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.

Fura

After escaping the avaricious emir of Kano, Barth moved east towards Kukawa, capital of the kingdom of Bornu. He expected to reunite there with his two European colleagues. Meanwhile he was broke. He fell in with a worldly Arab trader traveling with his concubine and her slaves. When the trader offered Barth coffee and fine pastries served on napkins, the explorer was mortified that he could offer nothing in return but “a couple of young onions.”

He passed through small towns with busy markets, through grass-hut villages where women sold foodstuffs on the roadside. He admired the stately trees—figs, tamarinds, acacias, shea butters, kapoks, occasional doum palms and baobabs. He noted fields of corn and millet, and granaries woven from reeds and built off the ground to foil rodents. Silage nestled in the crooks of trees, beyond the reach of the lyre-horned cattle. Slender graceful women walked to market carrying towers of calabashes filled with milk on their heads—a feat that would thrill a circus audience but was here an everyday skill. Such scenes hadn’t changed in the 150 years since.

Millet and guinea corn

Granaries

His first major stop was Gumel, four days and 85 miles northeast of Kano. It was “a most fortunate and lucky day for me,” he wrote, because he found mail waiting for him—his first messages from Europe in 10 months. Almost nothing buoyed the spirits of an explorer more than letters, or depressed him more than long silences from home. For Barth the mail was doubly exhilarating, since one envelop was heavy with two Spanish dollars, salvation for a man who had been living on “air and debts.”

Barth called Gumel a frontier town because it marked the westernmost outpost of the Bornu empire. It was a cultural and linguistic frontier as well. Hausa and Fulani began giving way to Kanuri, and still do. When Barth first visited in 1851, Gumel was calm and prosperous, with 300 market stalls. When he returned in 1854, war had scorched the region. Barth called on Gumel’s emir in the charred ruins of the royal residence.

Emir’s palace, Gumel

When we arrived, Gumel was again a bustling place of entrepreneurial mayhem. The emir’s palace looked rundown, with busted windows, yet two royal guards in red and green lounged near the entrance. Outside of town, several cheerful women were talking and pounding millet. I asked to take their picture. Wonderful! they said, never altering their throbbing rhythm. Then one of them asked for $200. The others laughed and promised, in high voices that carried over the thudding of their wooden pestles, to pray for us.

At Hadejia we turned northeast towards the Sahara. Dust thickened the air and the land flattened. By this point in his journey, Barth had become “very fond” of a dish called fura in Hausa, ghussub in Kanuri. He often depended on it for nutrition.

Fura remains essential in central Africa. Nasiru Wada and Nasiru Datti both were devotees. Near the town of Birniwa we saw two women selling the dish on the side of the road and pulled off for a fura break. Nearby, men in Islamic robes squated on their haunches beneath neem trees. Dogs panted in the red dust.

Nasiru asked one of the women to make us some fura. The process was still just as Barth described it. She uncovered a calabash of sour milk and dipped out enough to fill a larger calabash about halfway. From another calabash she took some dense gray-brown orbs the size of ping-pong balls. These were made from millet flour that had been moistened into paste, rolled into balls, and simmered in water. Some women flavor their fura with cloves or other spices. In the Sahara, Tuaregs often add powdered cheese.

The woman put the fura balls into the calabash of milk, sprinkled in sugar, and began stirring vigorously with a large spoon, mashing the balls to thicken the milk. When the dish was ready, we passed the calabash around, gulping from the dipper. It was delicious and tartly refreshing, like clumpy thin yogurt. The bill was 50 naira, about 35 cents.

Shadows were lengthening, and we were her last customers. She stood up. She had been sitting on a 16-ounce can. To close shop, she built layers on her head: first a thick folded cloth, then the can, then a thin woven ring as a stabilizer or trivet, then the three covered calabashes. On top went a small pot of water. She joined her fura colleague and sauntered casually toward home beneath her vertical inventory.

