- “Go by Appearances at Your Peril”: The Raina Kama Writers’ Association in Kano, Nigeria, Carving out a Place for the “Popular” in the Hausa Literary Landscape
The 25th anniversary of the publication of Karin Barber’s fertile and provocative overview of the “Popular Arts in Africa” provides an occasion to turn back to the concepts and challenges she set out there and consider how useful they remain after twenty-five years. In discussing the way in which a long-established cline of the “traditional/popular/elite” had been hitherto deployed, Barber drew attention to the definitional processes at work in cultural production such that producers and consumers claim and contest affinities with other cultural forms. In addition to issues surrounding the social and political position of producers and consumers, processes of production were differentially embedded in commercial or noncommercial relations. There were many other issues raised in that original article but this is the theme that will be pursued further here.
This article considers the emergence of a new mode of popular fiction in Hausa in northern Nigeria in the late 1980s and reflects on the consciously self-definitional processes that were in play at that time among a group of emerging writers. They placed themselves on the “traditional/popular/elite” spectrum and quite self-consciously situated themselves also along alternative definitional clines, i.e., to what degree they were seen to be aligned with Islam or “Hausa customs.” In one brief experiment, they also sought to distance themselves from both Western and Middle Eastern cultures, as symbolized by the use of Roman and Arabic scripts.
The growth and spread of this literature was driven by engagement at the level of subject matter with urban youth and predominantly women’s concerns [End Page 88] in an Islamic society. It was occasioned by the concurrence of complementary motivations with a commonality of experience in book production with its price and market sensitivities and risks. Success with books led to an interest in the new technologies of video production, where the group of writers that form the focus of this discussion fared less well.
The emergence of a new mode of cultural creativity raises many questions surrounding the transition into action, from being in a receptive mode to a creative one, from passivity to galvanized “can do.” Not only does it raise questions about how individuals transform themselves, it also throws into relief the relationships between actors in that transition and how they feed off each other, support each other, or split and go their own ways. It also shows how what may be a haphazard combination of events and personalities strike the zeitgeist in such a way that they start a trend, a movement that goes way beyond where they began. A puzzle for the observer and the participant is why one such combination of initiatives and circumstances may explode and change society while another withers on the vine. In this discussion, we will consider the beginnings of a substantial cultural endeavor within the Hausa speaking world of West Africa, one that went on to produce thousands of novels circulating in northern Nigeria with hundreds of writers and one that provided an impetus for the development of a whole other cultural phenomenon, the Hausa video film industry within Nollywood in Nigeria.1
It is tempting to suggest that success and “take-off” are the outcome of the concurrence of a particular constellation of favorable circumstances, the right economic environment, the presence of rewards and incentives, a culmination of acquired skills and experience, a supportive environment of peers, a continuity of tradition on which to draw, and a host of other propitious elements leading to a critical mass followed by cultural explosion! We will see in this discussion that quite the opposite appears to have been the case. Economic dislocation and hardship constituted the environment in which these pioneers worked: the financial risks for authors were great, control of revenue from intellectual property was extremely shaky, and the practitioners were novices who felt denigrated in society. Angry at a society that favors educational qualifications over sheer raw creative skills, they made little reference to earlier writers...