I haven't written an entry for about a week because I've had my head down and have been crunching serious miles with my research head firmly fixed on. Since I last wrote, I've been heading steadily northwards, through Abuja, Nigeria's made-to-measure capital, and the cool plateau town of Jos (and a few more places besides), to reach Zaria, an ancient Muslim trading city in the heart of Hausaland.
Travelling north, I've watched the surrounding country slowly changing. The lush riot of vegetation that describes southern Nigeria has subsided, and the climate is less humid. Things are still relatively green, but things are definitely drying out. Dates, rather wonderfully, have appeared in the roadside markets, and the taste of sand and the Sahel is in the air. English is spoken a lot less, and churches have been replaced by mosques and minarets and the call to prayer. In short, northern Nigeria feels like a different country. But for an accident of colonial history, it probably would be - before the British arrived, Zaria was one of a series of independent city states, ruled by an emir and looking more to the Saharan trade routes than the Atlantic coast.
I got into Zaria just in time for Friday prayers, the most important religious gathering of the week. On the edge of the old walled city is the Central Mosque, and opposite it the modern Emir's Palace, it's ceremonial gateway richly decorated with abstract carved plaster designs in red, green, yellow and blue, and a flag flying to indicate that the Emir was in residence. I fell in with Hamza, an administrator at the palace who gave me a short tour (although, as it was Friday, the grand reception halls were closed and I was shown a series of offices instead, which were rather more
At the appointed hour, we left the palace to go to the parade ground outside, which was steadily filling up with men, each laying out a prayer mat. The surrounding streets were packed, bicycles and vans abandoned in the rush to take their place in time for the call to prayer. There was barely a square metre to be had in any direction, with maybe twenty thousand souls lined up wherever they could fit. I managed to find a discreet spot under a tree, and people paid me little attention. The muezzin began to call the faithful to prayer, but in between his exaltations was the most unusual thing - total silence. Nigeria has to be the noisiest country I've ever visited, so the sound of thousands of people being absolutely silent was almost unearthly. And followed by the sight of them simultaneously prostrating themselves in prayer, very moving.
In a matter of minutes, the gathering was over. A cannon was fired to announce that the emir was leaving the mosque to return to the palace, but in the throng I couldn't get a glimpse of him, just the swirling green cloaks and red turbans of the palace guide. The crowd began to break up, motors were revved and horns began to blare and people began to notice again, with pleasant amusement, the presence of a foreigner in their midst. "You are welcome!" came the standard cry, as the Nigerian frenzy took up once more from the calmest of interludes...