I’ve hiked mountains in California, Hawaii, and the Colorado Rockies, so it wasn’t that Mandera Mountains, leading to the 500-year-old Sukor Kingdom was extremely difficult. It was just incredibly hot, because this part of Africa is sweltering this time of year. And there were rocks everywhere. Yes, there was a path to the top, but it was not like anyone bothered to ever smooth out that path for hikers. Several times I thought I was going to roll or twist one of my ankles. Several times it felt like I was going to fall flat on my face while going up.
Our group was made up of about 10 people, but as we climbed and climbed there was a quick and quiet separation into three or four different parts. I was in the first part. I love hiking, love exercising, love nature, and the view going up was, well, an African heaven, an African paradise. Imagine green landscapes all about you, this hissing of snakes as you passed certain bushes and trees and, surprise, a herd of cows or goats just grazing at certain points along the trail.
My heart pounded as we neared the top of the mountain, so I literally ran up the rest of the way to the village. As others in the group got there, children came about us, staring, pointing, smiling, wondering who were these strangers in their community. Our group included Nigerians who could translate for us, and the prince I met earlier at the bottom of the mountain also accompanied us and served as translator to the children. Turns out his name is Prince Solomon.
Women of the village also stepped up to have a look at us, to wave. I’ve noticed that wherever I’ve gone in Nigeria the people always wave, also nod their heads in acknowledgement. So I found myself doing the same to them, and I would like it to be something I do back home in America. I already speak to many people wherever I go in the States, whether I know them or not. But I feel it says something about one’s humanity if you always recognize the existence of another human being with a greeting, even if it is just in passing.
As we were taking pictures with the children, two men crossed briskly before us and went to the other side of the village and sat down, one in front of a gigantic and very old baobab tree. We were told this particular man was the king of the village. He sat atop a plastic white chair and similar seating was set up for us in front of him. We were summoned to greet the king and to be granted his permission to tour the village.
When we were asked what we’d like to say to King Hidi, I went first and thanked him for the incredible opportunity, told him how amazing it was to have read about African kings in books and to meet one in person, that with his blessing we’d like to tour the village and meet the people. I added that I was from New York City, from America, and that this was my very first trip to Africa. King Hidi, who appeared to be in my generation, had come to power after his father died in the past year or so. We talked, the entire group, back and forth, via a translator for about 30 minutes, including the King saying he was very happy that Barack Obama had been re elected president.
And then one of the king’s men asked us for money. Turns out there is admission fee to Sukur Kingdom and because there was no one at that house where I stumbled upon the prince, we just came up not knowing. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, actually helps manage the kingdom and apparently takes a cut of any monies given to the Sukur Kingdom. Not cool, I thought to myself, and so much for King Hidi’s power. But he clearly had some, just in a very old school way: When I asked one of his aides how the king got up and down the mountain he smiled and said the king had three wives and they carry him.
Um, okay. To my pro-feminist American male ears that was blasphemy. I could not imagine anyone of any gender, but especially not women, carrying me anywhere. But I was not in America, I was in an ancient kingdom in Nigeria.
Sukur Kingdom, we were told, has a population of 3225 people, and for whatever reason it seemed like most of them were children. We saw everything from the area where the king addresses the community, to the hut for initiation rituals (yes, we are talking sacrifices of animals, etc.), to the enclave for the chief of the village. I purposely asked to be taken to where the people of the village live, and it was there that the poverty and squalor once again jarred me. The deeper in we went, the more we saw children that looked like those images flashed across American television screens the past couple of decades: wet or dried mucus on their noses and about their mouths; matted hair filled with red-clay dirt and flies casually landing on their faces and bodies; traditional African huts where a bed is a slab of rock with a very thin piece of cloth or a wooden plank atop it; debris, litter, garbage, everywhere; stray dogs, goats, and even a bull tied down below one of the huts.
My mind struggled to reconcile the image of the king sitting peacefully beneath that tree with that of his village people. And it simply could not. I wondered where the money goes that visitors pay to tour the Sukur Kingdom if not to help these people. I wondered if we had just been hustled by the king and his men just as they are being hustled by UNESCO, as they so plainly stated. I wondered why the king was not providing the basics for these children, many of whom, given his three wives, possibly could have been his. And I wondered why we, my people, any people on Earth, hold on to traditions and cultures that are, in these modern times, so destructive to our very being.
Then I saw her, just as we were leaving. Lying on the ground outside one of the huts. Beautiful Black girl with jet-black skin, almond-brown eyes, curled and writhing in pain on a mat. Flies dotted her body from her to toe and she was shaking. I asked what was wrong with her and was told a mild case of malaria, that she had a severe headache as a result, and could not move. I wanted to touch this girl, hold her hand, hug her, but then I thought of all the warnings given to me from home in America to the moment I touched ground in Nigeria to be careful, to not touch this, to not drink or eat that. So I touched this girl with my eyes. I waved at her with my right hand but never let go of her eyes. And I prayed very deeply for her, prayed she would not die such an early death from this disease, prayed that she would heal very soon. And I felt she heard me, through her eyes, because she smiled at me, even as she was trembling. I placed my right hand over my heart and bowed my head to her, then waved good-bye.
Kevin Powell is an award-winning writer, public speaker, and political activist. Through the years Kevin has written for Ebony, Esquire, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Essence, Rolling Stone, The Huffington Post, and Vibe, where he served as a senior writer. He is also the author of 11 books, including his latest, “Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and the Ghost of Dr. King: Blogs and Essays.” Follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org