Conversations with Usman

An example of the Arabic manuscripts in Northern Nigeria.

An example of the Arabic manuscripts in Northern Nigeria.

16 March 2007 (Abuja)

I’ve come to the end of this speaking tour in Northern Nigeria. It has been a wonderful learning experience for me. I never would have had the opportunity, nor would I have taken the time to travel here if it were not for my work with Aluka. My favorite cities were Kaduna and Kano. I really liked the energy and flow of Kano—a very old walled city with a colorful history.

An example of the intricate architectural paintings at the museum in Kano.

An example of the intricate architectural paintings at the museum in Kano.

I indulged in some shopping at a small leather goods market in Kano; we did not get a chance to go to the Old Kano Market, one of the oldest and largest in West Africa. Sokoto and Kano have amazing leather goods, and each city has its own unique aesthetic in terms of styles and designs. In Sokoto, the rich leather mats and floor cushions come in a wide array of colors—burgundy, various greens, indigo, rich ochre, and deep browns—and it is the fashion to embellish them with gold or silver. While they were spectacular I couldn’t bring myself to purchase these; they were just not my style, nor could I afford the prices (even after negotiation). In Kano, I found the same array of color and textures, but instead of gold and silver ornamentation, I found intricate designs, which were often replicated on the ornate buildings around the city, from the Emir’s palace to the fire station. I admired snake-skin bags, dainty leather bangles, and beautiful silver jewelry. I wanted to touch everything, the colors and textures were so rich. I breathed in deeply the rich leather smells.

The most memorable part of this trip will be my conversations with Usman (I have changed his name to protect his identity). Usman was our public relations coordinator. He is originally from Northeastern Nigeria. Usman is an attentive, thoughtful man with a soft face and intense eyes. When he speaks, it is deliberate and soft-spoken. But his softness does not dull the sharp edge of his intellect and passion for thought.

Our conversations started one afternoon at the end of lunch, when he quietly notified me of his interest in speaking with me about the Niger Delta. He knew my personal research focused on the Delta, and it had come up in some of our group conversations in the Embassy van. The militants have been in the news of late, with the recent kidnappings of Filipino hostages. Mr. H. immediately rolled his eyes and insisted on sitting in the front of the van (where he ended up sitting through most of our road travels, quiet and alone); we Nigerians seem to forever be obsessed with politics, according to him. I, in turn, dismissed his comment and smiled broadly, open to some intelligent conversation and engagement with something I think about daily, and care about deeply.

I at first expected a more adversarial conversation, as most conversations on the Niger Delta have so far been with non-Deltans. My other conversations to date usually start out with a question to this effect: “What’s wrong with you people down in the Delta?” or “What’s the real problem down there?” I then feel compelled to disaggregate the actions of the MEND militants from the long-standing and historical struggle of Delta communities against the government and the exploitative multinational companies. Instead of beginning the conversation in the usual way, Usman, with quiet eyes, asked me what I thought about the Niger Delta crisis; that it seems to be more complex than the media portrays it. He wanted to get my take on it. We ended up talking for a solid two hours. We talked about what it meant for this region (at least the Niger Delta, if not the communities in along the entire West African coastline) to live with the legacy of slavery, similar to but unique from the slave societies on the other side of the Atlantic. This is an idea most Nigerians would reject offhand. Usman took it in; had never thought of it in that way before. We talked about the long struggle among Delta communities for basic infrastructure and public services. Usman interjected with his own knowledge of development in the North, and the region’s own legacies of slavery and colonialism there. These legacies, it turns out, are not too distant from each other, the Niger Delta and the Sahel.

We meditated on the effects of intense and complicated systems of patronage, that stretch as far back as at least the 19th century. These systems have become institutionalized in the Niger Delta, and are a widespread feature of the Nigerian political landscape. Usman gave me some insight on the distribution of oil revenue between the oil-producing states and the other states in the federation. These areas used to (I’m not sure if they still do) receive 13% more revenue from oil than the other states. Still, there is a profound lack of development in many areas of the Delta. It is clear that only a few are benefiting from this wealth within the Delta, and in the central government.

One of the Emir of Kano's guards finishing prayers, outer court of the Emir's palace.

One of the Emir of Kano’s guards finishing prayers, outer court of the Emir’s palace.

In the days that followed, Usman and I sought each other out, between our presentations and press conferences, and sat in the back of the Embassy van to discuss many other things. He had some interesting insights on the similarities between Christian and Islāmic belief systems (he had some experience in a Catholic Mission school when he was younger, so he was well-acquainted with their worldview). I learned more about the Islāmic faith, which he was very patient to explain. We talked about his own Fulbe culture, how he would like his children to learn the language and culture despite Hausa dominance in many parts of the North. He explained the difference between Fulbe and Hausa ethnicity. Like other pastoralist groups in Africa it means the difference between those who own/follow cattle and those who don’t.

