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.

Explorer in Training: Part 2

Barth spent most of his tour around the Mediterranean in North Africa and the Middle East. He first touched Africa at Tangiers, then proceeded east towards the Nile and on to the Levant. “I spent nearly my whole time with the Arabs,” he wrote, “and familiarized myself with that state of human society where the camel is man’s daily companion, and the culture of the date-tree his chief occupation.”

Date palm tree, by Balaram Mahalder

The trip was invaluable training for the great journey to come. He tested himself by traveling through dozens of cultures, many of them Islamic. He learned how to cope with fever, illness, and gunshot wounds–in Egypt he survived an attack by Bedouin thieves who shot him in both legs and left him unconscious. He became skilled at traveling leanly and alone for long periods. He perfected his Arabic and picked up several other languages, including Turkish, which would one day come in handy at a crucial moment as he attempted to enter Timbuktu disguised as a Syrian sherif. He trained himself to recognize links between a region’s history, geography, languages, and cultures, links he would later find in central Africa. The trip exhilarated him. He was gone for nearly three years.

Spending so much time alone in the desert reinforced his misfit tendencies. “He had become the very model of the imperious, the closed-off, and the ascetic,” remembered Gustav von Schubert, Barth’s brother-in-law, intimate friend, and biographer. Shortly before Barth returned, von Schubert had started courting the explorer’s beloved younger sister, Mathilde. “Later we became close friends,” wrote von Schubert, “but it took a long time before I was able to thaw the ice around his heart and experience the depths of his character. In his first letter to me, he wrote, ‘If you make my sister unhappy, I will shoot you dead,’ which was clear enough.”

Barth wasted no time pursuing his three main goals: to write a scholarly multi-volume account of his journey, to secure an academic position, and to get married. Things looked promising, at first. He found a publisher. He got a part-time job in the archeology department at the University of Berlin. He beseiged a prospective bride.

Nothing worked out. The first volume of his book, Wanderings Along the Shores of the Mediterranean, was praised for its meticulous scholarship but slammed for its boring style and presentation. The public declined to buy it, so the publisher cancelled the second volume. Nevertheless, the book established Barth among Berlin’s influential academics and scientists as a formidable scholar who was also fearless and tireless.

At the university, he lectured on soil composition. His droning recitation of data stupefied his students, who stopped coming. The class was dropped. Barth must have been equally scintillating as a suitor—his prospective bride dropped him too.

By autumn of 1849, Barth felt pummeled by failure. Yet the trip around the Mediterranean had confirmed his passions: deep scholarship and rigorous travel. If only there was some way to combine them into a living. He began daydreaming about a long journey into Asia. He was twenty-eight.

James Richardson

While Barth was licking his wounds, an English abolitionist named James Richardson finally persuaded the British Foreign Office to fund a journey into the unknown lands of central Africa called the Sudan, south of the Sahara. The mission’s main purpose would be to sign treaties with the region’s chiefs and to scout potential markets for British commerce, but the Foreign Office required Richardson to take along a scientist to gather infomation about these mysterious peoples and places.

At the time, Germany was producing the best-trained scientists in the world, so that’s where Richardson turned for help. Two of Germany’s most eminent scientists, Carl Ritter and Alexander von Humboldt, conferred and immediately agreed on a candidate: their former student Heinrich Barth, recently returned from his three-year journey through North Africa and the Middle East.

Carl Ritter

So in early October 1849, Ritter called Barth to his office and asked him a question that changed everything: would he be interested in departing almost immediately with a British expedition into the Sudan?

Explorer in Training: Part 1

The first Europeans to reach the kingdom of Bornu on Lake Chad were the British explorers Walter Oudney, Hugh Clapperton, and Dixon Denham. They left England in 1821, the same year Heinrich Barth was born in Hamburg, Germany. In one of history’s coincidences, Barth would be the next European to see Bornu, 30 years later.

