Kano is a book lover's paradise

Zamani Books on Church Rad in Kano, Nigeria. (David L Smith)

Zamani Books on Church Rad in Kano, Nigeria. (David L Smith)

I didn’t want to go to Nigeria. I have nothing against the place, I just had too much to do in too many other places that I felt I knew more about. The only time I had spent in Nigeria was changing planes in Lagos many years ago where I watched a tractor drive over my suitcase, twice, while waiting for a connecting flight to ­Johannesburg.

These days I spend part of most months in Nigeria and my learning curve has been steep. Fortunately, Nigeria is a fabulous book country.
Nigerians like to talk, and they like to put a lot of their thoughts down on paper. Choosing a morning newspaper is a challenge – the choice is vast, as are the pickings on the ­opinion pages.

Kano, a city of 10-million people in the north of the country, has been my primary destination over the past year. My initial book safari guide was Maude Rabiu, a local journalist and academic. I don’t always have the benefit of a local book lover to show me around, so Rabiu was a serious bonus. His first suggestion was to visit Bend Down Books, not a book shop per se, but a series of many booksellers at the Bata Roundabout in central Kano who pile up books from street level as high as they can be stacked without falling over; you have to bend over to look at them.

There are more school textbooks here than in a Limpopo warehouse. There are also thousands of pupils and their parents bending down and choosing what they need for school.

The Bata Roundabout was only the beginning. There’s a street that consists almost exclusively of bookshops – Church Road, sort of the Charing Cross Road of Kano. As is the case with Bata Roundabout, the vast majority of the dozens of bookshops on Church Road specialise in school texts. But there’s a pearl among them that has become one of my favourites: Zamani Books.

Run by the Ogbodobri brothers, Bernard and Raphael, the shop was started by their father Abraham in 1950 after a palm reader told him to start a business. Zamani Books is, not surprisingly given the name of the street it is on, in the Christian Quarter – Sabon Gari (Strangers’ Quarters, or New Town in Hausa).

All my trips to Kano, without exception, include a visit to Zamani Books. I was hooked from the first visit, when I found the book I had been looking for as an intro to Nigerian politics, This House Has Fallen by Karl Meier.

It was written over 10 years ago but holds up well. I would recommend it to anybody needing a crash course on why Nigeria finds itself in the state it is in, more or less, today.

Meier is not Nigerian and his outsider’s view looking in is helpful for any outsider trying to make sense of the place. I have worked in more than half the countries on this ­continent and I say without ­hesitation that Nigeria stands out: it bears little resemblance to its neighbours and even less resemblance to the rest of Africa. In some ways it is Africa’s ­version of the United States, but in waiting.

There’s no shortage of writing by Nigerians. About two-thirds of the Nigeria portion of my library comes from the shelves at Zamani, and that includes writing from the world-famous – Chinua Achebe, Chima­manda Ngozi Adichie, Wole Soyinka and Olusegun Obasanjo – as well as those famous at home (where home is a country of somewhere in the region of 180-million people), such as Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai, Peter Enahoro, Biyi Bandele and Aliwalu Hamza. Even my kids’ colouring books come from Zamani!

Another great source of books in Kano is at robots. Kano has the longest traffic lights I have ever encountered. Some lights can keep you waiting about three minutes. Being Nigeria, time is not wasted – every­thing is for sale at intersections, from electric fans and kitchenware to framed portraits of the president and the Emir; and, of course, there are books. Young men with strong arms balance 20 books spread like a fan so that titles can easily be read from behind car windscreens. I’m known at certain intersections for my weakness for books, and, over the months, I have had time to negotiate mutually acceptable prices for dozens of them. My most recent purchase was the memoirs of Muammar Gaddafi.

The Kano portion of the project I’m working on is coming to an end. Maiduguri, in the northeast, will be the new destination. I have no idea what’s in store for me in the capital of the former Kanem-Bornu kingdom, but Kano’s books will be a tough act to follow.

David L Smith, the director of Okapi Consulting, spends as much time as possible hunting down books by local authors while on assignment on some of the less travelled routes of Africa.