Usman is both progressive and militant. We talked about relations between men and women; the kinds of power men and women hold; complementarity between the sexes; the ultimate importance of respect between human beings. I found that one of his favorite books was Malcolm X’s autobiography. He was aware of other critical black thinkers of the African Diaspora: Franz Fanon, Walter Rodney, Kwame Toure, C.L.R. James, and others. We talked for hours.

From time to time L. and A. would join in our conversations. L. is Christian and Igbo, who has lived most of her life in the North. Her views also deviated from those of most of the Evangelical Christians I usually meet. She is Anglican and a bit more reserved than our fellow Evangelicals. A. lived through the Civil Rights era, and recalls exchanging with some of the prominent black thinkers and figures of that time. These conversations were very meaningful and satisfying. I learned so much from each of my traveling companions, and we became friends in the process. I will definitely keep up correspondence with Usman. I value his insight and wisdom.

Overall, my experience of the North has been extremely positive. Despite the fatigue of touring, I feel more relaxed. Some of it has to do with getting away from the everyday grind and frustrations of living in Benin. Much of it has to do with the important exchanges I have had with people. I enjoyed the warm hospitality with which people regarded me. I was profoundly challenged on many of the stereotypes I had of this part of the country. I hope to visit again soon and take more time in certain places, especially Kano and Kaduna. Usman has also invited me to his part of the country. I look forward to doing so one day, hopefully before I leave.


Northern Tour

10 March 2007 (Abuja)

This is the 4th day of a two-week speaking tour on preserving the ancient Arabic manuscript tradition in Northern Nigeria. As part of the Aluka initiative, we collaborated on a similar project in Timbuktu, Mali. The U.S. Embassy invited me as a representative for Aluka, along with a librarian with the Library of Congress. Nigeria’s written tradition is long, dating as far back as the tenth century. Many of the manuscripts were written in Arabic, due to the influence of the trans-Saharan trade. The Islamic tradition came long before the nineteenth century jihads and certainly longer than that of Christianity in this region.

Presenting at Ahmadu Bello University

Presenting at Ahmadu Bello University

So far, we’ve traveled between Abuja and Kaduna, for a symposium. Aside from meeting with the American Ambassador, I’ve conversed with governors, Emirs, the Ambassadors from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, IT specialists, NGO representatives, and conservators. It was my first time traveling to the North (beyond Abuja), and I realize that Abuja is not representative of the North at all (perhaps not representative of most of Nigeria…at least not the parts that I’ve so far seen). I expect that as we travel to Sokoto, Kano, and Zaria, I will see and learn a lot. Just in these few days I have had to confront some of the misconceptions that I have held since I was a child about this region. Nigeria is vast and its history is deep.

I’ve really enjoyed my time with my librarian colleague (I shall refer to her as A). We met before in the U.S., and she has been helpful in identifying resources for my dissertation research. For some reason, I can’t stop gazing at her. It has nothing to do with her unique features, but rather her attitude. She’s got a witty, dark humor behind her eyes and at the same time, you know she’s got a lot of wisdom from a life well lived. She is in such possession of herself. I admire that. She also collects and sells art, and has a wonderful eye for things. I am looking forward to shopping with her when we get to Kano. These past four days have really been hectic, and we’ve slowly bonded through the whirlwind of activity and the accompanying fatigue we each feel.

A and I have also become co-conspirators against Mr. H (I shall also abbreviate his name, because my assessment of him has not been positive thus far). Mr. H is our program manager/taskmaster, and “cultural attaché” to the U.S. Ambassador. Before being assigned to this tour, he knew nothing about the Arabic tradition here in Nigeria, nor does he seem to have much interest in it so far; it is just an assignment for him. I also gather that he hasn’t done much traveling to other parts of Nigeria, and his idea of this country in general is that of danger and doom. He certainly has no respect for anything or anyone Nigerian. He is a short man, and I think he tries to compensate for it with his arrogant gait and know-it-all attitude. He swings between high and low moods, and is frequently grumpy.

Liz, James, Sani and Musa—Nigerian staff at the Embassy—did most of the real work of setting up meetings, and organizing the symposium, dinners, and press conferences. They have so far kept us sane. We’ve all had some really interesting conversations and I look forward to learning more from them. Mr. H doesn’t participate in these conversations (which he dismisses as always about politics and religion; they are in fact conversations about life, especially life in Nigeria). Mr. H also doesn’t treat his Nigerian staff very well at all, often barking orders at them, dismissing their professionalism and experience of many years. It is appalling.

