Majma’al Bahrain: Arabs in Kano II – The Sequel by Prof. Abdallah Uba Adamu

My posting about MU Adamu’s 1968 paper on the influence of Arabs on Kano culture, economy and religious practices has ignited a few responses of personal nature from some readers interested in their own interconnected life stories. This is a follow-up and update. 

I think it is wonderful that we begin to interrogate our past so that we can appreciate our present in order to make better plans for the future. We were all besotted with this implausible concept of ‘Hausa-Fulani’ that we tend to ignore other genetic tributaries that constitute the Hausa genetic pool, especially in Kano. Such Majma’al Bahrain is either unknown to many, or ignored. Bringing it out means that the ethnic picture of the Hausa is more than the mingling of the Fulani genes with the Hausa – there were dashes of Arab in there thrown for good measure. For the most part, the Arab voices had been silent. I think it is time for them to voice out their life histories in conversations with their elders. Not to further divide a monolithic Hausa society, but demonstrate how the Hausa have been developing into distinct, absorptive people. Clearly, then Hausa is not a language, but a people. Ask any individual in Kano with ‘Fulani’ or ‘Arab’ ancestorial roots, and they will tell you they are Hausa, ‘even though my grandmother is Fulani/Arab/Russian/Greek, etc.’

Let’s split hairs here. Having different languages, but the same skin color – whether you are black, white, brown, yellow or (if an alien) green, and submitting to same central, national governing authority makes you ‘ethnic’. Having the same attributes but without recognition of a national authority, only blood and kinship ties makes you ‘tribal’. Separation across skin color is a race, not an ethnic issue. Arabs are a separate race from Africans. So, what happens when the racial divide is crossed (bred)? Will a new ‘race’ emerge?

The Arab contributions to the economy and culture of Kano are far more than any other ethnic group, including the Fulani. Consider the Yemeni alone and their massive contributions to the animal skin trade in northern Nigeria. Initially ‘imported’ as Italian trade agents from Yemen in the early 20th century, they have now become domesticated to the Hausa society. Yes, they are light-skinned, and quite a few speak Arabic; but the mid-generations have lost the Arabic language. As a ‘minority’ group, they intermarried with local African women and their offspring contributed to the sustainable development of culture and life in Hausa societies, without the consciousness of being ‘the other’. What are then the cultural specificities that tie them to the Arab world? Can it be in dress, language, food, existential rites and rituals (birth, living, death)? How do theirs – if at all present – differ from those of the Hausa?

Then consider the Lebanese and their input into the goods and products found in various Kano markets – including their influence all over West Africa. They are less integrative with their African hosts, but have been linguistically domesticated and for all intents and purposes, many self-identify as Hausa, and retain some living rituals (e.g., food habits). This is an area initially mapped out by Sabo Albasu’s monumental groundbreaking research, “The Lebanese in Kano” (which is based on his 1989 doctoral thesis), and unfortunately, not much else was done on such scale by other people. I wish he could update and re-print it, as now, more than ever, is the time for it. 

The Sudanese, more than the other Arabs, had integrated more effectively to northern Nigerian Hausa communities perhaps due to the gradation in their skin colors – from extremely dark to extremely light – than either the Tripolitanians, Yemeni, the Lebanese or Syrians/Jordanians, whose clearly light skins made them stand out in any group. Establishing themselves in the city of Kano at Sudawa (Sudanese settlement) they formed part of the identity of Kano city populace. 

The Sudanese influence was also more intellectual. While they were instrumental in trade, their main contribution was in education. For instance, when the School for Arabic Studies – undoubtedly the Oxford of Arabic Studies in Nigeria – was established in 1934, it was to Sudan that the inspiration was sought, including the teachers. Even what later became Bayero University Kano was first headed by Abdullahi el-Tayyeb, a Sudanese. Not talk of Sudan itself being a destination for studies at all levels by northern Nigerians. You don’t see such rush for education to Lebanon or Yemen. 

While rummaging through the caverns of an old abandoned hard drive, I came across a booklet that the Kantoma (Muhammad Uba Adamu) had asked me to extract from his “Confluences and Influences” as a standalone paper (presented in 1998) and later with additional material, as a booklet. We named it “The Presence of Arabs in Kano”. Lack of funding prevented its publication, but I was able to get it published as a paper in a book project. A link to the paper is given at the end of this posting. 

For those interested, I have included the table (from the paper below) of the 25 Arab dominated Kano inner city wards. I did this because not many would have the time to read 43 pages of the paper!

Adamu, Abdalla Uba. 2014. The presence of Arabs in Kano. In A.I. Tanko & S. B. Momole (Eds.). Kano: Environment, Society and Development (pp. 125-164). London & Abuja: Adonis & Abbey Publishers. 

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