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Ƙoƙi and Ethnographic Slice of Hausa History

by Isiyaku Ahmed
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By Prof. Abdallah Uba Adamu

I was rummaging through my travel pictures when I came across a picture that I am sure has not been published anywhere. I saw it in a glass case at a ‘corridor museum’ at Universität Hamburg, Germany on 2nd December 2008. I was excited because of its rarity. It was the picture that I am sure has not seen the light of day almost anywhere.

I had vaguely heard about the man from my father, a writer, but did not pay attention then. Now he was there, smiling in all glory and right in front of me. I decided I will take the picture to show to my father.

The man was Muhammad Ƙoƙi, the son of Alhaji Mahmud Ƙoƙi, the Kano Malam. His picture triggered my excitement about his father, Malam Mahmudu Ƙoƙi.

Malam Mahmudu was perhaps one of the most unsung and unknown critical literary figures in Hausa history. You can Google all you can. You won’t find him or his picture. Instead, you will be taken to Neil Skinner’s book, “Alhaji Mahmudu Ƙoƙi: Kano Malam” (ABU Press, 1977). I very much doubt if ABU Press itself has a copy. My copy is in excellent condition (except for a slightly scratched cover) since it was printed on shiny bond paper – and can therefore scan very well. I hesitate to do this for fear of copyright violation. I do wish ABU Press will consider retrieving a copy somewhere and reprinting it.

On return from Hamburg, I started looking for the book – and I was lucky to grab a copy at then ₦550 in January 2009. Now, some 14 years later, you can get a secondhand copy from the online store, Abe Books for just $99 (cheap at ₦74,000 in 2023). At the moment I don’t have any ‘kebura’ around me (since the ASUU strike was suspended!), otherwise, I would offer mine for  ₦50,000 for my copy!

Quite simply, it is a brilliant slice of Hausa history. Most significantly, it detailed the fieldwork done in the collection of data for Bargery’s Hausa Dictionary, whose full title is “A Hausa-English dictionary and English-Hausa vocabulary”.

Although mainly attributed to Rev. George Percy Bargery (1876-1966), an English missionary and linguist, the dictionary had significant input from Diedrich Hermann Westermann (1875-1956), a German missionary, Africanist, and linguist. The dictionary was published in 1934. The printed copy used to be available at ABU Bookshop where a colleague of mine gifted me one he bought at the huge sum of ₦2,000 in ancient days, which almost broke his bank account!

The book was written/edited by Neil Skinner (1921-2015) at the request of Bargery’s son, Kenneth, to collect recollections of the elder Bargery while in northern Nigeria. Alhaji Mahmudu Ƙoƙi (1894–1976) was Bargery’s Chief Assistant in the preparation of the Dictionary and was the first choice to ask in 1967. As Skinner recollected, “I began recording some of his memories of Bargery. Listening to his vivid accounts of Kano in the first of the century, I formed the idea of putting together from Mahmudu’s lips some account of his own life.”

And what a fascinating life it was. Skinner continued, “As a son of the largest city of northern Nigeria, who had been born into the civil war of Aliyu and Tukur, M. Mahmudu saw the coming of the British, knew Waziri Giɗaɗo and Resident Temple, lived to see the end of the British rule and the Nigerian Civil War and, above all, had close contact with rulers and innovators, both Nigerian and British. He, therefore, seemed likely to have a tale worth recording for a younger generation of Nigerians and those with an interest in Nigeria as it was and is. Mahmudu was a spectator of many great events and participant in not a few.”

And what a whirlwind tour of northern Nigeria it was in the early 20th century. Reading the book is like going back in a time machine. Everything was covered: economy, society, governance, culture, everything. As Neil Skinner stated, the book was told by Mahmudu himself – Skinner just edited it. It contained both fascinating and often disturbing details of days gone by. For me, for instance, I was traumatized by his account of the slave trade in Kano. As Mahmudu recalled,

“I used to see slaves being sold – with my own eyes! At Ƴan Bai, on the west of the [Kurmi] market. That was where they used to line them up and sit them down, with their feet sticking out, like this. Then it would be, ‘You there! Get up!’ And he would get up and we would look him over well from top to bottom and say, ‘Walk a little!’ then he would do so until we told him to come back.

He would do so, and we would say, ‘Right, go and sit down’ and put a hand to pocket and take out a little money, perhaps a score of cowries or fifteen and give them to him. You would do this, whether you bought him or not. Then, if he saw someone selling groundnuts, he would call her over to get some saying he had been given the price for getting up to be inspected. That is how we have a proverb which says ‘Tashi in gan ka ma na da ladanta’.”

Based on this disturbing account – in the heart of Africa – I wonder how many of our other proverbs have such creepy and dark origins? If you go to Ƴan Bai in Kurmi market in Kano now you will only see mats, books, and assorted goods.

Alhaji Mahmudu Ƙoƙi provides a rich tapestry of ethnographic details about how the Dictionary was compiled and the fact that the team of Bargery and his assistants insisted on seeing actual objects and their names before recording them. One wished they had an artist with them to sketch out many of the cultural artefacts that have all but disappeared now. It is good that the Bargery dictionary has been digitized and is available free online, thanks to the efforts of Hirokazu Nakamura, of the Faculty of Human Science, Department of Human Sciences, Bunkyo University, Japan.

“Alhaji Mahmudu Ƙoƙi: Kano Malam” is comparable to “Baba of Karo” by Mary F Smith (wife of M.G. Smith, author of “Government in Kano, 1350 to 1950” amongst others, and which is available FREE online!). Published in 1954, “Baba of Kano” is an anthropological record of the Hausa people, partly compiled from an oral account given by Baba (1877-1951), the daughter of a Hausa farmer and a Koranic teacher. Baba’s reports were translated by Smith. 

Books like these encourage us to seek out our own cultural history – visit those places mentioned, savor their historical aroma and note them as centers of excellence in discovering our past. By the way, Ƙoƙi is a ward in the city of Kano and right on the edge of the Kurmi market. If you are from the area, perhaps you may have heard of Alhaji Mahmudu from his grandchildren.

Don’t forget, this is not a review of the book, but a memory jog on the old man, Alhaji Mahmudu Ƙoƙi, whose picture was honored in a foreign university.

Here is a composite collage of the picture I snapped in the Hamburg university museum of the son, the book, and the father! as the latter appeared in the book.

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