Tending the Low Flame

Like most people, Nasiru Wada had never heard of Barth. When Nasiru agreed to be my guide, I sent him a link to a digital edition of Travels and Discoveries. By the time I reached Kano, he was deep into the book and had printed hundreds of pages to bring on the trip. “I think he’s superhuman,” he said. “To do everything he did, to notice it and to write it all down—I am amazed. I want to be him.”

One of the Foreign Office volumes on the Central African Expedition

Over the years, similar responses have kept Barth from falling completely off the world’s radar. His work remained valuable to scholars, his name familiar to aficionados of exploration. Basil Davidson, for instance, a prominent historian of Africa, wrote that Barth was “surely the most intelligent of all the nineteenth century travelers in Africa, and sailed these historical narrows with a mastery and brilliance that none has yet repeated.”

A few other comments about him:

“Perhaps the greatest traveler there has ever been in Africa.”–Francis Rennell Rodd, explorer and author of People of the Veil 

“Of the major African explorers, there is no doubt that Heinrich Barth has been much neglected . . . He deserves greater attention, at least equal to what has been given to other African explorers of the nineteenth century.”–R. Mansell Prothero, British historian and geographer of Africa

“Barth had the temper and training which led him to ask historical questions of a kind no European has asked before. He never described the contemporary situation of the various African communities through which he travelled without attempting to relate it to the past; so that his work, unlike almost all preceding European studies, is a work of exploration in a double sense—in time as well as space.”–Thomas Hodgkin, British historian

“It is one of the fascinating paradoxes of the history of African exploration that the greatest of the explorers is the most neglected.”–Adu Boahen, historian of Africa

“Of Africa’s eminent explorers, none has been so neglected by posterity as Heinrich Barth.”–A. H. M. Kirk-Greene, historian of Africa

The thought that rings through these like a chorus is “neglect.” No one tended Barth’s low flame more faithfully than A. H. M. Kirk-Greene. He became fascinated by Barth while serving as a British district officer in northeastern Nigeria (Adamawa and Bornu) before going on to an eminent academic career at Oxford. Between the late 1950s and early 1970s he wrote half a dozen enlightening essays about the explorer. He also persuaded Oxford to publish Barth’s Travels in Nigeria, a book of edited extracts from the Nigerian section of Barth’s account, to which Kirk-Greene added a 70-page biographical introduction, by far the longest such essay about Barth in English.

Kirk-Greene was following in the footsteps of another British district officer named P. A. Benton, who also had come under Barth’s spell while serving in northern Nigeria. Benton turned into a productive part-time scholar about the Central African expedition. For instance, he knew that in 1852 Barth had sent a letter from Kukawa, capital of the Bornu empire, that included the vocabularies of twenty-four dialects collected during the expedition’s first stage. But the vocabularies had been missing for nearly 60 years.

In 1910 Benton found the vocabularies in a Foreign Office file. He culled many treasures about the expedition from those huge repositories, and sometimes added clarifying commentary. His findings and writings were collected in The Languages and Peoples of Bornu (Frank Cass, 1968), with a helpful introduction by his worthy successor—A. H. M. Kirk-Greene.

Comparative vocabulary from Barth's notebooks

The Complicated Energies of Kano

It happened fast. A motorcycle spurted from behind a truck and hit Nasiru Wada’s car head-on. The airborne rider thumped into the car’s windshield and rolled off the side. His passenger sprawled on the hood.

Nasiru jumped out. He barely glanced at the two abraded young men slowly getting to their feet. He was focused on his prized Corolla, now blemished by a smashed headlight and dislocated fender. The headlight would have to be repaired before we started our trip the next day towards Lake Chad. Nasiru shook his head, exasperated. The young men, looking chagrined but intact, were inspecting the motorcycle’s crumpled front end. As we left, they were pushing the bike towards the side of the road. Few words were exchanged, and no information.

