Prologue THE CHALLENGE OF THE SAHEL
It was July 1997. Panting and dizzy from the heat, I clambered atop the torrid sandstone brow of Dala Hill and squinted through the noontime glare at the Nigerian city of Kano below. From the hill’s base spread a rough-hewn maze of zigzagging sandy lanes and squat mud hovels. Farther away, to the south, stood the emerald green minaret of a great walled mosque; beyond that, from the roofs of distant earthen houses, rose stabbing, man-size crenellations that, though molded from clay, resembled nothing other than giant sharks’ teeth, curved and deadly.
Sarki, my Hausa guide, spread his arms and gestured beyond the houses at the land beyond: flat, tawny barrens, dotted with thorny scrub and gnarled trees, sweeping away into a blazing whiteout haze — terrain as sere and harsh as the desert but without the desert’s charm.
“The Sahel!” Sarki declared. “East is Chad, north is Niger, and to the west is Mali.” Chad, Niger, Mali . . . lands of famine and drought, Islam and guerilla warfare; in short, sun-bleached, barbarous realms where, for centuries, exotic kingdoms had flourished and eventually fallen to the sabers of invading Arabs and the guns of colonizing Europeans. As I stood on Dala Hill that day, that was about all I knew, or thought I knew, of those countries, but their names, conjuring up alien peoples and vague perils, stirred and intrigued me. They even seemed to present me with some sort of challenge.
Sarki’s name in Hausa meant “king,” and he had the look of royalty about him. In his early forties, wearing long white robes and a crested white turban, with the tight skin on his gaunt cheeks and aquiline nose glistening like oiled mahogany, he possessed the imperious mien of an Islamic suzerain. As I looked at him, a flood of unfamiliar words came to mind: khedive, dey, nabob, emir — legend-laden titles of Arab and Turkish potentates of whose likes I had only read. Sarki was a Muslim, but he was black, a speaker of an African language peppered with Arabic loan words, a member of the Hausa — a people about whom I knew little, except that they had resisted Western influence during Nigeria’s colonial days and afterward, and were among the most fervent Islamic fundamentalists pushing for the imposition of shari’a, or Islamic law, in the northern states of the country.
With sweat dripping into my eyes, I followed Sarki off the hill and into the maze of old Kano. The assault on my heat-addled senses was immediate and relentless. Shrouded lepers with leaking sores and yellowed eyes swarmed around me, sticking their stumps in my face and whining for alms. Hordes of barefoot children in smocks came running to tug at my shirt and shout “Masta! Masta!” and rattle their tins. I winced at the sight of a man in rags ambling by, jaw agog, his teeth sprouting horizontally through his cheeks. From the dark innards of alley-side workshops came the ear- shattering pounding of hammers and the screechy creaking of looms; from the open doors of Islamic schools resounded Qur’anic chants as deafening as they were monotonous. Pushing my way through the crowd, clinging close to Sarki and unable to understand a word he shouted to me, I inhaled air heavy with sweat and the cloying reek of wet clay and open sewers; often I stumbled, my eyes failing to adjust to the flaming pools of white sun alternating with columns of black shade cast by the beams stretching over the alleys. I wanted nothing more than to escape.
Once we were out of the alleys and past the beggars, Sarki, strolling at ease, expounded in his bass, pidgin-inflected English on the history of Kano, or, rather, on the legend of Kano’s birth. The people of Kano, like the rest of the Hausa in Nigeria’s mostly Muslim north, were not really Africans, he contended, but traced their lineage to a renegade Arab prince from Baghdad, Bayajida, who came here, killed a fearsome snake, married the queen, and fathered the children who would establish seven Hausa city- states, of which Kano would become the most prominent. This legend granted the Hausa a bloodline leading back to the progenitors of Islam, a religion the Hausa began accepting only in the fifteenth century after their king converted. What is certain is that the king’s conversion brought close ties with Arabia and the North African Arabs who ran the trans-Saharan trade on which Kano and the other Hausa states would flourish. It also brought the Arabic language, in which the Hausa chronicled their cities’ history and whose alphabet they later adopted to write their own tongue.
Talking to Sarki, I would never have guessed that Islamic Kano belonged to the same country as did the city from which I had just arrived, Lagos —— a festive but violent, mostly Christian, and definitely African shantytown of 13 million people built on the malarial swamps and jungleeeee lagoons of the Gulf of Guinea, seven hundred miles to the southwest. Within the walls of old Kano alcohol was forbidden and crime was rare. Kano’s Hausa inhabitants, aloof and dressed in robes of green, white, and blue, exchanged formulaic Arabic greetings and mingled with indigo-robed Nigériens and visiting Libyan traders. A mercantile spirit ruled: Christian workers (Yoruba and Igbo from the south) loaded donkey carts for hectoring Muslim bosses, and every corner bustled with commerce. Only when Kano’s emir, or traditional Islamic ruler, appeared on horseback to deliver his Friday sermon at the central mosque would the din stop.
“The emir’s word is our law,” said Sarki. “The federal government must get his approval before it acts in Kano.” We wandered through the dust-choked lanes in search of “lion oil” to cure the backache of one of Sarki’s friends. Sarki introduced me to all sorts of Hausa traders and relatives. They expressed disdain for Christian southerners and blamed them for Nigeria’s most notorious problems — armed robbery, drug trafficking, and fraud.
“Because of Islam, sons of Hausa would be afraid and ashamed to steal. Armed robbers come from the south,” Sarki said. All agreed.
We stopped by a poster of Mu’ammar al-Gadda., bearing the Arabic inscription AL-AKH QA’ID AL-THAWRA [Our Brother and the Leader of the Revolution] MU’AMMAR AL-GADDAFI. Sarki looked up at the turbaned Libyan. “We feel solidarity with Gadda., a true power-man who tells the truth. He calls for us Muslims to unite!” When Sarki spoke, it was easy to forget that he was a citizen of a country where those he dismissed as “thieving southern Christians” make up 40 percent of a population of 130 million. Listening to him, one might also forget that his ethnic and religious group had done much, through malfeasance, corruption, and outright theft, to reduce to penury, civil strife, and decay what could be, thanks to huge oil and natural gas deposits, the wealthiest country in Africa. Four of Nigeria’s six military dictators (the last of whom died in 1998) have been Muslims from the north. Northern Nigeria needs southern Nigeria for its oil, its farmlands, and its ports, so Nigerian dictators have been bent on keeping united the fractious country, a designation that even a famous Nigerian nationalist called “a mere geographical expression.” Conflicts between the Muslims of the north and the Christians of the south frequently erupt into deadly riots and outright insurrections that federal security forces quell with much loss of life.
On a crowded street just off Kofar Mata Road, the old town’s main thoroughfare, we finally found ...