At the palace of the Sheikh of Bornu, from a sketch by Dixon Denham

Barth’s father, Johann, was the son of German peasants who died when Johann was a boy. A relative in Hamburg took in the orphan. Though uneducated, Johann had the energy and ambition to work his way into the city’s middle class while building a thriving business as a trader in the cities along Germany’s northern coast. His success allowed him to marry well: Barth’s mother, Charlotte, came from a respected Hamburg family. The couple were strict Lutherans who raised their four children—Heinrich was the third—according to strict standards.

Richard Francis Burton

Some explorers, such as Richard Francis Burton and Samuel Baker, spent large parts of their boyhoods hunting, roaming the woods, and having open-air adventures that, in retrospect, were preludes to future exploits.

By contrast, the young Barth gave no sign that he would someday be a great explorer. Well, one sign: like Burton, Baker, and most other explorers, he was a misfit. Dweebish and physically weak, he devoted himself to art, languages, and book-collecting. His fellow students found him amusingly peculiar. He had few friends.

A childhood classmate later recalled that Barth “studied subjects that were not even part of the curriculum. People said that he was teaching himself Arabic, which to us brainless schoolboys certainly seemed the pinnacle of insanity.” Barth taught himself not only Arabic but English, which he could read and speak fluently by age thirteen, a handy skill in years to come. His other extracurricular missions included reading the histories, geographies, and scientific works of the classical Greeks and Romans, in the original languages.

In his mid-teens he undertook physical renovations. During recess, while the other boys played, he did gymnastics and arm exercises. To toughen himself he took cold baths, even in winter. By the time he entered the University of Berlin in 1839, he was a robust young man well over six feet tall.

There’s no evidence that Barth thought of these mental and physical regimens as preparations for life as an explorer. He was probably modeling himself after his beloved Greeks and their ideal of physical and intellectual excellence. He went to college expecting to earn an advanced degree and settle into a comfortable, sedentary career as a university professor.

Wanderlust and circumstances demolished those plans. During his second semester at the university, restlessness overcame him. He told his father he wanted to drop out and make an academic excursion to Italy, funded by Dad. Most parents, presented with this plan by a 19-year-old, would smell a boondoggle. Johann, however, knew his somber son had no interest in la dolce vita. He funded the trip.

Barth prepared with his usual diligence, first by learning Italian. He spent nearly a year traveling alone to classical sites throughout Italy, taking copious notes on everything he saw. “I am working terribly hard,” he wrote home from Rome in November 1840. “I go everywhere on foot. It has become no problem for me to walk around for nine hours without eating anything apart from a few chestnuts or some grapes.” The trip sparked a lifelong urge to see new places.

In June 1844 he received a Ph.D. for his dissertation on trade relations in ancient Corinth, a busy port like Hamburg. He moved back into the family home there and spent six months studying ten hours per day, in hopes of earning a university appointment. Nothing came of it.

Disappointed and itchy to escape his desk, he asked his father to fund another research trip, far more ambitious (and expensive) than the one to Italy. He wanted to circumambulate the Mediterranean Sea, visiting the three continents it touched and the cultures it influenced. Writing a scholarly book about his trip, he told Johann, would help him secure a university position. Johann again opened his wallet. The trip altered the course of Barth’s life.

Kola: the Coffee of the Sudan

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.

Hugh Clapperton

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.

Chinua Achebe (photo by Stuart C. Shapiro)

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.

Gustav Nachtigal

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.

Market in Kedougou, Senegal - Kola nuts (photo...

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.

Boko Haram, Maiduguri, Slave Jokes

We reached Maiduguri in the dark. A city of about 1.5 million, it’s the capital of Borno State in northeastern Nigeria. Maiduguri felt different from Kano. On edge. Six months earlier, in August 2009, a radical Islamic sect called Boko Haram (“Western education is forbidden”) had started a jihad in Maiduguri, rioting and bombing police stations and government buildings. In response the government destroyed the group’s mosques, and its leader died in police custody while wearing handcuffs. Nearly 1,000 people were killed.