Considering the anarchy of Kano’s traffic, we would be lucky to get out of town after only one collision. The roads, no matter how wide, had no lane markings or stop lights. Right-of-way was earned by nerve and loud horns, both of which every driver in Kano exercised freely.

Okadas in Kano, by Andy Waite

Two-thirds of the vehicles seemed to be motorcycles and scooters. Many were okadas (taxis).They swarmed and buzzed like hornets, darting into the smallest gap, their side mirrors pushed in to create an extra few inches of clearance. They often surrounded Nasiru’s car, only inches away no matter the speed, before his insistent horn parted them like a shark charging into a school of baitfish.

Sometimes this seething chaos congealed like quick-drying cement. Progress was measured in fractions of inches. We once needed 30 minutes to gain one car-length. The blockage was caused by a taxi-van that had stopped in the middle of a crowded intersection, a perfect spot that the driver refused to leave until all his seats held paying customers. I spent the lull watching goats pick through a hill of garbage on the roadside and breathing in Kano’s bouquet of exhaust, dust, and wood smoke.

Barth was invigorated by Kano’s crackling entrepreneurial energy. That aspect of the city hadn’t changed. Most roads were lined with small businesses, some of them nothing more than ramshackle sheds. Mechanics hung auto parts from trees, women displayed colorful cloth or vegetables on the ground. Everyone seemed to be selling something or haggling to buy.

Wall of old Kano

This energy contributed to the city’s tolerance of immigrants and religions other than Islam. Sharia law wasn’t enforced in the new settlements, said Nasiru Datti, where people could practice their faiths. These new towns also had clubs and places where anyone could go to drink alcohol, prohibited by Islam. The people of Kano believed in peaceful coexistence. The fanatical violence that had rocked other places in northern Nigeria had so far bypassed them. [Update: this changed on January 20, 2012, when the city was rocked by 20 coordinated bombings, claimed by the radical sect Boko Haram, that targeted police stations and certain homes.] “Kano is a commercial city,” said Nasiru. He laughed. “Nobody here wants trouble that could keep them from going to the market the next day.”

Gate into old Kano

Yet if someone returning from the new towns was caught drunk in old Kano, the penalty was 80 lashes. Adulterers got 80 lashes in the market, if they were single. If married, they were stoned to death.

“But we’ve never had a stoning,” said Nasiru, “because you need four eyewitnesses to the act. If you only have three accusers, those three get 80 lashes, to keep people from being accused unjustly.”

We picked up Nasiru’s younger sister at Bayero University, where she had earned a degree in biochemistry. Like most women in Kano, she wore a headscarf but no veil. Some families allowed women to be educated and to work, others didn’t. Nasiru and his sister were two of their father’s 19 children. When Nasiru heard that I had only two kids, he looked sympathetic. When I said they were both sons, he looked concerned. “So you have no daughters to take care of you,” he said somberly.

We left Kano the next morning, heading east toward Lake Chad.

Royal Palace, Royal Slaves

The Emir of Kano lives in a 15th-century palace within a walled 30-acre compound in the center of the city. As in Barth’s day, the compound’s high walls enclose the living quarters of the emir and his wives, concubines, and children, as well as reception halls, courts, forests, and grazing lands.

Emir of Kano, Ado Bayero

The current emir, Ado Bayero, has been on the throne since 1963. He is the direct descendant of the emir who accommodated Barth in 1851. Like his ancestor, Ado Bayero is the most important man in Kano.

The first Emir of Kano was appointed by Usman dan Fodio, the Islamic scholar and revolutionary whose jihad in the first decade of the 19th-century against corrupt pagan rulers and slipshod Muslims transformed central Africa. Dan Fodio’s armies overran the region, and his crusade inspired jihads throughout greater Sudan.

