In a narrow dirt lane where children scamper and play, Garba Buzu’s rubber sandals slap the ground as he walks.
His black prayer beads dangle and swing in his right hand. His shoulders are bent, and his body rolls like a ship with every pace along the alleys of this northern Nigerian city.
He wears an enigmatic smile.
The children freeze shyly when he walks by. Mothers throw themselves to the ground and bow low. Old men clap their hands together, faces creased with joy.
He nods, acknowledging them all.
These are Buzu’s streets, in sprawling neighborhoods of narrow alleys, tiny dwellings and open gutters. Goats amble about, water sellers push their heavy carts, and the smell of charcoal fire drifts in the evening air.
People shout “bundi” as he passes, a sign of reverence meaning “blessings.”
He built the houses in these neighborhoods — several thousand of them and dozens of shops, according to aides — and offered them rent-free to poor families. A partial tour of his holdings by car takes an entire morning.
He receives dozens of visitors every day and has vowed never to send anyone away without help.
Not that he doesn’t have his own responsibilities: He has four wives, 25 children and more than 1,000 relations and hangers-on who live in his compound.
“It’s by providence,” he says. “I cannot say I will allow a person to go away empty-handed, without some little satisfaction of the needs they came for. I never lack in giving something that they need. Widows, orphans, all kind of people come to me.”
Buzu is pious, humble and strict.
Born in neighboring Niger, he moved to Maiduguri, a center of religious learning, as a young man 37 years ago to teach Arabic and the Koran. He shared a shabby room as a tenant.
But as his following grew, people made donations in return for his prayers. He built a house for himself, and later added rooms and built more houses for his students and many relations. From there, it grew.
“I divided the property I used to buy into two parts, and I still do. One half, I build houses and give to under-privileged people. The other half, I buy and sell for profit.
“It started gradually, and it’s still expanding.”
His house is a down-at-the-heels maze of compounds, with worn dusty rugs, peeling ceilings and a frightening tangle of electrical wires instead of a fuse box.
The place has an ancient feel to it. In one courtyard, his wives and children sit quietly. In another, men unload bags of wheat and rice, ready to be handed out. Every Friday, a camel is led in to be slaughtered and the meat distributed.
He runs an informal Islamic school, where men and boys pray and write out the Koran in elegant ink calligraphy on yellow parchment.
For much of the day, he receives visitors on a small elevated platform on his airy rooftop, surrounded by broken down couches, some with no legs, others with the insides spilling out. Several of them are occupied by sleepy young men, prayer beads dangling.
Two shifts come morning and evening to recite the Koran, in musical chants.
An elderly man with a walking stick, white flowing garments and a beard staggers up the two flights. He has come nearly 200 miles, a six-hour drive, from Gombe in Adamawa state, traversing dangerous areas to see the charitable man.
Buzu prays with him and offers a donation.
“You should spend this judiciously. Buy things you want, especially kola nuts,” he says, referring to a large bitter nut that contains caffeine and is seen as sacred in northern Nigeria.
Parked in Buzu’s compound are 13 battered, dusty cars, a tractor and a motorized rickshaw that look as if they haven’t been driven in years. When a well-heeled visitor tells Buzu he’d like one of the cars, Buzu smiles and responds, “That won’t be a problem.”
All the time, his prayer beads swing.
Charity is mandated in Islam as an act of purification. And in northern Nigeria, well-off men often support large extended families who have little means of their own. But few men give away as much as Buzu does.
“Whenever I give things out, I always receive more blessings,” he says. “This has kept me going. When I do such things, I feel very happy.”
Ibrahim Ahmadu, 42, never asked for help. But 22 years ago, Buzu gave him a newly built shop rent-free in a city where rents rise so fast that shops often fail.
“It was a huge surprise,” says Ahmadu, a father of three, perched on a chair in his barber’s shop, surrounded by clippings of hair. “He made me become self-reliant by working hard to be my own man.”
Despite his popularity, Buzu does have enemies. Four years ago, the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram started threatening the neighborhood.
The militants warned Ahmadu to close his barber’s shop.
One morning, two gunmen sped up on a motorcycle as Buzu was crossing his compound and fired six shots at him, but missed. Their motive is not clear.
“I think they wanted to kill me so my people would suffer and be left in deplorable conditions,” says Buzu. “Then they might turn to Boko Haram.”
Inside the compounds where the people live, clothing is strung across narrow alleys; children skip ropes made of woven plastic bags, and women fry dough.
Some women have small tailoring businesses, and others embroider men’s hats to sell. Some grind grain to make bread that will be given out to people.
Yagara Hamidu, 21, a heavily pregnant refugee from Monguno, north of Maiduguri, stands in the doorway of her small home.
She fled the town last year when Boko Haram attacked, killing her brother and grandfather. When she arrived in Maiduguri with her husband, they heard about Buzu.
“People were heaping blessings on him, and they were saying he is giving out houses.”
Buzu put the couple up in his home for a week, then offered them the house she is standing in.
In a city with millions of refugees, thousands of them living in the open, she says, “I have peace of mind and a roof over my head.”
All shades of people come to Buzu, “rich and poor, young and old, men and women,” says Ismail Adamu, 60, his deputy and longest associate.
“The needy are helped by him, but the wealthy come to find solutions to their problems. They give him money, and this is used to build houses and give out food. He never keeps it for himself.”
A teenage girl enters and genuflects timidly. Buzu asks the nervous girl who she is.
“My father said I should come. I am your granddaughter,” she says.
He sends her to the women’s quarters downstairs, gaining another dependent, just like that.