You cannot take the mother tongue from African children but you can try to take anything else. The cadence of our heartbeat is our mother tongue
The principal tried to snatch our mother tongue. He was a burly Nupe man whose English exuded Nupe accent. He ruled out speaking native languages. English and Arabic were the only languages to be spoken in Islamic Training Center Madallah. The consequence of being caught speaking Hausa, Nupe, or any other language, was ten strokes of cane and a fine.
Students became detectives. They were assigned by senior prefects to catch anyone whose mother tongue rolled out of her mouth like a broken secret. Names were secretly written. You wouldn’t know when you’d have your name on the list and they’d come with their cane made of animal skin to flog you, enjoying the sound of your scream. We were careful, but we didn’t stop. It was in our blood. And we could not let anyone take it from us.
My friends and I were sitting on our bunks in the hostel, talking about the ridiculousness of the law imposed by the principal a month ago because of lack of good English orientation in the school. He said the students hardly spoke English always speaking Hausa. And he wanted to change that.
Aisha snorted and made a face. “Imagine o, they want us to speak English and Arabic only! They’re delusional to think it is going to be possible.”
Khadijah giggled at her expression. “No mind them. Like say na our Mama language.” She looked around as she said this, careful not to be heard by anyone outside the circle.
“Don’t forget that Pidgin English is also prohibited.” Maryam chuckled.
Aisha hissed. She never liked to speak English unless necessary.
“I don’t even care, I shrugged. Let them do whatever they want. It’s not like we will ever stop. Su suka sani!”
We found ways to break the rules. We began to speak Ingausa – a combination of Hausa and English, derived from the Hausa version of the word English spelt as Inglishi. We switched between languages when we noticed prefects coming. We spoke little Ingausa during school hours and most of it at evening and night classes or when we were back in the hostel. No one bothered to follow the rules in the hostel but we were still cautious of prefects.
We had Quran class at dawn immediately after subhi prayer. We'd go to the class from the Majid to recite the Holy Qur'an from five-thirty to six o’clock in the morning. We recited the Arabic text of the Qur'an and our teacher translated it into English. We'd leave the Qur'an class at 6am and go back to the hospital to take our baths and prepare for school. At the assembly, we skipped lines to avoid having our hair inspected because we did not plait the hairstyle. When the assembly was over we recited the national anthem and marched to our classrooms singing an Arabic song the headmistress had forced us on our tongues. It was just English in classrooms. No Arabic, no Pidgin English, no other vernacular.
Evening prep which we attended as the evening class was different. We were taught other Islamic scriptures such as Hadith, fiqh, and haqqul-Mubin. Our Hadith and Fiqh teachers could not speak fluent English. They were Arabic speakers but Arabic was not our forte either. At this juncture, communication became a bridge waiting to be filled, so we took back Hausa language and twisted it with English and Arabic.
“This one shine wanda ya nuna ɗabiu da halaye that are good. Kuma asalin wannan an samo shine from many harufa. You understand?” Malama Niqab would say, sticking English words between her explanations in Hausa language.
We called her Malama Niqab because her face was always shrouded with niqab but her real name was Malama Hadiza
We nicknamed all our teachers based on their behaviors in the classroom or their dressings and looks. We had Mr. Are-we-together, who always asked if we were together after every explanation in class. There was Mr. Probability, Mr. Handsome, Malam Chokali (Mr. Spoon) who hit our fingers with a spoon. And there was Malam Cizo (Mr. Biting) who bit a girl in the class because she refused to release the cane he was using to flog her.
On a Thursday evening, five of us sat on the veranda of Fatima house talking about music. There was no evening class. Thursdays were free days and we spent the whole day in the hostel. D’Banj was the topic. His new song fall in love– a song we competed to learn – rolled off our tongues. Khadijah sang a few lines and stopped. I continued from where she stopped until we chorused at the end. The conversation drew lengthy on music and musicians, our favorite popular songs and we argued on which the best was. Aisha preferred traditional Hausa songs, although she claimed to love P-square. Maryam on the other hand was an all-round beater. She loved any song that could get her body shaking.
Sumayya held our hearts with her voice. She could sing any African song she came across. Then she liked to sing this particular song that always made us cackle. I later knew the song was sung by funkiest Mallam, but I learned it from her.