He built his new capital at Sokoto, still a major city in northern Nigeria. He divided his kingdom into 30 emirates. Most of the current emirs are direct descendants of dan Fodio’s original appointees. Likewise, the current Sultan of Sokoto, who is still considered the spiritual leader of Islamic northern Nigeria, is a direct descendant of dan Fodio.

Entrance to the palace

During business hours, the long tree-lined drive to the palace’s entrance is crowded with cars, soldiers, and men in glittering robes. Just inside the gate are attractive plazas flanked by courtrooms and galleries. The emir hears cases almost every day.

One of my guides, Nasiru Wada, had grown up in the palace, because his father is the emir’s chief spiritual advisor. Now he and his young family had rooms at the rear of the palace, in the quarters of the royal slaves.

I thought I had misheard. Royal slaves? In Barth’s time, all African rulers owned many slaves, but I assumed the system had been abolished. Nasiru asserted that royal slaves, as in the old days, enjoyed social prestige and were grateful to be under the emir’s care. No doubt true, but such benefits can’t justify the practice.

Like many travelers to Islamic Africa, Barth noted that slaves there were treated relatively well compared to slaves in the West. They had certain rights and privileges. Some reached positions of power and became slave-owners themselves. A few children of royal slaves became kings.

Still, it stunned me to find traces of this in modern Kano. Nasiru, a scholarly modern man who works in IT and drives a Corolla, took my surprise in stride. He pointed me to a study of the palace’s history and culture by Heidi J. Nast, now a professor at DePaul. Near the end of Concubines and Power: Five Hundred Years in a Northern Nigerian Palace (2005), Nast writes that the tradition of royal slaves and harems continues in Kano. (In addition to the four wives allowed by Islam, the emir has about 60 concubines, who enjoy the traditional prestige of their position.) Business relationships in Kano, notes Nast, are sometimes still cemented by the gift of a concubine. Barth would have recognized the gesture.

Changing, Unchanging, Dyeing: Dala, Kurmi, Indigo

The first signs of Kano seen by an overland traveler are the city’s two hills, Dala and Goron Dutse, rising from the plain. The 1,700-foot hike up Dala’s hard red earth is short but steep. Its flat top offers a 360-degree view of Kano, irresistible to visitors.

One of the first Europeans to see Kano, the British explorer Hugh Clapperton, climbed Dala in the 1820s. His guide pointed out the hoof print of the camel “on which the Prophet rode to heaven.” Clapperton asked why the other three prints had disappeared. “God has done it,” said the guide, which Clapperton noted was the all-purpose explanation for any mystery in Islamic Africa.

Kano from Dala hill

Barth climbed Dala and sketched the “glorious panorama” (see previous post). I followed him 159 years later. The view remained superb. Solitary date trees still rose like chlorophyll fireworks above the dust-colored patchwork of buildings. Kano was still a busy commercial city and a magnet for people seeking opportunity. My guide, Nasiru Datti, pointed to the north, where the sky above the settlements was hazy with Saharan sand, and then to the east. That’s where Kano’s newest immigrants live, he said, coming from Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Tunisia, Senegal. Kano has always welcomed new people. But old Kano, added Nasiru, was reserved for natives of the city. Houses there were obtained by inheritance and were never sold to outsiders.

Both Clapperton and Barth were astonished by Kano’s market, the largest in central Africa. The Kurmi market, 600 years old, is still a labyrinth of skinny alleys lined with stalls crammed with every imaginable object and enterprise. Many of the goods mentioned by Barth are still on display. Men chip rocks to make kohl, fashion baskets from reeds, sell spices and chickens and books. Vendors also hawk modern items: steel pipes, auto parts, cell phones, wrecked motherboards, and other digital debris. Herbalists now use a bullhorn to sell remedies for stomach troubles and private rashes. As in Barth’s time, stinking sludge still chokes the Jakara, the filthy elongated pond that borders the market, with the contemporary additions of engine oil and plastic bottles.

