Insurgency: How IDPs Are Using Spoken Language To Retain Their Fading Culture, Traditions

By: Zainab Yetunde Adam

Seated under a tent made of raffia sheet – a household heat neutralizer for the intense afternoon heat of  Maiduguri, Borno state capital – was Malam Ari, a 60 years old cleric who had memorized the entire holy Quran. 

Malam Ari had also embarked on a personal project of memorising the Kanuri translation of the holy Quran. 

As an Internally Displaced Person (IDP) living in Gubio camp, Ari believed that Kanuri traditional knowledge can be sustained through spoken words.

“We have been displaced for many years. We don’t have anything to use for our cultural transmission rather than speaking the language and teaching our children how to correctly speak it”. 

The cleric who had spent the entire six decades of his life reading, reciting and understanding the glorious meanings and messages of the Islamic Holy books has a stronger conviction that language can be well preserved if it is used as a tool for learning. 

Having been displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency for many years,  Malam Ari had noticed with nostalgic pains how the camp life had eroded certain core values that defined the Kanuri people. 

Nothing interests the 60 years old grandfather more than to persistently speak his native language having been uprooted from his ancestral abode where his culture and values are domiciled.   

IDPs in Gubio Camp. Photo Credit: Abdulkareem/ThT

To him, the Kanuri language is next to Arabic, the only official language of Islam as such he must do all that he can to preserve 

Kanuri is one of the major languages in Borno, Yobe, Chad, Niger and even parts of central Africa. 

Kanuri is spoken by about 32 ethnic groups who have either similar or some slight dialectic and accent differences.  These ethnic groups include Zaghawa, Mobar, Kanumbu, Jatko, Zarara, etc. found in Borno, Yobe, Chad, Cameroon and the Niger Republic.

The Yerwa-Kanuri – a Kanuri subgroup that lives in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Sudan, are classified as those who speak Central Kanuri, a Nilo-Saharan language, and they are mostly Muslims. 

The Kanuri people (also spelt as  Kanouri, Kanowri in Chad, Niger) are also referred to as Yerwa, Bare Bari and several subgroup names) Wikipedia claims that “those generally termed Kanuri include several subgroups and dialect groups, some of whom identify as distinct from the Kanuri. Most trace their origins to ruling lineages of the medieval Kanem-Bornu Empire, and its client states or provinces.  

According to Wikipedia “The Nilo-Saharan languages are a proposed family of African languages spoken by some 50–60 million people, mainly in the upper parts of the Chari and Nile rivers, including historic Nubia, north of where the two tributaries of the Nile meet. The languages extend through 17 nations in the northern half of Africa: from Algeria to Benin in the west; from Libya to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the centre; and from Egypt to Tanzania in the east.”

This classic Nilo-Saharan language family is, however, one of the potentially endangered to extinct.  

“The only way cultures can be sustained is through parental guidance,” said Ms Atta Alhaji Kadai, a teacher from a Public School in Borno. 

Through her class interaction with pupils, Ma Kadai observed that teaching a child an indigenous language, right from the scratch, will not deter a pupil from learning English. 

According to her, friendly approaches such as the use of mother tongue can be used to lay a solid foundation and tutor students at home and school for positive results.

“Most languages have their alphabets the same way English does. If you have taught a child the basis in an indigenous language, he/she will recall either of the two and then use it in his life,”

“In China, Malaysia, and Turkey among other countries, citizens are being tutored in local languages before adopting the foreign one. This made them well educated and as well propagated their culture” Ms Kadai added.

A Kwayam Kanuri lady. Photo Credit: Bits of Borno

This perception of language conservation was also reiterated by the Custodian of Borno History popularly called Zannah Garganma of Borno state, Dr Zanna Babagana Kachalla. 

The historian from the University of Maiduguri is worried about the survival of rural areas where the real cultures are. He said the Urban areas can only distort cultures and language.

“We have instances of Insurgency in the 14th century, yet the volatile nature of the cultural, political and ethnic identity of the people is kept intact.”

He said people need to respect every culture, sensitize their wards and preserve it for its continued existence. 

“Traditionally referred to women in palaces, like the Ya Maira, Ya Moram, Ya Gumsu and Ya Domas are known to counsel young girls and women on good morals and other aspects of life like cooking traditional food. Sadly, their roles are fading away because little is extended to the public now

Dr Kachalla appeals for the establishment of Museums in various monarch palaces, maintenance of museums, history and artefacts collections for the sustenance and transmission of traditional knowledge. 

Edited and additional contributions by Abdulkareem Haruna

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