Why Timbuktu Will Overcome Its Latest Fundamentalist Conquerors

Caravan routes

Many of today’s headlines about Islamic north-central Africa would look familiar to the explorer and scientist Heinrich Barth, who traveled 10,000 miles there for the British from 1850 to 1855. The caravan routes ridden by Barth are now roads, but the arid territories they cross are still a nexus of distinctive cultures that have mixed and chafed for centuries. Old frictions still flare up between Muslims and non-Muslims, black and brown, fundamentalists and moderates, central governments and local chiefs.

As in Barth’s day, bandits and fanatics keep the region in turmoil. The group Boko Haram (“Western education is forbidden”) has killed hundreds of people in places Barth visited in northeastern Nigeria, bombing government offices, schools, and Christian churches. The group’s violent quest to “purify” Islam is just the most recent of similar jihads reported by Barth. Other groups, now as then, use religion as a veneer to justify thuggery. The terrorists of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), for instance, seem motivated more by money than by Mohammed, kidnapping Western travelers whom they murder or ransom — behavior that Barth witnessed and survived.

For Barth, Boko Haram and AQIM would be familiar manifestations with historical precedents. So would the distress of today’s moderate Muslims who want to reclaim their religion’s traditions of tolerance and learning from gangsters and extremists.

Some current events are almost historical reenactments. In March of this year, after the Malian military staged a coup, several rebel groups took advantage of the political chaos to occupy Mali’s northern half, including the ancient desert towns of Timbuktu and Gao. The group that now controls Timbuktu is associated with AQIM and calls itself Ansar Dine (“Defenders of the Faith”). Like Boko Haram, the Ansar Dine are fundamentalists intent on imposing their version of a purer Islam. If history is a guide, they would have better luck pushing a camel through the eye of a needle.

Ibn Battuta

Since the time of Ibn Battuta (1352), visitors to Timbuktu have been impressed by the town’s scholars and amiable inhabitants, known for their love of singing, dancing, and smoking. The Ansar Dine have stopped the singing and the music, and are requiring women to veil their faces, atypical in Timbuktu. Tobacco and alcohol have been banned, places that sold them have been shuttered or destroyed, and possession of a cigarette brings a beating. Women have been whipped for immodest behavior such as walking alone or riding in a car with men. In a town near Timbuktu, an unmarried couple was stoned to death.

Ignorance, that frequent collaborator with fanaticism, has led the Ansar Dine to destroy at least half a dozen of Timbuktu’s historic tombs and monuments, including part of the fourteenth-century Djingereber mosque, on grounds of idolatry. Scholars fear that Timbuktu’s invaluable manuscript libraries might be looted, perhaps for the purpose of selling these volumes of old Islamic erudition to fund new Islamic intolerance.

Timbuktu has weathered it all before. Similar restrictions were in place when Barth spent seven months there under house arrest in 1853-54. Muslim jihadists from the newly-declared kingdom of Hamdallahi (“Praise to God”) had conquered Timbuktu in 1826. They attempted to impose harsh reforms: no tobacco, mandatory attendance at mosque, segregation of men and women. The sociable smoking dancers of Timbuktu considered these dictates preposterous. By the time of Barth’s visit, the fundamentalists had despaired of separating Timbuktu’s men and women, but Barth recounts how they raided homes to seize tobacco and levied fines for insufficient piety.

Today’s residents of Timbuktu, Gao, and nearby desert towns have begun staging protests and forming militias to resist Ansar Dine’s severe version of Islam. It seems likely that long after Ansar Dine has vanished into history like Hamdallahi, Timbuktu and its people will still be singing and smoking.

Barth blamed much of the region’s misery on its greedy, corrupt leaders, who devastated the region with constant warfare and slave raids. “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.” Today’s Nigerians ask why their government can’t protect them from Boko Haram, and why a country with some of the world’s richest oil deposits must import most of its gas and can’t light its largest cities. Greed and corruption, wrote Barth, inspired violent purifying jihads that imposed their own repressions. These criticisms still sound fresh.

As in Barth’s day, most Westerners know little about Islam or Africa, and distort them into simple monoliths. Barth carried some of his era’s assumptions, but he was willing to go where the evidence took him. He found ignorance and savagery in Africa — the prevailing European view of the continent — but also scholars and sophisticated systems of commerce and government.

He likewise challenged the dominant European view of Islam as an evil dangerous opponent of Christian civilization, which still sounds familiar. Consider the recent Republican presidential primary, in which nearly every candidate expressed alarm about the nonexistent threat of Sharia law in the United States. Members of Congress are on record about “terrorist babies” and “stealth jihadis.” American towns have voted to ban mosques, and corporations tremble when fringe groups accuse them of being pro-Muslim.

Barth called Islam a great religion — not a popular view, then as now — but added that in some places it had been hijacked by brigands or fanatics who used it as an excuse to pillage or to subjugate. He pointed out that Islam wasn’t much different in these ways from Christianity, another great religion sometimes hijacked by the greedy or the self-righteous. All of this remains in the headlines.

Unlike most pundits about the continent, then as now, Barth formed his views from close observation of African reality. His news and perspective remain pertinent. As a scientist he believed that knowledge can dissolve ignorance and misunderstanding. Perhaps it still can, given the chance.

*This originally appeared on the History News Network on August 22, 2012.

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.

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.

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.