On April 26, 2017, I left my life in Sydney behind to embark on an expedition to the Kano Emirate of Northern Nigeria. The ancient city of Kano was once breathtaking, with mud walls surrounding a vibrant city of trade and scholarship – an oasis of palm trees, one and two storey mud buildings, mosques and donkeys pulling carts in narrow streets, the official languages being Arabic and Hausa.
Its Hausa kings and chiefs prospered in their independent state until they were absorbed by the Sokoto Caliphate led by the acclaimed Shaykh Usman Dan Fodio.
In 1805, the Kingdom of Kano became the Emirate of Kano, led by an ‘Emir’ of the Fulani tribe.
The descendants of the first emirs are all considered part of the royal family and, once an emir passes on or is deposed, “kingmakers” select another capable member of royal stock.
Emirs once took responsibility for everyone in their realm, and it is still common to see ordinary people come to the Emir’s court to appeal for assistance – from matters of abandoned babies to critical matters of territorial integrity.
Prisons, libraries, courts and Friday central mosques all typically were within the vicinity of the Emir’s palace.
While British colonialism to some extent respected the authority of such traditional rulers, after independence their powers were limited to cultural and religious leadership over the people.
The administration of the state would be done by elected politicians who also had the power to confirm or remove an emir.
In recent times, the selfishness and corruption of Nigerian political rulers has come head to head with the Emir of Kano’s vocal attempts to reform cultural oppression against women and revive Kano’s heritage of ijtihad.
I sought to join the Emir’s movement.
From the moment I touched down in Kano, I felt embraced by the warmth and hospitality of the Emirate’s people.
In a matter of days, I was able to meet not just the Emir himself but one of his Queens and a number of other members of the royal family.
They welcomed me without hesitation or suspicion. Not once did I feel constrained as a Muslim woman in what was said to be a very conservative area.
I ran alongside the procession of the Emir’s regally-dressed entourage, I joined rural villagers (male and female) in their music and dance performances, I entered canoes powered by men with long sticks to get closer to cows crossing a river while children and men bathed carefree in the sunshine, I hiked up the hills alongside children whose agility reminded me of mountain goats, and I prayed in mosques with no partitions as well as out in the open in the rawness of nature.
There is absolute poverty in Kano, but there is something about her heritage and culture that still gives life, strength and dignity to her people.
There, every stereotype of a Dar al-Islam is shattered. There is so much colour, joy, warmth and freedom in Kano’s expression of traditional Islam that I felt my own spirit come alive.
Now that the seeds of hijrah have been planted, I am counting the days to my return.