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Kano Life

Kano – outside Gidan Almajirai, the House of Scholars

I love quest movies. Why don't we have more movies about women's quests, beyond romance-quests? I love road movies, too. There aren't enough of them with women protagonists. That's one reason I'm so excited by Afia Nathaniel's Dukhtar, debuting at Toronto, released in Pakistan soon and here on Facebook.

When Fiona Lovatt and I re-met on Facebook, after thirty years of no contact, she sent me an image for my
Keeping An Eye On The Washing board. Then she arrived at my place and I asked her probably too many questions. And when I heard her stories, their quest elements and their road elements enthralled me. 

Before Fiona left for Nigeria, for a third period living in Kano, an ancient northern city with a population of over 4 million, I asked her a few more questions. I'm delighted that she transcends them and that her Facebook page contributes fragments of dialogue with others – persevere with the small print, it's worth it. Please introduce yourself to Fiona on Facebook if you'd like to friend her and join the conversation.  A 'Fiona Lovatt & Kano' Pinterest board provides more images and commentary, here.

We first met through Keri Kaa, when you were at Teachers College.

Keri had a way of teaching that meant I often found myself doing extraordinary things: a kapa haka bracket in Wellington Town Hall; six months teaching on atolls; sitting in on negotiations for kōhanga reo in the Maori Council chamber; pushing for te reo rangatira in print and classrooms; wrapping my clumsy fingers around tāniko; appreciating classical music as something other than the background to my mother's potato peeling.

She introduced you to the Women's Gallery as a poet and you helped us paint a big mural of women's poems.

The Women's Gallery was a wonderful space to be. Just to be, and to explore the potential of another narrative, one that we wrote, drew, sang or danced in. I was in awe of the magnificent women who had opened up the cultural landscape beyond pikelets and tea cosies.

Then you moved around, teaching and writing. You had five children and brought them up. And then something changed. What was the inciting incident and what were the turning points that followed? What were you seeking? What do you seek now?

I watch you step out into the storm and bring back olive leaves so we can have a cup of tea together, after these three decades. The simplicity of the questions open chests full of answers. Treasure exhumed and the tangled strings of pearls and gemstones, loose coins and goblets, are beyond the scope of this evening's talk. Even if I stay a week, I cannot come close to answering the questions. So we drink tea and I tell you about a decision made, in the liberation of a second adolescence: I will not be afraid again. I am deeply aware that a grave awaits me and this time, between now and then, is all that I have left of any worth.

How did you get to Kano?

Kano came to me. I had never heard of Kano. I had spent eleven years on a project, shipping books, as gifts from ordinary New Zealanders, to the Pacific and Nigeria. Books Without Borders was my response to needs I saw in 2001 at the 2nd African Reading Congress. Eleven years and 190 libraries later, I had healthy parents, independent children... a window was open for me to go and meet up with the Nigerians I had worked with, by e-mail for all those years. Together we had done something wonderful. I shared my CV with friends in Nigeria and they found me a role where I could have accommodation and feeding, and make a contribution in service, and maybe learn some things I didn't know. I was going for four months, it has been the better part of four years.

What's it like there? you ask, stirring a pot of mushroom soup over the singing blue flames of gas.

I have tried exploring that, in poetry and drawings that are in albums and notes on my FB page. I live inside the thick wall of a city that is 1000 years old, in a lane where 200 children and their parents are my neighbours. The people of this city have been literate for centuries, using the Arabic script to write their mother tongue. Colonial forces were late arriving and early to leave.

Why did you choose to stay there rather than somewhere else in Nigeria?

I am interested in the traditional schooling, the community schools, the mallams who can trace unbroken chains of knowledge through 14 centuries. The dominant narrative tells us that these teachers are teachers of hate and terror. I had to check that out, to take a look behind the headlines and find another narrative if it existed.

As the ever-recovering daughter and grand-daughter of an Anglican priest family, I have a huge mistrust of white people who live and work among indigenous people. And I wish that women from the States and Europe would stop making films about women in those cultures, unless those women have equal access to resources to make their own films and distribute them widely.

Yes, Joy Adamson, Dianne Fossey... women in safari suits studying animals, or Out of Africa, where the whole continent is a backdrop to a romance where Africans are porters and faithful servants. I am wary of that. I am wary of doing any travelogue, ‘eat, pray, love'... I am there to learn and I am well aware that the population of Kano city is the same as the whole of Aotearoa New Zealand, so when I have been in the company of Emirs I have this sweet sensation that these traditional rulers have a longer tradition of social organisation than any democracy, and their responsibilities are greater than our Prime Minister's. The civilisation precedes European civilisation. There is a refined culture in a swathe across the trade routes of the southern Sahara. The manners of people, the social fabric, the leatherworks, architecture, and so on are as delightful and intoxicating to me, as a visit one might have made to Florence or Toledo 80 years ago. So I am drinking from a fount of ancient knowledge and civilisation and I am aware that I am an islander, descended from Scots in diaspora.

