"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Orwellian Doublespeak About Buhari’s Health

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Doublespeak is intentional manipulation of language to conceal uncomfortable truths or to cleverly tell outright lies. The term came to us from George Orwell, although he didn’t use it himself. The term he used in his famous book titled 1984 is “newspeak,” which he said consists in limiting the range of words people use and in stripping language of semantic precision in order to facilitate government propaganda and mind management.

 The mainstreaming of Orwellian doublespeak in Trump’s America is already causing an enormous spike in the sales of Orwell’s 1984, which was first published in 1949, especially after a Trump administration official by the name of Kellyanne Conway defended habitually intentional falsehoods by the Trump administration as merely “alternative facts.”


All governments lie, but the brazenness and consistency of the lies of the Buhari government are simply remarkable. It competes favorably with the Trump administration in prevarications and loud, bold defiance of basic ethical proprieties. Nowhere has this become more apparent in recent time than in the information that government officials share with the Nigerian public about President Muhammadu Buhari’s health.

 I have no evidence for this, but my hunch tells me that Buhari isn’t nearly as sick as his detractors make it seem, but the illogic, intentionally deceitful and mutually contradictory language of government spokespeople in explaining away the president’s prolonged absence from Nigeria have conspired to fuel unhealthy speculations about the state of his health.

As I told the BBC World Service in a February 7, 2017 interview, the labyrinth of tortuous lies, fibs, half-truths, and conscious deceit that emanate from the government make it impossible to even guess the truth. 

The president’s media advisers admit that the president is in London on a “medical vacation” (which is doublespeak for “he is sick and needs medical attention”), and his latest letter to the National Assembly said he was awaiting the results of medical tests, but the Acting President and the Minister of Information say he is “hale and hearty” (which means he is vigorous and doing well). No one can be simultaneously on a “medical vacation,” be awaiting the results of medical tests, and be “hale and hearty.” That’s a logical impossibility.

It gets even stranger. Senator Abu Ibrahim, a senator from Katsina State who said he was in touch with the president, told newsmen that the president was neither on medical vacation nor hale and hearty, but only “exhausted by the weight of the problems the country is going through.” So London is the president’s destination of choice to rest, while millions of people who voted him into office squirm in the severe existential torment his administration either deepened or caused? Interesting!

On February 7, Presidential Media Adviser Femi Adesina also told Channels TV that he was "daily" in touch with the President, but doesn't "speak with him direct." How does one "keep in touch" with someone thousands of miles away without "directly speaking" with him?

Well, Adesina said he does that by being "in touch with London daily." I am not making this up. You can watch the interview on ChannelTV’s YouTube channel. But it gets worse still. He added: "People around him will speak daily. Daily." You would think the word "daily" was in danger of going out of circulation and needed to be verbally curated on national TV.
This doublespeak recalls my grammar column of December 10, 2009 on the late President Yar'adua's health. It was titled “Yar’adua’s Health: Amb. Aminchi’s Impossible Grammatical Logic.” Read it below and note the similarities with what is going on now. Enjoy:
Nigeria’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Alhaji Garba Aminchi, was quoted by an Abuja newspaper to have fulminated against the unnervingly prevailing buzz that President Yar’adua is in a persistent vegetative state and in grave danger of imminent death. “And all these insinuations are lies,” he was quoted to have said. “To the best of my knowledge, I see him every day, and he is recovering….”

To the best of his knowledge, he sees the ailing president every day? So our ambassador is not even sure if, indeed, he sees the president every day, but he is certain nonetheless that the president is recovering. Huh? This is a supreme instantiation of a case where thought, language, and materiality have parted company.

At issue here is the idiom “to the best of my knowledge,” which is also commonly rendered as “to my knowledge.” This expression, according to the Macmillan Dictionary, is used for saying that you think something is true, but you are not completely certain, as in, “To the best of my knowledge, the President has not decided if he will resign because of his failing health.” The Free Dictionary defines the idiom thus: “as I understand it.” The Oxford Dictionary also defines it as, “from the information you have, although you may not know everything.”

So, the idiom is deployed principally to express thought-processes that reside in the province of incertitude, of inexactitude. If, for instance, someone were to ask me (and somebody did indeed ask me a couple of days ago) if Yar’adua was dead, I would say “well, to the best of my knowledge he is alive.” Here, the phrase “to the best of my knowledge” admits of both the possibility that he could be alive or dead. In other words, it betrays the uncertainty and tentativeness of the information I have about the query.

Now, for Ambassador Aminchi to use the idiom “to the best of my knowledge” (which admits of uncertainty) in the same sentence as “I see him every day and he is recovering” (which connotes cocksure certitude) evokes an eerily bizarre disjunction between thought, speech, and reality, one that is impossible to conceive of even with the wildest stretch of fantasy. This is as much a grammatical slip as it is a logical labyrinth.

One perfectly legitimate interpretive possibility from the ambassador’s statement is that he actually sees a figure in Saudi Arabia in the likeness of President Yar’adua that is convalescing from a sickness, but is uncertain if this is merely the apparition of a spooky specter masquerading as Yar’adua or if it’s Yar’adua himself. In spite of this dubiety, however, he is positive that the real Yar’adua is recuperating.

This is obviously not what the ambassador wants to be understood as saying. So, one or two of three things are happening here. The first is that the ambassador is being barefacedly mendacious in order to conceal the graveness of the condition of Yar’adua’s health. And this won’t be out of character. After all, English diplomat and writer Henry Wotton once famously defined an ambassador as an "honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country." Only that, in this case, our ambassador is lying abroad for the bad of his country.

The second possibility is that the ambassador is simply clueless about the meaning of the idiom. And a third possibility is that he has been misquoted or mistranslated by the reporter who wrote the story.

Now, this isn’t an idle, nitpicking censure of an ambassador’s innocent slip by a snooty, self-appointed grammar police. This issue is not only about the health of Yar’adua; it is also about the health of our country. Since Yar’adua took critically ill, the nation has been in even much graver illness. In somber moments such as this, we cannot afford the luxury of tolerating intentionally deceitful and irresponsible political language from public officials.

Link between Bad Language and Misgovernance

In his famous 1946 essay titled “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell railed against this very tendency among the public officials of his day. He wrote: “Political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

Do you see any parallels here between Ambassador Aminchi’s illogical grammar—and indeed that of most Nigerian public officials—and the public officials of Orwell’s days?

Interestingly, the problem endures to this day even in Britain. On Nov. 3, 2009 the Guardian of London reported that a British parliamentary committee excoriated “politicians and civil servants for their poor command of the English language” epitomized in the “misleading and vague official language” of prominent politicians.

Tony Wright, chairman of the committee, said: “Good government requires good language, while bad language is a sign of poor government. We propose that cases of bad official language should be treated as ‘maladministration’.”