A mango tree out on the arid Sahel plain, near Sokoto

A mango tree out on the arid Sahel plain, near Sokoto

The Northern Sahel plains are sparse, not fully desert, with occasional outcroppings of granite boulders and patches of green where farmers have irrigated their land for crops. There are moments where browns and yellows are all around and in the middle of it all is a single, immense, lush mango tree or some other verdant tree of brilliant greens. It is a striking landscape. As we travel from one city to the next, we pass small villages with adobe walls and thatched roofs and granaries that look like giant pots sitting almost as tall as the homes. I saw tall white camels and slow donkeys, I saw giant baobab trees, and herds of cattle which roam for hundreds of miles. Musa, who is Fulbe, told me that part of his extended family now lives in Chad and Cameroon because they had followed their cattle, for hundreds of miles, from what is now Bauchi State (in Northeastern Nigeria). They got tired of roaming and stopped in these places to settle. There were cattle all over the towns, becoming part of the traffic on the roads, even at the busiest of intersections. I couldn’t stop taking pictures. Our long-horned cows are beautiful to look at…graceful creatures… I can see why they are esteemed both here and in other parts of the world.

Gurara Falls

Gurara Falls

Today I got the chance to go on a day trip to Gurara Falls, about an hour outside of Abuja. It was spectacular (the pictures don’t do it justice). Our guide took us down a ravine and we had to climb back up (my legs were up for the challenge, even though I have plumped up a bit over the preceding weeks with all the delicious foods I’ve been eating). On our way back I noticed an expansive clearing. It was an oil pipeline, extending all the way from the Niger Delta up north to Kaduna. Amazing.

We are staying in the Sheraton hotel here in Abuja. It is a whole other world. Expensive too. I took a long, hot shower for the first time in months the day I arrived here. The rooms are like any other such rooms at Sheratons around the world, and when I am here I find it hard to imagine that I am still in Nigeria. In Kaduna, we stayed at a hotel owned by a Lebanese family, and it had internet access (this contradicted one of the perceptions I had of the North: not being as internet savvy as the South. I am finding they may be savvier…you don’t easily find wireless internet access in hotels in Benin or Ibadan). We also ate a lovely meal at a Lebanese restaurant, attached to the Prince Hotel

Major oil pipeline coming from southern Nigeria, cutting through the landscape. It is hundreds of miles long.

Major oil pipeline coming from southern Nigeria, cutting through the landscape. It is hundreds of miles long.

up in Kaduna. There was also a Lebanese/French bakery in Kaduna, and we certainly indulged. Interestingly enough, I don’t see as many Lebanese or South Asians in the Southern cities as I have seen up here. I wonder why that is. It is not that they don’t exist in the South; many own the better restaurants, hotels, and shopping centers in Benin, Warri, and Ibadan. But I don’t see them too often unless I am in the posh neighborhoods. In the North they are more visible. Perhaps my perception is skewed. Or, perhaps it has to do with Islamic cultural landscape and history in the North. I will have to learn more as I continue this adventure.


1 March 2007 (University of Ibadan campus)

Things have really been moving lately, which is good. I am now in Ibadan, staying with Professor Agbaje-Williams (I call him Prof). Prof has been a saving grace these past couple of weeks. He has generously offered me his guest room for as long as I need it, aside from a few weeks in May, free of charge. We get along as if we’ve known each other for a long time, and in a way, he’s adopted me as a kind of daughter. His whole family lives in the U.S., but he has decided to stay in Nigeria. He says living in the U.S. makes him tired. I smile when I think of it…I am so exhausted everyday here. I guess this is a matter of knowing one’s own chaos well.

Dr. Agbaje-Williams is an archaeologist who has worked on sites in Southwestern Nigeria, particularly those related to the Old Kingdom of Oyo, which thrived for five centuries up to the 19th century. I met him through my consultancy work in New York with Aluka. Aluka is a non-profit initiative to build a sustainable, digital scholarly resource on Africa. I developed content for them up until I left for London in August and I continue to consult for them. Part of what Aluka does is document historically and culturally significant sites throughout Africa in digital form and archive it for scholarly use over the long term. It has been such a rewarding project, and it is going to become available in universities and libraries in the U.S., Europe, and Africa very soon. The coolest thing about it is that it will be freely accessible in Africa, as part of Aluka’s mission to bridge the information and digital divide between North and South.

