During the inaugural Kaduna Book and Arts Festival (KABAFEST) 2017, a single panel was held in the indigenous Hausa language. Three renowned Hausa writers – Auwalu Anwar, Hafsat M A Abduwahid (the first female writer from northern Nigeria to be published), and Balaraba Ramat Yakubu (one of the few Hausa writers to have her novel Alhaki Kwikwiyo Ne – Sin Is A Puppy – translated into English) were led in a discussion by Carmen McCain purely in Hausa.

Squeezed into the main hall at KABAFEST’s Gusau Institute venue was an audience of Hausa literary enthusiasts and readers waiting for a white American to turn her tongue around and discuss a thriving industry of Hausa literature in Hausa. They were not disappointed, and soon even the colour of skins ceased to matter. The language was a symphony and it surmounted barriers. The hall was simply a unitary voice of Hausa discussants.

The politics of language

The question of the navigation of the politics of writing in Hausa on one hand and in English on the other was the stepping stone to a larger discussion. This was evident even at the festival itself, where the proceedings of only one panel were in Hausa throughout. This despite the rich reserve of Hausa literature, which has existed in northern Nigeria since 1933, long before writing in English found a foothold in the region.

Hausa literature has existed in northern Nigeria since 1933, long before writing in English found a foothold in the region.

For the panelists, the politics was even more personal. All of them could speak and write in English. Auwalu Anwar, for example, worked as a history lecturer at University of Maiduguri and served as the Special Assistant to the President of Nigeria, but found it necessary for their work to be appreciated in Hausa rather than in English due to the audience they targeted: the vast population of northern Nigerians with Hausa as the unofficial lingua franca. In the case of Hafsat’s trendsetting novel So Aljannar Duniya (Love is Paradise on Earth), she confessed on the panel that she actually wrote the initial manuscript in English but later translated it into Hausa for publication.

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Kabafest. Photo: YouTube

Drawing from diverse influences

Talking about the influences on their writing, it was illuminating to listen to the diverse influences that the three writers acknowledged. This gave one a sense of the influences that make Hausa literature unique.

Hafsat Abdulwahid said that a mixture of classical Western literature and early Hausa writings shaped her worldview, which in turn reflected in her work. She grew up in a world of writing and scholarship in Arabic, English and Hausa and read such books as Alfu Layla wa Layla in Arabic. She also read Abubakar Imam’s early body of work, which defined Hausa literature with titles such as Magana Jari Ce. This she mixed it up with the works of French author Alexandre Dumas, Charles Dickens and a host of others.

Auwalu Anwar’s influences were also chiefly a mixture of Hausa and English. However, in his case it was a mixture of the works of Shakespeare and Hausa political songs. The songs of Gambo Sawaba, Mudi Sipikin, Sa’adu Zungur and others were formulated during the ‘first republic’ and ‘second republic’ (coinciding with the Cold War) and were concerned with government and politics – a path Auwalu Anwar would take later in life.

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Politics and literature inextricably linked

This panel was not only about literature; after all, you cannot separate literature from politics. The panelists were writers in politics and activists too. Balaraba Ramat Yakubu is the sister of the late Nigerian head of state, Murtala Ramat Muhammad. (Ramat was their mother’s first name, which they adopted to be part of their name.) However, Balaraba Ramat Yakubu did not go to school as she was married off at the age of 13. This forms the core of her writing, as she explained to the panel. That early marriage of hers, which later broke up, was what caused  her to write about child marriage, forced marriage and activism for women. She could not read when she was young, due to the lack of education, but now she wants her female audience to be able to read her works.

Kabafest. Photo: Kabafest/Twitter

Hafsat Abdulwahid said she also dabbled in politics. She said ‘dabbled’ but what she did was actually to swim deeply in the waters of politics. Hafsat had contested for the governorship position of Zamfara State, the first state to institute Shari’a law in Nigeria. Her aspiration was to defy the men in society who used this law to oppress women. She talked about the incident of a young lady who had been accused of getting pregnant out of wedlock and was sentenced to 200 lashes of the cane after the delivery of her baby. Hafsat took up this case with Zamfara State’s governor. She also lamented the fact that there was no female member on the governor’s Cabinet. The reply she received was that the women in Zamfara State did not have the requisite education to be part of government. But there she was – a well-educated female writer! This made her so frustrated and angry that she decided that she would not only be on the Cabinet but also contest the governorship.

The question of the navigation of the politics of writing in Hausa on one hand and in English on the other was the stepping stone to a larger discussion.

Hausa panel exceeds all expectations

The success of this panel in Hausa beat even the wildest of expectation. It was a panel of passion, interaction, storytelling and laughter. Every now and again, the whole audience would burst out into bouts of pure, unadulterated laughter. A panel in Hausa was like the soothing voice of a mother. It pierced the audience and reverberated, without the need for the brain to process, no need for second thought. It was the conversation of our homes; our everyday lives; the conversation of northern Nigeria. English will always remain a second language in northern Nigeria. Hausa is the lingua franca and the audience of the ‘Against The Grain’ panel kept asking for more of the same. This was a panel of awakening. In Hausa we are a family, but after the panel we changed again, from one language to another. We were becoming another population of English speakers. In Hausa, we are humorous and carefree; in English we are stiff and careful. In Hausa, we are sarcastic; in English we become conservative. ‘Against the Grain’ awoke the politics of language.