Maybe the committee chairman’s sentiments are a bit of a rhetorical stretch, but someone should tell Ambassador Aminchi that he cannot simultaneously be unsure that he sees the ailing president and yet be certain that the president is recovering. That’s impossible grammatical logic. And that can only sprout from a mind that is wracked by psychic disarray.



Sunday, February 5, 2017

American Influences in Nigerian English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

The trouble with labeling anything American English these days is that American English is now actually international English, which is unrelentingly diluting even British English at an alarming rate. I once read the story of a starry-eyed British linguist who came to America to study how American English deviates from British English.

Between the period of his research and the time of the publication of his book, the expressions he identified as uniquely American, which he had hoped would amuse and amaze British speakers, had become so commonplace that many British readers wondered what the point of his book was.


Today, British English has become so thoroughly Americanized that one has to be really careful when differentiating between the two varieties of English. Perhaps, we can rephrase George Bernard Shaw and say America and England have now become two countries that are increasingly being united by a common language. That is why it no longer makes any sense to learn British English these days since the British are themselves relentlessly Americanizing their English.

Having said that, it is still possible to isolate expressions that are peculiarly American and British. And there are instances when Nigerian English brings these two old varieties in a creative, if improper, linguistic conversation.

“Torchlight.” Perhaps the best example I can think of is the word "torchlight," which Nigerians use to denote a small portable battery-powered electric lamp.

The British word for the same object is simply "torch" and the American name for it is "flashlight." So Nigerians took the British "torch" and combined it with the American "light" to produce a unique word that is both British and American—and neither British nor American! Of course, "torchlight" also exists as a separate word in both British and American English, but it only refers to the light produced by a flashlight—or a torch, if you will.

“Short-knicker.” The word "short-knicker" belongs in this category. It is also derived from mixing American and British English. "Shorts" is the preferred American word for trousers that end at or above the knee. The British prefer "knickers," although as I said earlier, American English usage is now so widely spread in Britain that these distinctions are sometimes meaningless. But the important point to note is that Nigerians formed this word when it still made sense to talk of distinct American and British English.

“International passport.” I have also found out that Nigerian use of the phrase "international passport" to refer to "passport" is traceable to America. By "passport" I am referring to the document issued by a country to its citizens, which allows them to travel abroad and reenter their home countries; I am not referring to "passport photos," which Nigerians like to call "passports"— against the conventions of British and American English. In American bureaucratic circles, "international passport" is commonly used to denote non-American passports.

There is, for instance, the "International Passport Act" and an "International Passport Office Program" here in the United States. The act and the program address the passport issues of people from other countries who travel to the United States for various reasons. So "international passport" in America simply means foreign passports. Ordinary Americans do not prefix the adjective "international" when referring to their own passports. Perhaps the first Nigerians who traveled to the United States were confused by this nomenclature and passed down the confusion to later generations of Nigerians.

“Off head.” And the Nigerian English idiom "off head" seems to be traceable to the American expression "off the top of my head," which is now also common in British English. Both expressions describe the sense of doing something with little or no preparation or forethought.

“Tight friend”/ “Oftentimes,” “re-occur,” etc. There are several expressions I was taught to avoid when I was in secondary school that I find widely used here. Some examples are: "tight friend" (instead of "close friend"), "point accusing fingers" (instead of "point fingers"), "senior/junior brother" (instead of "elder/younger brother"), "re-occur" (instead of "recur"), "oftentimes" (instead of "often"), etc.

I first noticed these expressions in my students' essays and almost felt as if I was reading essays written by Nigerians. But it is my personal philosophy never to assume any expression to be wrong until I actually confirm this through inquiry. And, sure enough, what I thought were usage errors in my students' essays turned out to be respectable usage patterns in American English.

“Same to you.” On many occasions, I can't help being amused by the conflict between what Bayo Oguntuase, the language activist who wrote for the defunct Sunday Concord, identified as usage errors unique to Nigeria and what I encounter here. For instance, he once wrote that the expression "(the) same to you" as a response to an expression of goodwill is wrong. He said the correct response should be "I wish you the same." Well, "same to you" is perfectly legitimate in American English.

“Congrats.” Oguntuase also once wrote that the word "congrats" was a Nigerian invention. That, too, is wrong. The word is the American short form of "congratulations"; Nigerians merely adopted it. Even the British now use it widely.

“I’m coming.” But the biggest surprise for me is the discovery that Americans also use the expression "I am coming" to indicate that they will be returning soon, although this usage is nonstandard even here. But I had been socialized into thinking that the expression is merely the literal translation of our Nigerian languages: na wee in Batonu, ina zuwa in Hausa, mon bowa in Yoruba, etc.

“Rub minds.” I also discovered that the expression "to rub minds," which a language columnist in Nigeria once described as uniquely Nigerian, is actually an old-fashioned American English expression. Americans now use the word "brainstorm," which sounds rather formal, even pretentious, in Nigerian English.

“Assignment.” The notion of “assignment” as work assigned to students by a teacher didn’t come to Nigeria via British English; it came to Nigerian English through American English. British linguist Roger Blench once suggested that it was probably popularized by American Peace Corps volunteers who taught at Nigerian secondary schools early in the life of the nation. However, in contemporary American English, “homework” is now generally preferred to assignment.

“Kerosene.” British English speakers don’t call lamp oil kerosene; they call it paraffin. “Kerosene” is chiefly American English, but it’s also popular in Indian English, Australian English and New Zealand English. But British East Africans prefer “paraffin” to “kerosene.” It isn’t clear why most Nigerian English speakers aren’t even remotely familiar with the British English “paraffin” even though Nigerian English is derived from British English.

“Y’all.” The most surprising Americanism in contemporary Nigerian English is the appearance of “y’all” especially in the lect of young people on social media. This expression, which is the shortening of “you” and “all” to represent second-person plural, is often associated with the English of southern United States (called “southernism”) and African American Vernacular English. It is fascinating that the Internet has caused an American regional expression to gain traction in Nigerian English. 

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Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Dangerous Criminalization of Fulani Ethnicity

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

The Nigerian mass media—and the online echo chambers they have spawned on social media and elsewhere—have normalized the pathologization and criminalization of the Fulani ethnic identity through their popularization of the odious “Fulani herdsmen” collocation. Criminalizing and pathologizing an entire ethnic identity is often the precursor to genocide.

That’s why an ignorant and hate-filled preacher by the name of Apostle Johnson Suleiman could glibly tell his church members to extra-judicially murder “Fulani herdsmen.” “And I told my people, any Fulani herdsman you see around you, kill him,” he said in a widely circulated video. “I have told them in the church here that any Fulani herdsman that just entered by mistake, kill him, kill him! Cut his head!”

Before I am misunderstood, let me be clear that I am not defending, excusing, or minimizing the mass murders attributed to some “Fulani herdsmen” in Agatu, southern Kaduna, and elsewhere. No human being deserves to be killed by any group for any reason. For as long as I breathe, I will always defend the sanctity of human life. That’s why, although I’m not a Shiite, I came down very hard on the Buhari government for its horrendously bestial mass slaughter of innocent Shiites in 2015.

