Friday, November 16, 2007

Poverty fair

The sun filtered down from the jewelled skylight, water playfully tinkled from the granite fountain catching the midday sun that poured into the atrium of the Yar’adua centre. I was looking at a set of pictures pinned to the wall. I couldn’t quite see what I was looking at. There were three that seemed to be where rocky ground met a swamp. It wasn’t much of a swamp even, a dirty brown smear with spines, porcupine quill reeds bristling up. In the third photograph there is a woman walking toward the camera. She has an enamel bowl on her head. Her red wrapper looks dull and muddy, I can’t tell if it’s the photograph over exposed or the swamp smeared on her body.
In the first of the next row of photos, a man sits on the floor, holding a cup. His green caftan is rumpled. I see his face. It looks punched. The photo looks as if it’s captured the moment he hit the floor on his rear. His mouth is pushed to one side and pursed in pain. It looks like he’s been pushed down, humiliated.
I can’t see what the other photos are because my eyes are on the next three. They’re drawn to the pictures by a kind of grotesque fascination. A woman stands with her arms open, fists clutching the corners of her wrapper. Her torso is exposed, her head removed by the edge of the picture. Her breasts hang around a giant bulbous belly. Under her skin, it seems, are bags of pawpaw, or potatoes. One of the bags has erupted in a raw, open, weeping wound.
The pictures are part of a display wall in the Rotary Project Fair. Tony, a smartly dressed Rotarian from Yola, explains the village is a few kilometres from Numan in Adamawa state. “When I went to this village I had to take a bike. It was dry season and the driver went a very narrow path that would have been impossible during the rains.
In a salesman’s voice he says: “There are maybe 500 families in this village, and you know with our polygamous culture, there could be ten to fifteen people in one family. This water here is their only source of water,” he said pointing to the slick of mud in the first shots.
“Their only water?”
“Yes, drinking, bathing, washing. If you can see in this photo there is a woman taking water from behind these reeds.” I hadn’t seen her. He pointed her out. “They don't even boil it before drinking. They believe if they go further in the water is cleaner.” He shrugged.
Pointing to the man “This is the head of the village, and he’s drinking the water straight from the marsh.” The water was thick and brown, it looked like tea.
“Two decades ago some people came and dug a borehole, and after two days it packed up. Maybe they didn’t dig it properly and it dried up very quickly. And here,” he said pointing to a stack of dusty concrete blocks, “Is a well that never worked. In this area there is a lot of Bilharzia. This picture you can see samples of urine.” He pointed to a picture I had skimmed over because I was gripped by the pictures of the woman just below it. “All these are samples of bloody urine. The parasite lives in the bladder and feeds off tissue and the inside of the bladder bleeds.”
How many people have the disease in the village?
“Virtually everyone,” he said. “We want to dig a series of boreholes that will work. A standard borehole will cost 800,000 naira.” (3200 pounds)
And what does this lady have? I asked pointing at the pictures.
“No one knows,” he replied, “Because there is no health clinic or any facilities. Even this school," he said pointing to a building “was built by a charity, but in this school many children die of measles, because the disease spreads through the still air in the classrooms.” He points to a picture of a sandy piece of land with a tree. “This is where the villagers have designated someone can come and build a health facility if they want. The last time the government employed a village health worker, he came and after two days he ran away because there was no water.”
The only thing I could think to say was “I suppose most of the young people leave and go to the city.” Tony nodded.
As I thanked Tony for taking the time to explain the villages situation to me, a colleague of his pinned an A4 sized enlargement of the woman’s tumour-filled belly on the wall.
I returned to browsing the stands with the visiting American Rotarians as they decided which of the many projects on display to fund.

