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.
Monday, October 01, 2007