Regular readers probably noticed a drop-off in posting around September; daily posting did not resume until last week. During the interval I was in Kano, Northern Nigeria, doing my dissertation fieldwork. My dissertation is not about Boko Haram – rather it is about Muslims from Northern Nigeria who have studied in Arab universities and returned home, and indeed none of Boko Haram’s leaders seem to fall into this category, being instead locally educated – but Boko Haram certainly cast a shadow over my time there.
Looked at in a grim way, my time in Kano was bracketed by two terrorist attacks launched by Boko Haram: the August 26 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, which occurred a few days before I left the US for Nigeria, and the series of coordinated bombings that occurred in Kano on January 20, a few days before I left. The first of these attacks gave me a lasting sense of wariness about my safety in Kano, and I followed the advice of an older researcher not to blog about Nigeria, and especially not about Boko Haram, while I was overseas. The blackout on Nigeria coverage on the blog aimed both to avoid attracting any unwanted attention and to avoid confusing any interviewees or others in Kano about the nature of my project and my intentions; I have never blogged about my research in detail, and certainly have never written about the content of interviews, private conversations, or other encounters I’ve had with people in Kano. I am not a journalist, or a spy, even though I was occasionally suspected of being the latter. I plan now to go back to blogging frequently about events in Nigeria, but I want people in Kano to understand that I will not be quoting them, or identifying them, except in the dissertation itself.
The second attack, the bombing in Kano, has unfortunately forced an end to my fieldwork (I had originally planned to stay until June) and brought me home (my family essentially commanded me to return, and the kidnapping of a German engineer in Kano last Thursday has dispelled whatever doubts I had about my decision). I hope to go back to Nigeria and to Kano at some point, but for the medium-term I will be in the US.
Looked at in a more positive light, everything between those two attacks was incredible. I met tremendous personal as well as intellectual hospitality in Kano; not only did people welcome me as a friend and a guest, they also proved astonishingly open – even in cases where they weren’t quite sure what to make of me and my research topic – to sit for interviews, to help me find rare books and tapes, and to put me in contact with others who could help me. All of that has meant that I’ve collected enough material to write the dissertation, though of course I have a long road ahead of me and a number of holes to fill by one means or another.
I also found my time in Kano personally moving and enriching. I miss my friends there terribly, and I miss the city itself. No one should forget that, even though Northern Nigeria often makes headlines now because of violence, the land is home to millions of people who live, work, and worship peacefully. I never felt that anyone was targeting or threatening me; on the contrary, although many people disagreed with Washington’s foreign policies, the same people were often eager to learn about the United States, about its culture and its people, and about me as an American. One of my most keenly felt sorrows now is that these micro-level cultural exchanges have to be put on hold. There are not many Americans in Kano, nor many Kanawa in America, and it’s important for us to get to know one another better.
I don’t have much to say in this post about Boko Haram, or about the attacks of January 20th. I heard some of the bombs but was nowhere near the epicenters of violence, and during the days that followed I was mostly at home, especially when the city was under curfew. The attack shocked the people of Kano, a city that had previously lain outside the range of Boko Haram’s attacks. Afterwards everyone I talked to was terribly upset, not only over the loss of life but also because their sense of security had been taken from them. Everyone prays that Boko Haram will not attack again, but the movement announced its presence in Kano in a big way, and minor attacks have occurred since. Boko Haram’s demands, their sources of funding and power, and their plans seem murkier than ever, but their presence has become a reality for a vast swath of Northern Nigeria, and a threat to the rest.
On the day before I left, a Nigerian friend urged me to make an effort to point out the good aspects of Nigeria whenever possible. I hope I’ve done some of that in this post, and I intend to keep trying in the future. No matter how bad the news is coming out of that country, or how many articles we see titled “Nigeria on the Brink” or some such thing, it’s worth keeping in mind the tremendous vibrancy of Nigeria, which is one the most exciting places I’ve ever been.