"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: October 2013

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Q and A on Grammar, Gender, “Alumni” and “Thuggery”

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

In this edition of my Q and A series, I answer questions on why it’s wrong for a woman to say—as Nigerian women do—that she’s “pregnant for” a man, why “spinster” is no longer an appropriate word to refer to all unmarried women, and on how to correctly use “alumnus,” “alumni,” “alumna,” and “alumnae.” I also answer a question about whether or not the word “thuggery” is a uniquely Nigerian English word. Enjoy.


Question:
A contributor to your column once observed that it is only Nigerian women who say they are “pregnant for” their husbands or fianc├ęs or boyfriends. What is grammatically wrong with saying that? What do native English speakers say to indicate that a man is responsible for a pregnancy?

Answer:
Well, in response to the observation of the commenter, who lives in London, I wrote:  “Yes, it is true that only Nigerians say a woman is pregnant ‘for a man.’ It’s probably a translation of socio-cultural thoughts from some Nigerian languages, but the Nigerian languages I am familiar with have no equivalent expression for that phrase. I will only add that native English speakers usually say they are…‘pregnant by a man’ to show that the ‘man’ is responsible for the pregnancy. Americans (both wife and husband) now say ‘we are pregnant’!”

Now that I think about it again, it seems to me that the tendency for Nigerian women to say that they are “pregnant for” a man is a reflection of their internalization of and capitulation to the dominant patriarchal arrogance in the Nigerian society. The phrase gives ownership of the child to the man— to the exclusion of the woman who carries the baby in her stomach for nine months. Since a child is biologically half of both its father and its mother, it is illogical to say you’re pregnant “for” a man. In fact, only the mother can logically claim ownership of a pregnancy. As the commenter you referred to said, “A woman cannot be pregnant for somebody else except for herself!” Being responsible for a pregnancy doesn’t give a man ownership of it; at best it gives the man part ownership of it. Maybe a surrogate mother can correctly say she’s “pregnant for” another woman or a couple since the woman or the couple takes ownership of the child after delivery.

Saying you’re “pregnant for” a man is especially problematic because while a child’s maternal connection is often never in contention (except in rare cases of child swapping in hospitals), its paternity is never always indisputably self-evident except through DNA testing or noticeably striking resemblance. That’s why Americans humorously say “Mommy’s baby, daddy’s maybe.”

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.

Question:
I am often confused about the right word to use to describe a former student of a school. Is it alumni, alumna or alumnus?

Answer:
Even native English speakers are confused by these words, and it’s because the words are part of the few Latin borrowings in English that have not been Anglicized; they still retain their Latin inflections for gender and number.

A former student of a school who is male is called an “alumnus.” The plural is “alumni.” A former student of a school who is female is called an “alumna.” The plural is “alumnae.” However, the male plural, that is, “alumni,” is used as the plural of choice for all former students of a school irrespective of gender. So it is correct to say the “alumni of Bayero University Kano” even though the university has both male and female former students. But it is incorrect to use “alumni” to refer to all-female former students of a school. The correct word is “alumnae.” For example, it is wrong to say “the alumni of Federal Government Girls’ College Bakori.” Replace “alumni” with “alumnae.”

Because of the difficulty in remembering the subtleties of usage between alumnus, alumna, alumni, and alumnae, native English speakers have informally invented “alum” as a catch-all, gender-neutral, singular form for former students, as in “she is an alum of ABU,” “he is an alum of Barewa College.”

Your question reminded me of a recent comical incident that happened on a Nigerian online discussion forum. A conceited and overly self-assertive Nigerian who lives in the United States wanted to impress members of the discussion forum by claiming that he was “an alumni of Harvard Business School.” Someone pointed out that a person who went to Harvard should know enough to know that “alumni” is a plural noun and can’t be used to refer to a single former student. Instead of accepting the correction in good faith, the ignorant braggart defended his solecism. So someone on the discussion board sent an email to Harvard Business School to find out if indeed someone by his name graduated from their school. It turned out that he didn’t get a degree from the school; he only attended a one-week workshop organized by Harvard Business School at a city other than where the school is located!

