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 conservative 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.
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 by cellphone now, but politically much had changed. Everyone was angry with western journalists who seemed to focus mainly on poverty and disease. Boko Haram had started but no one would talk to me about it. And 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 — he needed a third job. The other guide carved out a living by driving around visiting academics who, like me, spent a lot of time on the back of his 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 problems it's not the religion's fault. There was still very little crime in Kano 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. This practice is disappearing but women are still considered “weaker” than men and therefore in need of supervision and protection.
I did come to see how a woman can be happy at home, surrounded by her extended family and a husband who is "a good man" and "runs a good house." Today a husband in Kano can pick and choose from three different cultures: traditional Hausa; conservative Islamic; and the new 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 the rural villages, wants a western-style education. Unfortunately, this means the schools and universities have become overcrowded, and professors are dealing with students who were taught to learn by memorization. And it’s hard to get students to ask questions because young people are taught not to challenge their elders. Still, old ideas are changing fast.