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Friday, November 09, 2007

The Third Man

I turned on the television the other day. Through the blizzard of fuzz across my ailing TV set a face rose out of the gloom.
It was a man’s face I recognised, but couldn’t immediately place the movie it was from. It filled the black and white screen he had a wave of grey hair, a slightly skewed look on his face, and a drooping lip. I heard the joyless-but-jaunty zither music of the score and it clicked, one of my favourite films - The Third Man. The face was that of Harry Lime's porter -scared, powerless and confused, caught in the middle of something bad.
The porter tells out-of-his-depth pulp writer Holly Martins there was a third man in the street –not two- when Harry Lime was killed “quite dead”. Martins had arrived in
Vienna at his friend Harry’s invitation, only to be told Harry had been killed in a road accident.
Naïve Martins feels something is up, and despite everyone telling him not to stir the murky pot of post-war
Vienna he continues to ask questions. He and Lime's girlfriend Anna are pulled into a vortex of deceit, corruption, murder and betrayal which ends sourly.
I loved this film from the opening monologue: “I never knew the old
Vienna before the war, with its Strauss music, its glamour and its easy charm –Constantinople suited me better.” It conjures atmosphere. On-screen the wet cobbled streets of Austria’s capital are eerie and deserted, with only the broken poor and international police stalking them. The city is full of broken buildings and bombed out heaps of bricks. The final chase is through the city’s labyrinthine sewers, and the end gives no redemption. It’s unmerciful.
It also has one of the greatest entrances in movie history. As Martins walks though the streets at night he sees Anna’s cat playing at the feet of a man hiding in a doorway outside her apartment. He calls to the man to come out, and a woman in an upstairs window tells him to shut up. She turns a light on and the man’s face is illuminated. It is Harry Lime, the boyish Orson Welles, back from the dead.
The film brought together legendary producer David Selznick, British director Carol Reed and the great novelist Graham Greene. Reed was the first director to use skewed, busted-angle shots, a technique so unusual then a friend sent him a spirit level. Now all thrillers are shot a bit wonky. The way the city is lit makes it another character, with creepy shadows and unseen lights. Several shadow shots are actually impossible, the results of great pre-computer light trickery. We see Harry Lime’s shadow running away, but it is actually the shadow of a man running on the spot in front of a spotlight. The ominous shadow of a man selling balloons enters a square from the opposite direction as the actual actor, because the shot would not work any other way.
But watching in my room in
Abuja I realised that something has changed. The film is the same, but something has changed in me. Its not only a film about the search for Harry Lime, it’s also about corruption and poverty. It’s about a failed and broken state where the poor and sick are too numerous to be treated. When the Viennese characters speak they are ignored, and remain un-translated for the audience. The city is divided between outside forces, ruled by a haughty international elite who are enacting their own interests rather than governing for the defeated people. The black market fills the gap they leave. Ordinary people suffer and are exploited. Harry Lime’s racket is stealing penicillin and diluting it, faking the drugs people need to cure their multiplicity of diseases. People continue to die and no one really cares.
Before Nigeria, I’d just seen Orson Welles playing an evil man – Welles and his enigma, his own star quality- in the foreground, the evil somehow in the background. The corruption seemed to be one of the things about the film that didn’t add up (why does Harry invite his friend to
Vienna? What was he doing outside her flat? Who would fake drugs, just to make money?)
But years later, knowing about the factories in Onitsha that churn out fake pills, protected by powerful godfathers, Welles’ famous speech reveals more to me than before: “Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you 20,000 pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man, free of income tax.”

