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Hausa is the second-largest sub-Saharan African language in terms of numbers of native speakers. The greatest number of Hausa speakers are in the West African countries of Niger and Nigeria, but it is also spoken through large parts of West and Central Africa as a lingua franca or universal second language, especially among Muslims. It is written both in our alphabet and, outside urban areas, in a modified form of Arabic writing called Ajami.
Of the some 2,000 languages spoken on the African continent (one third of the world’s known languages!), Hausa is one of the two most important in terms of number of speakers and geographical spread. Hausa and Swahili vie for first place, with both claiming some 50 million speakers, including both native and second language speakers.
Hausa is widely used in West Africa. It is a first language in the northern Nigeria, in much of Niger, and is the second language for many people in Benin, Chad, Cameroon, and Togo, northern Ghana, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Libya, southern Nigeria, and Sudan. In addition, communities of Hausa speakers can be found throughout the continent, as well as in Europe and the United States. Hausa is taught in major universities in Africa and around the world and all major international broadcasters include programming in Hausa ( BBC, Radio France Internationale, China Radio International, Voice of Russia, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, and IRIB). Hausa also boasts a burgeoning film industry known as Kannywood (named after the major Hausa city of Kano).
Hausa belongs to the Afro-Asiatic language family which includes such well-known languages as Arabic, Amharic, and Hebrew. It is written in two different alphabets: the Latin alphabet (boko) and the Arabic alphabet (ajami). In Globally Speaking: Hausa, you will be introduced to both.
The majority of native Hausa speakers reside in Niger and Nigeria. Nigeria, which is the most populous country in Africa, with a population of close to 150 million, is the fifth biggest supplier of US crude oil imports, after Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and Venzuela. Hausa is a subject in Nigerian secondary schools and universities and is the language of instruction for the elementary grades in Hausa-speaking areas. More than half of the broadcasting on northern Nigerian radio and television stations is in Hausa, there are several Hausa language newspapers, and an lively publishing industry in Hausa.
The homeland of Hausa speakers is called Hausaland. From the late 9th through to the 15th century, this area which is today northern Nigeria and southern Niger, served as a nexus of cultural and economic activity. Exchanges of language, commerce, and religious belief and thought established this vast region’s strategic importance throughout the Islamic world.
During medieval times, what is now Northern Nigeria had contact with the great African empires of ancient Ghana, Mali, Kanem Borno, and Songhay and with countries of the Mediterranean region and beyond. Islamic influence was firmly established by the end of the 14th century, and Kano was famous not only as a center of Islamic studies but also as an important commercial center of the states and societies in the Western Sudan.
Centers of Islamic learning, such as Kano, not only served to facilitate scholarly exchanges between traveling scholars, but also to cultivate vast numbers of indigenous scholars, who composed manuscript works written in Arabic and in the traditional Arabic script known as A’jami (used to write a range of languages including Hausa, Fulfulde, Kanuri, and Yoruba), and to advance book arts and crafts, including illumination, binding and calligraphy. These manuscripts provide a written testimony to the skill of African scientists, in astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, medicine and climatology in the Middle Ages.
A Hausa text in Ajami
The creation of the Sokoto Caliphate in the jihad (holy war) of 1804-8 created one of the largest and most powerful pre-colonial empires which, even after it was overpowered by the British in 1903, continued to be an important force in the region.