I think a lot about how most of our work on the trip has happened in the space between preconceived notions and freshly acquired perceptions. This space—referred to by Emeka as ‘the bracketed space’—is where nuances unravel, subsist, evolve, become the name which the distinct must bear. So, in Kano, at the Kwari market, I ask a trader what he thinks of the popular notion that Northerners are largely uneducated.
“This is something that vexes me,” he says adjusting his face into a frown. “People in the south think they know us. Let me tell you: I have both Western education and the Arabic. These are the items you need to make it in life.” He counts on his fingers the number of Nigerian states he has been to. The number of offices he has worked in. “I will still go back to school, simply because I like it. I will get as many degrees as possible.” Then he pauses and says “I was in Ekiti. You know they are, perhaps, the most educated people in Nigeria. However, at some point in one of the villages I couldn’t get anyone to talk with because no one understood English. But I didn’t go about saying Yoruba people are uneducated. I understood that it was a village. So why the stereotype? Many people here are educated in a different way: they learn Arabic instead. Sometimes, people like me learn both.”
I didn’t think much of his talk until later when we go to the Gidan Makama. The museum guide shows us scrolls of the Hausa language written in Arabic. “We could already read and write since around the 17th century—long before the British came,” he said. “We were reading and writing Arabic. Then we developed a way of writing Hausa in Arabic. They look similar but are actually different. The Hausa one is called Ajama.”
Nigeria touches the Atlantic in the south and is close to the Sahara in the north. When I think about this, I realize how it only makes historical and economic sense for people in the north to be more interested in Arabic education and less in the Western—the trans-Saharan trade had already begun since the 8th century. Business was already happening from today’s northern Nigeria to places as far as Morocco and Cairo. Ideas were being exchanged. So was education and language. Hausa, for example, is spoken in countries like Burkina Faso, Cameroon, CAR, Chad, Congo, Eritrea. I therefore concluded that my friend, Lawan, from Kwari market was right: one of the items he would need for survival was Arabic education.
I remember now at the Jimeta Modern Market in Yola, Abubakar, a young trader walked up to us and asked if we were strangers. We began chatting instantly. His English was impeccable, deliciously rolling of his tongue with his Hausa accent. “People from all over come to buy from me. Cameroun. Chad. Lagos. Cameroun is just six hundred naira and two hours away from here,” he said pointing at an angle.
I think a lot about the children I saw sitting under trees on the roads between Taraba, Gombe, Bauchi and Yobe. I think a lot also about the children I saw one afternoon in a building in Potiskum, seated around a man, teaching them probably how to read the Koran. The new argument for me, is the possibilities in other types of education. But the premise that most people in the north are uneducated is long dead for me—the dangerous thing about stereotypes is how they close off a conversation, reject any form of new knowledge, preserve the reign of ignorance, put full stops before the end of a sentence.
Be careful my brother, there are many ways of seeing.
*photographs by Zaynab Odunsi and Emeka Okereke