This is a piece years in the making. 15 years to be exact.
There is a Hausa word for ‘bucket’ that very few know. The word most know is ‘Bokiti’ a loan word from the English ‘bucket.’
I asked my mother when my fascination with language was just beginning to blossom at 11, “What’s the Hausa word for Bokiti?” She looked at me, slightly jarred by the question which came from nowhere considering the setting, she had just finished making dinner and I was helping her pass the plates to dish it out in.
“Bokiti,” she replied with finality. It didn’t make sense to me then that the word we use sounded so similar to the English word for the same item. I didn’t know about loan words.
Years later, I asked my Hausa teacher in secondary school the same question and she answered, “There is a word, but I struggle to remember it.” And that, she expounded is the beauty and power of the Hausa language – the flexibility that allows it to swap words with other languages it spars with and make those words its own.
That same flexibility, I’ll come to believe, is why the Gbwari parents of my Southern Kaduna friend spoke more Hausa than their ethnic language.
Language growth, death and transference are however more nuanced than that, but a teenager can be forgiven for not knowing this truth.
The languages often spoken of when speaking of Languages in Northern Nigeria are Hausa and others.
Granted, the Hausa language is one of the most spoken indigenous languages in Africa. Second by population of speakers, and said to be one of the most advanced languages on the continent.
Still, I stay up at night thinking about the implication of this one language swallowing up hundreds of other languages with a smaller population of speakers.
The winds of the Sahara
I crossed a nameless bridge in 2015, electric with the hope that for the first time I will be immersed in a Northern culture that doesn’t know my mother tongue. I was visiting Kogi for the first time to attend my Ebira friend’s wedding. That hope died faster than I anticipated.
Hawkers shouted their wares by the window of our bus, in Hausa language and English, both broken. My heart both sank and lifted.
As the journey lengthened, I had painted a scenario in which I’d arrive at my stop and my phone would be dead and I wouldn’t have a language to ask for help. The wedding was in the village and from my experience, people in the village speak their mother tongue, and I didn’t know any Ebira.
When I reached my stop, my host wouldn’t pick my call, because she was caught up in her wedding.
I walked into a compound and greeted a woman yelling at a wandering child getting too close to the highway for comfort. She replied in a language I didn’t even understand enough to know what language it was. Then I tried Hausa and gesticulating aggressively and she smiled and walked away.
I had resolved to just walk till I found another person when she returned with a man I figured must be her husband, he addressed me in heavily accented Hausa and directed me to my destination.
The North, I realised, whether it is Sokoto or Kwara, Niger or Benue, is draped in Hausa language.
I coined a theory that made sense to the Kano boy I was at heart – Kano’s motto is after all, the Center of Commerce. The language’s dominance I decided is the consequences of trade over centuries.
Yet, trade doesn’t explain walking down Iponri road in Surulere, under the fog of harmattan and passing small groups of Hausa speakers. From Niger Republic, Sokoto, Zamfara, and Chad.
Like the dusty winds of the Sahara that carries harmattan from the desert North of my hometown down to the Atlantic shores in Lagos, Hausa people carry the Hausa language all across Nigeria.
Lost in translation
The dominance of Hausa in Northern Nigeria is not a problem, if the minority languages it threatens to swallow up can hold out forever. If Gbwari could flex and swallow Hausa words into itself and not lose its essence. That flexibility which the Hausa language flexes from Nigeria to Chad to Cameroon and Ghana, is the trick that minority languages need to employ to survive generations.
The fear of losing a lot in translation will however, remain even were these languages to achieve this flexibility somehow. Who is to say that 100 years from today the Gbwari wouldn’t have a language so similar to Hausa it has lost all touch with its origins?
A friend of my late grandfather’s told me the original Hausa word for ‘bucket’ when, while making the rounds of elders to receive their blessing for my newly gained admission into University, I asked him my longstanding question. I rolled the word off my tongue and I liked it, but finding no place for it in everyday conversation, I ditched it and returned to using ‘Bokiti.’
I no longer recall the word.