When we arrived, Boko Haram had gone underground, but it still haunted the city, or at least my perceptions of it. (I later read that Eliza Griswold, who wrote The Tenth Parallel (2010) about her travels along that latitude in Africa and Asia, where Islam and Christianity often mix uneasily, called Maiduguri the most alarming place she visited.)

The city seemed poorer than Kano, with more garbage everywhere and even less electricity. After sundown, most of this major city went dark. Smoke from thousands of fires turned the night hazy and stung the eyes. Dense waves of buzzing motorcycles swirled and eddied in the gloom. Their exhaust contributed to the choking murk. Most carried at least one passenger, often a robed woman riding side-saddle, sometimes an entire family, the children somehow tucked between parents. People walking on the side of the road in the pitch dark flashed by in our headlights like briefly illuminated ghosts. The smoke and noise and mobs of motorcycles zooming from the darkness and vanishing back into it made driving at night spooky, almost surreal.

Nasiru Datti, Abdul, Nasiru Wada

So, in a different way, was our hotel, the Maiduguri International. Modern institutional in style, it was succumbing to decay and mold. Only two of its floors remained open. In the long corridors, dim bulbs, widely-spaced, barely dented the dark, whenever the capricious electricity was working. The carpets were sodden. The ambitious swimming pool was now green with scum, and tall weeds grew from cracks in the tennis court.

By contrast, the red-brick palace of Bornu’s shehu, or sheikh, looked crisp and shipshape. Built in the 1940s, it had replaced one built in the early 20th century when the capital of Bornu moved here from Kukawa. Bornu has always been famous for its horses, and the sheikh had a stable of them.

Next to the palace, a huge mosque was under construction. A long sandy piazza fronted both. At night, by tradition, the piazza became a play-space for children.

One night, watching them play outside the palace, we met a district official dressed in a beautiful robe and cap. “Your sultan should come visit us in Kano,” said Nasiru Wada, “because he is our slave.”

The official stared at him, then roared with laughter. “No!” the man shouted. “You are all my slaves.”

This exchange had a history. Nasiru Wada and Nasiru Datti were Fulanis from Kano who spoke Hausa. In Bornu, the predominant ethnic group were Kanuris, who spoke their own language. Slave jokes, Nasiru Wada told me, were common between the two groups.

The reasons stretched back 200 years. The Islamic kingdom of Bornu rose to power when Europe was in the Middle Ages. Early in the 19th century, when the Fulani scholar Usman dan Fodio led the jihad that brought much of central Sudan under his control, he was unable to conquer Bornu. His brilliant son, Muhammed Bello, fared no better. Nor had Bornu been able to overthrow dan Fodio. For much of the century, the two kingdoms alternated between tense détente and slave raids into each other’s territory. If either kingdom had managed to defeat the other, the vanquished would have become the conquerors’ slaves. This was the history behind Nasiru’s joke and the official’s retort.

Though Kano and Maiduguri are only 300 miles apart, the Hausa and Kanuri languages are completely different. “They talk and I cannot understand one word,” said Nasiru Datti. Communication between the groups occurs in Hausa, which is more widely spoken. Barth was fluent in both.

He also preferred the dispositions of Hausas and Fulanis to Kanuris, calling the former cheerful and vivacious, the latter dour. Both Nasirus nodded at this. “They aren’t friendly,” said Nasiru Wada. “They are tough people, very tough.”

In the early morning, Maiduguri’s ghosts seemed less apparent. We went to an open-air tea shop. A wood fire heated a huge samovar. The owner mixed black tea with milk and poured the mixture back and forth between cups in long arcs, then served it. His partner cut thick slices of dense white bread and slathered it with butter. Two dozen men and boys chatted and ate breakfast, squatting or sitting on crude benches and wooden stumps.

Nearby, a woman was frying and selling kosai (bean cakes). They smelled delicious and tasted better than they smelled. I wanted to take the woman’s picture, but the day before, while shooting a street scene in Maiduguri, several men had glared at me and one had waved his arms angrily for me to stop. So I asked Nasiru to ask the kosai woman for permission.