You're there ‘to learn'. What have you learned?

I have learned about patience and resilience. I have learned about courage and grace. I have learned about headlines and some of what lies behind them. I have realised how significant it is to live surrounded by water on islands that are built and changed by natural phenomena, and how different this is from living on a continent where change is driven by acts of omission or commission. I have learned some humility. I have relearned things too: that literacy is a gift so powerful it lifts people out of poverty; the knowledge is a light. I have to let these lessons percolate a while before I can make orderly sense of them. In the meantime I respond to those lessons through art and action.

Drawing: Fiona Lovatt

What projects are you most closely involved with? Supplying a home for the twelve boys who are in Kano to study? Midwives? Other education? Publishing?

We share the soup on this stormy Wellington night and the fountain in Oriental Bay fights to be glorious in the weather. I tell you about the various needs I saw and the responses I have made to them, just as one person with access to the internet. My links to the outside world mean that my friends can hear of situations where they can make a direct impact. I have become a conduit for their small scale contributions to little projects, and the little projects inspire locals.

Our solar panels for instance show that solar is viable and reliable. Our house, operating as a cooperative of young students, is a challenge to any one who wishes to write off the tradition of almajirai. The equipment and training we are giving to birth attendants encourages the middle classes of the nation to make their own contribution towards eliminating the tragic figures of 32,000 women dying in childbirth annually.

Our library in a booth spreads the gift of literacy and knowledge among people for whom a book is a luxury. Books are treasures in Kano. They are often hand copied and memorised, read, re-read and shared. One teacher with a small library can teach a village.

Our tending and gifting of fruit trees has raised interest in city gardening.

The introduction of the idea of a thermette is a small scale response to the need for efficient cooking and sterilisation of water in an area where there are few trees but many oil rich mango and eucalyptus leaves. Local blacksmiths can turn a 10L cooking oil tin from a wealthy person's waste into a cylinder. A cone is secured within the cylinder and a poorer family now has a way to boil 6L of water in less than 10 minutes from a handful of leaves and twigs. Meals can be cooked on the top. At $15 per 'Kano Kettle' this is still a luxury item, but we try to give as many away as we can once people have grasped how it works, feeding the fuel in from the top.

So those are projects we work on as a cooperative, living together in Gidan Almajirai. That's the name the boys and I have given to our house. It means the House of the Scholars and that home we share is a kind of fuel for me.

The timetable of a young almajirai/scholar, who has commenced a year long tailoring apprenticeship. He is about to enter JS2 (Y10) and he continues with his education in Qur'an with his mallam. His responsibilities within the household include the housekeeping duties and chores, rostered by consensus with the others.
I get to launch out from there and work, for instance, with some of the elite boarding schools in the city as they seek self improvement above and beyond compliance matters. It has been a great joy to carry the title 'Mother of the School' and to listen to the 300 female students, their teachers and staff talk about the school as it is and as it can be. The daughters of the wealthy are well aware of the responsibilities that come with wealth: they aspire to be doctors, engineers, accountants, lawyers who will specialise in working with women. Helping an entire school is a privilege and helping all stakeholders negotiate the transformational been truly fulfilling.

Mothers Alive has been the most challenging project. I had seen a BBC documentary, The Edge of Joy. In the midst of horrendous statistics surrounding birth in Nigeria was a solution to maternal deaths from post-partum haemorrhage: Life Wraps or NASGs. The cost for this equipment divided by the number of times it can be used means that for about $10 a woman's life can be saved. So it's taken some work to partner with Nigerian doctors and medical trainers, and Maternova, the US supplier, but we’re all doing our part to get this gear into the hands of rural birth attendants. The wheels move slowly for me, and sometimes I feel I should find a way to become a very rich woman so I can do it all with endless supplies of cash, but the reality is that we can each play our part, and people do. I have friends all over the world who can spare $10 and know they saved a life.

What do you offer the people you live among? Whose interests do you serve? How different are you from a missionary, if at all? What are the benefits for you? Does it make a difference that you're Muslim? I've heard you talk about your ‘grandmotherliness' - does that make any difference?

You shower me with questions. I don't see myself as any kind of missionary... Perhaps an environmental one, but I am not pushing any ideology. I think I may be the only person in Nigeria who has personally paid to be there, to be there by choice, and to be making no material gain from the experience.