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Saturday, November 03, 2007

The phone

I pulled up the car and climbed out of the ac blast into the heat. It dragged my shoulders down, I could feel energy evaporating out of my body and escaping into the air, up and away into the eggshell blue sky. I’d been putting this off for over a week, and now there was no getting away from it. I locked the car and turned towards the line of touts who had begun to shuffle toward me.
All that time ago, back in
Kano, some little scrotum stole my phone. I must have been standing almost within reach of the governor as the Emir made his way down the long red carpet under his sequinned umbrella. We’d pushed and shoved to get to the front, and I was trying to protect my pockets and take pictures. One hand was on my right side where my car key was, and the other hand was on my camera. I guess something had to give. Regular readers might remember I have a track record of having my pocket picked within spitting distance of important Nigerian leaders. It was only a matter of time before it happened again, I suppose.
And now, after too long, I’d eventually wound up the umph to deal with the modalities of re-acquiring my personal telephonic registration and availability-facilitating numeric sequence. I’d been ringing the customer service helpline for days trying to get hold of a human being to tell me how to get my number back, without avail. Every time I’d just get trapped in an infuriating loop of an automated message. It promised me I would get to speak to an operator but, when I pressed the button I was delivered back to the start, where the woman said in a bright perky faux-posh twang: “To hear this message in English press one.”
So I went down to the customer service department of the phone company and walked smartly up to the guard on the door. In front of me, a little chubby guy was looking very frustrated. He was waving papers at the guard and gesticulating. “Why can’t I reach the customer services on the phone? I have a complaint!” he said.
The guard gave a wet-lipped Buddha smile and said: “That’s because the customer services people want to listen to your complaint in person. Now please take a number and join the queue.” He pointed to the sunshades behind us where about 70 disgruntled people sat fanning themselves.
He pointed me over there too. I walked up to the seats and asked: “How now? How long have you all been waiting here?”
There was some grumbling. A weary, lean looking guy said: “I been here only ten minutes, but my friend, if you want it sharp sharp go speak to those small boys outside. They take you to another office where they know someone and you get it the same day. Here you pay 380, but there you give them a K. Here you have to wait three, four days, there you can use it the same day… That’s
Nigeria for you.”
This last aphorism brought another man’s head round. “Eh! Why you go tell him ‘that’s
Nigeria’ you give him a bad impression.”
The weary looking man rolled his eyes, as if to say “my friend you don’ craze”. A hefty argument was about to ensue. I hightailed it out of there.
I couldn’t face dealing with the touts that day, so I sacked it off and resolved to do it the next.
And there I was, standing before them as they ambled to me like a posse of gunfighters. I drew myself up to my full height. How much?
“Two thousand.”
“A-ah! You are a greedy man. I know it’s less than that. This greedy man wants two thousand,” I asked his friend “what do you say?” By public auction I hammered them down.
I took John, my chosen tout, to the other office. He’s been selling recharge cards for four years. “But I moved over to the welcome back because you can make money,” he said. Of the one K I was to give him, he would take 600 and pay the “inside man” 400. There were scores of other guys in the shop with stacks of welcome packs. Other customers gave me a knowing glance as John handed me my life back.

But I'd realised that I didn't need this guy. I could have just come up to the office myself and queued. But in Nigeria information is so badly dispersed that it becomes as valuable as money. Not many people know about the phone company's Wuse Zone 5 office at the moment, so the touts exploit that and charge people who want their phone numbers back "sharp sharp", and don't mind paying extra. Its a precarious way of making money, but one that requires little education and no start up cost.