“I’ll try,” he said, shaking his head, “but Kanuris are very tough. Very tough.” He asked. She studied him coldly, then me, then nodded curtly. She didn’t smile for the camera.

Several months after we left Maiduguri, Boko Haram emerged from underground. Energized and organized, they began targeting government buildings and churches in northeastern Nigeria. Over the last two years Boko Haram seems to have affiliated itself with other radical Islamic groups in north Africa, and may have received training and funding from al-Qaeda. They have claimed responsibility for dozens of bombings and hundreds of deaths, and are intensifying their operations. In January 2012 they began a campaign of terror in Kano, previously untouched by the violence.

Nomads and Explorers

The landscape after Gashua became flat scrub, offering long views in a palette of tans, browns, and dabs of dusty green. Nasiru Datti said it could be farmland but had fallen into disuse as the government ignored everything except oil. The land was also abandoned when Barth traveled through here. The cause then was slave raiders. Barth called the waste shameful, and blamed the greed and apathy of Bornu’s leaders. “Even the best of these mighty men,” he wrote, “cares more for the silver ornaments of his numerous wives than for the welfare of his people.”

We began passing watering places bunched with cattle. Some were community wells, some were national. The national water was free. At community wells, there was a fee. We stopped at a place where Fulani nomads were watering their herd. The well was stone-lined, three feet in diameter, and 40 feet deep. A teepee of logs and big wooden pulleys stood over it. The nomads attached one end of a rope to a plastic bucket and the other end to a camel, which hauled up the water with help from the men. They poured it into metal canisters for the jostling cattle.

The men were quick and animated. They wore drab dirty clothing, though one of them sported the traditional conical Fulani hat. The women, in brightly patterned robes, carried themselves elegantly amidst the cows and mud. “They would make good wives,” said Nasiru Wada, partly joking. “They work hard, and they would walk to Gashua and never call a cab.”

Nomads still come to Kano to sell natron or dates or camel-milk cheese, he added. They buy indigo, head scarves, sugar, and tea. As in Barth’s time, they roam freely across the landscape. “No one would stop them,” said Nasiru Datti.

Explorers and nomads share some traits: restlessness, constant movement, the austerities of a portable way of life that requires hauling one’s food, shelter, and belongings from place to place. It’s a hard existence, which is why Africans were often suspicious about the arrival of itinerant white men who claimed to have left their families and traveled thousands of miles, risking death under harsh conditions, for no reason except knowledge. To most Africans, including nomads, that sounded crazy. They had an excellent point.

“The notion of traveling for curiosity was new to him,” wrote the explorer Mungo Park about a wary African ruler. “He thought it impossible, he said, that any man in his senses would undertake so dangerous a journey merely to look at the country and its inhabitants.”

More than once, Barth set off alarms when he told African officials that he was visiting their territory not to buy or sell, but solely to learn about their history, customs, and beliefs. Surely, assumed many of these officials, this was a ruse to steal trade secrets, or a ploy to scout the country in preparation for an invasion. (This paranoia would eventually be justified when European nations carved up the continent among themselves.) In Timbuktu, the Moorish merchants who controlled the trade between the desert and the Mediterranean believed that Barth and the British were plotting to take over their lucrative trade, so they plotted Barth’s death.

Nomads are born into their itinerant life, but explorers choose it. That’s why, depending on one’s point of view, explorers look heroic or half-cracked (and are often both). From any perspective, they were mindboggling.

Examples are as numerous as flies around a caravan: Mungo Park, while searching for the Niger, dying of thirst after being plundered, stripped, and abandoned—and then returning for a second attempt. Alexander Gordon Laing, trying for Timbuktu, left for dead by Tuaregs in the Sahara, with five severe lacerations on top of his head, four across his temples, one through his cheek and ear, and another “dreadful gash” on the back of his neck—and then deciding to continue towards Timbuktu anyway. Richard Burton, seeking the source of the Nile, skewered through the mouth with a spear, his tongue so ulcerated he couldn’t speak and his body so wasted by fever he couldn’t walk unsupported for 11 months.

