KANO .......Cats and Country Bombs
Life with a restless , itinerant spouse can be unsettling sometimes. One is never able to put down roots and one is forever living in a nomadic tent, forever planning for a future life of permanence. But there are great perks. One can tag along to see places one would never think of calling a tour operator for.
Personally speaking, Timbuktoo has always been on the desiderata list. And Mali was almost within reach when we made home in Lagos. But we never did visit it. However, was fortunate to get a view of a cousin-city ,the closest to the "Timbuktoo feel " - KANO, the nerve centre of the Northern Hausa dominated provinces of Nigeria, situated by the River Jakara .
Lagos was an upscale metro even then ( 1980s), Kano was startlingly different, though it had an airport and an Industrial Estate. Most parts were within the ancient city walled ( a crumbling mudfort, whose sad remains still stand here and there) with squat brown and gray mud houses and narrow alleys.
Kano was an important stop in the Trans Saharan Caravan Route, hence always a thriving emporium , where goods from all over were traded in briskly. Moraccan Leather was the chief local product that was exchanged for the precious saharan salt brought by the colourful Tuaregs, Ginger & Garlic from the Sahel , cloth from The Fulani tribes and slaves from the Ghana coasts. In modern times though, the chief local produce is Groundnuts. A 500 year old market called The Kurmi Market still functions busily and it is said that there's nothing one cannot get here, from tribal handcrafted items to imported European canned food.
The hotel we stayed in was pretty upscale. There were pretty flower beds, chadliered lobby, swelte hostesses.........and cats....and cats.....and cats. A surprising profusion of , surprising variety of cats . The attitude in those huge yellow limpid eyes seemed to say that they owned the place.....................
When we were able to go out for some sightseeing, we drove by a splendid mosque and the high walls of the palace. Kings and royalty were held in much reverence. I noticed many roadside shops selling decorated calabashes that served as utensils and versatile containers. Bead sellers were everywhere, as were openair hairdressing salons . Ladies were getting hair done up with a riot of dazzling beads. I was told each session took hours and the styling was kept on for upto 10days.......The women here looked more lithe and taller than in Lagos . And curiously, some men wore veils but not the women....
As we were returning to the hotel, saw some handicraftes on display under a huge tree. Beautiful rich brown wood carvings. Tribal motifs. A long scimitar and a slim figure in some sort of armour, 3 feet tall, caught the eye . We had to get down for a bargain ! Back and forth went the offers. The young vendor, looking quite regal in his long yellow robe and an embroidered skull cap, kept flashing a mouthful of pearly teeth refusing our bids. The beautiful scimitar was much too much for our wallet. But the tall figure seemed approachable. When a deal was finally struck, the youngman pulled out some brownpaper from a bag in the tree and started packing....not just one figure but a pair ! He was surprised at our surprise ! Then educated us that the figures were an inseperable pair of Soldiers, sort of Guardians of the Fulani "Sarki" ( King) and they would guard us too thenceforth ! Two for the price of one ! We'd landed an unexpected bonus !
Only upon reaching the hotel did we start wondering how to pack the pair for transit, not only to Lagos immediately, but to India,eventually. They were flat, delicate and we were scared they'd snap like a cardboard cutout. Besides, seen within the confines of the hotelroom they looked too huge ! We debated if we should take them back and barter it for something less unwieldly ; afterall, the vendor sat quite close to the hotel. But it was not to be.
The next noon, just as were preparing to checkout, we heard some disturbing news. Riots ! Better go away to the airport early, before things worsened, said the front desk.
The taxi called for us was driven by a youngman who had " excitement" written all over his face. He could hardly stop chattering. And he drove like a maniac. His intentions were noble though. He wanted to take circuitous routes and keep us out of harm's way. That bad ?
" Jihad , Massa ! " He kept repeating and as we rounded a neighbourhood on the fringe of the sabon-gari ( the Outsider's quarters ) there were loud noises, thudding, tumbling, some sharp blasts like tyreburst......a few people ran helterskelter with sticks and stones. Some smoke trailing up behind crude walls. " Country bomb " said the driver, swerving madly. The twin soldiers, who dint fit in the boot, jostled with us for safety in the small cab.
Airport was like a cocoon of serenity and peace. After an almost endless wait, we boarded. Only after reading the newspapers the next day in Lagos did we come to know that the riot was actually the first day of an Insurrection , a holywar waged by a fundamentalist faction of disgruntled youth , indoctrinated by a radical preacher named Maitatsine, who had proclaimed himself a prophet and was seeking to clean up the religion of the masses. The Insurrection ended with the Security forces gunning down the preacher within a week.
It seems unbelievable, unreal now to think that we were in field when a Jihad broke out ! Perhaps it was the pair of Guardians who watched over us that day !!!! .......they have been standing sentinel in our drawing room, in whichever house we moved to, ever since.
IBAADAAN , BAR BEACH , PORT HARCOURT etc.
When living in Lagos, we did not move around much because security fears. Most outings out of Lagos were with groups of friends. We visited Bar Beach a couple of times. Flea market shopping on the beach used to be fun. Ibaadan was a University town which also had a small Zoo with a few sad looking animals.
Port Harcourt was more lively. But memories of the place are inextricably linked with memory of a gory incident which created a big scare in the town one pre-xmas season. A cardboard carton with three severed human heads was discovered in a ravine just behind the upper middle class locality where many Indians lived. By the time of New Year's eve, there was full blown turmoil and confusion as a military coup was unleashed over the country.
There was a Two Channel TV service to keep us entertained in Lagos. One channel broadcast a lot of imported material from UK and USA. The young Michael Jackson's song videos were very popular.
The local channel aired shows on local culture. Very interesting documentaries on their various tribal practices, dances, musical instruments, mythology etc.
Though mostly Christian and Islamic in religion, people still observed tribal and clan traditions with regard to class hierarchies. There were "Chiefs" ( Oga), "Princes", "(witch)Doctors".........When some high ranking Chief came out in public, his attendants would preceed him, shooing away the hoi-polloi from his path ! Once, in the very crowded and narrow aisles of the Local Market, we were also swept aside like unclean vermin by the zealous attendants. And an enormously built Oga, in voluminous clothing and tons of coral and gold jewelry sailed in like a magnificent ship , flicking fly-whisk ( made of golden, lion hair) in stylish hauteur ! It was a fairy tale sight and etched in memory ! His wife ( Oba) who followed him , though looked much less flashy than the Chief.
Here are some random drawings from the scrap book of that period: