THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Endangered archives blog

18 posts categorized "West Africa"

04 November 2015

Gaskiya ta fi Kwabo, World War II and the Romanisation of Hausa

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This is our second guest blog celebrating West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song, the current exhibition at the British Library. This time we are delighted to have a piece written by Professor John Philips whose project digitised the early years of the Hausa language newspaper Gaskiya ta fi Kwabo

Hausa is the largest indigenous language spoken in West Africa. It is used by tens of millions of people as a first language from Ghana to Sudan, especially in Nigeria and Niger, and by tens of millions more from Cote d’Ivoire to the central Sahara to central Africa. As the language of the mainly Muslim Hausa people, it has not only spread with them as a first language but it has also spread in markets as an important language of trade and become a lingua franca throughout a wide area of west central Africa. As a major language in Islamic Africa, it has been written for centuries in a modified form of the Arabic script, with some special characters for Hausa sounds not found in Arabic itself. Hausa was chosen by the early colonial government of Northern Nigeria as the official language of administration because it was generally understood among the people of the area, especially the non-Hausa minority groups from whom the Nigerian colonial administration disproportionately recruited its army. This was done not so much to promote the Hausa language in particular or African culture in general as it was to prevent Africans from learning English, through which medium it was feared they would be exposed to nationalist and anti-colonial sentiments.

Page of the newspaper with a photograph of Churchill.EAP485/1/1/30: Gaskiya ta fi Kwabo, Issue 31, 1 Apr 1941

EAP 485 was a project to preserve the very first issues of Gaskiya ta fi Kwabo, the first entirely Hausa newspaper, begun in Nigeria by the colonial government in the months leading up to World War II. The newspaper became an important source of information about the war and its progress throughout Northern Nigeria. As a reliable, informative and excitingly-written periodical the newspaper kept people in Northern Nigeria, Muslim or not, up-to-date about events in the outside world, especially related to the war. Thus it proved a popular venture that helped change the course of African, especially Nigerian, history forever. It also changed the predominant orthography and literary style of Hausa itself. Gaskiya’s contributing first editor, Alhaji Abubakar Imam, became not only one of the earliest authors of books in Latin script Hausa, but he also became one of the most influential authors in Hausa literature.

  Page of the newspaper with several photographs.
EAP485/1/1/404: Gaskiya ta fi Kwabo, Issue 874, 7 Nov 1958

The popularity of Gaskiya not only led to increasing popularity of Latin alphabet literacy in Hausa areas, but it also increased the attention that speakers of Hausa, both first and second language speakers, paid to the outside world. By so increasing the attention Africans in the interior of the continent paid to events beyond their localities, it became an important factor in the emergence and spread of modern nationalism in Africa, especially among Muslims, although also among Christians. It is indispensable source material for historians of Africa interested in the nationalist movement in particular, and modernisation in general. It is also the earliest known example of what later became the much imitated style of modern literature called “Gaskiyanci” (Gaskiya dialect), named after the newspaper and created by its editor, Alhaji Abubakar Imam.

Page of the newspaper. The top half has small announcements, the bottom has an advertisement for Lifebuoy soap.EAP485/1/1/410: Gaskiya ta fi Kwabo, Issue 880, 19 Dec 1958 

Professor John Philips

Hirosaki University 

21 October 2015

Safeguarding poetry by Usman dan Fodio and his contemporaries

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To celebrate West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song, the current exhibition that is on at the British Library, we are excited to have guest posts by some of the grant-holders that have carried out EAP projects in the region and we look forward to posting them in the next few months. Our first contributor is Dr Anneke Breedveld who talks about her project to digitise important Fulfulde ajami manuscripts from Nigeria, one of the poems from this project appears in the exhibition.

In 1997 Abubakar Bashir, the custodian of some 700 handwritten poems composed more than 200 years ago by the famous Nigerian Muslim leader Usman dan Fodio and his contemporaries, crossed almost 900 kilometers of rough terrain from Yola in Nigeria to Nkambe in Cameroon, to track down a linguist who could help him document his important inheritance. Covered in dust and bruised from being bounced about for four days in public transport, he arrived in Nkambe where he found me. Somehow he knew that I had written my PhD thesis on Fulfulde, the language in which the poems were composed and thought that I was the expert he was looking for. I couldn’t agree less, but Bashir insisted on showing me copies of some of the poems he had brought with him and explained to me their provenance, their contemporary use and historical importance. The significant involvement of women instantly caught my attention.

Bashir had inherited the poems from his mother and they were passed down to her by generations of men and women, all the way back to the 1790s when Usman dan Fodio and fellow jihadists, including his daughter Nana Usmanu, found the time to sit down and write beautiful poetry in their mother tongue, Fulfulde. These poems are a living history, as they are still recited by men and women alike at festive occasions such as Mawlid, the celebration of the birth of the prophet Mohammed. The original poems are written in Arabic script and some are in a very bad condition due to centuries of folding and unfolding. Bashir looked for advice and help to safeguard these texts for the future by transcribing, translating and archiving them properly. He returned home with a list of questions we thought should be answered in order to understand the poems. 

Page of a manuscript.EAP387/1/3/10 First page of the poem  entitled "Yimre yeyraa'be" by Moodibbo Raaji , a friend (and later also critic) of Usman dan Fodio. It shows a page skilfully sown together, showing the care and respect that owners had for the texts.

Years later in 2009, Bashir invited me to London. Apparently I was not the only authority he had turned to for help and he had managed to get sponsoring from the Emir of Sokoto to fund my costs, including a laptop and a mobile phone so that we could stay in touch. Bashir had managed to produce transliterations into roman script of all the Fulfulde poems in his possession, which made it so much easier for me to understand (or at least to read) them. Like his mother, he would also recite the poems at special occasions and we made some recordings of the poems. And since in Fulfulde “to recite poetry” is synonymous with “to sing”, these are impressive recordings. London was also the place where the seed was planted for EAP387, a major project for digital preservation of the 1500 pages of Fulfulde poetry. In 2011 I went to Nigeria to digitise the documents at the University of Mubi.

Image of digitising a manuscript page.

The documents of EAP387 are now accessible for people to study. The translation of the texts is an ongoing process, as the documents show that Fulfulde has changed considerably over 200 years. My knowledge of different dialects and morphology helps to put forward possible translations to the native speakers without whom translation would not be possible.

Safeguarding the digital records in EAP387 is only the beginning of transferring the knowledge contained in it to future generations. Wouldn’t it be great if the recordings of the recitals of the poems, Latin transcriptions of Fulfulde and translations into Hausa and English would be added to the digital records of EAP387 in a multi-modal document? Thus the poems would truly become a rich source for the study of West African history.

Dr Anneke Breedveld, Tilburg University 

Grant-holder for EAP387: Safeguarding Fulfulde ajami manuscripts of  Nigerian Jihad poetry by Usman dan Fodio (1754-1817) and contemporaries