Our love for music and dance made us secretly buy palito at the Friday market in the school. It was a small shaped instrument like a radio with FM as the only channel. It only had an earpiece hole, nothing else. The school had the biggest mosque in Madallah town. Every Friday, people came in to observe the Juma’at prayer. Sellers were allowed to come in with edible goods. The school field became the market arena. There were buckets of Awara, Bambara, Hanjinligidi, Iloka, and palm oil moi-moi with pepper. Barrows of sugarcane sat at the left. Trays of sweets, chocolates, candies and gangariya (fried fish) were by the right along with sellers of drinks and many others. In the bustling market, contrabands were sold.
After the Friday prayer, we'd walk into the bustling market until we got to the candy seller, a man who must not be named.
“How much are those candies sold?” we’d ask, raising our brows. And when no one was looking, we’d whisper “Where is the item?”
He’d put his hand under our hijab and pass them to us. He sold them at an exaggerated price, claiming it was hard to get them in. We'd pay and hide them in our pants, then sneak them into the hostel. We only used them at night in the hostel when the matron was sleeping.
We used them on Saturdays too, especially after the inspections we always tried to hide from. We dreaded inspection days. We worked our bones cleaning, removing cobwebs, sweeping, scrubbing, mopping, arranging and making the beds and then the seniors would tell us to take our baths and dress in a cleaned and ironed house-check with a goggoro on our heads. Saturdays were annoying. But we liked the hot moi-moi served for breakfast at the dining hall. We would take double rations and sneak them into the hostel. We’d have five, six or seven moi-moi at the end of our secret looting.
Then we’d sit in our corner, pour them into a flask and sprinkle lots of pepper before we’d start eating, happily listening to our palito.
The more it becomes verboten the more we want and the more we become who we are.
We were smugglers. We snuggled contraband hidden in bags of garri, school bags and other places we knew the teachers would not bother to search. My bootlegging route was through a huge schoolbag Baba had bought to hold all my textbooks. The bag for my textbooks was big enough to carry me, so I arranged most of my instant noodles in it before I buried them with my books, then I inserted the other banned items, a tiny heater, coucous, and kakide (thickened goat oil) and five mudus of garri that stomached my onions, salts, maggi and pepper. As soon as I crossed the huge green and white gate with ITC Madallah boldly written on the billboard above the gate, I kept the schoolbag aside as if it were not mine.
The inspectors at the first gate were thorough. But I had learnt to outsmart them. There were three gates I needed to pass through before reaching the hostel and each of them had teachers to inspect belongings. The first gate was the easiest though. When I got through it, I searched for ways to sneak my contraband bags through a hallway that led to the two-storey building at the right-wind that served as classrooms. At the classroom, I hid them in the locker at the back seat. Then I’d come down and take my other bags for scanning until I got into the hostel. I’d wait until after dinner when there were no more teachers to inspect before I’d go to the classroom to get the contraband bags.
After we settled in the hostel, my corner mates and I would bring out the items we had managed to smuggle in uncaught. We’d pile them on the bed in a pyramid, mulling on what to eat first.
We were in the class when the news came. We were told to come down from our classes in rows, march to our hostel and line up by the hostel gate. It was an unexpected inspection. Those who knew they had contrabands began to cry. My heart pounded but I would not give in. We entered our houses in a single file. I was in Aminat house and as my roommates entered and opened their boxes, I thought of a way out.
I sauntered into the house when it was my turn, mindful of the plump woman whose eyes were on me. She was Mrs. Kudirat, our Fine-Art teacher known to be strict. She was also notorious for her loudness.
Bring out your key. Open your box. She said, impatiently tapping her feet.
I opened the box that had no contraband except for a dangling earring which she seized. I had pictures of my family too but they were under my mattress. When I didn’t open the other boxes, she turned to me. “What about those?” she pointed at them.
“They belong to my bunkmate.” I lied. Only a trolley was hers, the rest were mine.
“Well, call her in to get them open.”
“I’m sorry but she went home on leave. She has jinns.” I said, making sure the word Jinn came out clear.
It was true that she had returned home because of her jinn disturbance. Her jinns were always awakening; we had to always hold her to stop her from hurting herself and others. Mrs. Kudirat eyed the boxes and nodded.
“We are done here.” She said, walking out without casting another glance.
Everyone feared jinns.
The unseen is not what terrifies but a heart blackened by fear.