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Saturday, October 27, 2007


The first knock on the courtroom door sent the lawyers scurrying to their places, wiggling wigs on heads and flipping open files. One barrister was still not at his correct station when the judge entered, and he skirted the bench at a stoop, like someone walking in front of a cinema screen, holding his white shaggy mop in place. With the funny gait, the black suit and the lawyers robe, he looked like Groucho Marx. He got to his place just in time to assume a deep and earnest bow. The judge took his seat. The bench was so high all anyone could see was the top of his wig. When the lawyers spoke they did so haltingly, as if they were unsure of themselves. When the judge spoke no one could hear him.
Why do barristers continue to wear wigs in
Nigeria? I would have thought that would be one of the first things to go after independence. What greater symbol of the old regime could there be? Even in the UK the rules have been relaxed. Only the barristers who speak in court and the judges need wear them, not the solicitors of the legal team.
Here you can tell the experience of the lawyer by how battered his wig is. Newly qualified barristers have bright white wigs, fuzzy and immaculate, as if the sheep had groomed himself especially well before sloughing his hide with the greatest of care. Hard bitten old-timers look like they’ve stepped from the pages of Sketches by Boz, their wigs flattened and crumpled, brown with age, they fall apart at the seams.
I, like most reporters, began my career at the courts. I stalked the
Holloway Road magistrates’ court looking for those weird details that made a case interesting. The waiting hall of the court was a mixture of drug addicts, un-licensed drivers, teenage tearaways, nightmare neighbours, and other petty criminals, their lawyers, policemen, and the odd spectator, like Jock.
Jock was a retired court usher who had nothing better to do than come down to the courts every day: “It’s better than television!” he’d exclaim after a particularly juicy case. He showed me how the court worked.
Being the magistrates’ court most of it was dull. All the juicy stuff -murders and such- went on to the Old Bailey, but occasionally you’d get a gem. Once I saw a big goon in the dock, he’d been at a nudist health spa called Rio’s in
Kentish Town. His associate had interrupted his shower to tell him that a traffic warden was trying to clamp his car, he’d run outside and beat the warden with a chair. A passing armed diplomatic protection officer intervened and the attacker's towel dropped leaving him stark naked in the street.
Another occasion I saw a man who’d been caught trying to pick up a policewoman disguised as a prostitute get off because his barrister (I’d followed her to the court, it wasn’t often you’d get a genuine silk down Holloway Mags… she wasn’t wearing her wig by the way) noticed a mistake in the dates on the police forms. She’d jumped up and said her client should be entitled to know “which case he was pleading guilty to”. The panel of magistrates considered their verdict and said he should be let off “in the interests of justice”. The previous defendant, caught in exactly the same operation but representing himself, because he was on benefits and could not afford a lawyer, got an £800 fine. “Quite why you’re trying to buy sex when you are on income support eludes me,” the magistrate said.
Back in Maitama the lawyers were trying the same thing. Legal maneuvering, trying to include other parties in the suit, serve papers, protest they had not been properly served, question the locus standii, or force an order of mandamus.
I can’t think of a single case that my colleagues have reported on that has been decided on the merits of the evidence. All the legal jousting is about knocking the case out before it comes to trial, even to the degree that a former governor accused of stealing from his treasury is prepared to argue that the case against him in the federal court should be thrown out because the money he accused of stealing was from his state, and therefore not under the jurisdiction of the Abuja court.

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Saturday, October 20, 2007

City of lost children

My colleague was washing his feet before going inside the mosque that flanks the square.
“I’ll ju
st go and pray” he said.

“Sure” I replied.
I turned around and standing there, staring at me, was a huge crowd of children.

