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Savouring the colour and taste of Sokoto, the Seat of the Caliphate

I had left Abuja the previous day by road just as the muezzin was calling for prayers. It was to be my first trip to…

I had left Abuja the previous day by road just as the muezzin was calling for prayers. It was to be my first trip to Sokoto by road and I decided to leave very early in order to enjoy the beautiful scenery of the approximately seven hour trip.

My first trip to Sokoto which was by air was in 2006 when as the President of the Association of Nigerian Authors I had led a delegation of writers to the then state Governor, Alhaji Attahiru Bafarawa in respect of a Writers Workshop to be hosted by the state.

The delegation also visited former President Shehu Shagari in his Janzumo Farm Estate in Shagari Village as well as the irrepressible former Nigerian Ambassador to the UK, Alhaji Abubakar Alhaji, the Sardauna of Sokoto both of whom welcomed us warmly.  Shagari and Alhaji both national statesmen have sharply contrasting characteristics. While Shagari a traditionalist was spartan with an open door policy, Alhaji was urbane, effusive and highly westernized. Whereas we found Shagari waiting to receive us with the gates of his simple two storey building open, we had to wait for a while before the gates of Alhaji’s opulent mansion could be opened. Even at that, we still had to wait another while before the former Federal Minister and Diplomat could attend to us.

On this trip however, I will be going alone, devoid of any officialdom or protocol as a circumnavigator of the imagination on a vovage of discovery. I will be going as an itinerant writer, a recorder of men and events, a traveler seeking diversity and adventure, in short, a troubadour. I admit that I won’t be doing anything original only following in the footsteps of some of the masters; the storytellers, dreamers and thinkers who as life’s legendary witnesses have witnessed and recorded far greater events. Their names come to mind, Plato, Dante, D. H. Lawrence, Leo Tolstoy, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Abubakar Imam to name just a few. Having set the pace, their fame has become inseparable from civilization’s glory despite the fact that the bond between writer and society seems to fade with each passing year. Our duty therefore as legatees of this ancient craft is to refreshen the bond by dreaming, wandering and recording society as it is.

Departing Abuja that early meant that the city was just rising from the previous day’s slumber.  At Kubwa, I ran into the usually chaotic vehicular traffic, a development which has sadly turned the city into another “Lagos”.

Kaduna, Zaria, Funtua and other smaller towns passed in quick succession as the driver nosed the car towards Sokoto.

Just after Funtua, the otherwise smooth ride became disrupted as we now travelled on a dusty rough sequent of the road which was under construction.  All around were cornfields, lush and green extending far into the horizon, rolling into the distance as far as the eyes could see. Equally fascinating were the graciously simple traditional Hausa architecture which I saw in some of the small towns and villages but were sadly missing in the bigger metropolis in favor of the so called ‘modern architecture’.

At Faskaro Local Government Area, we chanced on a busy market where lorry loads of millet, corn, and other farm products were being off loaded.  Cows, goats, donkeys and camels completed the merchandise being offered for sale at the very busy roadside market.

Just before Gusau was the famous Kwatarkwashi rocks which I had climbed a few years ago in the company of members of the Association of Nigerian Authors as part of the activities of that year’s annual convention in Zamfara state. Gusau, Kadauri and Talata Mafara and other smaller towns and villages were soon behind us as we finally arrived Sokoto about two in the afternoon.

“Welcome to the home of the Caliphate” read the large signboard at the City gate.

Sokoto was cool on this July day most likely due to the early morning rain. Puddles of water on the streets and some dripping trees gave testimony to the downpour that had washed down the city just a few hours before my arrival.

“You must have brought the rain” my friend, Sulaiman, a Staff of an International Medical NGO based in the city quipped. “If you had come a few weeks ago, the heat would have turned you back” he added.

The day after my arrival, I took advantage of the very clement weather, and decided to go sightseeing beginning with Abdullahi Fodio Road which seemed to be the main artery of the city. The road began where Kano road ended under a new flyover that was still under construction. It is said to be the second in the city, the first being the one constructed by the immediate past Governor. Due to the ongoing road work, most structures around this area were coated in the sandy brown color of the untarred road while a mild traffic snarl gave a harried looking traffic warden some anxious moments.

Abdullahi Fodio road is home to most of the high brow commercial centres in Sokoto ranging from a modern bakery to Eateries, Cybercafes, an Abattoir among others.

