crocodiles, and hippopotamuses.

He also glimpsed the mysterious people whom the Kanuris called the Budduma, “people of the grass,” who lived on islands in the lake, where they raised cattle. They called themselves Yedina and spoke their own language. Notorious pirates, they raided shoreline villages and vanished back into the lake’s wilderness of reeds and channels. Neither of the Nasirus had heard of the Budduma. “Barth is teaching us,” said Nasiru Wada. I asked our Baga passenger if the Budduma still existed. Oh yes, he said, on the islands. At the lake, he pointed out a Budduma woman speaking the language.

Lake Chad’s labyrinthine channels still provide excellent cover for smugglers and illegal immigrants–the lake touches Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad–so entry-points like Baga are filled with security personnel. Though the shoreline was crowded with people selling and socializing, our arrival immediately drew the attention of the marine police, the regular police, soldiers, customs officials, and immigration officers. To deflect suspicion, I presented myself as a historian, not a journalist. Their questions soon moved from wary to curious and friendly. The Nigerian “underwear bomber” had recently been nabbed while trying to blow up a U. S. airliner, igniting dark mistrust of Nigerians in America. The paranoia went in both directions: Nasuri Wada later told me that the lake authorities at first suspected me of being a CIA agent.

Night fell. We still needed a place to stay. Our Baga passenger overheard our dilemma and insisted on taking us to see his brother, the village head, who had authority over all such matters. Having no alternative, we agreed.