But we can condemn a wrong by a people without tarring an entire community numbering millions of people across vast swathes of land in West Africa with a broad brush. The Fulani people are far and away the most widely dispersed ethnic group in West Africa. And, although they dominate the cattle herding trade, they are not all cattle herders, and most cattle herders aren’t violent and murderous. Nor are all cattle herders Fulanis.

Most importantly, though, although “settled,” urban Fulanis are mostly Muslims, cattle-herding Fulanis are mostly neither Muslims nor Christians. Their whole religion is usually just the welfare of their cattle. In addition, cattle-herding Fulanis don’t recognize, much less have loyalty to, Nigeria’s prevailing geopolitical demarcations. In other words, they are not invariably northerners.

So if they have sanguinary clashes with farmers, those clashes aren’t instigated by religion or region. They are just age-old farmer/herder clashes. I admit, though, that it isn’t just Middle Beltan and southern Nigerian victims of farmer/herder clashes that use the lenses of Nigeria’s primordial fissures to gaze at Fulani herders; northern Nigerian Muslim politicians, especially those that have a Fulani bloodline, also use these lenses to defend and protect their “kinsfolk,” often ignorantly and opportunistically.

In 2000, for instance, General Muhammadu Buhari traveled all the way from Kaduna to Ibadan to protect Fulani herdsmen who were at the receiving end of retaliatory killings by Yoruba farmers. Governor el-Rufai is also a self-confessed Fulani supremacist who once threatened retaliation against other ethnic groups on behalf of Fulani herders. I think it is these sorts of misguided parochialisms that conduce to the conflation of Fulani herder identity with the identity and divisive politics of urban northern Nigerian elites with tinctures of Fulani ancestry.

But this is all wrong. My late father was raised by Fulani herders for the first 12 years of his life. I also have adoptive full-blooded Fulani cousins who were raised by my grandfather and my paternal aunt. They were abandoned at birth in the hospital when their mothers died in labor in my hometown, and they were adopted by my grandfather. That was not unusual in my community in bygone days.  So when I talk of cattle-herding Fulani people, I do so with the benefit both of personal experience and scholarly immersion into their life, history and ways.

The Fulani nomads who destroy communities throughout West Africa, not just in Nigeria, don't have any sense of rootedness in any modern nation-state. They are, for the most part, untouched by the faintest sprinkle of modernity, and owe no allegiance to any overarching primordial, regional, or religious identity. That’s why they are called transhumant pastoralists.

But there are also bucolic Fulani herders who plant roots in communities, live peacefully with their hosts, and even speak the languages of the communities they choose to live in. In my hometown, the Fulani are so integral to the community that the king of the Fulani, who is appointed by our emir (who isn’t Fulani), is part of the 7 kingmakers that elect a new emir. These rooted, bucolic Fulani herders are often exempt from the episodic communal upheavals that so often erupt between sedentary communities and itinerant herders.

I recall that there was a particularly sanguinary class between Fulani herders and farmers in the early 1990s that caused so many deaths in western Borgu. Farmers chose to retaliate the killings of their kind and organized a well-planned counter attack that caused scores of itinerant cattle herders—and their cattle—to be killed. What was intriguing about the counter attack was that the farmers spared all settled Fulani herders. They told them apart from the transhumant herders because the local Fulani spoke the local language. Ability to speak the local language indicated that they weren't the "citizens without frontiers" who unleashed terror on farming communities.

 A similar incident happened in the Oke-Ogun area of Oyo State in 2000. In the retaliatory attacks against Fulani nomads who killed farmers, Yoruba-speaking Fulani cattle herders were spared. Like in Borgu and elsewhere, bucolic Fulani herders are intricately woven into the fabric of the communities in which they live.

I am saying all this to call attention to the reality that farmer/herder clashes aren't north-south, Muslim-Christian or ethnic conflicts. The Fulani who have lived in the south for ages don't see themselves as northerners living in the south—and they are NOT. In any case, they've lived there prior to the advent of colonialism that invented the Nigerian nation-state. Notions of southern Nigeria and northern Nigeria are colonial categories that have little or no meaning to both the bucolic Fulani nomads who live peacefully with their hosts and the blood-thirsty, marauding citizens without frontiers who inflict violence on farming communities all over West Africa, not just in southern or Middle Beltan Nigeria.

So which of the two categories of Fulani herders do the Nigerian media mean when they criminalize “Fulani herdsmen?” And which one does Apostle Suleiman want his church members to murder in cold blood?

But it gets even trickier. Sometime in 2003 in Gombe, itinerant Fulani herders called the Udawa killed scores of farmers most of whom were ethnic and linguistic Fulanis. Former Governor Abubakar Hashidu had to request federal military assistance to contain the menace of the Udawa. Similarly, hundreds of Hausa and Fulani farmers in Nigeria’s northwest get killed by transhumant Fulani herders every year. But such stories don’t make it to the national news because it isn’t “newsy” to read about Fulani herders killing Fulani farmers.

The media have a responsibility to let the world know that it is transhumant herders with no sense of geographic rootedness that are drenching communities in blood, not all “Fulani herdsmen,” many of whom are peaceful, organic members of the communities in which they live.

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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Presidential Lying in Defense of Corrupt “Executhieves”

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

People who have read my column for the last few weeks might be led to suppose that I really do hate President Buhari, that I get kicks from criticizing him, and that I have imposed on myself the task of bringing down his government. Nothing can be further from the truth. I actually feel deep, biting pains any time I have a reason to criticize the president.

Read my column before and after the president’s electoral victory to see the depth of hopes I had invested in his government. In particular, read my May 16, 2015 article titled “6 Reasons Why Incoming Buhari Government Fills Me with Hope.” Nearly two years later, the Buhari government now fills me with disabling hopelessness.

Every week I take a decision to ignore the administration and its shenanigans, it never fails to do something so outrageous one can’t afford to ignore it. The administration keeps outdoing itself in hitting newer, deeper, more indefensible lows.

The latest is the president’s astonishingly bald-faced lies in defense of SGF Babachir David Lawal. In his letter to the Senate "clearing" Babachir David Lawal of multi-million naira "grass cutting" corruption scandal, the president said the senate didn't invite Lawal to defend himself. Lie. He WAS invited via a letter, which the permanent secretary attached to his office acknowledged, and via at least three newspaper adverts. But he spurned the invitation and sent a representative.

The president also said only three senate committee members signed the letter asking for Lawal's resignation and prosecution. Another lie. Seven senate committee members did. The president, in fact, omitted the name of Senator Shehu Sani, the chairman of the senate committee that indicted Babachir Lawal, in his letter to the senate!

