Let me begin with a personal story. I grew up in the Northern part of Nigeria, Kaduna to be precise. Although I am not Hausa, one of the languages of my childhood, as you might assume, is Hausa. Not only was the language spoken by people of Hausa descent, but it was also carefully spoken with ease by non-Hausa people and settlers in my immediate community. The Hausa language immersion aside, another important aspect of my childhood was watching Nollywood films. Although I was mostly forced to watch these films (such as Osuofia in London, Aki na Ukwa, Egg of Life and Blood Sister), I watched a number of them. As a sensitive child, I quickly noticed something: the absence of the language of my immediate community on screen. English Language is Nigeria’s official language so understandably these films were predominantly in the language. At some point, indigenous languages were represented on our mainstream screens such as Igbo and Yoruba, but not any of the languages from the Northern part of the country.
Is the Hausa language not media-friendly? One might be forced to ask. The Hausa-broadcast news on television and popular sitcoms like Baba Ramota and Ibro attest to the contrary. The Hausa language is a media language. So why is there an observable absence of Hausa language and cultural representation in the receded but prominent old Nollywood films that emerged in our pop culture? Save for Sani Danja and Ali Nuhu, who in the early 2000s penetrated mainstream Nollywood, who are the actors of Hausa descent of that era?
In some attempts to create a space for Hausa characters in mainstream Nollywood, we are led to our first major problematic issue: the regular stereotypical representation. This occurs with the rehashed representation as illiterates and other forms of uneducated beings. A Hausa character (sometimes not even played by a native) is only a part of the story when there’s the need for an illiterate, comical gateman, a caricaturistic characterization that is a harmful on-screen representation. It should be noted that these questionable representations are not just peculiar to the Hausas, as some other minority (not necessarily meaning population figures but the power held, in this case, the film industry) ethnic groups have been at the butt of such negative stereotypical representations and displays. For example, an Efik somehow ends up being the unintelligent cook or the Igbo character with a heavy rural accent who is always consumed by their love for money. It signals lazy, hackneyed writing. Across multiple films, we are likely to end up with the familiar (shallow) character, “just in a different costume and reading different lines,” as Dika Ofoma wrote in 2022 about Nollywood’s diversity problem. Such cliched characterization is evident across old Nollywood, till the present day.
Today, Nollywood has witnessed growth in how stories are being told in the mainstream fold. There is a shift from being a predominantly monolingual industry to embracing more languages. This has allowed the inclusion and exploration of other cultures in Nollywood films that we see in cinemas and on streaming services. The beautiful use of Ibibio in Dimeji Ajibola’s Shanty Town as the major local language and the likes of Ajoche (Idoma), Blood of Enogie (Bini), and Riona (Itsekiri) by Africa Magic have been able to spotlight diverse cultures and languages. This, I must say, is a truly impressive step forward in having these representations on screen even with occasional questionable delivery.
During this time, the Hausa industry, known as Kannywood, just like other indigenous film industries like the Yoruba film industry, has been able to tell stories that reach mainstream discourse. Most importantly, it has been able to create an avenue for Hausa filmmakers and actors alike to shine. The likes of Ali Nuhu, Rahama Sadua, Sani Danja, Aisha Gabon, Sani Mu’azu, Maryam Booth, Uzee Usman, and Yakubu Mohammed among others have put in so much work that they have been able to cross over to mainstream Nollywood. Even more impressive, some of them have gone on to produce Northern/Hausa-based stories on mainstream platforms. Notably, Uzee Usman’s collaboration with ROK TV to make series like Farin Jini and most recently Rahama Sadau’s executive-produced The Two Aishas distributed by FilmOne, amongst several others on Netflix and Prime Video.
Despite this impressive progress that has developed the capacity— of stars and filmmakers of Northern background— it is sad to recount that not much has changed in the stunted use of Hausa actors to play Hausa-related roles in mainstream Nollywood films. There is a high level of real-to-life acting that an indigenous speaker of the Hausa language brings to bear that is lacking in a non-indigenous actor’s performance.
Ali Nuhu and Rahama Sadau are the most frequently cast Hausa-speaking actors in Hausa-related roles in mainstream films, with other native Hausa-speaking talents getting only rare outings. In rare cases, we have Hausa-speaking actors, who are not from the core North, getting these roles, such as Tope Olowoniyan, Lucy Ameh, and Rekiya Attah, to name a few. Disappointingly, producers and casting directors mostly cast actors with no background in the language. These actors, despite their superb abilities, end up delivering very unconvincing performances in their Hausa roles because of their non-kinship with the Hausa language or culture which dents their performance to a Hausa audience.
Kemi Adetibas’s King of Boys (2018) almost achieved an impressive job for the casting of the Hausa roles in the film: Paul Sambo and Sani Mu’azu as Mr. Gobir and Inspector Shehu respectively. However, this amazing work of inclusion falters with the casting of Funlola Aofeyebi-Raimi as Mr. Gobir’s sister. Her character who has just one Hausa line, “kar ka Damu kan kan ka” (meaning “do not worry yourself”) uses “Damu” (the noun form of “worry”), instead of “Dama” (the verb for “worry”), an error too obvious for a native to miss if they were cast in that role. This would have been slightly tolerable if her accent isn’t like a non-Nigerian. As someone passionate about the Hausa language, that line still haunts me. Aofeyebi-Raimi’s presence ends up as a glorified guest appearance that almost dented the film’s inclusive efforts. While it might seem inconsequential for non-speakers, it is quite painful for natives, as it shows that not enough care was taken.