The city was, and still is, famous for its fine cotton cloth and beautiful indigo dyes. Kano cloth and garments were coveted throughout central Africa. As soon as he could afford it, Barth splurged on a Kano “guinea-fowl” shirt with a speckled pattern of small blue and white squares.

He mentions Kano’s dye-pits, in use since the end of the 15th century, and the tandem cloth-beaters. Both still operate. The dyers ferment dried indigo, potassium, and papaya ash in the 20-foot pits for four weeks. Then they dip cloth in and out: an hour-and-half for light blue, three hours for deep blue, six hours for blue-black. Patterns are made with the method called “tie-and-dye.”

Today’s residents of Kano still take their cotton robes to the tandem beaters, the way Westerners take shirts to the cleaners. The beaters pound the cloth with huge wooden mallets. Central Africans believe that thumping the cloth in this way preserves the cotton fibers and gives the material a silken glitter, in contrast to ironing, which injures and dulls the fibers. I certainly felt drab next to Nasiru in his resplendent, soundly-beaten robes.

The Celebrated Emporium of Negroland

Barth became curious about the city of Kano on his trip around the Mediterranean, during a conversation with a Hausa slave in Tunisia. “Seeing the interest I took in his native country,” wrote Barth, “[he] made use of the simple but impressive words, ‘Please God, you shall go and visit Kano.’ These simple words were constantly ringing in my ears . . .”

Kano from Mt. Dala, 1851, from Travels and Discoveries

On February 2, 1851, after almost a year of hard travel, he reached Kano, “the celebrated emporium of Negroland.” It was by far the biggest place he had seen since leaving Tripoli. He was dazzled by “the wonders of this African London, Birmingham, and Manchester.” Kano was already 1,000 years old. Islam had arrived in the 14th century. The city’s existence was unknown in Europe until Leo Africanus mentioned it in his book of travels in the 16th century.

Kano from Mt. Dala, 2010

Barth estimated its population at 30,000, not including domestic slaves and periodic swellings from large caravans bringing salt, natron, or slaves to Kano’s vast market. He was amazed by the European goods for sale in this remote place 1,500 miles from Tripoli: cloth from England, beads from Trieste, paper from Venice, razors from Austria, sword blades from Germany.

He would have seen the temporary palace built for the emir in 1442, which still stands. It has been a school, the home of the city’s war chief, and the colonial offices of the  British. Today it houses the Gidan Makama Museum, an absorbing introduction to the region’s history and a striking example of Sudanese architecture.

The building’s walls are 10 feet thick, made of clay reinforced with the husks of beans. The annual rains partially dissolve the walls, which are repaired with more earth and fiber, in a seasonal cycle that is centuries old.

The size of a 19th-century African city could be gauged partly by the number of gates that interrupted its fortified walls. Kano had 15. The museum exhibits one of the old gates, a massive thing of rough timber sheathed with iron plates secured by crude rivets.

Sabuwar Kofa Gate in Kano

Many historical items of daily life are on display. A royal drum, the size of a small barrel, was once beaten to announce that the emir was on the move. Some dusty brass bells once adorned warhorses of Kano’s large cavalry. The bells of each kingdom had a different sound, to help soldiers distinguish friends from foe in battle. Displayed nearby were thick heavy swords and shields made of elephant or camel skin. On the pastoral side, there were hoes, sickles, and flutes, and jewelry made of bone and ivory to adorn rich brides. Against one wall was a hut of bamboo and thatch used by a mallam—a teacher of the Qur’an—with the traditional wooden slate on which he and his students wrote verses to be memorized.

Then as now, the people of Kano considered themselves to be living at the cosmopolitan center of the world, like Londoners in Barth’s time or New Yorkers in ours. “The ceremonies to be gone through,” complained Barth, “are scarcely less tedious than those at any European court.” He was annoyed at being detained by the hospitable but avaricious emir, who hoped to squeeze the impecunious infidel for presents, and kept him there for more than a month.