Question:
Someone told me that the word “thuggery” is a uniquely Nigerian English word. The person seems to be right because each time I type the word on Microsoft Word it always gets underlined. Please let us know if the word is indeed exclusive to Nigeria.

Answer:
You are the third person to ask this question. No, it’s not at all true that “thuggery” is an idiosyncratic Nigerian English word. It occurs regularly in native-speaker English, and is derived from “thug,” which means an aggressive or violent criminal. It entered the English language in the 1800s from the Hindi word “thag,” which means a rogue, a thief, a scoundrel, or a cheat. In the past, in India, there existed a professional association of thieves and assassins who murdered their victims by strangulating them. They were called “Thag.” When reference is made to this group the first letter in the word is always capitalized, as in “Thug.”

When I checked the British National Corpus, I saw several past and contemporary uses of “thuggery.” Recently, too, conservative Republican House of Representatives member Michele Bachmann caused a stir when she accused President Obama of“thuggery.” “I think we could be on the cusp of seeing civil disobedience — I’m not saying I want civil disobedience — but people aren’t going to take the thuggery of this president much longer. We see thuggery going on in the White House. We’re not going to take it,” she said.

So, thuggery is by no means an exclusively Nigerian word. The fact that Microsoft Word underlines it says nothing about its use and acceptance in native-speaker English. Microsoft Word, as you probably know, has a very limited internal dictionary.

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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Comparing Nigerian and Ghanaian Presidents’ Recent American Visits

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

On September 30 this year, Ghana’s President John Dramani Mahama was a guest at Kennesaw State University in suburban Atlanta where I teach. He came here to deliver a public lecture to crown the “Year of Ghana” country program, a year-long exploration of the history, culture, and peoples of Ghana through lectures, exhibitions, visits, etc. at KSU.

When I got an invitation to attend the public lecture (which also featured a Q and A session), I was reluctant to go. I’d frankly grown tired of listening to witless buffoons from Africa coming to make a fool of themselves and their countries before Western audiences in the name of delivering public lectures. I didn’t know what to expect of the Ghanaian president because I had no familiarity with his pedigree, so I chose to err on the side of cynicism.
President John Dramani Mahama
But a friend dragged me to the event at the last minute. I’m glad I attended it. President Mahama turned out to be one of the most inspiring and knowledgeable presidents one could ever wish to meet. He was a superb orator who was also thoughtful, incisive, insightful and supremely self-assured.

His speech was about the “role of democratic governance in sustainable economic development in Ghana,” but he veered off on high-minded intellectual excursions on the discourses of Afro-pessimism, on the perniciousness of alterity, on the role of dominant historical narratives in the construction and reconstruction of the consciousness and image of a people, etc. The speech was certainly conscious of its audience because it read like a paper at an academic conference. Its profundity and high-flown, intellectually fashionable phraseology impressed students and professors alike.

Well, you might say he didn’t deserve much credit for the speech because it was written for him by his speech writers, but one couldn’t help but admire the smoothness, naturalness, and rhetorical dexterity of his delivery. He was earnest, eloquent, and confident. But his true brilliance came out even more boldly during the Q and A session. He answered questions from professors and students with ease, grace, panache, depth, conviction, and creative humor.

Everyone in the hall was bowled over by his brilliance, humility, and intellectual agility. This was evident from the rapturous applauses and good-hearted guffaws that greeted his responses to questions. I came away from the lecture proud of and overawed by the alertness and fecundity of the Ghanaian president’s mind. All of us Africans in the lecture hall raised our heads high.

