Working with Hausa Ajami Manuscripts of Northern Nigeria

By Mustapha Hashim Kurfi

When I received the breaking news about winning the NEH grant, I was consumed with happiness, partly because in addition to its prestigious nature, we had passed through a rigorous competition and scrutiny. We were fortunate that our proposal was among the successful ones. On the other hand, I knew that the project was not going to be easy, since much is expected from the one to whom much is given. The stakes were therefore very high, and we needed to put in our best in order to meet the expectations.

I went to the field not as an amateur or someone inexperienced in manuscript collection and digitization. I had engaged in these kinds of exercises in the past. Yet, the NEH Ajami Project is much bigger, broader, and multi-dimensional. It entails various components that together seek to spark research and scholarly analysis of select West African Ajami literatures that include Hausa, Fula, Mandinka and Wolof. One of the components we dealt with was performing transcriptions and translations of these Ajami manuscripts. Translating some of the manuscripts into English proved particularly challenging. A number of the manuscripts were poems composed in the late 1700s and early 1800s. For that reason, we were dealing with somewhat “old-fashioned” Hausa not used in modern conversation. Comprehending, interpreting, and translating old concepts and statements contained in the manuscripts was rather difficult at times, but by consulting elders who were bestowed with the necessary knowledge and wisdom, we were able to overcome that challenge.

Some of the manuscripts we worked on were esoteric in nature, containing specialized knowledge not easily understood by all. For instance, Falke 1248: Arithmetic Made Easy and Falke 1107: The Months of Africans contain hard-to-read material, using terms that are uncommon. Some portions are poems but repeat the same hard-to-comprehend terms. Coupled with that, there are calculations that are employed as codes and formulas. In addition to being time-consuming, such texts required us to consult with experts in various fields for proper interpretation. And then we were struggling with finding the best ways to convey that message to our English readers (the target audience) with clarity and without missing or misinterpreting the original message. Be reminded that apart from the English language, the work had to be translated into French language too.

The work also involved doing video recordings, and one of the major challenges we faced was Mother Nature (weather). After planning to go to the sites to do the recording, the weather might turn out to be not favorable, which meant that we had to fix some other day to complete what had been started. In business, that means “extra pay” for the recruited personnel. Additionally, there were exorbitant charges from professional singers recruited to sing or chant certain poems. Many of these professional singers are elites by virtue of their association with politicians, technocrats, royal families, rich and famous, as well as other crème de la crème. The elitist nature of their services makes them “Hot Cakes,” but for the fact that I needed to get the best, I had to give what I had to get what I wanted. This meant, sometimes I had to use my own resources to supplement what was budgeted for the tasks. I made these personal sacrifices because I knew that we were collectively striving for excellence in the project.

Getting the right people for the right job in a research project like this is a daunting task. One of the manuscripts that we worked on was a series of poems composed by Nana Asma’u, daughter of Usman ɗan Fodio:  Paden 95-1 and 2. We, therefore, needed a female to chant the poems and I was determined to get a descendant of Nana Asma’u. Suddenly, I remembered Princess Zuwaira Haruna Rasheed, who is a direct descendant of Nana Asma’u and the daughter of the former Emir. She is currently a professor of political science. I reached out to her and pleaded with her to kindly participate in the project by chanting poems and granting us an interview, and she accepted. I had to arrange for a crew to travel to Gwandu in Kebbi State to meet with her. The team went there and she kindly granted all that we requested. Unfortunately, we experienced technology failure that was only discovered after the interview. This princess was a very busy person who already had prior commitments. In short, we had to replace her with another woman to chant the poems. Although our chanter did very well, I really would have loved a direct descendant of Nana Asma’u to chant them.

Conclusively, reflecting on my experience, the NEH Ajami collaborative project has been an amazing experience that has exposed me to learning so much about doing fieldwork and dealing with centuries-old manuscripts. Among other things, the exercise has forced me to re-think about how to prepare for the fieldwork: to be properly equipped with hope for the best and to be ready for the unexpected. Some of the challenges we faced were unavoidable yet passable. Others could be managed through diplomacy, sustainable cordial relationships with local collaborators, establishing networks and utilizing social capital, as well as making contingency plans before going to the field. We do hope that the project’s aim of facilitating interpretive knowledge about the meaning and purpose of the multiple functions of Ajami texts will be achieved, using the resources that we worked hard to generate in this mega-project!

Dr. Mustapha Hashim Kurfi is a Senior Lecturer at Bayero University, Kano- Nigeria. He has a doctorate in Sociology from Boston University (2018). Dr. Kurfi is a Hausa native speaker who has written extensively in Hausa language and Hausa Ajami, and the author of Jagoran Koyan Hausa Ajami a Aiwace (A Practical Guide to Learning Hausa Ajami, 2017) and Littafin Koyan Hausa Ajami don Lafiyar Al’umma (Hausa Ajami Workbook for Public Health, 2019), published by the African Languages Program of the African Studies Center, Boston University.