Senator Mohammed Hassan of Yobe State whom the president, in his letter, said didn’t sign the senate committee report told journalists that he agreed with the committee’s recommendation that Babachir be fired and prosecuted. “Was there any member of the committee that kicked against the report?” he asked. “It is a committee work. We don’t have minority report.” In any case, he said, even if only three out of nine people signed it (which isn’t true), that’s enough to form a quorum by senate rules.

Similarly, Senator Mallam Ali Wakili of Bauchi State whom the president’s letter also named as one of the senators who didn’t sign the letter asking for SGF Lawal’s resignation and prosecution told the Daily Trust on January 25, 2017 that he did sign the letter. “Contrary to the President’s letter,” Daily Trust reported, “he signed the report of the committee.”

For me, a man who knowingly and intentionally lies has no integrity. What is worse, a man who defends the blatant corruption of his close aides while pretending to be fighting corruption involving his political opponents has no integrity.

How can anyone with even a smidgen of conscience defend a man who stole from desperately poor and vulnerable Boko Haram victims, a man who once publicly bragged about receiving a monetary bribe from Ebonyi State governor David Umahi, a man who is so brazenly corrupt he is tagged "cash and carry" in government circles?

This doesn't surprise me, though. In my December 24, 2016 column titled "Tragicomedy of a corrupt ‘anti-corruption’ government," I predicted what is happening now.

I wrote: “People who are intimate with President Buhari told me several months ago in the heat of my unrestrained enthusiasm over his emergence as president that he was morally and temperamentally unsuited to fight corruption. They said the undue premium the president places on ‘personal loyalty’ causes him to ignore, excuse, and even defend the corruption of his close associates. I was regaled with troubling tales of the mind-boggling corruption against close, loyal aides that he swept under the carpet at the PTF, The Buhari Organization (TBO), and at the defunct CPC. Babachir Lawal was a dominant figure in CPC; he knows President Buhari well enough to know that nothing will happen to him for all his villainous rape of vulnerable IDPs in Borno and Yobe as long as he can impress the president that he is irrevocably 'loyal' to him."

President Buhari has proved me right. He ignored the weighty substance of the senate committee’s submission and instead nitpicked procedural lapses in the committee’s work— using intentional, easily falsifiable lies—in order to save the neck of his “loyal” political associate.

Now President Buhari has reduced himself to the pathetic position of Clearer-in-Chief of the Federal Republic of “Executhief” Corruption.

Opponents of the president get ARRESTED and JAILED on the basis of mere ALLEGATIONS. Dasuki is still in jail in spite of court orders to release him on bail. Metuh, Abati, Fani-Kayode, etc. were all arrested and jailed on the basis of allegations. There was a midnight raid on judges' homes without any firm, foolproof evidence of their complicity in corruption. The president's corrupt opponents, in addition, get tried and smeared in the media by the EFCC.

To be clear, I have no sympathy for all of them. I think they deserve their fate.

But demonstrably corrupt Buhari associates are not only invariably shielded from prosecution, they are also mollycoddled by the president. They are serially "cleared," sometimes via dubious "technicalities" (such as in the case of Babachir David Lawal) by the "anti-corruption" president himself—as compromised and ethically dubious judges and lawyers do when they try and defend corrupt politicians. So Buhari is now indistinguishable from the corrupt people he claims to fight.

In Buhari's Nigeria, there are two judicial standards: the president's opponents are always guilty until proven innocent while the president's corrupt associates are always, always innocent until “cleared” by the president who now doubles as the Clearer-in-Chief of “Executhief” Corruption. Some way to fight corruption!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Princes, Not Kings, Are Called "His Royal Highness"

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

In this week’s column, based on requests from readers, I explain why the popular Nigerian English “His Royal Highness” is strange to English speakers outside Nigeria. I also explain why “the Gambia” is always preceded by the article “the.” You will find other questions and answers on grammar and usage as well.

Traditional rulers in Nigeria are often formally addressed as “His Royal Highness.” That is unconventional by the standards of British English from where we borrowed it. Sovereign monarchs or kings are never addressed as “His/Her Royal Highness.” Only princes and princesses are addressed as such.
In British English these monarchs are addressed as Their "Royal Majesty," not Their "Royal Highness"
When princes or princesses become monarchs, they are addressed as “His Majesty” if they are males or “Her Majesty” if they are females. In some countries they are addressed as “His/Her Royal Majesty.”

Many British citizens not familiar with Nigeria’s conventions of address mistake our monarchs as princes because of the “His Royal Highness” (or HRH) honorific that precedes their names. In other European countries, such as the Netherlands, monarchs that have abdicated their thrones are also called “His Royal Highness.”

As I wrote in a previous article, a British person unfamiliar with the forms of address in Nigerian English would, for instance, think the Emir of Kano is a mere prince of Kano if he is addressed as “His Royal Highness, Muhammadu Sanusi II.”

I don’t know why Nigerians call their monarchs “His Royal Highness” instead of “His (Royal) Majesty” or some other more befitting honorific, but given how the British colonial government discouraged monarchs in their colonies being called “kings” (see my August 3, 2014 article titled “5 Words Native English Speakers Never Ever Use for Themselves”) it is conceivable that this, too, has roots in colonial politics of racial and cultural differentiation.

British colonialists compelled traditional rulers in their colonies to refer to themselves as “chiefs” and not “kings.” Most English dictionaries define a “chief” as the head of a “tribe” or a “clan.” That’s why it’s also rendered as “tribal chief.” (Although “tribe” has more than one meaning, when it is used to refer to an ethnic group, it means primitive, preliterate people.) Since Europeans—or at least contemporary Europeans—have no “tribes” (read my articles on the word “tribe”), they have no “chiefs.” Only nonwhite people do. What Europeans had or have are “kings”—and “queens.”

But a little more context is needed to unpack the ethnocentrism of the term. I recently read an 1821 British Foreign Office document titled Correspondence with Foreign Courts Regarding Execution of Treaties Contracted. On page 110 of the document, the reader finds that the British colonial government actually went out of its way to purposively discourage people in their African and Asian colonies from calling their monarchs “kings.”

“King,” the document says, is reserved only for a British monarch. Monarchs in the colonies should just be called “chiefs.” If the “chiefs” enjoy enduring historic prestige among their people, they might be called “paramount chiefs,” but never “kings.”  

Nigerians have internalized this nomenclatural discrimination and call their monarchs “chiefs.” This is especially true in northern Nigeria where non-Muslim—or non-Emirate— traditional rulers are called “chiefs,” and their spheres of traditional influence are called “chiefdoms.”

In southern Nigeria “chief” is chiefly prefixed to the name of a traditional title holder. (See my June 15, 2014 article titled “A Pragmatic Analysis of ‘Emir,’ ‘Sarki,’ ‘Oba’ and ‘Chief’ in Nigerian English.”) It is equivalent to a knighthood in Britain, that is, an honor given by a traditional ruler to a non-royal person for personal merit or, in southern Nigeria, for being rich and famous. So southern Nigerian “chiefs” are not royalty.

