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.
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.
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.
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
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.