While basking in the euphoric afterglow of the Ghanaian president’s brilliant performance, I couldn’t help recalling Nigeria’s then Acting President Goodluck Jonathan’s first official visit to America, which I wrote about in an April 17, 2010 article titled “Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, that was Embarrassing.” Among other things, I observed that in his speech and during the Q and A session at the Council on Foreign Relations, President Jonathan “couldn’t articulate a coherent thought, hardly made a complete sentence, went off on inconsequential and puerile tangents, murdered basic grammar with reckless abandon, repeated trifles ad nauseam, was embarrassingly stilted, and generally looked and talked like a timid high school student struggling to remember his memorized lines in a school debate.”  I concluded that Jonathan “came across as unfathomably clueless.”

I certainly would never have attended the public lecture at my school—or anywhere else for that matter— if President Jonathan was the guest. I would never be able to survive the embarrassment of listening to a barely literate president who can’t even read a speech much less answer unscripted questions from students and professors.

 President Mahama of Ghana has only a bachelor’s degree while Nigeria’s president claims to have a Ph.D.  Nigerians like to describe ignorant people with grandiose paper qualifications as “educated illiterates.” I’ve heard that phrase used several times to describe President Jonathan. Well, I think it is more appropriate to call him a highly credentialed ignoramus—if he indeed has a Ph.D.—than to call him an “educated illiterate; it is unfair to mention “educated” in the same sentence with “President Goodluck Jonathan.” I know this sounds harsh, but it’s true.

I’m aware that the usual line of counter-attack from defenders of mediocrity in Nigeria would be that I am hung up on appearance at the expense of substance. Beautiful, confident verbal delivery is not a good measure of leaders’ effectiveness. That is certainly true, except that President Jonathan, apart from being an inconceivably uninspiring and colorless president, is also notoriously ineffective. I would have been one of the staunchest defenders of his seeming illiteracy and depthlessness if he had a clue what governance entails. Alas, he does not; he has not the vaguest idea what it means to truly govern—much, to be fair to him, like many of his predecessors. So we have the tragedy of being burdened with a leader who neither inspires confidence nor knows what it means to lead.

For inexplicable reasons, while Nigeria’s elites have a habit of choosing the worst in their ranks to lead the country, Ghanaian elites are infinitely more discriminatory in their choice of leaders. I know of no Ghanaian leader in recent memory who isn’t intelligent, inspiring, confident, and well-spoken. That’s why Ghana has always been a far more progressive society than Nigeria.

However much we might wish it weren’t true, the reality is that there is a link between inspirational leadership and national growth.


When will modern Nigeria produce an inspirational president, a president we all can be proud of anywhere?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

My Favorite Exclamatory Expressions in Nigerian English (II)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D

Continued from last week (read part one here)

11. “May God punish you!” This maledictory exclamation in Nigerian English can take other forms, such as “My God punish you and your entire family!” “God punish your father and your whole generation!” or simply “God punish you!” Some Nigerian Christians use “Holy Ghost Fire” in place of “God” in these curses, which are used in moments of extreme anger. 

I have never heard anyone use these expressions in America in the nearly one decade that I’ve lived here. Professor David Jowitt, in his widely acclaimed Nigerian English: An Introduction, also attests that the expression is absent in modern British English, and suggests that this may indicate that “Nigeria is more religious than modern Britain.” That is certainly the case.

But America is far from being the post-religious society that much of Western Europe is. In fact, one might even say America cherishes outward display of religiosity in almost the same way that Nigerians do, yet Americans don’t invoke God in maledictory exclamations. “Goddam” or “Goddamn,” which appears to be equivalent to “God punish you,” is actually now just an informal expletive to intensify meaning, as in “He is goddamn good at what he does,” or “He is a goddam hypocrite.”

Modern native English exclamations that have a tinge of religiosity in them are often irreverent, even blasphemous, and are avoided in polite company. Expressions such as “Holy Cow!” “Holy shit!” “Jeez!” “Jesus “f**king Christ!” etc. function primarily to express surprise, and hurt the sensibilities of many observant Christians.

 It’s hard to tell where the Nigerian “God punish you!” emanated from. There doesn’t seem to be any record of its use at any point in British English, and it doesn’t strike me as a direct translation from any major Nigerian language. Even the Hausa “Allah tsine…!” isn’t an exact lexical or idiomatic equivalent of “May God punish you.”