But “chiefs” in northern Nigeria are royalty, even if recently invented royalty. Won’t it be nice, in the interest of linguistic equity, if we prefixed “Chief” to the names of these European monarchs: the Chief of England, the Chief of Denmark, the Chief of Norway, the Chief of Spain, the Chief of Sweden, the Chief of the Netherlands, the Chief of Belgium, etc.?

Why the “the” in the Gambia?
Many people have asked me to explain the appearance of the definite article “the” in the name of the Gambia, which just narrowly escaped a civil war thanks to the intervention of ECOWAS. Well, typically, the names of countries that derive their names from the names of rivers are often preceded by the definite article “the.” Gambia takes its name from the 700-mile Gambia River.

Another example of a country that derived its name from a river and, for that reason, usually has the article “the” in its names is “the Congo” (named after the Congo River). But there are many countries named after rivers (such as Zambia, Uruguay, etc.) that don’t officially have the definite article “the” in their names. It’s a national preference.

Countries whose names are invariably pluralized also usually have the definite article “the” in their names. Examples are the Netherlands, the Philippines, the West Indies, the United States, etc.

Question:
I am accustomed to saying "jokes apart" when I want to get serious after joking, but I was checking my dictionary this morning and I saw the phrase "joking apart/aside," which means the same thing with what I know as “jokes apart.” I want to know which one is more correct than the other.  

Answer:
Although it may sound strange to many Nigerians, the correct idiom is "joking apart" or "joking aside."  Sometimes it’s rendered as “all joking apart/aside.” The phrase "jokes apart," I’ve discovered, is unique to Nigerian English and Indian English. I am yet to figure out why only Nigerian and Indians render the phrase as “jokes apart.” Although both varieties of English are descended from British English, their unique phrasing for the idiom is certainly not British.

 A search for the phrase in the British National Corpus yielded not a single match. (The British National Corpus is a “100 million word collection of samples of written and spoken language from a wide range of sources, designed to represent a wide cross-section of current British English, both spoken and written.”)

Question:
 I met an American girl online some time ago. In the course of our chat, she told me she wasn’t married, so I said something about her being a “spinster” and she got upset. What’s wrong with calling an unmarried woman a spinster? What am I missing?

Answer:
 You’re missing a lot. In contemporary English usage, the word spinster is considered pejorative. Careful speakers and writers avoid it.

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, “In modern everyday English spinster cannot be used to mean simply 'unmarried woman'; it is now always a derogatory term, referring or alluding to a stereotype of an older woman who is unmarried, childless, prissy, and repressed."

So, by the conventions of modern usage, it’s incorrect to call a young woman in her 20s or 30s—or maybe even early 40s— a “spinster.” The word is reserved only for women who are still unmarried—and childless— by the time they reached or are approaching menopause. 

American English uses “bachelorette” or “bachelor girl” to refer to an unmarried young woman. Note, though, that these terms are absent in British English, although America’s cultural dominance ensures that they are widely understood. “Single” or “single woman” appears to be the preferred term across all native English varieties.

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Saturday, January 21, 2017

Buhari’s Gambian Gambit As Borno Burns

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

Gambians are our West African brothers and sisters who deserve our help in their hour of need. I get that. But no one can truly help the other when they are themselves in need of help, when they are wracked by internal turmoil. President Buhari has no business being in Gambia’s business while his country burns.

Imagine for a moment that Nigeria's current president were a man called Goodluck Jonathan (or, for that matter, any southern Christian), and the military “mistakenly” dropped a bomb on hapless internally displaced Boko Haram victims, killing scores of them and critically injuring many more. Imagine again that such a president didn't deem it worth his while to visit the state where this grievous tragedy happened, but instead chose to go to another country to resolve the country's political differences. What would we northern Muslims be saying by now?

Well, something close actually happened in late 2014. At a time Boko Haram captured Mubi, Adamawa's second largest town and former Chief of Defense Staff Alex Badeh's hometown, Goodluck Jonathan chose to travel to Burkina Faso to resolve the country's political crisis. The public denunciation that followed that presidential indiscretion was swift and massive.

This was what I wrote in my November 8, 2014 column titled, "State of Emergency Amid Worsening Boko Haram Insurgency": "Amid the heartrending humanitarian disaster that Boko Haram has wreaked on Mubi, the president chose to travel to Burkina Faso to 'resolve' the country’s political crisis. Which sane person goes to put out another person’s fire while his house is up in flames? I have never seen a more cruelly insensitive and clueless response to a grave national crisis than this in my entire life."

Buhari's situation is actually worse. The military he is commander-in-chief of, not Boko Haram, was singularly responsible for “mistakenly” killing scores of vulnerable, hungry and serially cheated IDPs, and all he has done is issue a “regret” through his Twitter handle. He didn’t physically travel to Borno State to condole with and comfort the people. He is more concerned with and consumed by what is happening in the Gambia than the humanitarian tragedy that is unfolding in his own backyard.

To be clear, I don’t think the Nigerian air force deliberately targeted the IDPs. I don’t see what purpose that would serve. It is entirely reasonable to agree that it was genuinely an accident. But it’s a monumental, unprecedented national disaster nonetheless. It should have invited a solemn presidential national broadcast, not a mere tweet, which we all know the president didn’t even compose.

It’s true that even well-trained military personnel like America’s have had occasions to accidentally bomb wrong targets in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. But we are talking here of a nation’s military accidentally bombing its own fellow citizens in their own country—and in their weakest and most helpless state!

A Facebook friend of mine by the name of Solomon Wise captured the tragedy this way in his comment on my wall: “Ravaged by Boko Haram and forced to live in an IDP camp in their own country where Govt officials steal their food. Now mistakenly bombed.” This caused me to shed a tear. Call me a wimp if you like, but it did make me cry.

Now, a presidential national broadcast to mourn this tragedy and a personal visit by the president to give emotional strength to the bereaved won’t bring back the lost lives, but it would show respect for the dead and show that the president cares and takes responsibility for the fatal error of the people he is commander-in-chief of. In no serious country in the world would a president fly to another country in the face of this unexampled tragedy and ask his Chief of Staff to represent him in condoling grieving families.

I am not by any means minimizing the horrendousness of other humanitarian tragedies that the president has unwisely chosen to justify (such as the bloodcurdling military mass murders of Shias in Zaria) or ignore (such as the absolutely condemnable butchery in southern Kaduna and Agatu), but the accidental bombing, by the Nigerian military, of the survivors of Boko Haram’s unspeakable savagery amid the unconscionable governmental neglect they already suffered deserved a swifter, less insensitive, and more humane response from the commander-in-chief.

There is no way to sugarcoat it: Buhari's response is at once clueless, cruel, and condemnable. Unfortunately, it fits a pattern that is emerging in his attitude to and relationship with the poor. He has a profoundly ice-cold contempt for the poor.

