Travel as Education: My First Taste of Arewa

Travel as Education: My First Taste of Arewa

Sunday, February 13, 2022 2:00 pm


Northern Nigerians

By Bamidele Johnson

I’m going to get some flak for this. Surefire. I’m not ruling out something more menacing. Lexical daggers, most probably. I will go ahead all the same, hoping that people who are the way I once was will learn a thing or two.

Off I go. Prior to being posted to Bornu State for NYSC, my interaction with Northerners was limited to carrot purchase. I rarely ate suya back then, so I didn’t really mingle with suya sellers. I’d never been outside the Southwest. Even Kwara, the nearest Northern state to my own zone, was a place I’d never been.

But I heard stories, lots of them, and they depicted Northerners as the most daft and crude creatures on two legs. The stories I was told spawned others that were original to me. They were pure confections, with some of them so daft that I still feel a bit of shame sharing them. But, as many still seem to think, I didn’t think everyone across the Niger was Hausa.

However, I thought they all spoke the language. I was told, correctly, that Western education wasn’t a smash hit up North. From the latter, I developed a belief that however educated a Northerner was, he’d still wear a dagger on a bicep. This came from seeing herders having blade holsters on their upper arm. I also assumed, very stupidly, that all Northerners had custard yellow or crimson-coloured teeth because they were born to have poor personal hygiene.

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The Yoruba called Northerners “Gambari,” a name I knew, within a few days, had no meaning in Hausa. I’m yet to know how they decided that was the appropriate description. Well, after the NYSC orientation exercise, I returned home, spent two weeks before going to resume at my place of primary assignment, Government Secondary School in Gubio, a town that is now the playground of Boko Haram insurgents.

I got to Gubio one morning and was taken to the quarters of the Vice Principal (Academic), who got a teacher to take me to the corpers’ quarters to meet my colleagues who’d resumed earlier. I met Kolawole Bamiwuye, Chiedu Nnodi, with whom I’m still in touch, and others. The plan was for me to rest before being introduced to the principal that evening.

The image of the North I had in my head before NYSC was not the one I had after one year. Perhaps, it was because I made an effort to learn Hausa, a bit of Kanuri and interacted freely. One of my most enduring memories of my stay was being given hefty jara by a Kanuri meat seller the day I counted one to 10 in Kanuri.

After resting for a while, a teaching staff, Mallam Hussain (now deceased), came to ask if any of us wanted to play Scrabble. I was shocked. I played Scrabble a lot back then and actually arrived with my own board and a Scrabble dictionary. The shock was on account of my silly assumption that a Northerner could not be aware of the game let alone have the brain power to play. I was the only one who volunteered to go with him and took my board as well as the dictionary along.

I got more shock when I discovered that two of those chaps could play. Really well. They were Mallam Kwari, who would become the closet to me among the teachers, and Vice Principal (Administration), Tijani Maina (hanu baya to the students). I got to know they called him hanu (hand) baya (back) because he walked with his hands behind his back. Both men were fantastic human beings. So were the others.

Hanu baya said he was a corper at Olivet Baptist High School, Oyo, in 1979/80. That was post-NCE. Kwari spoke a bit of Yoruba, having lived briefly in Ijebu Ode while he was a house boy to a Yoruba man.

Because I also assumed that everyone was a Muslim, I was surprised to see Kwari, a native of Biu, announce he was going to church one evening. All through my time there, he went to church with Mallam Maidugu Chinda, Mallam Akila, who both have affection for liquor; and Mallam Hussain. I did not for once observe that their religious persuasion was a source of irritation to the Muslims, who were in the majority. The liquor lovers were also allowed to imbibe as they wished.

As a matter of fact, one of the Muslim teachers, Mallam Sambo, with whom I spoke three years ago, drank as much liquor as Akila and Chinda. With the homicidal Boko Haram now running the place, there’s no chance that there’d be a drinking den still standing. Most of the teachers I knew came across as bright. Sambo, Akila, Chinda, Hussain, Geidam, who taught maths; Ibrahim el-Buba and Yusuf Goya-contrary to my expectations. Some of them, notably el-Buba and Bitrus Hassan, a manager with the Bornu State Rural Electricity Board, also enjoyed foreign music. Hassan liked Sunny Ade despite not speaking Yoruba and told me many times that Luther Vandross’ Here and Now must be played at his wedding. Don’t know it was.

But that is not to say that GSS Gubio was Harvard in the Sahel. There were bonafide duds. There were two teachers, who spoke no English beyond “good morning”. Nice, smiley guys, but if they met you in the afternoon or evening, it was “good morning” with a broad grin. Nothing followed. It made them look warm, but confused.

I suspected that their struggle with English also affected their students. Kolawole Bamiwuye and I were in the market to buy beans one day and we didn’t know where to go. We got lucky or thought we were when we saw Tijani, a JSS 3 student in the market. “Tijani, where can we get beans to buy?” my friend asked. “Mallam, lack of English,” he replied. I almost peed on myself.

My assumption that everybody spoke Hausa detonated in no time. I saw that a corper from Benue, Sylvester Kona, was unable to speak the language and I asked why since he was a Northerner. His response was near-belligerent. He asked why he should and told me very firmly that he had no interest in learning the language. Days after, Kona, a Tiv, was sober and brought up the topic by himself. He explained that the experience of his people in the hands of the Hausa was squalid, the reason he wanted nothing to do with the language. I started learning the language almost immediately I got there, first through the NYSC handbook and later my students.

I was so inspired because my friend, Olutayo Fagunleka, served in Yakila, Niger State, and spoke the language with some fluency after seven months. I suspect he’s lost it now.
Three months after arrival, I could hold basic conversations when I went shopping. I got laughed at a lot by butchers and other traders because of my construction. But they got the message, corrected me when necessary and I kept learning.

It was through increased proficiency in the language that I discovered that many Kanuri people, the dominant group in the state, couldn’t speak Hausa beyond “sannu”. It was bewildering. I asked why and was told it was because they never went to school. Similarly, I met Shuwa people who didn’t speak. Most surprising to me, though, were the Fulani who spoke little or no Hausa. Those I met were herders, who spoke only Fulfude. From those who spoke Hausa, I learnt that “Wali jam” (not sure I spelt it correctly) was like hello. I said it to any herder I saw and got a friendly wave.

I also began trying to learn Kanuri, which I found tough. I still know a bit of it and can count from one to 10. Fact is not everyone spoke. Then I discovered the full range of Nigeria’s diversity. In Borno alone (the old one, that is), the ethnic diversity was dizzying. Aside from the Kanuri and Shuwa, I got to know that there were the Babur, Bura, Mandara, Putai, Dgwhede and Margi among numerous others. Each had its own distinct language.

I first heard Margi from a student, Hamman Yawwal, on whom I was practicing Hausa. “Wanne yaren ka (what is your language or tribe?” I asked him. “Margi,” he replied. “Why not Knorr?” I replied, alluding to the other popular brand of food seasoning. He got it and we both started laughing. The Margi, he told me, were also in the old Gongola State (now Adamawa and Taraba states). On a short trip to the state at the time, I also found that there were Lunguda, Mumuye, Chamba and Higi. Those are the ones I can recall. The prevalent use of the Hausa language across the North gives the wrong impression that everyone is Hausa.

The image of the North I had in my head before NYSC was not the one I had after one year. Perhaps, it was because I made an effort to learn Hausa, a bit of Kanuri and interacted freely. One of my most enduring memories of my stay was being given hefty jara by a Kanuri meat seller the day I counted one to 10 in Kanuri.

*Bamidele Johnson, journalist and public affairs analyst, writes from Lagos

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