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.

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.

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.

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.

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.