Although he has traveled to virtually every continent in the world and has budgeted hundreds of millions of naira this year to travel to even more countries, he has never visited the theaters of Boko Haram insurgency. He simply sits in the luxury of Aso Rock and proclaims the “technical defeat” (whatever in the world that means) of Boko Haram and talks to soldiers on the front lines via closed-circuit television.

What would it cost the president to pay a symbolic visit to the northeast—and elsewhere? When he was soliciting votes from potential voters, he traveled to every state except Yobe. He campaigned in Borno and Adamawa, which were gripped by a fiercer confrontation with Boko Haram than now.

Why won’t the president visit Borno now, especially in light of the quick succession of tragedies that have hit the state? Before the “accidental” bombing of IDPs, a University of Maiduguri veterinary medicine professor and 4 others were murdered by a 7-year-old Boko Haram suicide bomber.

Well, you know, the victims are poor, unknown people who are of no consequence to the president. When former Vice President Atiku Abubakar’s daughter got married in Adamawa, the president braved out the “odds” (never mind that he says he has “technically defeated” Boko Haram) and physically attended the wedding ceremony. Nobody represented him. He even said his wedding-induced visit gave him a glimpse of the suffering of the people of the state and caused him to shed tears, hopefully not crocodile tears.

Had a humanitarian tragedy struck Adamawa, you can bet your bottom naira that the president won’t personally go there. Apparently, poor people don’t matter—unless their votes are needed as ladders to climb to power. Perhaps a rich, politically connected Borno man should marry off his daughter and invite the president. Maybe that is what it would take for the president to visit Borno. All people who want the president’s presence in their states should replicate this stratagem.

It appears that, for President Buhari, who had been falsely thought of for years as a defender of the talakawa, only the rich matter.  That’s why he attends rich people’s festive occasions outside of Abuja and instructs his media aides to issue presidential birthday wishes on the occasion of rich people’s birthdays, but picks and chooses which tragedies involving poor people he comments on or commiserates with.

To be fair to Buhari, most, perhaps all, Nigerian politicians deeply disdain the poor. We only thought Buhari was different. He obviously is not. Sad.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Memories and Legacies from My Late Father

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

During my last six-minute phone conversation with my late father on December 28, 2016, he said something that was morbidly poignant.

When I told him not to talk as if his life was ending, he said, “even if I die today, I would die a happy, fulfilled man because in you I live. In your daughter whom you named after my mother, I live. In your son whom you named after me, I live. In your siblings, I live. In the legacies I imparted to you and that you’ll impart to your children, I live.”
Photo taken in the summer of 2009 when I visited home
Two days later, he died peacefully surrounded by his wife, children, and other well-wishers. In retrospect, he had come to terms with his own corporeal mortality, but was buoyed up by his confidence in his incorporeal immortality.

Six qualities defined my father: trust, truth, faithfulness, kindness, hard work, and a deep aversion to superstition and ignorance. He ossified these qualities in the names he chose for his first three children. His first son, my older brother, is called (Al-) Amin, which is Arabic for the trustworthy. My name, Farooq, is Arabic for one who distinguishes truth from falsehood, and my younger brother is named Abdulmumin, which means servant of the faithful. He told me the choice of the names was deliberate.

From our formative, impressionable years, he let us know the meanings of our names and the importance he attached to the meanings. Through his constant reminders of the moral burden of my name, he caused me to internalize the imperative of truth-telling. I often “betrayed” my brothers by telling our dad inconvenient truths about our childhood indiscretions that got us into trouble with him.

 My brothers used to call me a treacherous chump who easily fell for our dad’s flattery. “Must you always get us into trouble because you want to live up to daddy’s flattery that you are truth teller?” they would say.

A compulsive urge to tell the truth, even if it’s against me, or makes me unpopular and disliked, has become an inescapable part of me. Of course, I would be making false claims to superhuman perfection if I said I have never lied, but I always feel a deep, gnawing sense of philosophical and existential unease when I knowingly lie or omit the truth.

I never knew my father to lie under any circumstance. I recall that when I was growing up, people in my community thought my dad, being a Malam, used to feed me on steady staples of mysterious, intelligence-enhancing charms, called “faham” (Arabic for “understanding”), which is believed in Muslim communities to possess the capacity to make students excel in school. But my older and younger brothers were average.

People came to him to ask him to give them the faham that he purportedly gave me. First, he didn’t believe in that superstitious crap and he always told us that. Second, he would tell the people that he had three boys all of whom he wanted to excel in school. “Why would I give faham, if it were real, to one and not the others?”

When the requests became persistent and he got tired of telling people that there was no such thing as faham, he asked us to write random Quranic verses on a wooden slate with edible ink, wash it and save the water in a bottle. He asked the people who asked for it to drink it, but on one condition: that they studied every day or risk insanity. A couple of months later, a bunch of them came to tell him their performance had improved in school and wanted to show gratitude by giving him money.
Adam Kperogi and Adamu Kperogi--summer 2016
He politely declined their money and told them it was their hard work of reading every day, and not the edible ink (or fahan) they drank, that caused the improvement in their grades. “Any Malam who collects your money and tells you he can improve your class performance by giving you faham is a fraud. Such a belief has no basis in Islam,” he said.

I also recall a day when a Hausa preacher came to our town to preach. A small crowd gathered. His sermons were translated by a Baatonu translator. The man would read passages from the Qur’an in Arabic, translate them into Hausa, go into elaborate exegeses, and his interpreter would translate his Hausa translations into Baatonu. It turned out that he was just bullshitting. There was no connection between the Quranic passages he read out in Arabic and the Hausa translations he gave to them.

My dad spoke and wrote fluent Arabic and the Kumasi dialect of Hausa, and told me the preacher was bullshitting. He went to the preacher and spoke Arabic to him. The man didn’t understand Arabic. Then he spoke to him in Hausa and told him he was mistranslating the verses. The man thanked him nervously and abruptly ended the preaching. I was about 8 years old when this happened, and it has endured in my memories to this day.

Another fond memory I cherish was the day he and I were coming from the mosque when two men approached him and importuned him to give them money. They said they hadn’t eaten all day. My dad was the kindest human being I ever know. He would give his last penny to people in need. So he gave the men all the money he had on him. “I don’t have a lot with me now, but I am a salary earner and the month will end in a few days. You need this more than I do,” he said.

As soon as the men left, we overheard their conversation in hushed voices. “I told you this good luck charm is very efficient,” the man who got the money said to the other. “The man brought out all that he had against his better judgment!”

My dad intensely disliked and disdained sorcery, charms, and all modes of superstitions. He knew that I had overheard the two men’s conversations and might believe in the efficacy of charms, which he taught me was fake. So he called the man he gave the money to. He put his hand in his pocket and said the man should bring the money he had just given him. He said he wanted to give him more.