12. “Na wa o!” This is certainly a Nigerian Pidgin English expression, but many Nigerians utter it to express surprise even when they speak Standard English. The expression isn’t easy to translate into English, but close approximations would be “Wow! Just wow!!” “That’s terrible!” “Unbelievable!”

13. “It’s not easy o!” Despite what its lexical constituents might suggest, this expression isn’t necessarily a statement on the ease or difficulty of a task (although it sometimes is). In Nigerian English it can be used to express the sense that one has resigned oneself to disappointment, or that something is really surprising, among other idiosyncratic meanings. Yoruba people have even vernacularized the expression to “ko easy rara.”

14. “You don’t mean it!” Nigerians use this expression to express disbelief—in almost the same way that Americans use “get out of here!” Native English speakers understand “you don’t mean it” literally, that is, that there is a disjunction between what you’re saying and what you actually mean. Nigerians, on the other hand, use it figuratively to mean “this is unbelievable; this beggars belief.”

So, many Nigerians say “you don’t meant it!” to indicate that they are truly surprised by what they’d just heard. In similar contexts, as I said earlier, Americans informally say “Get out of here!” They are not, by any means, commanding you to get lost, although when the context changes, it can mean that.

Last summer I participated in the training of some Nigerian high court judges here in Atlanta, and one judge told me he was utterly flummoxed when an American lady told him to “get out of here!” He was mystified, he said, because the lady who told him “to get out of here!” didn’t betray any emotions of anger and was, in fact, interested in hearing more of what he had to say. I asked him if he’d narrated a hard-to-believe but true story and he answered in the affirmative. I then explained that “get out of here!” is an informal expression that Americans sometimes use to express disbelief—the same way Nigerians say “you don’t mean it!” My explanation saved his relationship with the American lady. 

Another (American) expression used to express incredulity that non-native speakers may find puzzling is: “get out of town!”

15. “What’s there?” This means “it’s no big deal!” or, as Americans now say informally, “it’s no biggie.” In Nigerian Pidgin English, the expression is rendered as “wetin dey there?” My guess is that the expression is a direct translation from the Hausa “me a ciki?” which literally translates as “what’s inside?” but which actually means “what’s the big deal in it?” Perhaps other Nigerian languages have equivalent expressions.

16. “Wonderful!” Roger Blench, in his draft dictionary of Nigerian English, writes that “wonderful!” is an exclamation “used for a surprising event of any type” and add puzzlingly that “on hearing of the death of a close relative it would be appropriate to say ‘Wonderful!’” He said this bizarre use of “wonderful!” is derived from the Hausa “mamaki!” which is used to express incredulity.

I must confess that I am not familiar with that usage in Nigerian English. In fact, I am dubious of the accuracy of Blench’s claim that speakers of English in northern Nigeria use “wonderful!” to express surprise of any kind, including the death of a close relative. I went to university in Kano for four years, lived in Katsina for a year, worked in Kaduna for many years, and continue to relate very closely with native Hausa speakers. Not once have I heard anyone say “wonderful!” upon being told of the death of a close relative. Maybe I didn’t go to the right places—or don’t relate with the right people. I’d be delighted if someone can email me to confirm or disprove this. What I do know for a fact is that “wonderful!” is used in Nigerian English to express hearty delight.

17. “Yes now!” or “Yes o!” This expression is used for the intensification of approval or to indicate the obviousness of an answer.

18. “You’re highly welcome!” Unlike in Standard English where “you’re welcome” is the response you give when people say “thank you” to you, in Nigerian English “you’re (highly) welcome!” is used to signify an intensified form of “welcome!” As I’ve written in previous articles, this confuses native speakers a lot.

19. “Take (your) time o!” This exclamatory expression is used as a stern, threatening warning, especially during quarrels. It means be warned, be careful or risk unsavory consequences. No other variety of English in the world—at least to my knowledge—understands and uses the expression the way Nigerians do. In Standard English “take your time” simply means don’t be in a hurry.

