The Hausa, numbering more than 20 million, are the largest ethnic group in west Africa. They are widely distributed geographically and have intermingled with many different peoples.
Islam arrived in the area by the fourteenth century. By the fifteenth century, there were a number of independent Hausa city-states. They competed with each other for control of trade across the Sahara Desert, slaves, and natural resources.
In the nineteenth century, the region was unified by a jihad (Islamic holy war) and became known as Hausaland. The British arrived and colonized the area in about 1900. Even during colonial times, the city-states and their leaders maintained some autonomy. Many Hausa traditions were preserved until late in the twentieth century.
The Hausa people are concentrated mainly in northwestern Nigeria and in adjoining southern Niger. This area is mostly semiarid grassland or savanna, dotted with cities surrounded by farming communities. The cities of this region—Kano, Sokoto, Zari, and Katsina, for example—are among the greatest commercial centers of sub-Saharan Africa (Africa south of the Sahara Desert). Hausa people are also found living in other countries of west Africa like Cameroon, Togo, Chad, Benin, Burkina Faso, and Ghana.
Hausa is the most widely spoken language in west Africa. It is spoken by an estimated 22 million people. Another 17 million people speak Hausa as a second language. Hausa is written in Arabic characters, and about one-fourth of Hausa words come from Arabic. Many Hausa can read and write Arabic. Many can also speak either French or English.
According to tradition, Bayajidda, the mythical ancestor of the Hausa, migrated from Baghdad in the ninth or tenth century AD . After stopping at the kingdom of Bornu, he fled west and helped the king of Daura slay a dangerous snake. As a reward, he was given the Queen of Daura in marriage. Bayajidda’s son, Bawo, founded the city of Biram. He had six sons who became the rulers of other Hausa city-states. Collectively, these are known as the Hausa bakwai (Hausa seven).
Hausa folklore includes tatsunya— stories that usually have a moral. They involve animals, young men and maidens, and heroes and villains. Many include proverbs and riddles.
Most Hausa are devout Muslims who believe in Allah and in Muhammad as his prophet. They pray five times each day, read the Koran (holy scriptures), fast during the month of Ramadan, give alms to the poor, and aspire to make the pilgrimage (hajj) to the Muslim holy land in Mecca. Islam affects nearly all aspects of Hausa behavior, including dress, art, housing, rites of passage, and laws. In the rural areas, there are communities of peoples who do not follow Islam. These people are called Maguzawa. They worship nature spirits known as bori or iskoki.
The Hausa observe the holy days of the Islamic calendar. Eid (Muslim feast days) celebrate the end of Ramadan (month of fasting), follow a hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), and celebrate the birthday of the prophet Muhammad. On Eid al-Adha, Muslims sacrifice an animal to reenact the time Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son to God. Families also slaughter an animal in their own homes. This may be a male sheep or cow. People then celebrate with their relatives and friends and give each other gifts.
RITES OF PASSAGE
About a week after a child is born, it is given a name during an Islamic naming ceremony. Boys are usually circumcised at around the age of seven, but there is no special rite associated with this.
In their mid-to late teens, young men and women may become engaged. The marriage ceremony may take as long as several days. Celebrations begin among the bride and her family and friends as she is prepared for marriage. Male representatives of the bride’s and the groom’s families sign the marriage contract according to Islamic law, usually at the mosque. Shortly thereafter, the couple is brought together.
Following a death, Islamic burial principles are always followed. The deceased is washed, wrapped in a shroud, and buried facing eastward—toward the holy land of Mecca. Prayers are recited, and family members receive condolences. Wives mourn their deceased husbands for about three months.
Hausa tend to be quiet and reserved. When they interact with outsiders, they generally do not show emotion. There are also some customs that govern interaction with one’s relatives. For example, it is considered a sign of respect not to say the name of one’s spouse or parents. By contrast, relaxed, playful relations are the norm with certain relatives, such as younger siblings, grandparents, and cousins.
From an early age, children develop friendships with their neighbors that may last a lifetime. In some towns, young people may form associations whose members socialize together until they marry.
In rural villages, Hausa usually live in large households (gidaje) that include a man, his wives, his sons, and their wives and children. In large cities, such as Kano or Katsina, Hausa live either in the old sections of town or in newer quarters built for civil servants. Hausa housing ranges from traditional family compounds in rural areas to modern, single-family houses in new sections of cities.
