How to be a ‘true Northerner’
The Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, said in her famous TEDx speech, The Danger of the Single Story, that the problem with stereotypes is “not that they are untrue, but they are incomplete; they make one story become the only story.”
I remembered the author’s statement after a lady friend of mine from Kano, complained about how unsettled she felt when people told her she doesn’t behave like a Hausa lady, a statement the people who gave it probably expected a thank-you response from her, or a gesture that represents it. But she understood that it is a statement that holds within itself, the wealth of stereotypes about how Hausa women are expected to be, to behave.
I did my NYSC in Oyo State from 2016 to 2017 where I also did my orientation programme at Iseyin Camp. As a Muslim Northerner, it was the first time I was surrounded, literally, by the plurality and diversity of the Nigerian people. It was an excitement to remember. And because I like to describe myself as a very open-minded person, it usually becomes a prophecy that fulfills itself for me, justified by facts such as during my stay at the camp, almost all of my friends were southern Christians that I still keep contact with. They were nice and smart young people - probably because I am too intolerant to be friends with those that are not. But they were actually less than perfect, for they harboured a shortcoming I later learned to forgive.
As our acquaintance developed, when learning that I had a Muslim name, those from the South South and South East would ask if I was Yoruba. (They would not ask if I was Hausa.) When I told them I was Hausa, I still remember how two of them were unable to disguise their shock while asking if I had actually grown up in the North. “Yes.” An Igbo lady would then ask if I actually schooled there, and she was disappointed to learn that I did. The same lady would later start calling me “Posh Hausa Boy,” a description that was less of a compliment than a product of my assumed difference from the herd of “Hausa boys” she had imagined. She studied Communication at a European country I forgot, and also did her MA there before returning to Nigeria for NYSC. But she was puzzled to realise that I was capable of discussing issues of identity (including racism), gender and sexuality, literature, psychology, pop culture, etc apart from commonplace topics such as politics and history (which I studied) with her, and with an impressive level of insight.
As time went on and our friendship grew due to being members of the same platoon with 13 (5 guys and 8 ladies) of them with whom I created an enviable clique, I tried in the ways I could, to enlighten them about Northern Nigeria while trying to avoid the error of whitewashing our steaming defects and deficiencies. One of those enlightenment was that not all Muslims from the North are Hausa-Fulani that they appeared to think. Another was that there is a large number of Northern Christians.
But I think their singular view of Northern Nigeria did not happen in a vacuum. The predominance of loud, silly-behaving men in undignified clothing who pronounce “father” as “pada” and “people” as “fiful,” and who say a lot of “Kai!” as gatemen in Nollywood movies significantly contributed to their redundant misinformation about Northern Nigerian peoples.
And so for that reason and more, they were unable to imagine that I, a person who had grown up in the North and schooled there could speak English better than some of them did, could write a script and partially direct it for our platoon’s drama performance about Nigeria’s Unity, could stand at the pavilion and deliver an awe-inspiring meditation themed around Nigeria’s complicated nationhood with the title “In Search of Where We Belong.”
There was also this young man from Delta State - Jeru. Jeru was a hearty and boisterous person whose bunk was next to mine at the hostel room. We were almost opposites in demeanour, because while I remained the reserved “Cool Guy” he nicknamed me, Jeru was a party-starter, the guy whose voice you would hear miles away, the argument lover who started and ended debates about Nigeria’s problems at the hostel and outside of it - all by himself. He was also a person who made everybody laugh at the pavilion’s stage whenever he held the mic for his comedy performance. (Little wonder, he is now a rising MC in his state.) How we became friends, I can’t remember, but he always insisted in telling me “I like your spirit Cool Guy.” How a human could admire the opposite of him is still a puzzle for me in the complexity of human nature.
But most important, he was gracefully an honest person and that smoothened our friendship. He told me that he had never been to the North and that when he learned that my name was Aliyu from Kaduna State, he thought I was lying because “You don’t have the Northern vibes in you.” Jeru had to explain that all of the Northerners he had ever interacted with were the shoe-shiners, the vegetable-sellers, the wheelbarrowpushers, etc in his town. He told me that I was not only the first Northerner he had ever interacted closely with, I was the first Muslim he could call a friend.
That encounter gave another reliable explanation: there are a lot of uneducated Northerners in the South doing “undignified” businesses, and that creates a lazy single story for Southerners who have never been to the North.
Those experiences made me realise that there are certain ways of being, and of appearing, as what many people from Southern Nigeria would unsurprisingly call a “True Northerner.”
Of course Northern Nigeria is not a place too desirable. There are too many worrying baggage. But I also understand that many Southerners do not only exaggerate our unfortunate realities, some of them conveniently rely on distorted, incomplete narratives as the singular facts of our existence: poverty, illiteracy, religious extremism, “outdated” social structure, etc.
Now take for instance, this post I read yesterday on Facebook from someone I had assumed was well-informed, claiming that while Northerners “oppress their women, they also gather little children inside the mosque and sexually molest them in the name of Qur’anic teaching.” I was scandalised. Child molestation happens everywhere in the world and Northern Nigeria has never been an exception; but to narrate that it is something that rampantly happens in the mosques in Northern Nigeria is devilishly malicious. And when you try to counter those lies, you risk appearing as one of those who jealously guard our shortcomings, or apologetic of them.
Aliyu Jalal , email@example.com