20. “Or whatever you call yourself!” When a Nigerian says or writes your name and adds “or whatever you call yourself,” you better “take your time o!” It means he is really upset with you. Any time I write hard-hitting political commentaries that ruffle big feathers, I get emails from paid hacks that read something like this: “Farooq, or whatever you call yourself, you’re a big fool to talk about our president like that! May God punish you and your entire goro-chewing people for that nonsense article!”

 These expressions crack me up big time every time I read them. There was a time I laughed so boisterously after reading an even more hilarious version of these insults directed at me that I literally fell off my chair! I kid you not.


Concluded

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Sunday, October 13, 2013

My Favorite Exclamatory Expressions in Nigerian English (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Exclamatory expressions are abrupt, emphatic utterances that help us convey emotions of joy, sadness, admiration, anger, surprise, sympathy, disappointment, disgust, etc. Common Standard English exclamatory expressions are “Congratulations!” “Well done!” “Bravo!” “How sweet!” “What a pity!” “Awww!” “What a shame!” “What nonsense!” “How disgusting!” “To hell with you!”  “Damn you!” “Thank goodness!” “Good gracious!” “Oh my God!” etc.

While Nigerian English users are familiar with and, in fact, deploy most of the everyday exclamatory expressions in Standard English, they also use a unique set of exclamatory expressions in their quotidian communicative endeavors that won’t be intelligible to most people who speak only Standard English. Some of the expressions are the result of the relexicalization of existing English words. Others are direct translations from native Nigerian languages. Still others are untranslated— and untranslatable—Nigerian interjections. See below my top favorite Nigerian exclamations:

1. “At all!” This expression is used in Nigerian English to indicate emphatic denial. If, for instance, you asked a Nigerian if he knew someone who had been convicted of a crime and he wanted to disclaim the remotest association with the criminal, he would say something like: “Ah, at all o! I don’t know him!” The expression is sometimes rendered as “at all at all,” especially in humorous contexts and in Nigerian Pidgin English. It’s certainly a distortion of the Standard English phrase “not at all,” which has two conventional uses: to indicate emphatic denial (in the class of the Nigerian “at all at all o!”) and a polite response to expression of gratitude (synonymous with phrases like “you’re welcome,” “it’s my pleasure,” “not a problem,” etc. In Standard English “at all” often just means “in any way,” as in “he could not see at all.”

2. “Eiyaah!” In Nigerian English—and in many Nigeria languages— this is the commonest interjectory expression of pity, sadness, and other kinds of soft emotions. It is often said where native English speakers would say “it’s such a pity!” 

3. “Chei!” This interjection is used to express disbelief, or deep admiration tempered with a dose of disbelief. I see parallels between it and the native English “Oh my God!” although it’s not an exact semantic parallel. I was surprised to discover that the word also appears in American youth slang. The Urban Dictionary, a user-generated dictionary of (American) slang terms, defines “chei” (which it also renders as “cheis) as “A word used in a moment of excitement or happiness.” That’s very close to the word’s meaning in Nigeria. I personally have never heard anyone say “chei” or “cheis” in America, but then, I don’t hang around the kinds of people who use it here.

4. “God forbid (bad thing)!” This is the default exclamatory expression to show impassioned, emphatic rejection of that which is considered unacceptably objectionable or detestable. In Standard English “God forbid” is also used to express the wish that something never happens, as in “If, God forbid, his children die before him, he would take his own life.” It is also used in Standard English to express the sentiment that someone would never do something, as in “God forbid that I would marry my own sister.”

So how is the Standard English usage of “God forbid” different from the Nigerian English usage of it? Well, they are different in at least two respects. One, in Standard English, as you can see from the examples above, “God forbid” is neither a standalone expression nor an exclamation. It’s just an idiomatic phrase. Second, native speakers don’t add “bad thing” to “God forbid.” In any case, “God forbid bad thing” is ungrammatical. Here are more grammatical alternatives to it: “God, forbid a bad thing from happening,” “God should forbid a bad thing from happening,” God forbid that a thing should happen.” But even these more grammatical alternatives make no sense in idiomatic English.

