Home » Series 1: DMW » Conversations with Usman

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.

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