And the fact that I came out as Muslim after 30 years of reading is probably a unique feature, for I am not working among ‘others' in the same sense that I would be if I was only there only as a feminist, or a teacher, or an environmentalist, or if I had huge funds at my disposal. For many of the people, I am the first 'European' Muslim they have met. It gives us a huge area of common ground to build on. And it helps that I have not been a direct beneficiary of the looting and injustices in Africa in the way a European or American might be. So we already regard each other as brothers and sisters in humanity, working with what have.

Every good I ever did is explicitly promoted in Islam as a good. Every harm that humans can do in the world is identified by Islam and guidelines are there to keep us away from causing harm. I was attempting to live that way all my life, bungling along and learning from my observations and experiences: a bit like trying to teach yourself how to service and drive a car and learn the road code by osmosis. You can make much more progress if you have the manufacturer's instructions and a copy of the relevant material, and access to people of knowledge.

There is something wonderful about being a Kiwi. I appreciate all the camping holidays I ever had, and a childhood where we made forts and trolleys and jumped off cliffs into deep pools. A Kiwi, living with mountains and valleys, knows that the perspective can change according to the elevation. It's a different kind of perception to people born on vast flat spaces that open widely, panoramically, but prevent you from looking back to where you came from. And New Zealanders aren't any kind of global threat or global power. Tiny and distant, we are immune to some of the preconceptions that Africans might have about 'white' people. I can live without air conditioning and running water. There's that make-do attitude from all the summer holidays I ever had.

Kano is also a brilliant place to be a poet. The love of literature means a poetry reading can draw a crowd of 300 people who thoroughly interrogate a work. I have loved mentoring young poets there, bringing Africa into the poetry and prose, eliminating the daffodils and nightingales, the same way poets and writers in the South Pacific had to find a voice in the landscape of Aotearoa New Zealand. Kano and Khandallah are both on the periphery...

The periphery of what?

The periphery of international travel. The periphery of power. The periphery of information and pop culture hubs. Nigeria is closer to New Zealand than to the United Kingdom, but the cost of getting there adds another 50% to the price. New Zealand and Nigeria can both make cheap calls to the United Kingdom, Europe and North America, but to talk to each other directly costs and arm and a leg. Nigeria learns about New Zealand through intermediaries like BBC, CNN, Reuters, and New Zealand receives the filtered information about Nigeria from the same sources, yet our shot-putting women can stand beside each other on a Commonwealth Games podium and this is a rare occasion when both sides can see we have much common ground.

I heard someone ask you about the boys who live with you, whether they are ‘radicalised'.

You are kind enough, dear friend, to see I have no socks and you bring me knitted slippers, while I continue with attempted answers. As recipients of second hand news we are meant to believe that anyone studying the Quran is being trained in misogyny and murder. My Kano sons have been schooled in all the principles of shariah that Europe adopted from the universities of Andalusia: the rights to life, dignity, family, conscience, knowledge and property are sacred rights and the rights of animals and plants are there as well.

The understanding that this world is transitory and a test of character means that there is a desire to be doing good, whether that is a smile and a kind word, or something requiring more effort... Yes, good works are part and parcel of their conduct. They have loving relationships with their families, their teacher and with each other.

You and I look at some of the images in my FB albums, and there is the one with the potatoes. That was a small business we ran with during the season. The boys showed me that the only ‘profit’ we need to get back is to have more money than we spent. They didn't factor in any sum for ‘labour' or ‘time'. Those aspects would be like profiteering to them. They knew we had a good deal on a good product and that we had purchased directly from the farmer. They knew that our neighbours would benefit from having these lovely spuds as a treat during the month of Ramadhan when a nightly meal becomes an act of worship. We were able to supply a good product at a low price to people who could not otherwise have afforded the product. And, apart from our time we had no overheads: we just put that table in the street and did local deliveries from home, so it was a business that enabled us to do much good. The farmer and the neighbourhood benefitted and we got to eat potatoes too as we did a daily cull.

The boys came to study the Quran and to live by Islam where women, the poor, the humble, the dispossessed are people are highly regarded for they give us all opportunities to share our own wealth with people who have patience and trials greater than most of us can bear.

The boys with me have now studied ICT and they are able to earn money in that field to support themselves, their families and our house. New Zealanders are sponsoring their secondary school education and Kano state, under the present governor, offers them free tertiary education that they hope to take up to fulfil their dreams of being doctors, economists, agricultural advisors. They are excited by how much good they may do in the world as they strive to meet their own potential.

