| I belong to the Atyap ethnic group, also known as kataf, found in the southern parts of Kaduna State in Northern Nigeria. I grew up speaking Tyap (my mother-tongue), Hausa (common in the north) and English (Nigeria’s official language). Early in life I learned the importance and power of language in establishing my unique and separate ethnic and religious identities as an individual and as a member of a group in a multireligious and multiethnic society.
About 400 ethnic groups live together in Nigeria with Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa as the three largest ones. Notwithstanding the smallness of some of these groups, most of them have their own languages. There exists an age-long misconception among some Nigerians that every other minor group can easily be pushed under any of the three major groups. This has caused problems in the country, and given the nature of past and current problems, none of the smaller groups want to be overshadowed by the larger ones. This explains the struggle by each of these groups to be recognized as separate and independent of other groups. One way they try to achieve this is by each promoting its unique language and culture.
The case of northern Nigeria is peculiar. The north constitutes 19 states with hundreds of ethnic groups, especially in the north-central and north-western zones, each having its own language. However, given the history of the north and the economic importance of the Hausa ethnic group, most northerners can communicate in the Hausa language. Because the Hausa ethnic group is the largest and the Hausa language widely spoken in the north, many people from other parts of the country usually regard and treat everyone from the north as Hausa. Members of the other northern ethnic groups, therefore, make vigorous effort to show the world that they are not Hausa. Even if they understand and speak the Hausa language, it is only second to their individual mother-tongues. In other words, knowing Hausa language does not make them Hausa people just as knowing English does not make them Englishmen. But why is it so important for them to loud this linguistic and ethnic difference?
There are strong inter-ethnic sentiments and devastating stereotypes that exist in the minds of many Nigerians. The three major ethnic groups have their own ways of seeing each other and it’s complicated. No speaker of any of the minor languages wants to bear sentiments targeted at others. Moreover, many of the minor groups in the north especially in places like Kaduna, Plateau and Bauchi would have their own experience of serious conflicts with the Hausa people. Thus, they would not be comfortable being referred to and treated as Hausas.
With the dominance of Hausa language in the north, many of the other ethnic groups in the north are also afraid of losing their languages and with it, important aspects of their cultures. Thus, the use of Hausa among members of some of these groups has been discouraged by ethnic authorities. People are encouraged to speak their language and to teach their children, and efforts are made every day to encourage this. Among the Atyap people for instance, there is a special committee and other individuals that try to put the language in writing and to translate the Bible into Tyap among other things.
One other interesting thing about language in northern Nigeria, especially in places like Kaduna and Plateau states, is this; language is not only closely tied to ethnic identity, but is tied to religious identity as well. The Hausas, whose language is Hausa are almost exclusively Muslim, while most of the other ethnic groups are almost exclusively Christians. Sometimes, to know a person’s religion, one only needs to know what ethnic group that person belongs to. If I am heard speaking Tyap, for instance, it is taken that I am Atyap and if this is confirmed, then without further inquiry, it is taken that I am a Christian. In fact, some ethnic groups are not only Christian but are identified with a specific denomination. Thus, one’s language could tell one’s ethnic group and even one’s religion.
Despite my experience of language as a tool for encouraging our differences by sounding them out loud in our mother-tongue, I have also experienced language as a powerful force for unity and for creating bridges. With so many ethnic groups in the north, the level of suspicion, distrust and even conflict would most probably have been higher that it is now if we had no common language with which we communicate. We speak our own different languages but when we come to the marketplace, offices and even to our places of worship we can still communicate because we know either Hausa or English.
Some years back, I was in the western parts of Nigeria where Yoruba is is the common language, in KwaZulu Natal where Zulu is dominant and in Marondera (Zimbabwe) where Shona is widely spoken, and now I am in the eastern parts of Nigeria where Igbo is the common language. In all these places I have always been faced with the challenge of understanding the people, their lifestyles and their cultures. Being accepted and treated as a member of the community has been important for me so that I can better reach out to and serve the people. The key to achieve this, for me, has been to show interest in the people’s language. My interest in learning the language always made them more welcoming, friendly and removed many forms of hostility especially from those who are very sensitive to strangers.
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Sokfa Francis John
From Kaduna State, Nigeria. Studied Philosophy as a member of St. Patrick's Missionary Society with St.Joseph's Institute Cedara, KZN, and Religious Studies at University of Jos, Nigeria. Major areas of interest: Religion, Peace and Conflict management, cultures, Music,...
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