On a day of a far August in 2009, we had the most terrifying moment with Jinns. There had always been jinn disturbance but none was dreading and frightening like this particular day. I was now in Zainab house, no longer in Aminat house with a bunkmate who had jinn. My previous bunkmate quit the school. And our hostel rooms were changed every year. We were on our beds in our hostel room when the wriggling body of Rufaida was brought in. The seniors carrying her laid her body on the floor. They held her down as she screamed and thrashed around. Her words came incoherently. She rambled on as she struggled out of their grips, screaming. Her eyes were closed but she yanked, pulled, jerked and screamed. We had known that Rufaida had jinn long before she came to this school.
“Close your eyes! Do not look directly at her,” Sister Khadijat said.
We listened. Rufaida was mumbling fast but not in her voice. She spoke in a masculine voice. It was the jinn talking. It wanted to warn us of an approaching danger. His kin vowed to possess us all. I wondered how it was going to be possible to possess hundreds of girls but jinns were evil. We all knew that or so we believed. It was no myth that jinns were real. A whole chapter was dedicated to them in the holy Quran.
And He (God) created the jinn from a smokeless flame of fire. Q55:V15.
True, there were persons among mankind who took shelter with persons among the jinns, but they increased them in folly. Q72:V6.
“The others are coming dead in the night. And when they do, they’d possess you all,” The Jinn in Rufaida said in a hulky voice.
We couldn’t sleep. We waited. The Quran held to our chests, chanting verses of protection. The plight of Jinn in the school had become an impasse. Parents withdrew their children from the school. History had it that the school was built on a field previously inhabited by Jinns. There had been a huge old Kuka tree (Baobab) that was cut off and the tree was what housed them. It was the oldest Baobab tree in the town.
So many students had jinn that sometimes it felt like they were faking it. It was forbidden to run in the school field at night, one could mistakenly hit a jinn or step on their infants and they’d come for revenge. It sounded like a folktale told at bedtime but no one wanted to try. Sister Maryam was a senior whose jinn transformed into a dog-like. She’d crawl and bark and bite anyone who came close. Sometimes, she was a snake. Her movement was serpentine. Her tongue stuck out as she hissed. Other times she was a cat. She’d keep meowing, scratching, and biting.
On the night they came, the seniors were worried. Sister Hauwa, our house prefect, said "All of you should wear your scarves and pray. Cover yourselves and perform ablution to purify your bodies. You must not let them possess you."
We got on the bed with our Qurans and began to recite. Some of us took their supplication book. I was one of them. It was a war between humans and Jinns. The night grew thick and eerie. My bunkmate, Amina, would not stop crying. She huddled in bed, her Quran tightly held to her chest as she recited verses from Suratul Baqarah.
The silence was choking. It was past twelve and there was nothing unusual. So we began to calm down. Perhaps it was just a ruse. Just when we were finally dozing, thinking nothing was going to happen, the window lids began to clatter. Strong breeze howled from the field. I coiled in my blanket, my eyes tightly shut, whispering prayers. My heart thudded. I don’t remember how I blanked out but when I was conscious again, sunlight slithered through the window. It was a new day.
They said I was possessed. That my palms widened and my fingers stretched. That I rolled on the floor, angrily yanking at everything until they held me down. That I was muttering strange words no one could understand, that I almost strangled our house prefect because she mistakenly hit me and I didn’t know what I was doing. There was fear in their eyes when they looked at me. Their words oozed uncertainty. They refused to come close. They hurried away when they saw me and whispered behind. Only my close friends were not hampered by fear that shackled the others. I could not explain what happened but no matter what they said, I knew my Chi was too strong to be possessed.
And I was right.
It stops us. It stands in front of the taxi and shakes its raffia attire. I’m seated at the backseat, left-side window of the taxi, and I put my head out the window and see an endless number of masquerades stretched down the road, all of them donning wooden white masks punctured with holes
First of all, they are Nigerians. Who wouldn’t be happy to be Nigerian? I am totally enthralled to be a privileged citizen of a country that works perfectly well.
I am leaving Nigeria for the first time and Lagos is that last rehearsal before my final departure. Lagos does not pretend to be anything else or care that I have been journeying since morning on a slow moving bus from Nsukka. Even at 9 pm, it bristles with sizzling energy in the twinkling dark.
I read that it takes at least 25 years for the human brain to fully develop. Exactly when and where I picked up this information has become unclear. All through my secondary and tertiary education, I had always thought of myself as having a good perception of the world around me.
Students became detectives. They were assigned by senior prefects to catch anyone whose mother tongue rolled out of her mouth like a broken secret. Names were secretly written.