Kano is a city of children. They stand on corners and junctions, outside cafes holding bowls, leading their infirm parents around, security guards scatter them like locusts but they really have nowhere to go.
“I think I’ve drawn a crowd” I said, and waved at the kids standing there. No one waved back. They contemplated me quietly. Big eyes slowly, unflinchingly, scanned me. Somehow, the white of their eyes seemed to penetrate me.
One who had been sucking a frozen yoghurt pack spoke. He was talking about me, making an observation, but I had no idea what. Their dirty clothes were tattered. If I moved left they followed with their eyes, and then reformed around me. They didn’t touch me, they just looked. I had to get out of there.
What happens to these children? These lost boys? The way they are always under people’s feet, in and out of the traffic, probably sleeping rough, I’d say many of them die before they reach their early teens. Theirs is a vulnerable life. I can’t see how they can survive on begging alone. The very youngest will probably sift through piles of rubbish, where the weak ones will die of disease. They will fight over the limited amount of scraps that fall from the table, the stronger ones will get them, the weaker ones will not. Out on the street many will be crushed by trucks or run over by cars. Also they’re vulnerable to predatory abusers, ritualists, or paedophiles, who exist in every society, no matter how disdainful the thought.
Those that do survive into adolescence must be tough. What have they done to get there, what hardships have they overcome? Standing in the crowd children would walk past me and tap my pocket, just to see what was there. Older ones (maybe they were working together) sneaked the tips of their fingers into my pocket. Standing by the gate to the Emir’s palace I felt the tickle of a pickpocket, and snatched at his hand. I saw the fingers pursed together, made small, like a snake’s head, my eyes followed the arm to his head his eyes snapped forward from my pocket to the procession. I had caught him.
“I see you!” I shouted “don’t even try it!” I wanted to let him know he’d been caught out, that was all, and as soon as I spoke I realised my mistake. A man who was guiding me around grabbed the boy and started beating him. His eyes looked like ice cubes. I saw his face and noticed the scars from acne on his cheeks. I grabbed between them, trying to stop the blows raining down. I shouted: “He didn’t get anything!”, but some other people grabbed him and he was sucked into the crowd.
From then on my two friends stood at either side of me protecting my pockets. But even that wasn’t enough. As we watched the Hawwan Daushe pass through the town, a boy in a white and black striped kaftan stood in front of me as I was taking pictures.
Suddenly there was a sound like a stinger missile swooping through the air and a crack as my guide’s hand connected with the boy’s head. With a yelp he tried to defend himself but more hands started to beat him, and he too was dragged away.
“Did you see him trying to take something? I didn’t,” I said.
“He was trying” said my friend. Picking a pocket while you’re standing in front of someone is the most difficult way. In the
UK it’s called “the sucker’s kiss”. I wondered if trying it this time cost that boy his life. What happened to these boys? I don’t know.
If these lost boys make it to their twenties, at a time when they should be most productive, these children will be hardened, illiterate, possibly resentful of life itself.
As we charged down toward Gidan Murtala after the durbar ended I was nearly crushed by a danfo covered by men waving placards and shouting. As the junction we saw more, stomping out their support for a local politician, waving their hands in the air and chanting. In the flickering kerosene light, their flailing limbs looked like giant spiders fighting.
A cleric I met said: “I run a school, trying to educate children, and the parents bring their children there and leave them. They don’t come and pick them up. Where are they, the parents?”

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

“There is no teaching without entertainment!”

Film producer Iyan Tama (centre, seated) almost jumps out of his skin when he speaks about his movies. His enthusiasm seems to be in his bones, and desperately trying to get out.

