In Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria, Brain Larkin explores the influence of indirect rule, and the technology that facilitated it, in creating a Nigerian North characterized by a complex mix of cultural and ideological heterogeneities. An early example of this blending of traditional sensibilities and colonial infrastructure is seen in the spectacle of the Kano Water and Electric Light Works opening ceremony in 1932, where lights spelt out “the Emir greets you all” in Arabic script. A more recent example are the marginalized ‘yan daba “gang,” easily confused with the state sanctioned Hisbah youth organization, for their similar passion for enforcing shari’a law all the while living a life that can only be described as “thuggish” with their baggy clothes, large gold chains and movie nicknames. To this day, dissention persists among the populace on how to portray kunya– a proper sense of shame/respect and on what tarbiyya or religious tutelage should include.

This divide stemmed from the contradictions within indirect rule itself. Larkin observes that “the preservation of difference” – that was at the heart of indirect rule, was always at “war with the recognition that transformation” – the one validation for colonialism, was necessary and inevitable. The British were also haunted by the fear of being usurped by the modern Africans they hoped to cultivate. So, although the publicized intent of colonial infrastructure was to promote development certain technologies, like mobile cinemas, were simultaneously used to provoke a sense of awe and of being subaltern. Larkin describes this power as the “colonial sublime;” a befuddling of the Northern Nigerian imagination.

Elements of the mobile cinema, or majigi, in Nigeria were governed by politics. Screenings had a pedagogical element: knowledge being exchanged with ‘citizens.’ However, these educational documentaries sought to instruct on issues of health, farming and citizenship by stigmatizing traditional practices. The British saw key “problems” but Nigerians did not grant these issues the same importance as the information ran up against indigenous systems of belief. Therefore, much information was met with skepticism. For a people who believe that diseases are carried by invisible forces, for example, a biological/scientific solution sans spiritual influence will make no sense. And just as the colonial sublime changes with context – technologies were mutable and created possibilities in excess of their expected use.

At the heart of the debate is the contradiction in the heart of indirect rule – the promise to preserve the existing Hausa society and to transform it at the same time. Noteworthy, is that this preservation of the identity of the North was supported by an demonization of the southern states that were quicker transitioning both intellectually and culturally to the habits of the British. It is therefore not surprising to find the Hausa stuck midway between two mentalities when they were both encouraged to preserve their practices while being told there were better ways to do them. Electrified Arabic script and thuggish shari’a enforcers now don’t seem so farfetched.

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About Staciay

Second year MFA Creative Writing candidate: Poetry track.

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