by Ian McCall

Chapter 4 - THE PYRAMIDS

I have never been to see the Sphinx or the pyramids of Egypt. The size of the pyramids is conveyed well in photographs which show them dwarfing everything around. But you didn’t need to go to Egypt for pyramids. They existed in Kano in Northern Nigeria which I had the good fortune to visit in my official capacity during my induction period in Lagos.

Kano is a town very different from the bustling cities of the south of the country. As Geraldine Illes, the daughter of very good friends, said when she saw it on her very first visit ‘It’s just like the pictures in the Bible’. It is in a general sense. It is also very different. A walled city, albeit crumbling round the perimeter, a process initiated by Sir Frederick Lugard`s artillery when he, as High Commissioner for the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria, sent out ot take over the Royal Niger Company`s sphere when its royal charter was revoked, ordered the shelling of the city as an early step in the subjugation of the Hausas. Its narrow streets snaked across the place seemingly dominated by the water spouts and what looked like battlements topped by decorative upward-pointing fingers rather like the pricked ears of a German shepherd dog. The walls of the older houses were made of red clay decorated in geometric designs. More modern concrete ones imitated the old style as did more recent ones with mud walls with the decorative work carried out on the cement rendering. Men and women enveloped in robes went about their daily business, their heads covered and their faces too in the case of the women. The muezzin calling the faithful to prayer denoted the prevailing religion and the impressive mosque built by the Public Works Department emphasised its importance. The desert and camels are not far away and you could occasionally get a glimpse of a Bedouin in his distinctive blue gear shyly shopping in the markets and stores. Rocksalt in from the desert and Cadbury’s chocolate out.

The Hausa/Fulani are the most numerous of the main ethnic groups having about half of the population of Nigeria. Included in this number are the Bornu and the Nupe and some other minor tribes like the Tiv with whom they live in a tight symbiosis. They have a mutually beneficial partnership, not least the feeling of strength in unity in face of a very different and sometimes seemingly threatening culture in the south of the country. The Hausas are an urban people, their capital Kano being a city of some sophistication. Descended from great centralised monarchies, they are staunchly Muslim. They had not always been so religious. The Hausa rulers had fallen into excesses of good living and were brought back early in the 19th century into the fold of good Muslims after Osman Dan Fodio, of the pastoral Fulani people, overcame them and reintroduced a strict observance of the faith. He set up the Emirs whose descendants were now dominant in the North. The chiefs there exercised a very considerable authority and had not been noted in the past for giving encouragement to education of ordinary Hausas outside the extended family. As a result, they had come to rely on the more educated Ibos and to a lesser extent the Yorubas to perform the jobs associated with government and with technology. This resulted in townships being built on the fringes of the northern cities, the sabon gari, to accommodate the principally Ibo southerners who were more literate but were also Kafirs or unbelievers, and on whose literacy and entrepreneurial flair they had come to rely.

Pyramids would not have been out of place here. And there they were. Just outside the city of Kano were vast pyramids dominating the surrounding landscape. But no latterday Carter would enter them to get them to give up their secrets. They consisted of 15,000 tons of bagged groundnuts each. These large pyramids were the output of many thousands of farmers and had been harvested over a relatively short time. They came not only from Nigeria but also from the neighbouring French territories where they are called arachides, a word as familiar to some local traders as the English word. If the price was higher in Nigeria than on their own side of the border, some of the groundnut crop came to the Nigerian side. If the price was lower, some of the groundnuts went the other way. The boundaries between Nigeria and the French colonies of Niger, Dahomey and of Chad and Cameroun were permeable ones, largely because they were artificial in the first place, being fixed by prior claim and by negotiation rather than by any political or cultural analysis. Nigeria and Senegal, in roughly equal proportions, exported the lion’s share of the world’s exports of groundnuts in the 1950s, Senegal just having the edge.

An annual meeting took place between officials of the two territories responsible for control of prices, held alternately on the French and British sides of the line that divided them . It took place to ensure if possible that there was relative parity of price so that orderly marketing could take place and stability ensue. It was my knowledge of French that got me on to the trip to Kano while still on my initial training in Lagos working in my marketing capacity on what was called the `groundnut schedule`. The nuts were stored here to await evacuation to the ports of the south, principally Lagos, but also in some quantities to Port Harcourt. The line was a single track, nearly 800 miles in length and the rolling stock limited. The evacuation of over 800,000 tons in a year was a daunting business which meant holding vast stocks of groundnuts in these pyramids in Kano, sometimes longer than was desirable from the Produce Inspection viewpoint. Significant consignments, although small by comparison, came down the Benue and the Niger by riverboats belonging to UAC Transport or John Holt Transport to Warri where they were transshipped to ocean-going vessels direct or by way of the stores in which they were kept awaiting shipment overseas.

This meant that precautions had to be taken against deterioration in stocks which could affect the price on the terminal markets or if it was bad enough, could result in no demand for the groundnuts. Consequently, the bags containing the nuts were stored on sisalkraft made in Nigeria and precautions taken to protect them from the ruinous harmattan winds coming down from the desert. Only a damage limitation exercise could be carried out. The answer was to get them shipped as soon as possible. A second hazard was damage from weevils as a result of infestation. This was limited by sheeting the affected consignments in smaller pyramids of about 300 tons, folding in the sheets to ensure the fumigant to be applied to them didn’t escape and fumigating the lot. Urgent telegrams would be sent to the headquarters of the Marketing Board in Lagos advising that cold harmattan winds were causing untold damage to stocks, and soliciting the assistance of those in authority to get the railways to increase their efforts to evacuate them.

The very best groundnuts were the Bornu hand-decorticated ones. If marketed in countries like the UK they could have commanded a premium price that was commensurate with the effort in removing the shells. Had the Groundnut Marketing Board not existed, then a private firm or firms might have identified a market segment worth exploiting. There was no advertising telling of the healthful qualities of groundnuts and particularly of groundnut oil as a cooking medium.. Like extra virgin olive oil it passes with credit the cholesterol test. In the Sunday groundnut stew it was the basic medium the meat was cooked in.

Nuts were served to accompany drinks at most times and, delight of delights, they were used to make a soup most nights of the week. It was accompanied by sherry or gin peppers. The peppers, capsicums, or Nigerian Birdseye Chillies as they were known variously or officially, were put in the bottom of a bottle containing sherry or gin and left for a few weeks until the combination of the hot spice and the alcohol reached an optimum taste and sharpness. It was then ready to shake on to the soup. Able Baker, an engineer in the Public Works Department, told the story of when he was working in Onitsha and staying in the Catering Rest House there, he had his own bottle of sherry peppers which was placed on his table at lunch and dinner. A visitor from the United Kingdom leaned across AB’s table and snatched the bottle and applied a liberal dose to his dish - and nearly choked. When the visitor had recovered from his paroxysm AB said to him ‘Maybe that’ll teach you to say “by your leave” next time’.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003