Research shows that there's female genital mutilation in Kano. Is this an issue you engage with, via your work with midwives?

FGM is a tribal practice, meaning that it occurs among people who are living in pockets where nothing but ‘tribe' matters. It stems from ignorance of Islam and ignorance of biology. I have not met a woman in Kano who condones it, nor any person who promotes or defends it. It does not seem to be a common practice. Even when I worked with the Islamic Medical Association of Nigeria on matters such as childbirth and blood banks, there were very few reports on FGM. The greater difficulty for women has been post partum haemorrhage when there are no blood banks, and the frequency of fistulas due to long labours.

How do you survive financially/physically? You said the other day that you try not to need anything. What does that mean to you?

My possessions fit in a suitcase. I own a single pair of shoes at a time. The budget I have for my own food is spread across our household and that way we all eat for about $70 per week. We end up with a fairly solid diet of carbohydrates, but hunger does not kill a person and so we continue, and when there is some fruit or protein, or yoghurt, we appreciate it all the more. I drink water there and nothing else so I am not even using fuel for heating my water for hot drinks. I can do this because I have the lifeline of social media, and some paper and ink, and books.

I had stuff stored in New Zealand, thinking I would be back in four months, but that was stolen. I was left with a single photo and an envelope with an important document in it. I accept that loss as a kind of compulsory purge. We can measure ourselves by what we own, but for me now, the quest is to measure myself by what I can do, and how I am in response to all the various situations I am in. I am living an untethered life.

There are opportunities for me to do consultancy work and public speaking that enable me to generate some personal income. I'm grateful for some proof-reading work given to me by a translator in Austria. I worked for 15 weeks or so in New Zealand this year and that money goes a long way in Nigeria. I am grateful for the people who have let me surf-couch through their lives, and live here with very little expenses, so that the actual money can cover the Nigerian chapters of my life.

From here, Nigeria seems unsafe. The Nigerian girls who went missing went missing not far from where you live (or so it seems to me, looking at a map). Are you physically safe? Do you stay in one place, where you're settled and secure? Are you scared at all and if so what scares you?

I have Gidan Almajirai as my home. And the neighbourhood is full of people who know each other and know when they see a stranger or some strange behaviour.

I met with the local police when I first arrived and I realised that ‘crime', as New Zealand knows it, is almost absent from the city's crime statistics. The cases of infanticide, homicide, domestic violence, drunk driving, are missing. So while there is the danger of the terrorist strikes, the fabric of the society is softer, kinder, and I keep checking that perspective too because people outside Nigeria can assume the police are lying or the cases aren't reported. The theft of a cellphone is headline news in Kano. It is such a rare occurrence and such an affront to the society where everyone has their part to play.

In my first visit I barely travelled outside the city. Those were dangerous times, just moving through all the city checkpoints. On my second visit I was able to sustain myself with consultancy work and seminars so I travelled across several states, overcoming that fear too... because if I am to believe the maps of misery, there be dragons here at every turn. What I found was a landscape that Hollywood would want if they knew of it. O such beauty in the landscape, and always travelling companions in good spirits. Life goes on.

There is a level of safety in a society where there is no alcohol and little in the way of drugs. There is safety in the social contracts... Not even bumping and jostling, impatience or loud raucous laughter, or the strutting and parading of people and their possessions. I have links to people of power and wealth, and they keep a weather eye on me. I have 190 librarians who would give me sanctuary and I have a return ticket if I need to use it. I am not living, like so many women in Aotearoa New Zealand do, sleeping with the enemy.

I have instructed a friend who is a journalist in Wellington to back me up: that if anything happens to me there, just for the government, for my family, for everyone, to just leave it, turn instead to the needs of women and children who are in vile situations behind the closed doors of suburban homes. The facade of ‘safety' in these islands is more threatening to me than what I face in Nigeria where I live in a place where every child is wanted, every child is valued and treasured, and where women are rarely sleeping with the enemy.

When you were drawing the other day, you explained why you don't draw faces. Can you write a little bit about that and your views about images of people in photographs and on film?

Leaving my ‘characters' faceless is a way of drawing perfume perhaps. Do I need my hand to imitate that which is already beautiful? I can't come close. I leave them blank out of love and out of respect for the subject and for the viewer who should bring their own memory of a grandmother, or a childhood, into the scene, thereby making these people universal. The drawings are a documentary too: the textiles, textures, the details observed, an exploration of humans and animals placed in a cultural context. I'm also not very good at drawing either faces or hands so you will notice a whole range of devices I have for concealing my weakness.

