“Dr. Imam’s work in Hausa is analogous to Chief Fagunwa’s pioneering achievements in Yoruba … but I believe that Abubakar Imam explored a wider range of human experience in his fiction.”
Before I found Shakespearean Tales, Oliver Twists, Christmas Carols, Sherlock Holmes, before I knew Tess of the D’Urbervilles, got swept in Andersen’s and the Grimm’s fairytales, descended at Ake of Soyinka, fell apart with Achebe, before the crop of the Habilas, the Adichies, before the Harry Potter, before all Twilights: I found the humorous melody of Abubakar Imam within delicious tales cooked in spicy, flowery Hausa Language.
Growing up in the landscape of a traditional literary Hausa setting, I got immersed within the roller coaster and entertaining tales that is the writings of Abubakar Imam. In the streams of his words and the verses of his pages, I found an unassuming writer bathing in a lexicon I would aim to identify with – my archetypal melodious form of writing Africa – that swanned through the seas of my childhood and frolicked its timeless fantasy as I grew up with bales of imagination. The works of Abubakar Imam are like incense dabbled in the confines of my conceptualization and I can live another lifetime savouring these scents of an eternal genius of writing.
Abubakar Imam was a man of many roots. His earliest ancestry could be traced to Dikwa in the former Borno Empire (now in the present Borno State), Nigeria. His great grandparents found themselves in the present Niger State after a migration many centuries before the Sokoto jihad in 1804. It was at Kagara however, in Niger State that Imam was born in 1911. Eleven years later Abubakar with a raffia bag hung across his shoulders left Kagara trekking to Katsina, a distance of about 400km, to begin a new era of learning in the Katsina Provincial School.
At that tender age, young Abubakar could be sighted in the company of his brother Mallam Bello, wandering around the Emir of Katsina’s palace, helping in the translation of court cases from Hausa to English and Arabic. These years of study and voracious reading across different languages in Katsina developed Abubakar’s art of writing through which he achieved soaring fame in the annals of Hausa land and beyond with the publication of his Magnus opus – Ruwan Bagaja (Water Of Cure) in 1935, followed by Magana Jari Ce (Eloquence Is An Asset) (1-3) in 1937 and Karamin Sani Kukumi (Little Knowldege Is Dangerous) (1-2) in 1938. His genius left a lasting impression on the then Emir of Katsina, Alhaji Muhammadu Dikko, and following a request by the colonial Governor to release Imam to start a newspaper production in 1938, the first of its kind in the North, Emir Dikko, in a reluctant farewell mentioned to Imam that “they had looked all over the North but could not find a better person than you”.
This epic journey of a gifted writer, so much like Homer to his region however had started before then. In 1933, Abubakar sitting with his back to the wall on his teacher’s desk, his long kaftan sweeping across the chair as he channeled energy to the book he was writing. It was a manuscript of an epic fantasy elegant in shrewd Hausa being polished for a competition sponsored by the Translation Bureau in Zaria under Mr. R M East. Abubakar Imam’s work Ruwan Bagaja (Water Of Cure) would emerge among the top five competitors to be published and Mr. East was visibly excited at the prospects of the budding work in his hands, even proposing an immediate sequel specifically to Abubakar’s book, the Water Of Cure even before publication. Mr. East in a short review of Imam’s pacesetting work said:
In Ruwan Bagaja, by Abubakar, the hero sets out on a quest, and encounters adventures in each town he visits. By this well-known device the author brings together a collection of short stories connected by a continuous plot. This young teacher has a real gift for story telling, and is one of the few who has retained command of his own language, in spite of having received the bulk of his education in English.
East having then seen the potential in the young author is to request to the Governor, for an initial temporary transfer of Abubakar from his teaching post in Katsina to the Literature Bureau in Zaria. This stint would turn out be the first indigenous writing residency in Northern Nigeria. Imam spent six months in 1936 provided with an array of books on European fables and Arabian Nights stories, during which his mornings were dedicated to voracious reading and discussions on writing skills with Mr. East and in the evenings, for inspiration Abubakar would visit an orchard, relax under a tree and watch running water from Kamaca stream as he weaved tales to form a volume of three books, Magana Jari Ce (1-3), a collection that would decades later find a dwelling place closest to beds of my heart.
The lure of books was something closest to Abubakar Imam throughout his life. Books and writing. Mr. R M East the superintendent in charge of the Literature Bureau expressed his views of a young Imam:
Malam Abubakar is a young Higher College graduate. He is one of the few who has not lost, through an intensive education in English, the power to express himself in his own language, and has already written a number of excellent booksof fiction. He has in fact, a natural genius for writing and exactly the lively literary temperament, which is needed for this kind of work. He can make the most unpromising material into a readable and witty article. Malam Abubakar has a style of his own which is quite different from the academicand generally lifeless writing of his predecessors, and which will almost certainly have a tremendous influence on future Hausa Literature.
It is safe to say, Mr. R M East was a candid Prophet.