Note: Many of the stories here are from a post I made in February 2022. So, this is a remix, if you wish, of the same post. The intro, however, helps situate it
Driving home at about 9.30pm one day in 2008 or 2009, I saw three young men in National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) uniform by the roadside. They looked stranded, as there were neither motorcycles nor commercial buses anywhere around. It was a day on which the Lagos rain had come down in buckets, not sparing my old neighbourhood on the Lagos-Ogun boundary. The roads in that neighbourhood, even at the best of times, was a stiff endurance test. So, it was no shock that vast puddles yielded by the rain drove off bikes and buses, leaving those chaps stranded.
For security reasons, I do not have the habit of giving people a ride, but because of the NYSC uniform and how I got treated when I was a corper, I offered to do so. They rushed at me and were relieved immediately they got in the car. I initiated a conversation after introductions. All had Yoruba names. One was from Ogun State. I asked why they were serving in Yorubaland instead of elsewhere. They treated my question as a suggestion that they should have voluntarily submitted to spend the service year in prison with hard labour or as asylum inmates. Two of them grew up in Oyo State, with the one from Ogun having grown up in Lagos. I said they were robbing themselves of the opportunity to know more about Nigeria. They were not persuaded.
Given the chance, I would have chosen Yorubaland, South-East or South-South, where I thought “normal” people lived, and where I was told girls offered pleasure freely.” I thought going to the far North, the old Borno State in my case, was a punishment. I knew nothing about the North beyond the heavily jaundiced narratives by my people. I had never even been to Kwara. To be clear, my people-the Yoruba- are great at telling stories, sane, absurd or just demented.
The narratives conditioned me to, among other things, believe that Northerners, in temperament, were like grenades; thicker than a plank and belonged to a civilization that would have made the Barbarians seem cultured. The latter led me to the idiotic notion that a Northerner, even with a PhD, would wear a dagger-bearing holster around his upper arm. Everyone who spoke Hausa, my people believed, was Hausa. I knew that was false. Today, many still do not.
One of the first shocks to my system, delivered within a few days, was that “Gambari,” the name my people called the Hausa or those from the core North, had no meaning. I asked a teacher in my school what it meant and he said he did not know. I was shocked. After the NYSC orientation programme, I went to Ibadan where I spent two weeks before returning to resume at my place of primary assignment, Government Secondary School in Gubio, a town that has now been ruined by insurgency.
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 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.
After resting for a while, a teacher, Mallam Hussain (now deceased), came to ask if we were keen on Scrabble. I was stupefied. 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 never 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 closest to me among the teachers, and Vice Principal (Administration), the late 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 like Obelix in Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix. Fantastic chaps, they turned out to be. So were many 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 had a large appetite 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 imbibed as they wished.
As a matter of fact, one of the Muslim teachers, Mallam Sambo, with whom I spoke some 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 Mathematics; Ibrahim el-Buba and Yusuf Goya-contrary to my expectations. Some of them, notably el-Buba and Bitrus Hassan, who retired last year as an engineer in the civil service, also enjoyed foreign music. He said that Luther Vandross’ Here and Now must be played at his wedding. I am still in touch with him, but I have not remembered to ask if his wish was fulfilled. He also liked Sunny Ade despite not speaking Yoruba.
But that is not to say that GSS Gubio was Harvard in the Sahel or that the whole of Borno was crawling with people of the same profile as Southerners. They were different, as they should be, and I respected that. I still do. In my school, there were people I thought were blubber-headed, out-and-out. Two were teachers, who spoke no English beyond “good morning”. Nice, smiley guys who, if they met you in the afternoon or evening, said “good morning”. Nothing followed, leaving them looking warm but as confusing as a plate of spaghetti. They were probably smarter than my assessment of them, but the language barrier hid that.
I suspected that their struggle with English also affected their students. One day, Kolawole Bamiwuye and I were in the market to buy beans and didn’t know where to go. We thought we had lucked out 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 myself. On another day, four boys came to visit me in the staff quarters. They took off their sandals as slippers, as Northerners tend to do when they wanted to come in. I told them to put their footwear back on. They did not get it. Instead, they took their footwear further back from the quarters. I could do nothing about the communication breakdown.
My assumption that everybody spoke Hausa also evaporated in no time. Sylvester Kona, a fellow corper and Benue State indigene, was unable to speak the language and I asked why, given he was a Northerner. His response was hostile, asking why he should, before saying very sternly that he had no interest in 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 wonky 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, spoke no 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 Fulfulde or Fulatanci. 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 called them “Pulo”, which I was told was the way they were called. Hausa people identified themselves as Bahaushe and called the Kanuri Baribari. Differences exist, but are not known to us here or we are willfully ignorant of them.
I also began trying to learn Kanuri ( Baribarici), which I found tough. I still know a bit of it and can count from one to 10. Fact is not everyone spoke. One of my most enduring memories was being given hefty jara by a Kanuri meat seller the day I counted one to 10 in Kanuri. “Tilo, indi, yaski, dege, uwu, araku, tulu, wusku, lar, meu,” I counted to roaring applause and jara. I am not sure the spellings are correct.
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 of the Babur, Bura, Mandara, Putai, Dgwhede and Margi among numerous others. Each had its own distinct language.
I first heard Marghi from a student, Hamman Yawwal, on whom I was practicing Hausa. “Wanne yaren ka (what is your language or tribe?” I asked him. “Marghi,” 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 Marghi, 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 NYSC has not cured us of ignorance about other people and has not brought about the unity that was promoted as its objective. But only it cannot and will not. But without the NYSC, I most probably would still have remained ignorant about the North. Perhaps, it was because I made an effort to learn Hausa, a bit of Kanuri and interacted freely that helped. I do understand the fear of the North these days. When I was there, communities were not exploding one after the other like firecrackers on a string.
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