“Comment ça va?”
My head spins in the direction of the salutation, and I expect to find Mademoiselle Frost, my French teacher from ninth grade, still armed with a list of verbs for me to conjugate. Instead, I find a Kagoro girl standing in the doorway of her parents’ shop, grinning at me as though she alone has cracked the code of how to communicate with the batauri. French is not a language usually spoken in Nigeria, so hearing it from a kid is especially surprising. For some unknown reason, I decide to answer her in French, so I search my foggy memory banks past high school locker combinations and junior proms until I reach, “Ça va bien. Et tu?” She then says something in French that I don’t understand, so I cleverly mask my poor comprehension by pretending I don’t hear her and running away. Despite being overmatched in my secondary language skills by a ten-year-old, I still bravely run the same francophone gauntlet every Saturday morning on my way to the market. For her part, mon amie refuses to accept that I’m not French and continues to greet me the same way each time, repeating herself numerous times to cover the possibility that I might be brain damaged.
Her assessment of my faculties would likely be echoed by her fellow Kagorons (which makes them sound like an alien race that Captain Kirk fought and probably slept with). I was told before arriving that greetings were very important to Nigerians, so I made a point of greeting everyone I met with a sunny “Sannu!” to go along with my broad smile and wave. I didn’t know anything beyond “Sannu!”, so I put everything I had into that greeting. I began to feel like the King of Kensington as I made my way along the dusty roads of my new hometown. Al Waxman was surely smiling on me from above as I sang his anthem, slightly modified:
When he walks down the street,
He smiles and says, “Hello!”
Everyone that he meets
Calls him King of Kagoro.
I gradually began to realize that strangers in Nigeria don’t necessarily need to greet each other all of the time, so my persistent and blanket Sannu’s may have started to give the impression that I was slightly addled. The Kagoro elders likely sighed with relief at the prospect of finally filling the long-standing vacancy for Village Idiot.
The lack of enthusiastic response from the locals to my attempts at being neighbourly puzzled me until one of my Bunker mates took me aside one day. Lowering his voice as if revealing the location of buried treasure, he said he had been watching how I wave at everyone when I greet them. “Hyuck”, I replied, awaiting the inevitable compliment to follow. “Well,” he continued, “you sometimes wave with your fingers spread apart, and this means “I curse you” to the people here.” Shit. I’m not even waving properly. Somewhere, Al Waxman is crying, his theme song in tatters:
When he walks down the street,
He puts a curse on your soul.
Everyone that he meets
Calls him an evil asshole.
Having been instructed on the proper waving technique (all fingers kept close together), I vowed to make amends and now hail my fellow Kagorons with a stiff tilt of the hand that makes me look like Queen Elizabeth II. Given Nigeria’s history with British colonists, this probably isn’t winning me any friends, either.
My Hausa has improved since those early days, mostly through listening to the conversations going on around me. While Canadians are usually satisfied with a perfunctory “Hi! How are you?” before moving on in the conversation, Nigerians take greeting each other much more seriously. Here’s a typical exchange:
How was the night? Fine!
How’s the tiredness? There’s no tiredness!
How’s the family? Fine!
How’s work? Very Fine!
The same pattern is repeated throughout the morning as friends and colleagues meet each other for the first time that day. I’m starting to pick up on the rhythm of it, although I still manage to confuse “gajiya” (tiredness) with “gida” (family), so when I tell my coworkers, “There is no family”, I manage to elicit some undeserved sympathy. Even a simple “Thank you!” is apparently beyond my grasp, as I just learned the proper phrase is “Na gode!”, not “Da gode!”, as I have been proudly repeating for the past month. I’m now afraid to check my Hausa phrasebook for fear of discovering that “Da” equates to “Fuck”.
And once I master Hausa in the next decade or so, there are only 500 other languages in Nigeria to conquer. That’s no exaggeration; with over 250 different ethnic groups speaking its own language and no end of dialects within each group, Nigeria would represent a modern day Babel were it not for the handful of regional languages understood by most people resident there. In the central and northern parts of Nigeria, Hausa is the dominant language and the one I’m currently mangling. A shared understanding of the major languages has proven to be both a blessing and a curse, as it provides wide communication among ethnic groups but also contributes to the demise of the more localized languages. Students are schooled in the major regional language and English, so it’s left to the individual villages and families to preserve their tribal dialect. This is becoming more infrequent, as younger Nigerians dedicate themselves to those languages that will allow them to take best advantage of a Nigeria set on establishing a role for itself on the world stage.
Speaking with some of my M&E team, they confirm that their knowledge of their tribal languages is less than that of their parents, and they anticipate their children will not be able to speak them at all. There’s some regret in their voices as they recount this, but also a shrug of resignation, as if they see this as the price of a changing Nigeria. The demands they face to support themselves and their families allow little time for efforts to preserve a part of the past. History is seen as a luxury ill-afforded when making decisions for the future. This kind of short-sighted pragmatism will continue to transform the country over the next century. One of the team members even posited that the creation of this linguistic melting pot is a positive thing, as it helps to bridge the differences among the tribes that have resulted in past strife. The others remained unconvinced by his optimism, maintaining their position that more is being lost than gained in the abandonment of tribal languages along the path of progress.
As for my French tutor, I still don’t know the origin of her introduction to the language, but if it turns out that she’s relying on me to help preserve the use of French in Kagoro, my guess is that it will also have a limited life span.