When the man handed the money to him, my dad said, “I gave you the money out of compassion. I thought you really needed it. I didn’t give you because of your good luck charms. There is no such thing as a good luck charm. Have a good day.”


My most cherished memory of him, though, is that he bought me my first dictionary when he realized that I had tremendous interest in language. He told me the dictionary contained the secret to understanding a language. How true!

He was right that that even in death he lives. Interestingly, after my children and I cried when I told them of their grandfather’s passing, my son, Adam, consoled me by saying, “I’m Baa’s replacement since you gave me his name.” I was overwrought with emotions. 

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Sunday, January 8, 2017

No, Petrol Isn’t Otherwise Known as “Premium Motor Spirit”

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

Although I have written at least two articles on the misconception in Nigerian journalistic circles that “premium motor spirit” is the proper name for petrol, scores of people keep writing to ask me to comment on the habitual practice in Nigerian news writing to identify petrol by the phrase “premium motor spirit otherwise known as petrol.”

Clearly, many Nigerian English speakers have refused to be influenced by this peculiar Nigerian journalistic usage, which is both surprising and refreshing because language use in the mass media tends to quickly percolate into and influence usage patterns in the larger society. I have personally never come across any everyday Nigerian who refers to petrol as “premium motor spirit.” Only Nigerian journalists seem to call petrol “premium motor spirit.” So we might safely refer to the expression as part of the repertoire of Nigerian journalese, that is, an expressive style specific to Nigerian journalism.

But what is the origin of the phrase “premium motor spirit”? Why are Nigerian journalists enamored with it? And why is it a strange turn of phrase that is unintelligible to most English speakers outside Nigeria? Answers to these questions will be drawn mostly from my previous articles on the subject. But I have added fresh facts that I uncovered in the intervening period between the last time I wrote on it and now.

Usage of “Premium Motor Spirit”
Every Nigerian newspaper refers to petrol as “premium motor spirit” or PMS. In fact, “petrol” is typically represented as the alias of “premium motor spirit.” In other words, Nigerian newspapers mislead their readers into thinking that everyone in the English-speaking world recognizes “premium motor spirit” as the real name for “petrol.”

 Take, for instance, this recent lead from Premium Times, arguably Nigeria’s best-written (online) newspaper: “Premium Motor Spirit, otherwise known as petrol, is selling at N500 per litre in the black market in Kaduna State as government began enforcement of ban on sale of petroleum products in jerry cans.”

 Well, only Nigerian newspapers, and the people who are influenced by them, call petrol “premium motor spirit.” It’s an entirely meaningless phrase to native English speakers in America, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It also makes no sense to English speakers in India, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and other Commonwealth countries where English is spoken as a second language.

 In 2012, I asked several of my American friends, colleagues, and students what meaning the phrase “premium motor spirit” evoked in them. They all said they had never encountered the phrase and had no clue what it meant.

I searched the 520-million-word Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) to see if any American English speaker has ever used the term. I got no matching record. I also searched the 400-million-word Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) to find out if any American ever used the expression between 1810 and 2009.  Again, no luck.

I thought, perhaps, the phrase would be familiar to British English speakers, so I searched the British National Corpus to see if there is any record of its use in British English. No luck, either.

Finally, I searched the 1.9-billion-word Corpus of Global Web-Based English, which indexes English usage in 20 different English-speaking countries. I had some luck this time around. I got 53 matches. But of the 53 matches for “premium motor spirit” that turned up in the database, 49 came from Nigerian English users, 3 from Ghanaian English users, and 1 from a Kenyan newspaper.

When I followed the link to the Ghanaian sites that used “premium motor spirit,” I found that the writers were Nigerians who were based in Ghana. The fact that Kenya is the only other country where “premium motor spirit” was used, even if only once, as an alternative name for “petrol” alerted me to the fact that the word probably has British English roots.

Origins of “Motor Spirit”
My hunch was right. Although the term enjoys no currency in contemporary British English (as evidenced from its complete absence from the British National Corpus), it actually started life in Britain some 200 years ago.

Carless, Capel & Leonard (now renamed Petrochem Carless Ltd), one of Britain’s first oil companies, was the first to use the term “petrol” in English, in 1870, to refer to refined petroleum products, which weren’t used to power cars at the time.

By the 1930s when petrol became the fuel used in internal combustion engines, Carless, Capel & Leonard applied to trademark “petrol” so that the company’s competitors (who frequently used the term “motor spirit” to refer to their product) won’t be able to call their product “petrol.” But the application was denied because the use of “petrol” to refer to refined petroleum products, derived from the French petrole (ultimately from Medieval Latin petroleum, which literally means “rock oil,” from the Latin petra, which means rock or stone, and oleum, which means oil.) had become widespread by the 1930s in Britain.

With the denial of Carless, Capel & Leonard’s application to trademark “petrol,” other British companies that had referred to their product as “motor spirit” freely adopted “petrol” as the name of choice for their product, and “motor spirit” fell into disuse. 

“Premium” wasn’t an invariable lexical component of the name. The “premium” in the name refers to the grade of the product. There are three major grades of petrol in the UK: ordinary unleaded, premium or super unleaded, and leaded four star. In the US, petrol, which is called gasoline or gas, has the following grades: Regular, Mid-grade or Plus, and Premium. Saudi Arabia has “premium” and “super premium” grades of petrol. Many other countries have several names for different grades of petrol.

So “premium” is one of at least three adjectives that could modify “motor spirit” when “motor spirit” enjoyed currency in Britain. There could conceivably have existed “ordinary unleaded motor spirit” or “leaded four star motor spirit”—or whatever names existed at the time for grades of motor spirit in Britain.

In other words, calling petrol “premium motor spirit” is the same thing as calling petrol “premium petrol” now, even though there are other grades of the product. Interestingly, Nigeria is one of only a few countries in the world where petrol is ungraded. Maybe that is why our journalists assume that every petrol is of a premium grade and therefore call petrol “premium motor spirit” (never mind that “motor spirit” is obsolete).

Premium Motor Spirit a Scientific Name?
A few people have asked me if “premium motor spirit” is perhaps the scientific name for petrol since Nigerian oil industry experts, including academic researchers in petroleum studies, liberally use it.  No, it’s not. There isn’t one specific scientific name for petrol.

As I said earlier, “motor spirit” is the archaic British English name for petrol, and “premium” indicates the grade of the “motor spirit.” Today, most British speakers have no idea what “motor spirit” means, and would be even more puzzled by the permanent modification of the term with “premium.”

It’s mystifying that Nigerian journalists—and academics— are the only people still wedded to a phrase that died in Britain in the 1930s.

Note that different countries have different names for petrol. Most people know that Americans and Canadians call it gasoline— or gas for shot. Germans and people who are influenced by German linguistic traditions call it “benzin,” which is derived from “benzene,” a constituent part of petrol. The French from whom the British borrowed “petrol,” now call it “essence.” Spanish-speaking people call it “gasolina.”

