KANO IS CLOSE TO MY HEART. It's crowded, hot, dusty and ugly, but I spent four happy months there during three visits in the l990s, researching a book about how marriages worked when they were Islamic and polygamous. I loved the people and their willingness to laugh and enjoy good conversation and I was in awe of their effortless social graces. When I couldn't finish my book (see About Me) I went back to Kano in 2010, this time with a camera looking for visual narratives. Kano was still fairly safe and I could walk around freely with my camera, but people's attitude towards me had changed. I felt distrust and hostility for the first time. America had just helped the French bomb Libya, a Muslim country whose leader favored black Africans over Arabs, and the internet was full of foreign journalists covering Africa as a hotbed of disease, corruption and poverty. Also, an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group had just formed — Boko Haram. No one wanted to talk about it and I didn't know why until I realized even some of my educated Nigerian friends thought the CIA was probably behind it: We wanted to destabilize Nigeria and take its oil.
I hired two "guides" part-time since there were no rental cars and driving had become seriously chaotic. One was the editor of a weekly English language newspaper and the “head” of a private secondary school run by his wife. (This will give you some idea of the state of the economy: He needed a third job.) The other was a guy who carved out a living working for the academics who come to Kano, usually for months at a time. Both men were smart and likable but only one had a car. This meant I spent time on the back of his motorcycle, often stalled in traffic, in a clearly overpopulated city of maybe six million people, breathing in a lifetime of exhaust.
As for the conservative Islam practiced by the Hausa people — I was impressed by it in the l990s. All religions encourage people to be good and do good, and Islam was no exception. Also, it had managed to keep Northern Nigeria a lot safer than the Christian South because traditional rulers and Islamic teachers were solving a lot of conflicts before they became violent. The attitude towards Christians, however, did worry me, as did prejudice against other tribes.
The question of women's rights was more complicated. Hausa society was, and still is, very patriarchal and hierarchical: sons and daughters must obey their elders and women must obey their husbands. If a husband divorces his wife (which happens frequently) she will probably get support from her family but now she will have to obey her father or elder brother. Many women still live in "traditional households" where they must get permission from their husbands before leaving the house. But there is one good sign for women's rights, and that is education. Because Nigerian Muslims believe that Islam encourages education, just about every boy and girl in Kano, even in the rural villages, wants to go to school. Girls are flooding into the universities and in the private high school my guide and his wife run, there were more girls than boys. Whether the educational system can handle the influx is another question. For whatever reason, the quality of education in Kano's Bayero University had declined. It could be because more students were coming from traditional and rural schools where the main curriculum is memorizing the Koran. And since elders are the ultimate authority on everything in Kano, students often don't know how to ask questions and challenge answers.