It is 11:42 pm. My phone rings endlessly. I do not bother to pick the calls – not even when the caller resorts to SMS. But, as in the saying ‘a child who says his mother will not sleep equally denies himself of sleep’, my refusal to take the call in spite of the caller’s persistence means I must remain awake.
At the seventh ring, I pick the call. It is an unregistered number in my phone contact, and I angrily ask, “What is it?” Then a soft female voice pleads on the other end, “Please hold on for your caller.”
For three minutes, a Lagos-based four-star hotel manager, who is also a friend, begs and apologises for the inconvenience. I politely accept his apologies not knowing that the real inconvenience is on the way.
“My friend, you must accept to take my friend and guest to Kano to see the Kano Walls and also experience a local festival in any northern state for a documentary he is doing on Nigeria,” the hotel manager says.
“It is Ok, sir. Let me digest your demand. I will get back to you tomorrow,” I reply, regretting why I did not switch off my phone. The first thought afterwards is Boko Haram. But the trip is beyond security; it is an unknown and marathon journey.
After days of formal meetings with both the manager and Safiso Ndlovo, the adventure-minded guest, we set a day for the four-day journey, after registering the expedition with the Festac Town Police Station and getting necessary approvals from my office and my new wife.
The flight to Kano via Abuja turns out as anticipated. It is the first good story for the black South African PhD student who now relies on me for everything including his life. But I wonder how we are going to manoeuvre our way with my little or no knowledge of Hausa language, the dominant language in Kano. The confidence my hotel manager friend reposes on me keeps pushing me to believe in myself. We keep going. My first test is picking the airport taxi. As one arrives and we start haggling over the fare, Ndlovo (or ND as he prefers me to call him) interjects, “Speak the local language to get better bargain.”
That opens an old wound – an experience that made me most vulnerable to local cheats. That story is for another day. I engage the driver in Pidgin English that still confuses the guest who believes whatever I mutter is local enough to get us going.
Immediately we board the taxi, the driver raises the music volume and speeds like he is on Lagos Third Mainland Bridge. Surprisingly, ND does not complain. He rather nods in appreciation.
The hotel is neat, but expensive at N30,000 per night for a room smaller than a standard room. It is while we are leaving for our first port of call the next day that I discover why it is expensive. It is close to a police station and the owner uses the security as its selling point.
That morning, ND looks radiant in a pair of jean trousers, Ebola hat, dark eyeglasses, a jacket (containing his camera, writing materials, recorder and water bottle) covering the ‘Welcome to South Africa’ inscribed on his T-Shirt. I quickly discourage him from looking too western bearing Boko Haram in mind.
I quickly get him a kaftan and a pair of flat shoes for N4,500 in the hotel. He quickly converts the currency and agrees that the outfit is fine. With the northern dress style, we are safe from prying eyes.
As advised by a Kano-based tour operator friend of mine, we always use registered taxi. As one taxi pulls by our side, we pay our way to the legendary Kano Walls. Instead of the walls, the driver takes us to Kofar Mata area of the city where the Kano Dye Pits are.
As argument ensues on the wrong venue, I see people crouch over some holes. Then it occurs to me we are at the dye pits. ND even picks interest, though the pit is not part of his schedule. He quickly asks me to talk to a lone old man on one of the pits for interview. I do, but to a younger person in Pidgin English. He accepts to help as an interpreter. The old man talks in Hausa, the younger man interprets in Pidgin English while I relay it back to ND in formal English.
The man expresses his sadness over Kano’s 500-year-old dye pits which, he says, are now a dying legacy. “A good chunk of clothes worn by the affluent in the ancient city years back was dyed here. The dyeing profession brought huge income to the city from the outskirts; it became an exclusive trade that families engaged in while the secret of the business passed on from one generation to the other,” the old man says as he continues to dip the wet blue cloth into the blue solution in the pit in front of him, disregarding the fierce mid-day sun.
He regrets a few years from now, people may no longer see the place except in pictures, just like the groundnut pyramids of Kano.
There is no conscious effort by the state government to keep this ancient heirloom alive, says Ahmad Usman, one of the workers who volunteer to take us round the pit complex. The place has about 270 pits and 150 workers – men and women. While the men stay at the dye pit complex to dye the clothes, the women do the embroidery from their homes.
“Every person working in this place inherited it. Here we produce only blue colour because it is natural indigo, there is no artificial. We have three ingredients – indigo, potassium and ashes. These are the three components used to produce the solution. When you get an empty pit, you put water inside. First, you put the ashes in the water and leave it for three days. Then you get the indigo, a kind of plant that grows like henna. The difference is while henna gives brown colour, indigo gives blue. When all these have been mixed in the right proportion, they are left for three days. After that we get the potassium chloride (we make it here), put it in the indigo and ashes and it is left for nine days,” Usman explains.
The duration for dyeing differs according to the colour. While it takes one and a half hours to change a fabric from original white to blue, it takes three hours before the same material can be transformed into deep blue.
Earlier, I signal ND that it is time to go. But he has just one more question. Explain more, ND says, as if he has forgotten the Kano Walls.
“The pits were in various depths,” Usman explains further, “mostly three to four metres deep. The dyeing of clothes is a tedious job that requires energy and patience. For production, one would need 100 kilogrammes of indigo, 40 buckets of ash and five buckets of potassium. A mixture of all these ingredients is left for five weeks to ferment, after which it is filtered and clothes dyed in it as desired.”
ND asks for a N3,000 piece of cloth. “It is a souvenir,” he says as we head off to the Walls. Surprisingly, the roads become empty – of people and taxies – and shops begin to close. I almost panic before I realise that today is Friday and we are in the predominantly Muslim north. They have gone for Jumat prayers.
We head to the hotel, calling off the visit to the walls for the next day.