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Re: Hausa-Speaking Northern Christian Names: An Onomastic Analysis

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter:  @farooqkperogi Last week’s column attracted a rich cornucopia of responses. There is no space...

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

Last week’s column attracted a rich cornucopia of responses. There is no space to reproduce all of 
them here, so I will only publish a few. Although it’s not my tradition to publish reactions to my language column, except in the Q and A columns, I’ll make an exception this week because I specifically invited responses from readers and, most importantly, because the responses I received have enriched the conversation, in my opinion.

For instance, several people wrote to tell me that Rifkatu, which I couldn’t explain in last week’s column, is the Hausa Christian name for Rebecca, which is Rivka in Hebrew and Ribika in Arabic (because there is no “v” in Arabic). I have not been able to put my finger on the phonological logic behind the appearance of “f” in the Hausa version of the name. The terminal “tu” probably mimics the Africanization of female Arabic names like Hadijatu (from Khadija), Aishatu (from Aisha), Ramatu (from Rahma), etc. in Muslim societies. I hope someone reading this will help shed further light on this.

I have also been told that I should add a fifth category of Hausa Christian names. Dr. Muhammad Shakir Balogun, an epidemiologist and one of the most remarkable polymaths I’ve ever encountered, called the fifth category names that capture “moral attributes and religious sentiments” (see his comment below) which are nonetheless given in the Hausa language.

I also realized that, without intending to, I disproportionately wrote about male Hausa Christian names. When I rework the article in the future, I will correct this unintentional gender imbalance. A reader offered a brief but rich historical excursion into the personalities and historical influences that shaped the translation of the Bible into Hausa. Others shared personal reflections that redound to the richness of the data. Enjoy:

 The translation of the Holy Bible from English to Hausa started in 1854, concretized in 1869 and was completed in 1931 with a review in 1980. Its unadulterated linguistic basis was established by Reverend Bargery who had completed the ‘Kamus’ Hausa-English, English-Hausa dictionary in 1923 while residing in Koki, Kano.

 The main challenge in the translation effort was there was no standardized Hausa, so the team that included the Swiss-born but Cambridge-educated Hans Visher (Dan Hausa of Kano whose residence in Nassarawa is now a National Heritage site), Dr. Walter Miller, Malam Abdulmajid Samaila, Dan Galadiman Zazzau Peter Omar Tafida, Sarkin Ayyukan Zazzau Bulus Audu, Dai Iyan Zazzau Nuhu Bayero, Sarkin Wusasa Paul Amfani and so many others too numerous to mention here factored certain phrases to act as a binder across the Hausa people for instance in ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ (Addu’a Ubangiji) “…give us our daily bread” which is translated as “…ka ba mu rananga abincin yini”.

 Interestingly, the missionaries perfected their Hausa not in the colonial contours of what was to become Nigeria but in Tripoli because the Sokoto caliphate was in the process of being studied to be subsequently conquered piecemeal, so due to the large immigrant population of diverse Hausa speakers to and from pilgrimage to Mecca and Madina and settled business men and their families, the missionaries started their translation work in Libya.

The likes of Malam Umaru Fate worked directly from the Arabic Bible as a crosscheck with the various liberated slaves from across all the Hausa-speaking populace (the first set of converts) as sounding board.
There were also aspects like “Peace be upon you” which Muslims eventually adopted from their Christian neighbors in Arabia 600 years before Islam was established but in the first Hausa Bible edition put as – ‘Salama a gare ku’ but now back to its original ‘Salama alaikun’ to distinguish for the Maguzawa (Habe) that had vehemently resisted the Fulani Jihad back then.

This same template was now used for the Kanuri translation which was completed in 1949 and Zarma (predominantly in Niger Republic) in 1954. However, the Fulfulde translation was not completed until as recently as 1983, the reason being that the translation team had to standardize all dialects from the Futa Djallon to Cameroun and accommodate the Anglophone and Francophone Fula under a common text. Which now leads us to a new issue cropping up particularly on use of the word ‘Krista’ or ‘Masihiyawa’ instead and the further use of the word ‘Allah’ or not. The debate continues in various churches across the North before a final position is reached.
Ahmed Joe

There is a category of names that are just Hausa words for moral attributes and religious sentiments. They are unique because they are not used by Hausa Muslims. Such as Murna (Joy), Godiya (Gratitude), Alheri (Grace), Bishara (Glad tidings), etc. My younger sister attended Baba Alhamdu in Kano for a few terms. It is an ECWA-owned school. I suspect the 'Alhamdu' is from Arabic (meaning 'praise'), via Hausa. Saratu is Sarah, Iliyasu is Elias.
Muhammad Shakir Balogun

I went to high school in a community of Hausa-speaking Christians in a White missionary (SUM) establishment. So many of my classmates had Hausa Christian names such as Alheri--Grace. In fact, our Sunday morning service was in Hausa and we read from a Hausa Bible and sang hymns in Hausa. One of my favorite hymns, "There shall be showers of blessings," still pops up in my head as "Albarka cin Allah na zuwa, ka ma a ke yin ruwa."
Finally, my favorite memory of the name Yunana, I think Jonah was one of our Oyinbo missionary teachers preaching in heavily accented Hausa: "Yunana ya yi kwana uku ciki cikin kifi/Jonah was in the belly of the whale for 3 days."
Professor Oyeronke Oyewumi

I'm a northern Christian. I fall under the third category of names you mentioned above. When my father was young, he had a friend called Anas who was a northern Muslim. So close was their friendship that my father named me after him. I must confess this article is just awesome. Well done, prof.
Anas Iliyasu Mshelia

Reading your piece in the Daily Trust newspaper of Sunday 24th December, 2017 with the above-mentioned caption certainly heightened my curiosity about the significance of the names of persons. As a 'faithful ' reader of your columns on Saturday and Sunday, I had earlier read your write-up on the name 'Bello' and was deeply fascinated with what I read.

But this particular case struck a chord with me as Non Hausa speaking northern Nigeria Christian who goes by the name Ibrahim. The piece, I must confess, made my day in the midst of the depressing situation in Nigeria, even as we prepare to celebrate Christmas. My spirit was lifted up high upon reading the piece and, for once, I forgot about the lack of fuel, power and heightened insecurity around me that promised to make the Christmas celebrations a gloomy one.

I totally agree with your assertion that many Southern Nigeria Christians are totally ignorant about the northern Christian names that are in fact closer to the original 'biblical ' names than the Anglicized names they bear. I have several times been questioned by 'educated ' southern Christians as to why I bear ' Ibrahim ' as a Christian. My explanation most times do not seem to convince them. And that is why the point you made about your write-up contributing to a more cordial inter-religious and inter-ethnic understanding in Nigeria is deeply appreciated by me. I also noted with nostalgia that in the past a Muslim could give a 'Muslim name' to the child of his Christian neighbor and they live with that name happily ever after.

Ignorance and maybe 'bigotry ' have taken over our country, such that good neighborliness and peaceful coexistence that used to be the hallmark of most communities, especially in the ethnically diverse Northern Nigeria, now seem far-fetched.

Not being a scholar like you, I have nothing useful to add to or subtract from your piece. I pray and hope that those who are knowledgeable about the subject would add their meaningful voice, if any, to this highly interesting subject. You certainly made my Christmas, and God bless you real good!!
Ibrahim Wakawa

Word of the Year?
What is your Word of the Year for 2017? Or what words or phrases, in your opinion, defined Nigeria in 2017? That will be the subject of next week’s column. I will publish some of your responses in addition to my own take. Happy New Year!

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