Hausa Folklore by Maalam Shaihu and translated By R. Sutherland Rattray

Part I


IT is our privilege at Oxford to be visited from time to time by officers of the Public Service, who modestly apply to us for instruction in Anthropology, more particularly as it bears on the history of the native races of the Empire. Not infrequently, however, they bring with them a previously acquired stock of anthropological information, such as almost takes away the breath of their duly constituted teachers. Thereupon the latter feel inclined to offer to change places; and, instead of teaching, to play the part of learners in regard to them.

Mr. Rattray furnishes a case in point. When he joined our School of Anthropology, he was already a past-master in all that relates to Chinyanja folk-lore, a subject on which he had actually published a useful book. Besides, though but recently transferred from British Central Africa to the West Coast, he was already at close grips with more than one of the languages current in that most polyglot of regions.

To claim, therefore, any share whatever in the origination of the present work would ill beseem one who merely offered sympathetic encouragement when Mr. Rattray proceeded to unfold his latest design. This design was to compass two ends at once-to obtain trustworthy linguistic material, and to explore the inner secrets of the Hausa mind-by giving a somewhat novel turn to an old and approved method.

As regards the collection of folk-lore, the approved method -in fact, the only method likely to satisfy the demands of science-is this: the observer must draft word-for-word reports of what he hears; and must further give the original words, when a foreign tongue is used, so that it may be possible independently to control the version.

Such a method, however, is more easily prescribed on paper than followed in the field. When the witness is illiterate-as commonly happens when there is genuine folklore to be gathered-its application proves exceedingly troublesome, for reasons that may readily be divined. A more or less formal dictation lesson has somehow to be given and received; and the several parties to it are only too apt to conspire each in his own way to render it a failure. Thus the story-teller, on the one hand, is probably shy and suspicious at the outset; is put out of his stride by the slightest interruption; and, becoming weary all too soon, tends to take short cuts, instead of following to the end the meandering path of the genuine tradition. The reporter, in his turn, is incessantly puzzled by the idiom, more especially since in such a context archaisms will be frequent; boggles over a pronunciation adapted to a monotonous sing-song delivery, or else, perhaps, to a dramatic mimicry carried on in several voices; and is likely to be steadily outpaced into the bargain.

Mr. Rattray's happy thought, then, was to remedy the practical shortcomings of the standard method by finding someone who, as it were, could dictate to himself; who, in other words, could successfully combine the characters of story-teller and reporter in his single person.

Moreover, as Mr. Rattray was not slow to perceive, the existing conditions of Hausa culture bring it about that the very type of helper needed is with due search to be procured. A maalam of the best class possesses all the literary skill which a knowledge of Arabic and of the Arabic script involves. Nonetheless, he remains thoroughly in touch with his own people, a Hausa of the Hausas.

In his hands, therefore, the traditional lore loses nothing of its authentic form and flavour. In short, the chance of literary manipulation may be ruled out.

Hence it would seem, if I may venture to say so, that the Government of the Gold Coast was no less wise than liberal in its policy when, by the grant of a subvention, it enabled Maalam Shaihu's work to be perpetuated in the fullest way, namely, not only by transliteration and translation, but likewise by actual reproduction in facsimile.

For, apart from its value as a masterpiece of artistic penmanship, this clear and, I understand, correct calligraphy must prove of great assistance to European students of Hausa to whose official lot it falls to wrestle with the productions of the native scribe. Then, conversely, if an educated Hausa aspire, as well he may, to learn the English language, together with the use of the English alphabet, he has here an invaluable means of comparing his own system of written symbols with ours. So much, then, for the more obvious advantages to be derived from a study of the md1am's actual manuscript. Over and above this, it proves of assistance to the philologist, as Mr. Rattray shows, by making clear certain finer points of grammar in regard to which evidence was hitherto lacking. Also, I suppose, simply as exemplifying the characteristic differences between the African and the classical modes of writing Arabic, it would not be without a certain scientific interest of its own.

Concerning the worth of the collected matter to the student of language and to the folk-lorist, I am hardly called upon to speak here, even were I competent to do so. Suffice it to say that, in respect of its contents, the book does not, of course, claim to stand alone. Yet, though a considerable library of Hausa literature is already in existence, it can well bear to be enriched by another volume such as this, which manages to dispense with the middle man of another mental type, and brings us directly into contact with the native intelligence as it witnesses to itself.

For the rest, I take it that the study of Hausa folk-lore offers fascinating problems to the student, if only because it calls for a critical sifting and weighing of the most drastic kind. The culture of the Hausas is not, in any sense of that much abused term, primitive. They have undergone interpenetration on the part of the Fulani and other alien stocks. They have more or less universally embraced Mohammedanism. They engage in trading expeditions which bring them into touch with most of the peoples of West Africa. Altogether, then, they are far away from that state of aboriginal innocence in which a strictly homegrown tradition perpetuates itself by means of stories that almost amount to oral rites, so undeviating is their form, so solemn their import and associations.

On the contrary, the most characteristic feature of Hausa lore, when purged of its more obvious accretions from without, consists in the folk-tale; which some authorities go so far as to regard as typically reminiscent of some degenerated and desolemnized myth. Nor can it be denied that, for example, various survivals in this region of what may be termed in a broad sense totemism lend colour to the view that the animal story may have fallen from a far higher estate, if the criterion of value be the seriousness of the beliefs which it embodies. To the student of folk-lore origins, however, the material available here is at least as good as to be got nearer home; and, in so far as there still exist in Hausaland odd corners where customs lurk of a quite primaeval appearance, the chance of discovering the laws of change involved is relatively the better.

Besides, quite apart from the purely scientific interest in origins, the reader will come to understand the thoughts and ways of the Hausas as they are now.

Their notions about right and wrong, for instance, are indicated pretty clearly by many of the animal stories; seeing that each animal tends to represent a type of character calling either for admiration or detestation, and, being more or less humanized into the bargain, affords a nucleus round which a nascent moral philosophy can be observed to gather.

Even more directly, too, may we obtain insight into the present conditions of Hausa culture by studying what the maalam has to say about their history, manners, and arts. If brief, his notices are always business-like and to the point; while he plainly has access to information-for instance, in regard to bronze-casting by the cire perdue process -for which the European investigator might for the most part snap his fingers in vain.

But, as the Hausas say, 'If you are not going to drink the pap, stop stirring it.' The pap, I am convinced, is excellent. So let us drink without more ado.


Hausa Folklore

Main Library