All these were interspersed by textile shops selling all kinds of marterial from Guinea Brocade to Vlisco and Caftan among others. Also in abundance were the small provision shops where you can buy small supplies of sugar, beverages and detergents among others. At the corner of the road, just before a filling station, loud modern music could be heard from a shop with an intimidating sign “CD WORLD”. Just across the road at a popular restaurant could be seen a crowd of beggars and almajiris scurrying after patrons with toothpicks in their mouths as they strolled back to their cars after a good meal.

Encouraged by the contented looks of the patrons to the restaurant I decided to give the place a trial. “We have rice, beans, semo, amala with ewedu, vegetable and egusi soup” one of the girls in the cafeteria said as I settled down in the eatery. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the owner was a Yoruba woman whose steaming plate of ‘amala’ and ‘ewedu’ could rival that of any Ibadan based canteen.

I was equally surprised to discover that the activities in the commercial part of the city continued at a feverish pace way into the night. As my friend put it “the nights are cooler due to the day time heat and so the very active night life”.

It was obvious that most of the major ethnic groups in Nigeria are represented in the ancient city as could be seen from those engaged in commercial activities on Fodio road. While the Igbos were involved in most of the electronic and spare parts businesses, the Yorubas could be seen running some of the canteens while the non native Hausas from nearby states ran the other businesses. As its usually the case in many metropolis in the country, the natives were said to be laid back in their choice of work.

At the tail end of Abdullahi Fodio road is the Shehu Shagari Market which suffered from a fire incident a few years ago. Now rebuilt and operational, the new market is underutilized because some of the traders refused to go back to the market preferring instead to continue to operate by the side of the motor garage where they were previously using temporarily.

Travelling further down towards the outskirts of the city was the campus of the Usman Danfodiyo University Sokoto (UDUS) at Dundaye. It is an expansive area that still houses several villages which I was told have been paid for but the villagers still held on to the place. Most of the villagers who are farmers produce crops such as millet, sweet potatoes and vegetables which they sell to members of the University community. The farmers also provide services to the students such as laundry services, water fetching among other minor duties. Thus, the villagers and the students live a symbiotic sort of relationship.

On the day of my visit, I saw donkeys laden with farm produce such as millet, onions and sugar cane on their way to a small road side market which was patronized by the members of the University community. Also in the market were strings of fresh fish twitching and golden in the early morning sun in the hands of their sellers as they waited for buyers.

After the gate on the way to the University Campus were large portions of irrigated farmlands which are said to be used by the University’s Faculty of Agriculture as a practical farm. Two rivers dissect the University land at different areas. Today, the rivers are full and swollen with muddy water obviously due to the recent rainfall.

UDUS is a beautiful well laid out campus with tall leafy Dogonyaro trees lining every angle and providing the much needed shade and aesthetics. Judging from the different vernaculars that floated all around the campus, it is obvious that students and workers from all parts of the country were on the University. Also impressive were the various Student Union signboards which at a glance showed that the students came from almost every state in the country.

It would have been a wonderful idea to get some firsthand information about the University which is said to have no problems with religious upheavals and cultism from some of its top officials. Unfortunately, all attempts to reach the new Vice Chancellor, Professor Riskuwa Arabu Shehu through his mobile phone proved abortive. The Professor of Biochemistry whom I later spoke with some few days after my trip confirmed that he was out of the country during my visit. “You must come again” he said after a profuse apology for not being around to meet with me.

It would have been an anomaly if I went to the seat of the Caliphate without paying homage to the Sultan. And so it was that I made my way to Sultan Abubakar Road where at the Sultan’s Palace located at Kanwuri, I made enquiries about the royal father.  I was told that His Eminence, Alhaji Muhammadu SA’AD Abubakar 111 (MNI) had travelled to Abeokuta on official duties. Nevertheless, the friendly traditional palace guards handed me over to a mobile policeman stationed at the gate who in turn handed me over to the Sultan’s Secretary who finally directed a palace tourist guide to take me round the royal premises. Judging from the way he dished out well informed historical details about the caliphate, it was obvious that the guide was well trained.

The palace, modern and picturesque was erected at the site of the old one which had to be pulled down. This to me was regrettable since the old building could have been preserved as part of the historical culture of the place. The official part of the building was made up of the reception area and conference hall while the Sultan’s residence was discreetly tucked behind the building. Parked in front of the building was an eight door stretch limousine and a 20 seater bus said to be used by the staff.