In the recent years of Nollywood’s effort to have more diverse characters, casting still fails them. Let’s go further with Kayode Kasum’s Ponzi, which features a caricature portrayal of the Hausa language. Firstly, the accent depicted to be a Hausa accent is very unlikely and is discomforting to the ears. The few times Immaculata’s character speaks Hausa, it’s an ear sore. One can conclude that almost she is speaking a very distinct and unpopular version of Yoruba, rather than the purported Hausa.
Such unfortunate misrepresentation will make one wonder if we have crew members whose sole responsibility is the supervision of the delivery of whatever indigenous or foreign languages a director/writer has deemed important to include in their story. Maybe this only solidifies the assumption that the Lagos filmmakers have no regard for the Hausa audience who dedicate their time and resources to consume their projects. Consequently, the use of Hausa in mainstream films these days merely feels like a performative function of “inclusion”. But what is inclusion without actually being inclusive, only to end up like some form of patronage without any genuine portrayal, nuance or depth.
Then there is Izu Ojukwu’s Amina. From Ojukwu’s filmography, one can confidently say that historical films—which have been quite positively received— are his forte. So, high expectations were set ahead of the film’s surprise release on Netflix after an embattled production. The film sets out to dramatise the untold story of the great Queen Amina of Zazzau but fails to deliver in certain areas, like the costume design. This makes us question the 2022 AMVCA win for costume designing because the film fails to actively use the costuming to tell this deeply-rooted historical film, that does not even pay full homage to the Hausa language, choosing to predominantly settle for the easier English route.
Taking a look at cultural Yoruba films like Anikulapo and King of Thieves, there was no compromise in making sure that the main cast could properly speak the language they were filming in. The cultural background of the prominent actors and directors in these films being tied to the depicted culture eases the originality and cultural depth. This raises an important question: Should Hausa stories be left for Hausa filmmakers to tell? Not necessarily. Actual casting and research will work wonders.
There are some positives to highlight. One of the few films with perfect Hausa casting is Genevieve Nnaji’s 2018 family drama, Lionheart, Nigeria’s first Netflix original film. The casting choices didn’t downplay the importance of the Hausa characters in the film. Having opted for casting actual Hausa actors (Sani Mua’zu and Yakubu Mohammed), the casting decision makers of the film elevated the cultural originality of the story. History will be kind to Lionheart for how they maximized the opportunity to represent Hausa in films.
Lionheart is not alone. Another notable film that succeeds in this area is Tope Oshin’s Up North. A co-production between Anakle Films and Inkblot Productions, the film, as the title hints, is mostly shot in Northern Nigeria. Actual speakers of the Hausa language were cast as actors in both major and minor roles in the film. There is also evidence of proper research in Up North, which pushes the film’s originality further. These mentioned choices make the story relatable to both the Northern audience and the non-northern audience alike.
The above-mentioned films are meager mainstream projects that show accurate casting and representation for their Hausa roles. The majority of projects churned out today show no representation of Hausa culture or settle for a poor representation. And to be honest, the former is better than the latter. To reiterate, it is ridiculous when Hausa people are reductively seen as gatemen, even worse when a well-written Hausa character is played by actors who struggle to accentuate the language. It won’t be hasty to conclude that filmmakers in Lagos — the epicenter of Nollywood — don’t care about the Northern audiences. They can show more reverence by simply casting Hausa-savvy actors in the roles written for them, an area where astute awareness must be exhibited for the sake of their Northern audience who actually watch Nollywood.
Most recently, Anthill Studios’ first release of 2023, The House of Secrets, directed by the creative driver of the studio, Niyi Akinmolayan, cast Shawn Faqua to play the role of Panam Peters. Faqua plays the role of military personnel from Northern Nigeria. Although his name doesn’t suggest this, there is always a need for Shawn Faqua’s character to speak Hausa. This is a bad call for the film as one gets the sense that Faqua is “forced” into speaking Hausa in the film. The use of Hausa is a colossal failure in The House of Secrets. The use of the language comes off as amateurish on the lips of this major character and even other minor characters meant to be of Hausa descent. This is evident in the train scene where Sarah (Efe Irele) is apprehended by supposedly Hausa military men, who say “Kashe shi” (meaning “Kill him”) instead of using the feminine pronoun, “Kashe ta”, an obvious mistake that could have been avoided if there was at least a person on the set that understood Hausa.
Other notable mentions one can’t help but notice as partakers, in this cruel party of misrepresentation, albeit to various degrees are Badamosi, Diamonds In the Sky, The Men’s Club, Africa Magic’s Battleground, Beyond The Veil, Ebonylife’s Castle and Castle, among others.
New Nollywood may have improved in a lot of aspects in comparison to Old Nollywood in its Hausa representation, but it has disappointingly failed at doing better in the portrayal of the Hausa language and culture in general. There is, at least, room for great improvement. Filmmakers with the passionate intent to tell Northern Nigeria-related stories should be ready to take the time and resources to cast rightly, while not forgetting adequate research on the culture, language, and reality of the Northerners in order to achieve noteworthy inclusion.
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