5. “Haba!” This exclamation of astonishment or disappointment that has crept into Standard Nigerian English seems to me to be native to the Hausa language. But a British linguist by the name of Roger Blench observed that “Habahaba! was a common expression of joking amazement in the US in the 1940s,” and wonders if there is any relationship between the Nigerian “haba!” and the obsolete American English “habahaba!” in light of the phono-semantic similarities between both expressions.

My sense is that the similarities are no more than a happy coincidence. Until fairly recently, “haba!” wasn’t widespread in Nigerian English. It was at best a northern Nigerian exclamatory expression. Most importantly, 1940s America had no direct or indirect cultural influence on Nigeria—not least northern Nigeria—that I am aware of. The late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first Nigerian to ever study in the United States and who brought early influences of American English into Nigeria through his political and journalistic career, had left America when “habahaba!” was in vogue. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the historically black Lincoln University in 1930, earned a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1933, and another master’s degree from Columbia University in 1934. He returned to Ghana—and later Nigeria—in the mid-1930s. So it’s hard to account for the linguistic migration and mutation of the American “habahaba!” to the Nigerian “haba!”

6. “How can?” This expression, which seems to me to be limited in popularity to eastern Nigeria, is used to express disbelief. It appears to be the shortening of “how can that be?” meaning “how is that even possible?” I have always wondered why the expression is very popular with Igbos. Is it, perhaps, a direct translation from Igbo rather than the short form of “how can that be?”

7. “Have it!” When Nigerians give something to someone, they almost always say, “have it!” or “take it!” Native speakers certainly won’t relate to this. Americans say “here you go!” or “there you go!” In British English, according David Jowitt, it’s common to say “here you are!” or “there you are!”

8. “Imagine!” The Standard English equivalents for this exclamatory expression of surprise or disbelief are “can you imagine that?” “imagine that!” or “fancy that!”

9. “Mtchewww!!!” or Mscheeeeeeew!!!” Thanks to the vibrant Nigerian social media scene, there are several phonetic spellings of this sound, which Nigerians let out to express utter disgust or contempt or anger. Nigerians call this “hissing,” but in his book Nigerian English: An Introduction, David Jowitt writes: “In Nigerian culture there is a sound produced by protruding the lips and drawing air inwards noisily, which expresses disapproval or derision, and this is called chissing, while what [Standard British English] calls ‘hissing,’ i.e., making the sibilant sound, the air forced through the teeth, is used in Nigeria to attract someone’s attention from a distance. There is no [Standard English] word that expresses the Nigerian sign of disapproval; ‘wince’ perhaps comes nearest to it.”

In other words, what Nigerians call “hissing” is only a lexical appropriation; it is not recognizable to native English speakers because they neither produce that kind of sound nor have a name for it. Heck, other Africans I have met can’t “hiss” even if their life depends on it.

10. “No wonder!” This expression is used to express surprise—or lack thereof— in Nigerian English. It performs the same function in Standard English, except that it’s not a standalone expression in Standard English; it’s often part of a sentence. Look at these examples:No wonder the baby is crying. She's wet.” “It's no wonder that plant died. You watered it too much.”


To be concluded next week

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Saturday, October 5, 2013

Malam Salihu Okino: Exit of the Personification of Altruism

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

I was getting ready to go teach my news reporting and writing class on September 12, 2013 when I received an ominous text message from a family friend. The text said I needed to hear a crucially important piece of information, but only if I was home. I immediately sensed that something tragic had happened.

 I called the family friend at once and told her I won’t be home until at least two hours from the time we were talking, and insisted that she tell me the crucially important information. After a lot of hesitation, she said Malam Salihu Okino, the husband of Hajia Zainab Okino, Blueprint Newspaper’s Executive Editor, had just died a few minutes earlier. I was devastated and deflated beyond description.