And why? For adventure, certainly. For glory, if they survived. All wanted to solve some geographical riddle and claim the honor for their country and themselves. Barth, like the rest, endured horrible sufferings and dangers, in his case for the sake of scientific discovery. Such perseverance, kept up for more than five years and 10,000 miles, verges on devotion.

Road Ways

The green sticker that Nasiru Wada put on the dashboard declared “Judiciary” in white letters. “It should help us at roadblocks,” he said. We hit three before Gumel. Soldiers glanced and waved us through. After Gumel the thin traffic dwindled to a trickle. The road roughened. Sometimes thirty minutes went by between cars.

Bundled silage

A few times the road led past young men who, when they saw us coming, jumped up and vigorously hoed or raked dirt into deep potholes, producing more dust than repairs. As we got close, they raised their fists, then extended their hands for money. An ambiguous signal. They looked rough and tattered. We slowed to ease around the ruts but never stopped. Nasiru said these men tore up the roads to force cars to brake, then tried to extort a fee for their brief improvements, which they would immediately undo. “You don’t want to be on this road at night,” he added. “They make you pay, and anything can happen.”

In these lands between Gumel and Kukawa, capital of Bornu, Barth passed empty villages devastated by rebels and slave raiders. Whenever the region’s rulers needed money, he noted, they attacked settlements and carried off human plunder. Such dangers discouraged travel, and traffic was sparse. The roads kept splitting into paths that also split.

Barth needed a guide through this maze, but applicants were scarce because everyone was afraid of being seized by slave-raiders. Even two tough-looking Manga warriors, with their leather aprons, battle axes, and bows and arrows, quickly developed the heebie-jeebies and quit in the middle of their first day. The region also swarmed with thieves. On most evenings Barth fired his gun to inform everyone in the vicinity that his camp was well-armed.

We stopped for the night at Nguru, the end of line for the railroad from Lagos, a sign of remoteness and greater remoteness to come. When Barth reached Nguru, he called on the governor, hoping to find a guide. This man, named Omar, received Barth while “lying on an elevated platform or divan spread with a carpet.” Barth presented him with the obligatory gifts: an English razor and clasp-knife, a German mirror, some darning needles, plus “half a pound of cloves, and a piece of scented soap.” Omar was pleased, at first, but later sent a servant to ask for “calico, sugar, rose oil, and sundry other articles.” Such gifts were expected, sometimes demanded, occasionally simply taken. After dark Barth heard music in the streets and women singing.

Nasiru Datti and I took a walk before dinner. I admired a shed skillfully woven from reeds. Nasiru looked amused. “It’s a public bathroom,” he said.

Some children followed us, laughing and pointing and shouting a phrase. “They’re calling you baturi,” said Nasiru. “It means ‘white man’ in Hausaba  is ‘from,’ turai is ‘Europe.’”

Nneamaka: a female name meaning "beautiful mother" in Igbo

We ate in a tiny restaurant owned by an Igbo family from Christian southern Nigeria. Many such immigrants had come north to seek better lives. That night they were serving pepper soup—thin and spicy, with a wisp of chicken in it—and beans and rice doused with a delicious red sauce sparsely inhabited by flavorful but chew-resistant chunks of beef. Napkins took the form of two stainless steel bowls filled with water, which we passed around.

Dawn brought the African soundtrack of roosters and amplified prayers chanted by a muezzin, followed by the repetitive thudding beat of a woman pounding millet next door. A baby slept on her back.

The morning was beautiful–soft breezes, 70 degrees. “A bit cold,” complained Nasiru Datti. When we left Nguru nearly two hours later, the woman was still pounding millet. Her child still dozed on her back, lulled by a rhythm as strong, familiar, relentless, and fundamental as his mother’s heartbeat.