I have finally begun work at the National Archives, and it feels so very good. There is a wealth of material here for my project, and that is gratifying. Every morning, after breakfast, I take a brisk 20-minute walk to the Archives. I have chosen a fairly hilly path. Prof lives on the edge of campus, near the agricultural and veterinary faculties. So, each day, an array of farm smells greet me, and occasionally I sight or nearly run into small cattle herds or a lone mule. The goats are also my fellow pedestrians from time to time. By the time I reach the Archive, my mind is clear and I am ready to work. I am so grateful to be able to really get serious with my research, to be able to look at documents, that I am fairly diligent. I can easily put in a full 5 or 6 hours of concentrated research in a day. Oh, it feels good!

Prof and I traveled to Abuja last week to meet with Nigerian officials in order to introduce them to the Aluka initiative and receive permission to visit the Oyo National Park to assess whether or not we will document it as part of the archive. I had never been to Abuja. In fact, I’ve never been north of Ilorin. Abuja is a seven-hour road trip by car. It would only take us about 4 hours if the road was well maintained, and a bit more direct. In fact, there is a patch of the Abuja road that is particularly treacherous: it twists sharply, and deep ravines line the edge of some sections. As we moved north I noticed the change in scenery: magnificent granite boulders rest on either side of the road with small hamlets nestled between them, some of them built into the sides of these boulders. It is more arid there and the heat is so much more intense. When we crossed the Niger River bend I was in awe of its immensity and its grace. On either side of its banks, farmers were tending lush patties of rice and other grains. In the river, large fishing boats meandered with fishermen casting out their huge nets with a finesse that has been perfected over many generations. It was really something to see.

Mr. Nwaokocha, a colleague and friend of mine in Benin, told me that when I go to Abuja I would get angry. He said it reflects at once Nigeria’s huge potential and the extreme disparity in the country. He was right. I was indeed disturbed, and yes, a little angered by what I saw.

Abuja Skyline

Abuja Skyline

As we approached Abuja, I was struck by the orderliness of the roadways. There were freeways with American-style ramps leading on and off them. The streetlights function. Abuja is a planned city, whereas most Nigerian cities have not been well planned, if planned at all. During our visits I saw spectacular houses: palatial, airy, and architecturally unique. All the streets were paved and manicured, with green areas all around. There was no trash or debris littering the streets or sidewalks, as you will usually find in other cities in Nigeria. In the center of the city I looked up at skyscrapers, which were very much in the same style as those one would find in the U.S., particularly in Texas. I did feel like I was in Houston…the scale is the same.

The National Church and the National Mosque, both gilded with copper, silver and gold paneling, stand out in monumental proportions. Of course, Chevron, Texaco, NNPC (Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation), the Sheraton and Hilton hotels (the best in the country), all the big cell phone companies (most of which are foreign-owned), and all the big banks headquarter here in Abuja. They even have London-style cabs and real

National Mosque

National Mosque

buses, complete with orderly and well-designated bus stops here. Finally, Abuja has a vibrant nightlife, very much like Victoria Island, our oasis in Lagos. Folks stay up and out all night. There is suya to be chewed, drinks to be sloshed, and dancing to be done. I think it was the first time I sat out at night and felt really at ease.

I wondered how all of this could be sustained. Abuja sits in a semi-arid landscape, and I am sure it sucks its water from surrounding areas. In most of the country, including the lush Delta, the grass is yellow due to the Harmattan season. In Abuja, the patches of grass I saw were green. I found out that the population is booming, as more people seek to live and work in this manicured place (they even call it little London; I would argue it’s more like little Houston). My mind kept going to California: California is like this, sucking water from neighboring states, intensifying desertification. Now California cannot even sustain the energy consumption of its population, with fear of power outages, and lack of water. I am not sure the inhabitants of Abuja are thinking through the implications of their lifestyle over the long-term. Like most other Nigerian cities, it may well fall into decay if things are not brought into some kind of balance.

My mind also kept returning to what we don’t have in the Delta. Water and light are still constant issues (Efe, back in Benin, hasn’t seen electricity in four full days…after it rained). The non-federal roads are still a disaster, despite all the promises made by our governors. And of course, one cannot really speak of nightlife due to the tense social and political environment there, and the constant threat of armed robbers that still wrack Benin City, and the outskirts of Warri. After 6 p.m., the streets are dark (no working street lamps), empty, and fairly quiet. The trash on the streets and the general disrepair is frustrating. Of course, I’m angry. The disparity is too stark. The oil the comes out of the soil of the impoverished Delta paid directly for the order and opulence of our capital city.

You No Dey Look Road?

