KANO IS CLOSE TO MY HEART. It's hot, crowded, dusty and ugly, but I spent four happy months there during three visits in the 1990s. I was researching a book I called "Peace In The House" about how marriages work when they are Islamic and Polygamous. I loved the Hausa people and their willingness to laugh and enjoy good conversation and was in awe of their effortless social graces. When it turned out I couldn't finish my book (because of repetitive stress in my hands), it was one of the greatest disappointments of my life.
So when I took up photography the first trip I made with my camera was back to Kano in 2010. My friends were still there, reachable with cell-phones now, but politically much had changed. Everyone was angry with western journalists for writing only about disease, corruption and poverty. Boko Haram had started, but no one would talk about it. And America had just helped the French bomb Libya, a Muslim country whose leader favored black Africans over Arabs.
I hired two part-time guides to help with driving and translation (in Kano, in 2010, you still couldn't rent a car). One was the editor of a weekly English language newspaper, and the other carved out a living working for academics. Both men were smart and likable and intellectually curious, but I did have to spend a lot of time on the back of a motorcycle, in a city of six million people, breathing in exhaust.
As for the conservative Islam practiced by the Hausa people — I saw much about it that was good. All religions encourage people to be good and do good, and Islam is no exception. It's followers seek a way of life that is peaceful, generous, and beautiful. Also, there was still very little crime in Kano, which my friends attributed to "the religion." Traditional rulers, practicing Shariah, solved a lot of conflicts before they became violent.
The attitude towards women, however, did upset me, though I came to see the issue as complicated. In a traditional Hausa home, women are required to ask their husbands for permission before they can leave the house. Although seems seems horrible to a westerner, I came to see how women could be happy in their extended families as long as their husband was "a good man." Today a husband has more choices: he can run his home according to principles he picks and chooses. There is traditional Hausa culture, conservative Islamic principles, and ideas flooding in from the West. And there is one very good sign for women's rights: the belief in most of Northern Nigeria that Islam values education. Every boy and girl in Kano, and even in the rural villages, now wants a western-style education. The schools and universities are overcrowded, and professors are teaching students to learn by questioning rather than memorization. They are even fighting a traditional taboo over young people challenging elders.