Relatives cooperate in activities such as farming and trade in rural areas, and business activities in urban areas. Relatives hope to live near each other to socialize and support each other. Families arrange marriages for their young people. Marriages between relatives, such as cousins, are preferred. Under Islamic law, a man may marry up to four wives.
Following Islamic custom, most married Hausa women live in seclusion. They stay in the home and only go out for ceremonies or to seek medical treatment. When they do leave their homes, women wear veils and are often escorted by their children.
Hausa men are recognizable by their elaborate dress. Many wear large, flowing gowns (gare, babban gida) with elaborate embroidery around the neck. They also wear colorful embroidered caps (huluna). Hausa women wear a wrap-around robe made of colorful cloth with a matching blouse, head tie, and shawl.
Staple foods include grains (sorghum, millet, or rice) and maize, which are ground into flour for a variety of foods. Breakfast often consists of porridge. Sometimes it includes cakes made of fried beans (kosai) or wheat flour (funkaso). Lunch and dinner usually include a heavy porridge (tuwo). It is served with a soup or stew (miya). Most soups are made with ground or chopped tomatoes, onions, and peppers. To this are added spices and other vegetables such as spinach, pumpkin, and okra. Small amounts of meat are eaten. Beans, peanuts, and milk also add protein to Hausa diets.
From about the age of six, Hausa children attend Koranic schools (schools where teaching is based on the Islamic holy scripture, the Koran). They learn to recite the scriptures and learn about the practices, teachings, and morals of Islam. By the time they reach adulthood, many achieve high levels of Islamic scholarship.
Since Nigeria received its independence in 1960, the government has built many schools and universities. A majority of Hausa children, especially in urban areas, are now able to attend school, at least at the primary level.
Music and art play are important in everyday life. From a young age, Hausa children participate in dances, which are held in meeting places such as the market. Work songs often accompany activities in the rural areas and in the markets. Praise-singers sing about community histories, leaders, and other prominent individuals. Storytelling, local dramas, and musical performances are also common forms of traditional entertainment.
Hausa society has a strong division of labor according to age and sex. The main activity in the towns is trade; in rural areas, it is agriculture. Many Hausa men have more than one occupation. In the towns and cities, they may have formal jobs, such as teaching or government work, and engage in trade on the side. In rural areas, they farm and also engage in trade or crafts. Some Hausa are full-time traders with shops or market stalls. Many Hausa are full-time Islamic scholars.
Hausa women earn money by processing, cooking, and selling food. They also sell cloth scraps, pots, medicines, vegetable oils, and other small items. Since women are generally secluded according to Islamic law, their children or servants go to other houses or the market on their behalf.
Both wrestling (kokowa) and boxing (dumb) are popular traditional sports among the Hausa. Matches take place in arenas or markets, often on religious holidays. Music, particularly drumming, accompanies the competition. Opponents wrestle until one is thrown to the ground. Boxers fight until one is either brought to his knees or falls flat on the ground.
Soccer is the most popular modern competitive sport, and is considered the national sport of Nigeria.
Musicians perform at weddings, naming ceremonies, and parties, as well as during Islamic holidays. Today, Western forms of entertainment are popular. Hausa listen to Western music, including rap and reggae, and view American and British television programs. Many have stereos, televisions, and VCRs in their homes.
CRAFTS AND HOBBIES
Hausa are well known for their craftsmanship. There are leather tanners and leather-workers, weavers, carvers and sculptors, ironworkers and blacksmiths, silver workers, potters, dyers, tailors, and embroiderers. Their wares are sold in markets throughout west Africa.
Poverty is widespread among the Hausa. Poverty results in poor nutrition and diet, illness and inadequate health care, and lack of educational opportunities. Most of the region where the Hausa live is prone to drought. Hausa people suffer during harsh weather. Some Hausa have been unable to earn a living in rural areas, and have moved to the cities in search of work.
Coles, Catherine, and Beverly Mack. Hausa Women in the Twentieth Century . Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.
Koslow, Philip. Hausaland: The Fortress Kingdoms. Kingdoms of Africa. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1995.
Smith, Mary. Baba of Karo: A Woman of the Muslim Hausa. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981.