1 February 2007 (Ugbowo, evening)

It is the first of the month, the beginning of my third month here, and today I began getting somewhere with the research…well, a very small start anyway. Dr. I., the Chair of the History Department at UniBen made his research assistant (Frank) available to me to see if we could track down Benin municipal documents from the 1930s in the Edo State Archives. The last time we went, a woman security guard, who appeared to have just woken up, with a child on her hip (apparently she lives in the apartment below the offices), stopped us from entering the building. Apparently, the archive staff was not on duty, even though it was a weekday. She was unsure when the staff would be around: either eleven a.m. or one p.m. A two hour chunk of time is a big margin to work with when the heat is intense and there is nothing to do while you wait, so we had to come back another day.

There was also a big funeral procession taking place on the New Lagos Road that day. The owner of one of the major Benin-Lagos transport lines—Edegbe Line—had recently passed away. The roads would be impassable after noon. Frank and I had to get back to campus. We later found out that our President arbitrarily declared Monday a public holiday in order to encourage voter registration, which meant that we would also be on holiday on Tuesday. Whenever the Federal Government declares a holiday, the State Government follows up with one of its own. So, we could not return until Wednesday of the following week…four days of no work. I set my mind on what I could occupy myself with in the meantime. I always have the documents I collected in England to get through.

We returned to the Edo State Archives today. Again, the director was not around, and the sole staff member was unsure of when he would be in the office (this is a government office, mind you). She suggested I write him a note stating my purpose and giving some details of what I was looking for. I did. It was all we could do. I will return in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I must get started at the National Archives in Ibadan. I still have to find a place to stay there. I’m getting nervous. I’ve been here for a solid two months, my money is getting thin, and I have nothing to show for it all.

On our way back to Ugbowo, I had to negotiate a tricky 5-way intersection. There are no traffic lights in this corner of the country. If you are lucky, a traffic warden is available at some point during the day. So, one has to dance with the other motorists when confronted with intersections. I followed suit with my fellow drivers in this situation, slowly inching my way into the intersection until the competing traffic became overwhelmed with our presence to finally allow us to pass. As I was doing so, I didn’t realize the madman behind me—a Túke Túke bus driver—had become impatient, and decided to jump out of the queue to cut me off in the intersection. He must have miscalculated because I was still inching forward when he turned sharply into my front fender. I heard some cracking, and Frank was as stunned as I was. We had to detach ourselves from his vehicle. And, instead of getting a barrage of cuss-words from the madman, he just sat staring at us. He must have known he was wrong, or he must have been calculating how he was going to get out of it…or both. I pulled up ahead and got out of the car. The Túke Túke driver parked his vehicle, packed with passengers, quite far ahead; I would have had to run to catch up to him. By the time I looked up from the damage to my car, he had already taken a quick look at his bus, hopped back into his vehicle and sped off…passengers in tow. I could see the expression on the passengers’ faces as they watched me recede behind them. Some were smirking; others were gawking in surprised entertainment. Two Okada motorists shouted out different things; the one I heard: “Oyibo, you no dey look road?” In my shock, I just watched the rickety bus get smaller and smaller down the road. In my mind, I cursed all of them: God would find them tonight (not tomorrow or the next day) and deal with them…TONIGHT!

A typical Tuke Tuke bus on a not-so congested road...

A typical Tuke Tuke bus on a not-so congested road…

I didn’t expect the man to offer to pay for the damage; after all, he makes a daily pittance. However, I did expect him to at least face what he had done and apologize. He was in the wrong, and there was no two-ways about it. The markings on my car prove it. I was informed later that I should not have taken the time to look at the damage before running up to him and holding him. People around would have been in support at that point, but since I didn’t do anything, no one was willing to stop and back me up. After all, I was entertainment at that point…an Oyibo assumed not to know her way around or through this place…and a woman moreover (women are always assumed to be bad drivers from the start).

Over the course of the afternoon, my heart became bitter. In this environment, it is the person that shows more strength or imposes more violence who is honored in this environment. It doesn’t matter whether that person is wrong in their action; they just have more power. If you are in any way new in this environment, people will take advantage of you to such an extent that you get to understand through the suffering of it. There is no accommodation; you must learn by force…sink or swim, Oyibo or not.

Thankfully, there is a “panel-beater” next to our compound. Within an hour of coming home, he reset the fender and smoothed it over well. He removed most of the paint from the Túke Túke, and only a couple of scratches remain. He did a wonderful job, and because he felt sorry for me, did it for a very small price. I was so grateful. My heart was soothed a bit. And Efe was kind. He said these types of run-ins are common, and it could have happened just as readily to him as to me. I continue to learn.