 Hajia Zainab isn’t just my former colleague and boss at Weekly Trust; she has become my close family friend, “sister,” and confidante.

Hard as I tried to conceal it, my students told me I looked noticeably overwrought with grief.  “Are you all right, professor? We’ve never seen you look this worried,” they said. Their concerns compelled me to tell them that I had just been informed of the death of a very close family friend who was, for all practical purposes, my brother; a man who was one of my strongest emotional props when I lost my wife to a car crash three years ago; a man whose selflessness, kindness, gentleness, patience, generosity, and complaisance were inexpressibly boundless; a man whose whole life was defined by his compulsive urge to help others,  who was sometimes too be self-sacrificing to the point of self-neglect; a man who seemed to derive the most joy when other people had successes and triumphs.

 The class went quiet for a while. Then students who were so inclined prayed for the repose of his soul. Others consoled me. Still others suggested that I cancel class. I thanked them for their concern and empathy and continued with my class.

Malam Salihu was a truly exceptional human being. I have never met a person more mild-mannered, more even-tempered, and more kindhearted than him in my entire life. His tragic and premature death has diminished our collective humanity. By his death, the world has lost one of the purest hearts, one of cleanest hands, and one of kindest souls that ever walked mother earth. And this is not the extravagant exaggeration typical of eulogies. Although he was unsung while he was alive, no one who ever had a reason to relate to him failed to notice the utmost depth of his humanity and the unmatched richness of the milk of compassion that flowed in his veins.

Even my 9-year-old daughter remembered him as “one man who really and truly loved me” when I told her of his death. She was as crestfallen as I was. Malam Salihu’s genuineness was so apparent, so tangible that even children couldn’t help but notice it.

I first met Malam Salihu in 1998 when I was as a reporter at Weekly Trust. He worked at the Kaduna Polytechnic and used to come to our head office in Kaduna to pick up his wife, who was our production editor at the time. I recall being struck by the man’s humility and pleasantness the first time I spoke with him. It felt like I had known him all my life—the same way that his wife felt like the older sister I never had the first time I met her.

A few days after our encounter, he started calling me “Doctor.” It was the name he called me until he died on September 12. I once asked Hajia Zainab why her husband called me “Doctor” when I was neither a medical doctor nor a Ph.D., and she said it was a measure of his respect for me. I was humbled. When I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation some years back, he was one of the first people I told. “The Americans are late; as far I am concerned, you’ve always been a doctor,” he said. I was even more humbled.

If someone asked me to summarize the personal philosophy that guided Malam Salihu’s life, I would say it was: “others before me.” He had not the littlest drop of selfishness in his blood. He always sacrificed his personal convenience for the comfort of others, including total strangers. That was what gave him his kicks.


I feel sad that I am writing this only after his death. I used to tell Hajia Zainab (whom my own mother likes to call “your older sister from another mother”) that her husband’s uncommon generosity and selflessness were worthy of celebration. In line with my philosophy that exceptional but unknown people should be celebrated while they are alive—not when they are dead—I had had it in mind to write a profile of Malam Salihu and chronicle anecdotes of his altruism both from my own experiential data and from the testimonies of people who related to him.

But he died too soon. He died before I even had a chance to say one last hello to him.

A day before Malam Salihu’s death, I called Hajia Zainab who sounded unusually withdrawn and disinclined to talk. “Are you at a meeting or something? Should I call back?” I asked. It was then she told me she was in the hospital with her husband. She assured me that his condition was improving. I asked if he was fit enough to talk to me, and she answered in the affirmative, but said he was sleeping at the time and that I should call back the following day.

I had actually planned on calling him briefly before going to teach my class when I got the message that he had died. But our consolation is that, as I said on my Facebook timeline, he lived a decent, moral, admirable, and praiseworthy life. You can’t say that of most people even in death.

May Malam Salihu’s soul rest in peace, and may his wife, children, mother, and other family members have the strength to cope with this excruciatingly irretrievable loss.  

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