KANO IS CLOSE TO MY HEART. It's a city of more than six million people, 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 now by cellphone, but politically much had changed. Everyone was angry with western journalists who seemed to focus only on poverty and disease. Boko Haram had started in the northeast, but no one would talk to me about it. Even worse, Obama 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 you still couldn't rent a car). One was the editor of a weekly English language newspaper and the head of a private secondary school. The other carved out a living by driving around visiting 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 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 say they seek a way of life that is peaceful and generous, and if there are mistakes and problems with it's followers it's not the religion's fault. Also, there was still very little crime in Kano even in 2010 because 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 — a practice that
is unimaginable to a westerner. But I came to see how a woman could be happy at home, surrounded by her extended family, if her husband was "a good man" who "ran a good house." Today a husband in Kano has choices about how to run his house. He can pick and choose from three different cultures: traditional Hausa; conservative Islamic; and ideas flooding in from the West. There is one very good sign for women's rights: the belief in most of Northern Nigeria that Islam values education (Boko Haram rose up in reaction to this). Every boy and girl in Kano, and even in rural villages, now wants a western-style education. Unfortunately, this means the schools and universities have become overcrowded, and professors are teaching students who were taught to learn mostly by memorization. They also have a hard time getting many students to ask questions because young people are taught not to challenge their elders. Still, old ideas are changing fast.