Iyan Tama has just finished shooting his 25th movie. It is story about Sani, a Hausa boy who meets Helena, an Igbo girl, in Kano, and they fall in love. Their relationship across ethnic and religious lines would be difficult at the best of times, but they are pitched into mortal danger by the eruption of a riot between Christians and Muslims that tore the city apart in 2004.
The film, called Tsintsiya -the broom, comes at a difficult time for Kannywood. In August the Kano state Islamic authorities announced all filming should stop after a phone camera video showing actress Maryam Hiyana having sex with her boyfriend emerged. It spread from phone to phone before an entrepreneur burned it onto a dvd and sold the low quality disc for $40. The Kano state censorship board then announced that all singing and dancing will be banned in films shot or on sale in Kano, and actors will have to be vetted by the censor before they can work.
Iyan Tama said: “When they said stop, I stopped. I called my lawyer and we went through the law. Then I continued to film.” He says that federal censorship laws mean state censors could not stop him filming because his latest project is funded by the United States embassy. “Federal law supersedes state law on this matter. It says that state censors cannot stop a film being made if it is funded by a diplomatic representative of a foreign country.”
This is the second film the US has funded from Iyan Tama’s production house, and they are making plans to fund a third. Spokesman at the embassy Sani Mohammed said: “We are funding this film because of the employment it will bring to young people in Northern Nigeria, and because it has a message of non-violence and unity. We want to promote that message.” He denied that the film would bring them into conflict with the state's Islamic authorities, the A Daidaita Sahu, or 'organisation for societal reorganisation'.
He said: “It is not our intention that Iyan Tama should defy the authorities. Filming began before the incident that gave rise to the ban. If the authorities want him to stop he should, but as we understand it he has a letter from them giving him permission to continue.”
But the new head of the Censorship Board Abubakar Rabo disagrees. He said: “This film is equally banned. You cannot be filming while the establishment is ignorant of it. If Iyan Tama had brought his script for registration, for vetting, his script picked some corrections from this board, and he submitted his shooting locations then he can continue.”
If the film is to be sold in Kano it will need his approval. He criticised Iyan Tama for going to the Americans for money. He said: “This approach to things is myopic and narrow minded. If you cannot go to the local authority to regulate you, you undermine your operation.”
The film is unlikely to get approval from the board because of some scenes of dancing and singing. In Tsintsiya, Iyan Tama says, they are central to the plot; the lovers meet at a university dance contest, and the film concludes with a celebratory dance.
But the censorship board are afraid that filmmakers in Kannywood are polluting Hausa Fulani culture with “indecent” dancing and dressing.
Filmmakers themselves, the censorship board says, need to be protected from the public who are angry at the shame they suffered after the Hiyana film emerged. Kano city has been the flashpoint for violence between Christians and Muslims several times since Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999. The conflicts are driven by the large number of illiterate, jobless youths in the city who are easily provoked, sometimes by political leaders -known as "Godfathers". Over 1000 people were killed in 2004.
In 2006 at least 16 people were killed in protests against cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper.
In 2000 12 northern states enforced Sharia law, which bans indecent conduct, drinking and gambling, but the Christian minority, usually traders from the Southern Igbo and Yoruba states are exempt from the laws.
Mr Rabo said: “The confidence of the general public must be restored. Their religion, their culture is at stake. Such foreign things, such alien things that were brought into the culture, were brought into the religion by way of filming, by people who were mischievously sponsored.
“People see our filming and see it negatively and we say that is not how the typical Hausa-Fulani are. The dancing the illicit things and the dressing. We have our cultural way of dressing. Dress that way, portray it. Take it to Europe people will appreciate it. You appreciate variety if I try and bring out my peculiarity, my norms.
“If you are putting it on the screen representing millions of Hausa Fulani you are not being just to those clans. It ought to be the actual people because you are taking it to the outside world.”
Iyan Tama agrees with the authorities’ view that most Kannywood films are just scenes of singing and dancing edited together and have little plot or character development. But unlike the board he says that in his films it is necessary to give the audience a little of what they want to capture them and deliver the message in his films. “Bollywood films came here and are immensely popular, there is much that Indian culture has in common with Hausa culture, but it can’t all be dancing. In my films I try and add suspense. Unless you have suspense, people will not be really entertained. You should not be able to miss a scene in a film because then you will not know what happens in the story.” He says that the authorities are wrong when they say people are angry at filmmakers, and that the A Daidaita Sahu have a confused idea of people's relationship with the film industry.
He says that the new rules will punish him and other good Hausa filmmakers unfairly. “If someone else committed an offence, then why are people who did not commit the offence being punished?”
Abubakar Rabo says the suspension of filming will be only temporary. Approved filmmakers will be allowed to continue in February. The board will investigate all actors and filmmakers in order to assess their suitability as teachers of public morality before allowing them to continue. The board will enquire about their backgrounds and judge their reputations. Already 17 actors have been banned from making movies and a director jailed for six months for producing a film that showed belly dancing.
The boards investigations will not be done through a court of law, and their decision making process is confidential, Mr Rabo said.
Baballe Hyatu (pictured above left), the male lead in Tsintsiya is concerned that his profession will suffer. He has incurred the wrath of clerics before, after he played a man who used prostitutes and beat his wife. In that film he has an epiphany and changes his life. “Many people came up to me or contacted me and said they were touched by that film," he said. "They said it inspired them to change their own ways.” But clerics burned copies of the film in public.
Francisca Isaac (pictured right) who plays Helena in Tsintsiya said she felt vulnerable as a female actor in the industry. “I am all for decency. Look at the way I am dressed,”she says “but they are not really concerned with decency. They go to the media and make the masses believe we dress indecently and we are involved in drug abuse and fornication. I am for decency, but they could engineer it so people believe I am not. It is all about what they want and right now they don’t want acting.”
Iyan Tama says that his film is the sort of production the state should be encouraging because the central message is one of unity between ethnicities and religions. He says: “The film starts with a scene of three boys fighting over a broom. The string holding it together breaks and the reeds scatter, it is useless.” He says the laws will not prevent him from producing in the future, whatever the board does. “I have bigger aspirations than the Kano market anyway, I want a world audience to see my films.”