I also find it intriguing that Nigerians use the American English “kerosene” instead of the British English “paraffin” as the term of choice for lamp oil.

Maybe Nigeria should formally adopt “motor spirit” as its national name for petrol. After all, petrol is the “spirit” that moves “motors,” which is the alternative name for vehicles in British and Nigerian English.

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Saturday, January 7, 2017

Tribute to my Father Who Died on December 31

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

Last year ended on a tragically sour note for me. As many of my Facebook friends and followers already know, my father, Mallam Adamu Kperogi, died on December 31, 2016 at 7:15 p.m. Nigerian time after a brief illness. Although we have no record of the actual date of his birth, we guestimate that he was at least 92 years old, based on his recollections of and witness to major historical events in Nigeria and the world.

To live up to nearly a century is no doubt an uncommon privilege, but I am still inconsolably devastated by the reality of his permanent corporeal departure from us. He wasn't just my father; he was also my teacher, my mentor, my source of inspiration, my emotional and moral fortress, my biggest cheerleader, my hero, my everything.
Mallam Adamu Kperogi--20 years ago
He taught Arabic and Islamic Studies to generations of students, including me, at many primary schools in my hometown before retiring several years ago. Although he had little formal education, he could speak, read and write in eight languages: Baatonu, Fulfulde, Arabic, Hausa, Yoruba, Dendi, Ashanti, and English.

A few years after his birth, he was taken to a Fulani camp because it was the tradition at the time to take Baatonu children with unusual teething timelines to the Fulani. Children with irregular teething timelines, which in my part of Borgu was understood as cutting the first tooth by the seventh month, were called “flying children” who purportedly portended bad luck for their families. It was a period of ignorance and superstition.

He grew up at a Fulani camp till he was about 10 or 11. So his first language was Fulfulde. By about age 11, he came down with smallpox. Because smallpox was infectious, incurable, and deadly at the time, he was thrown out of the Fulani camp—as was the custom then. He recalled that he was intensely heartbroken that people he thought were his parents kicked him out of his home. He cried and wandered alone in the bush for days, surviving on fruits and water.

Meanwhile, his biological mother often checked up on him periodically at the Fulani camp. On one such flying visits—a few weeks after he was kicked out— his adoptive Fulani parents told his mother that he had been asked to leave the camp to prevent him from infecting the rest of the community with smallpox.

His mother recognized him sitting forlornly under a tree in a village far from the Fulani camp. He survived the smallpox. When he saw his mother, he said, he had no idea whom she was. So he ran as fast as he could. He was dying of hunger and took some people’s food without their permission. He thought his mother was the owner of the food.

His suspicion appeared to  be confirmed, he told me, when the woman enlisted the help of people to run after him and get him. They did. But the woman, instead of being angry, cried uncontrollably. He was confused. The woman said she was his mother, but he said she couldn’t be because he “knew” who exactly his mother was. At the time, the only language he could speak fluently was Fulfulde, which the woman who said was his mother couldn't speak. He spoke a smattering of Baatonu with a noticeable Fulani accent—like most Fulanis in western Borgu.

When his mother finally took him home, he thought he had been kidnapped, except for the unusual tenderness, kindness, and care that were showered on him. But his stay with his biological parents was short-lived. One of his uncles attributed his misfortunes to my dad’s presence in the town. So he was taken to an Islamic scholar in a faraway town to learn Arabic and Islamic jurisprudence.

Many years later, after memorizing the Qur’an, learning classical Arabic, and achieving proficiency in Islamic jurisprudence, he found his way back to his parents’ home. By this time, American Baptist missionaries had set foot in our town and established schools and hospitals. This was in the 1940s.

Some of his younger brothers had enrolled in the newly established elementary schools, but had to convert to Christianity as a precondition for enrollment. Although he was fascinated by the emergent form of education, he said, he couldn’t enroll both because he was too old and because he couldn’t imagine converting to Christianity.

In order to compensate for this, he chose to learn more figh (Arabic for “deep understanding” of Islamic jurisprudence) from an Islamic scholar from Gwandu who had settled in the community. Many years later, however, he decided to travel the coast of West Africa in search of more systematic knowledge of modern Arabic. He attended Arabic schools in Porto Novo and Cotonou in Benin Republic, Lome in Togo, Kumasi in Ghana, etc.

Upon his return to Nigeria, he also enrolled in adult education classes in English and earned the equivalent of a Primary School Leaving Certificate. He had a deep passion for education for the sake of it.

He taught me to read and write first in Arabic at age 4—perhaps earlier—and later in my native Baatonu language in the Roman alphabet. So when I started primary school at age 5 at Baptist Primary School in Okuta (where he was also a teacher), in the Borgu area of Kwara State, I was ahead of many of my peers.

I understood the basic principles of Arabic and Roman orthography and could sound out letters and read Arabic and English passages fairly well. That head start stood me in good stead throughout my educational career.  But he didn’t just give me a head start; he also let me know that he had invested enormous hopes and expectations in me.

He told me several times as a child that he wanted me to have what he deeply desired but couldn’t have. He said he wanted me to get a bachelor’s degree, a master’s, a Ph.D., and shine a light on the world. I had no clue what that meant. I just understood him as telling me to take my studies seriously. And I did. I always made him proud by being among the top three students in my class. (The top three students of every class were often honored with prizes and a public applause every end of semester.)

One semester, in my fourth year of elementary school, I didn’t make it to the top three. I was petrified. I thought my dad would be so disappointed he would skin me alive. So I ran away after the prize-giving ceremony. He looked everywhere for me. He finally found me crying under a tree. That was the first time I saw him visibly emotional.

“Son, I’m neither sad nor disappointed that you didn’t make it to the top three,” I recall him telling me. “Don’t ever think you always have to be the best to impress me. You tried your best. It’s just that other people tried harder than you did. Don’t always expect to be the best. That’s not the way the world works.”

 I can’t tell you how much these words changed my life. They liberated me from the mental bondage of always wanting to be the best in order to impress him. They also taught me the virtue of humility and modest expectations. Knowing that I just needed to do my best and not expect to be the best was one of the greatest existential lessons my dad taught me.

Without consciously working toward it—and certainly not expecting it—I have received the top student prizes at every level of my educational career after this encounter. I owe that to my dad, my first teacher, who also taught generations of people from my part of Nigeria for over four decades.

When he called me on December 29 after recovering from a brief illness to express gratitude to me, he was upbeat, chatty, and unusually prayerful. He told me I had made him proud, that I was everything he ever wanted me to be, that he was a fulfilled man, that the “evening” of his life had turned out way better than the “morning” of his life, etc.

 Well, I’m consoled by the exemplary, fulfilled, praiseworthy life he lived. May Allah reward him with Jannah Al-Firdaus.

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