Foreign languages have always fascinated Zhang ‘Murtala’ Weiwei. He grew up in Nanjing, a city in southeast China famous for its central role in the ancient Ming dynasty and proximity to Shanghai. A member of China’s one-child policy generation, he remembers a childhood filled with pleasant experiences. “I really enjoyed my childhood,” he says. When it was time for him to go to university, in 2004, he decided to study a foreign language. His parents did not object. “They respected my choice.”
The foreign language he really wanted to learn was Spanish, at Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU), but the school offered him another language, Hausa. “At that point, to be honest, I had never heard about Hausa,” Murtala says, “I didn’t even know how to spell the word.” But BFSU’s prestige as one of the best foreign language schools in China was too much for Murtala to resist. He accepted the offer and quickly realized, after doing a quick Baidu search, that Hausa was widely spoken in Nigeria, a country whose oil wealth and footballing pedigree he was already familiar with. He didn’t know, then, that some nine years later, work would take him to its West African shores.
For four years, Murtala studied Hausa at BFSU. The name ‘Murtala’ was give to him by one of his professors, Balarabe Shehu, a Nigerian instructor. “My Chinese name ‘Weiwei’ can be translated to mean great, so he decided to name me after a great man in Nigerian politics, Murtala Muhammed.” His other professors were Chinese, but they had all studied Hausa in West Africa, most at the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria. In 2008, he graduated from BFSU and joined the Hausa Service at China Radio International (CRI), one of the largest multi-language broadcasters in the world.
In 2013, Murtala was posted to Nigeria as a Chief Correspondent for CRI. The first thing that hit him, as he alighted from the aircraft at the Nnamdi Azikwe Airport in Abuja, was the hot wind. But, inside the terminal and beyond, he felt at home hearing the language he had learnt for almost a decade being spoken in casual conversations. “Everything felt familiar,” he says. “My driver, a man from Nasarawa, was familiar. From that day, I fell in love with the country.”
Murtala’s job as a reporter in Nigeria brought him in contact with a lot of local people. And wherever he went, people were shocked that he could speak Hausa. The idea that a Chinese man was Hausa-fluent was almost unimaginable; perhaps he was not real. But he was there, in the flesh; the evidence could not be thrown out. Once, he was designated to interview the Emir of Kano, Lamido Sanusi. A day before the interview, the Emir’s handlers were worried he might not be able to pay proper respects to the Emir in the local language. He proved them wrong. A five-minute interview was extended to more than twenty, as the Emir praised his fluency. It was one of Murtala’s proudest moments during his time in Nigeria. “I couldn’t believe I could get a chance to get close to such a dignified personality,” he says.
He worked in Nigeria for almost four years, during which he interviewed several important personalities across the country. But he was also interviewed by a lot of people. Everyone wanted to know the story behind the Chinese man who could speak Hausa. He appeared on television shows and within the lines of newspaper articles. When he left the country, he wrote a blog for a national newspaper expressing his profound gratitude to all the locals who had helped him navigate the past years.
The bewildering reactions to Murtarla’s Hausa-fluency are a pointer to how little contact there is between Nigerian languages and Chinese. This reporter, who recently spent ten months in China, had similar experiences. Without even a basic grasp of Chinese, a simple ‘Nihao’ (Hello) drew gasps from most Chinese people – a Nigerian who can say ‘Nihao’ is a unicorn. But that might be changing too, as China ramps up the promotion of Chinese language and culture across the world through initiatives such as the Confucius Institute.
But the reactions can also show how little we value our local languages. If a foreigner lives and works in a place, should he not be expected to communicate in the tongue of the locals? “We no longer teach local languages in the country, in our secondary and primary schools, which is a shame,” Mr. Kola Tubosun, a linguist, told this reporter in an email. “Not only that, we rarely speak these languages to our children anymore.”
Mr. Tubosun, who has emerged as, perhaps, the most important language advocate in the country within the past half-decade, was responding to a question about the quality of local language promotion in the country, compared to China’s.
“China is doing something right,” he said. “But the reason why they succeed has nothing to do with our own nonchalance. We can acquire as many languages as we choose to. The question is why we aren’t as proactive as they are. For China, there is an economic incentive to teach Africans their language. They want to exploit our economic opportunities. Maybe when we find out what we want to do in the world, how we want to exploit the benefits in other lands, then we will use our language as an entry point as well.”
When Murtala was asked whether he thought Nigerians were doing enough to promote their local languages, he acknowledged that a lot needed to be done. “The colonial language – English – has had a very big influence,” he says. When the locals speak Hausa, he notes, it is riddled with a lot of English words and phrases. “Nigerians have to make the teaching of local languages compulsory in schools, starting from the primary education. On our part as Chinese people, we translate so many TV shows and series into Hausa and we also broadcast in the language. That’s our way of encouraging the people to develop their language.”
This reporter first met Murtala last May during a function at Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU). He had been transferred back to China and was happy to see a Nigerian. When he realized this reporter wasn’t fluent in Hausa, he said a greeting in Yoruba. Over the course of the interviews for this article, which was conducted once in person at CRI headquarters in Beijing and via exchanged messages on social media, Murtala was quick to show basic competency in several local Nigerian languages, including Idoma and Igbo. “My cleaner when I was in Nigeria was Idoma,” he says.
He reminisces about his time in Nigeria, where he made a lot of friends – some still send him messages on Facebook – and enjoyed pap and akara, and spicy suya. “My understanding of Hausa gave me more access to the local people,” he says, “a lot of people want me to return.”
The relationship between Nigeria and China, during the past decade, has grown tremendously both in economic and political terms. China is now the country’s largest trade partner and people-to-people exchange numbers are rising. But it is not a relationship without its question marks, despite stable and cordial diplomatic engagements at the highest levels. Worth mentioning is perception of the other among average people. Namvula Rennie, in an article in the Journal of African Media Studies, notes that some Chinese tend to distrust Nigerians, ascribing to them notions of criminality, including illegal drug trafficking.
Since he has returned, Murtala has had to fend off untrue, blanket opinions about Nigeria or Africa held by people he meets. “I tend to defend Africa,” he says. “I tell them ‘you don’t know my life in Abuja or Kano’.” This is why, he admits, more people-to-people exchanges are important for the promotion of a better relationship between both parties. The more we interact with each other, the more we can bring about “more mutual understanding,” he says.
During conversations with this reporter, it was easy to observe that Murtala had assimilated a lot of Nigerian-ness, finishing sentences with ‘we thank God’. Of course, Murtala is not religious (“I’m a communist”), but such religious sentences are woven into the fabric of most Nigerian languages and, in extension, the country’s psychological framework. “Language,” Murtala says, “opens a new window.” ✚