Updated: Mar 30, 2021
My quest to learn more and find out about the indigenous handicrafts sector led me to Kano back in February 2014 (read blog). Sometimes it is good to choose to be naïve. Better still don’t tell anyone of your plans until after they’ve been executed. I am sure that if I had told anyone about my Kano trip before embarking on it, they would have instilled so much fear in me about how unsafe the place was that I may have cancelled the trip. People (including my family!) got to hear about the trip afterwards.
While on my adventure in Kano, I met a cane (rattan) furniture maker on the street and asked him where I could get “Kwando” (locally made baskets). He said I should go to Kasua Kurmi! I flagged down a keke Napep (auto rickshaw) and off I went to the heart of Kano! The Napep driver barely spoke English and I barely spoke Hausa but he knew I wanted to buy Kwando at Kasua Kurmi. He dropped me on a narrow street in the busy marketplace, beckoned to some guys standing by and spoke to them in Hausa. The guys said I should follow them. I gave the driver a look that said “if these guys take me anywhere but where they sell baskets you are DEAD”! I followed them and they led me to the shop of a man who sold handicrafts and also spoke good English! His name was Alhaji Adamu. He offered me a seat and we got chatting as I admired the beautiful handcrafted items in his shop. He showed me the items which were locally made (mostly from doum palm) and the items which were sourced from neighbouring African countries. I then brought out my dried water weeds (yes – I carried a bundle with me!) and asked if he could make some of the baskets in his shop using my weeds. He looked at the weeds and said they would try. I gave him the bundle of weeds and purchased a few items from his shop in appreciation of his time. He then turned around and gave me a beautiful fire carved calabash as a gift. I asked him how much he wanted as a deposit for the basket he was going to weave. He was shocked! He said there was no such thing! He then told me that if I liked the woven item, I could place orders but he could not accept a deposit for something he wasn’t even sure I would like. I was stunned. But it taught me a beautiful lesson about cultural differences. In Ibadan where I live, the business rule is “no deposit, no work” and “too bad if you don’t like the work that has been done”. Especially with unknown customers. I wished Kano was next door so I could transact business with him easily!
I left Kano and we kept in touch via phone. When the basket was ready, he called to let me know and also told me it was quite challenging working with the weeds. I could fully understand. The weavers were used to much longer and tougher fiber strands for the coil weave. My weeds were shorter in length and more brittle. I arranged for pick with my friend, Malam Ibrahim, in Sabo (Ibadan) who is originally from Kano. I asked him if he had anyone coming from Kano to Ibadan soon and that I needed a package picked up from Kasua Kurmi. He collected Alhaji Adamu’s number, they spoke and 2 days later I got a woven water hyacinth basket and another beautiful basket woven from the local grass in Kano – an Adundun basket. I called to thank him for sending the baskets, I liked them both and wanted to know how much I should send to him. He told me if I liked them, he was OK and that I did not owe him anything. I was FLOORED. I told him I would let him know once I was ready. My biggest issue was sorting out logistics – the logistics of getting his weaving community in Kano the dried water weeds and getting the finished product back to Ibadan. I needed a raw material source close to the producing source. Or at a minimum get the weavers close to the source. I had been mulling over what to do that made economic sense. It has taken months and as at today I’m still not sure of what the optimum solution is.
Woven Water Hyacinth basket using traditional basket weaving techniques common in Kano.
Traditional Woven Food Warmer. Made from Doum Palm by Artisans in Minjibir.
Still unsure, I decided to head to Kano anyway. I figured if I could meet with Alhaji Adamu we could discuss and perhaps hash out a workable solution. And so on the 29th of July 2015, I flew to Kano. Dropped my things off at a dingy hotel and boarded a keke Napep to Kasua Kurmi. I tried calling Alhaji Adamu before heading out but couldn’t reach him on either of his lines. I took good notes the last time I was with him including the bus stop where I was supposed to disembark and call him. I disembarked there, called but still no answer. I thought perhaps he had gone to the Mosque. I then started trying to figure out how to locate his shop. The alleys all seemed the same and very confusing! I must have looked thoroughly confused and a sorry sight to behold. One of the traders came to my rescue. I told him I was looking for Alhaji Adamu. He asked me to call him if I had his number, I told him I had tried but couldn’t get through. I then showed him my book with Alhaji’s phone numbers and his shop number. He looked at me and asked when last I spoke with him. I said it had been a while and that was why I was here to see him. He looked at me and said “Ah…….he is dead……he died in January”. I looked at him in total disbelief. He then described Alhaji Adamu’s features and I nodded. He said to me “Come, I’ll take you to his shop”. He led me to the same shop I where I sat with Alhaji Adamu in February 2014. It had some of his stock and lots of cobwebs. He said they were keeping his shop open but were not replenishing. They just wanted to sell what was left because of his family left behind. He offered me a seat and I sat in the shop stunned and speechless. What happened I asked? He said “Malaria”, “Typhoid” and that was it. Just like that. I spoke at length with Alhaji’s friend and it seemed as though he was quite familiar with me and my weeds! I am sure I was quite an unusual sight back in 2014! I called my friend in Sabo (Ibadan) and gave the phone to Alhaji’s friend so they could speak. I am sitting here pained by the turn of events. Pained that I am unable to place orders with Alhaji Adamu to weave more baskets from water hyacinth because he is no more. Even so, I am more than before committed to making something symbolic develop out of the kindness he extended to a complete stranger searching for information and guidance back in February 2014.
I MUST pay it forward for Alhaji Adamu did do me well. Eager to satisfy this inquisitive mind, he was blind to my ethnicity, blind to my gender and blind to my ability or inability to pay. He showed me in practical terms that customer satisfaction is key. Money will come if the customer is satisfied with the product. He demonstrated with the weaving of the basket with strange and unusual weeds (water hyacinth) that no challenge is insurmountable. It just takes a commitment to succeed. What an amazing businessman. May his kind soul Rest in Peace.