The corridors and palace passages were adorned with shoulder size oil paintings of the Sultan, a retired military officer while in the background could be seen some of the palace staff going about their duties. The tourist guide after giving me a lecture on the history of the Caliphate especially the family tree of the present Sultan allowed me to pose for photographs with the oil paintings of the smiling Sultan.

The Waziri Junaid Bureau of History and Culture located at Unguwar Rogo off Ali Akilu road was my next point of call. The Bureau, a two storey affair was sited in a spacious compound with ample space for parking. The ground floor housed the photographs of the country’s past leaders both military and civilian as well as their civil servant  advisers. In addition were preserved Nigerian relics such as currency, newspapers, magazines, traditional dresses, antiques and old buildings.

The second floor housed mementoes of the Caliphate history covering most of present day Northern Nigeria extending as far back as Agadez in present day Niger Republic. The facility which was opened seven days a week from nine in the morning till five in the evening was quiet on the day of my visit most likely being a Sunday.

In order to access my next port of call I drove through the GRA and took the Arkilla road towards Nassarawa to the Sokoto Cement Company in Kalambaina Wamako LGA. On getting to the Cement Company, I found it very busy with the greyish cement dust covering both human and innate objects. Unfortunately, being a Sunday, I was not allowed into the factory.

 On my way to the Cement Factory, I had passed through the Government House and recalled with nostalgia my 2006 visit when I had lunched with former Governor Bafarawa in the company of other writers in that same premises. Interestingly, Bafarawa’s former Deputy His Excellency, Alhaji (Dr) Aliyu Mgatakarda Wamako is now the current Governor. I made a mental note to pay him a courtesy call, time permitting.

On my first visit to Sokoto, I recollect being invited alongside other writers to the Wurno Road residence of the ebullient Alhaji Abubakar Alhaji, the Sardauna of Sokoto. On that visit, Alhaji showed us to his lovely and tastely furnished house, a replica of one of those posh houses you only see among the elites of West End, London. When I complimented him on his rich taste, the Sardauna, an unapologetic lover of the white man’s culture later took us on a tour of his study with its rich array of current and foreign books. “I get my books straight from the publishers few days after their release” the comfortable looking aristocrat emphasized.

On this journey, however, I will not be dining with the ‘big and mighty’ but will be crossing paths with the men and women in the streets, the ‘talakawas”, the ‘blue-collar’ who form the backbone of the community and are the spirit of humanity’s existence. Maybe that’s why my favourite area in Sokoto is not the sedate and cool University campus at Dundaye, nor is it the neat and prim GRA or that beautiful mansion on Wurno Road but the ubiquitous and rowdy Tundun Wada where open gutters flow with raw sewage and the air stinks of a medley of aromas ranging from the odious to the fragrant. It is the place where houses are so jam packed that they often encroach into the streets making vehicular movement a herculean task.  Although class, neatness and orderliness win my approval, it is the battered and stained that capture my heart. This could be due to my love for the under privileged and the down trodden who to me are the essence of our society and the indispensable companions on our voyage through life.

The just concluded World Cup tournament in South Africa was on during the time of my visit and Sokoto was not left out of the soccer fever. As a football buff, I decided to watch the Germany/England match which took place on my last day in the ancient city in a public viewing centre in the Tudun Wada area of the city. And so it was that I joined a crowd of football lovers made up of artisans, ‘Achaba’ drivers, beggars and almajiris who all paid N50 each to watch the much publicized match. It was an open air structure with two large color TV sets set on a high pedestal while viewers sat on long rows of benches. As a mark of respect, however, I was allowed to sit on a rickety moth eaten leather seat in the middle of the crowd. From the way the fans hailed the players, it was obvious that they were very familiar with them especially since many of them ply their trade with the famous English Premier League. As the game went under way, the mood of the fans grew in intensity to reach an electrifying moment when Germany started pumping in the goals. Before long we were all on our feet, shouting, screaming and hugging ourselves;  artisans, achaba riders, almajiris, beggars; all united by the love of the good old Jabulani. It was a fitting end to my odyssey to the seat of the caliphate. I hope to be back, insha Allah.

Dr Wale Okediran is the immediate past President, Association of Nigerian Authors

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