Drawing: Fiona Lovatt

What do New Zealanders find difficult to understand about your life in Nigeria?

Some people see it as a threat. Others as a danger or an imposition. Some see it as worthy and courageous. Many see it as an opportunity to assist because the money they pass to me goes 100% into the projects they wish to support. People presume I am making some kind of sacrifice.

ARE you making a sacrifice?

It doesn't feel like a sacrifice. I am plugging the gap in a mother's heart: my children are not in need of me at present.

Portrait of Fiona by her daughter Evangeline Davis
I have no grandchildren yet. This capacity for loving, for teaching, nurturing, sowing seeds of ideas that may bring a benefit, finds its creative outlet in Nigeria. It's a freely flowing kind of life at present. I find no difficulty in it. Even when there are hardships, they are hardships that affect the community, not a personal hardship.

You kindly fill a hot water bottle for me and give me the wifi password. These are great pleasures and I can continue my mentoring long into the night.

I am aware that opals have the same mineral components as limestone, they have just been placed under greater pressure and there is slightly more water. Sometimes that water leaks out of me. I experience a bounty of tears, just love leaking out. I want my children to be brave and giving in this world. I want them to know that the world is our birthright, the whole planet, and that every person has their story, their contribution and their quest and it begins with these questions. I am having a period as a sojourner and sojourning has an honourable place in almost every culture and religion. I am studying in the university of life and I have whittled down my ecological footprint so that it could blow away in the wind.

And o the wind is rattling your windows on this blustery night where we have woven stitches across the years.

What kind of support would you welcome?

The absence of scepticism is a wonderful form of support. The support my family receives from neighbours, mentors, teachers, friends enables me to have confidence that they are safe and well in this nation with all its beauty and infrastructure. I love the lifelines through social media. I'd like to know how I can publish, write or proofread so that I can have an income stream for my personal expenses no matter where I live. I would love to fill an airforce Orion with educational and medical supplies and fly over Chibok with heat sensors and find those girls, but those are not the resources at my disposal. I love this support you give with the tea and the soup and the hot water bottle and the bed this night. I appreciate being the conduit for any sum that can dress a child or provide them with soap, or put in a bore hole, or install solar panels. I appreciate the support I get from Nigerians of the comfortable classes who extend many kindnesses and make for a steady stream of friendly visitors. I appreciate the reciprocity of respect we give each other in open communications that throw away the idea of polarities and accept the magnificent variety of human existence.

I had a script teacher who talked about women's quests as being always about finding home. Is this something that resonates for you? 

We say home is where the heart is. My heart, as an organ, is here in my rib cage and it carries memories of campfires and rope swings, rivers, mountains, children's words, parents' care. My quest may be to honour all that I have been given, in health, wealth and education and to let that emanate, not to let it end with me. I don't want to be the end of that journeying. The world is smaller now with Skype. I can spend a night with a daughter on Skype as she completes an assignment. I can chat with my sons, join my parents in their living room, tour my brother's house as the renovations take shape. Those small windows on my tablet mean we are not so far apart. This thing inside of me, this pulsing heart, compels me to continue to live life consciously, conscientiously. Let my hair grow white in a crown and let me do this bit while I can. There may be another chapter where I return for good.

A city of 4 million souls, with Fiona halfway up the path, walking away.
Drawing: Fiona Lovatt
Fiona on Facebook
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Fiona's projects on Facebook
These pages give continuous updates on Fiona's projects and if you'd like to support them, please join the groups and make inquiries there.

Mothers Alive
Gidan Almajirai

Jack Vince on the child survivors of the Baga Massacre, which has inspired Fiona to raise money for an orphanage for girls. 


  1. Thanks so much for posting this. It's beautiful. I was at Teacher's College with Fiona, and she was already an impressive young woman then.

    1. Thanks, Mandy. It's always a treat when you like a post! That must have been an amazing Teachers College class, with you & Fiona both in it. And I'm 90% certain that Fiona and I met up again through your FB page, so many thanks for that, too. :)

  2. I loved this account, Marian, of your and Fiona's talk together and Fiona's descriptions of her life and philosophy; I was as absorbed as if I were there with you in Marian's kitchen; as absorbed as I had been listening to Fiona on her visit to Allie's and in the car returning from Allie's. And your funny quirky charming drawings Fiona...thank you, thank you both for this gift of insight.

  3. Thank you Heather. I hope you like the drawing of you that Fiona did, here: I thought it was very special that we all met again, or at last!, after so long. And that Fiona helped paint those lines of yours, "vivid women who lived as the Celts did, with audacia, and loved their sisters", all those years ago. Welcome to my kitchen, any time!


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