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Monday, October 01, 2007

Sarkin Karaoke

As we pulled up to the Gidan Murtala roundabout a gang of hawkers flocked around us, hands full of car accessories, re-charge cards, bundles of white cloth and Islamic books. Through the tinted glass two of them recognised the driver and instantly dropped into a respectful crouch. From the passenger seat all I could see were their fists held up, thumbs protruding.
"Does this happen all the time?" I asked, rather astonished.
"Oh you have no idea… It's why I prefer to drive around at night", said the Sarkin. He zipped down the window a touch and fed a thousand naira note out to the man who gleefully took it and moved on to the next car.
It was approaching the end of the day and the shadows were lengthening. The scramble was on to get home and break fast. If I thought the streets of Kano were pretty hectic during the day, it was nothing compared to the afternoon rush.
The traffic churned up dust and smoke as it snarled its way through the rutted streets. Achabas leaked in between the cars toward the junction where they formed a giant rasping, growling beast waiting for the traffic warden to signal.
One jumped out from the pack early and darted across the space. A policeman flailed wildly at the bike with his club, hitting another bike and sending it skitting off balance until it keeled over spilling rider and passenger.
Outside the office I'd watched some men unloading another truckload of motorcycles to add to the sea of new bubble-wrapped wing mirrors standing on the pavement outside. And you could add that to the hundreds of bikes given out in "aid" by the state and local governments. Press releases always call such donations "wealth creation schemes", they're promoted as examples of the government's beneficence, giving illiterate people a way to earn money. But what kind of a solution is that? The life of an Achaba rider is precarious. Even if you do give him a bike, the man is still illiterate.
The Sarkin pointed to the accident and said: "Look at that! Serves them right. It's impossible to drive around here with all these bikes. When they banned them in Abuja, they all came back up here. They're a bloody nuisance."
He indicated the way to Sabon Gari. It was totally blocked up. "That way is hell, we'll not go down there." Our little tour was ending, it was nearly time for him to break fast and pray. We turned for home -right into a herd of cattle, giant horns splayed wide, clacking together. They were being driven into oncoming traffic by a boy with a stick, seemingly oblivious to the cars and trucks rushing toward his beasts.
"Can you imagine?" the Sarkin said with a shake of his head and a sly grin creeping across his face.
We'd met at a beer joint in Kano city.
"How come this place can sell beer openly?" I'd asked.
"Shariah blah blah," he'd said "people are sick of it." He'd gone to university in the UK. Many Nigerians I've met who've been educated abroad feel torn between their traditions and the life they grew into outside. For the Sarkin, this must be even more acute.
"Do you ever get sick of being a king?" I asked him.
"Honestly? I think I've got used to it," he'd said, palming off another crisp thousand naira note to a prostrated subject.
In the back room of the beer joint he'd grabbed two microphones and the remote controller for the karaoke machine.
"Come on, you won't embarrass yourself," he said "No one's looking at you."
"No, they're all looking at you!" He opened his wallet and unfolded a piece of paper with number written on it. "These are my songs!" he said. They were all cheesy love songs, and indeed he knew all the words. Other people gazing up at the screen joined in to sing the chorus of a Westlife tune. His head bobbed along to the jaunty rhythm of Colour Me Badd's All 4 Love –a melody so annoyingly catchy I can still hear it as I write this. By the time Abba's dancing queen came up the whole bar was in voice, swaying with the beat squeaking to the high notes.

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