Hausa Films Subtitling: Expanding or Exposing the Kannywood? – by Muhammad Muhsin Ibrahim

Mar. 17, 2014


by Muhammad Muhsin Ibrahim


As students of Theatre and Film Studies here in India, we watch drama and films from across the globe, and of all genres. We encounter no hurdle or trouble in getting the films as the internet has today simplified much access to them, broken many boundaries to any nation, any community, and any film industry except in a few cases. I must however admit that only very little is known about Africa or the films produced therein. In spite of this, I often ‘boast’ saying my country, Nigeria, is the populous African country, and its film industry is the third biggest in the world. But a snag comes up when asked to bring forward the films; I couldn’t, for I shouldn’t just give them any films, for Nigeria’s being a unique country due to its sharp cultural and ethno-religious divide between the North and the South. This becomes necessary because, the perceived national films do have little or no bearing at all to do with my culture and religion of Hausa and Islam. In short, I wanted to give ‘our’ film but I couldn’t so readily get anyone which was well-subtitled in English. This put me to shame. Therefore, the aim of this short write-up is to make a clarion call to the filmmakers to, among other things, save my (our) face (s).


Nigerian Films: Kannywood and Nollywood

Nigeria is divided along religious lines: the South has the Christian majority, while the North is predominantly Muslim. Like its people, the film-makers in the country are divided largely along regional, religious, and marginally ethnic, lines. Thus, there are distinct film industries – each seeking to portray the concern of the particular section and ethnicity it represents.


Kannywood is the catch-all-title given to the film industries in the northern region of Nigeria with Kano state as its epicenter, hence named so—after Kano. Needless to mention, the name followed the styles of the American Hollywood, Indian Bollywood and similar other “woods” across the world. This was created beside the ‘national’ film industry called Nollywood, where the films produced are in English, the actors mostly Christians from the South with exception of a very few from the North like the ace actor, Ali Nuhu, who is also a household name in the North, and Sani Danja, another star from there. Unlike the Nollywood, the medium used in Kannywood is Hausa, which is the major language in the North, the most widely spoken indigenous language in Nigeria, and second only to Swahili in the whole of Africa. Nevertheless, some years ago, a few of the films, initially rendered in Hausa, like Wasila directed by Yakubu Lere, were re-filmed with mostly new cast and English was used as the medium. That apparently proved unviable, maybe due to the limited number of viewers these films had, and thus soon stopped.


Hausa Language as a Medium in Films

No doubt Hausa language is incredibly rich as a language and has vast number of speakers as aforesaid. That is why news using the language is broadcast on a number of international and reputable media such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Voice of America (VOA), France Radio International (FRI), China Radio International (CRI), among others. This corroborates the fact that Hausa film supposedly has audience in millions and that crosses over regions in Africa and beyond. Considering this multitudinous audience many, not all, of the local filmmakers think (and believe) that they have enough.


Hausa language could be said to be very lucky especially in this era of language death and extinction as many languages cannot stand the onslaught of the conquering English language. Igbo, a counterpart language in Nigeria and spoken as the third language after Hausa and Yoruba, is a typical example. The custodians of Igbo language have been very concerned and worried about the dwindling number of its speakers even among the native Igbos every day. Therefore, I salute the Hausa filmmakers for doing the language a great service by rendering their films in it. It is in this same way that Bollywood became the world biggest film industry that uses a national language—Hindi. This certainly safeguards and promotes both languages.


Hausa Film and the English Subtitle

There is no denying that the number is substantive, but adding the number will be better. So, some filmmakers in this effort to widen their audience that definitely now traverses tribes in the country and beyond choose to subtitle their films in English, as a universal language. But the construction of the English used is, in many instances, crassly poor; the grammar is murdered, and the spellings so error-ridden. This eventually kills the good intention that motivated the deployment of the subtitle and makes it an extremely jocular, nay, mind-numbing something. I often wonder: is that truly English or “Engausa”, a hybridized English and Hausa language.


There are, however, sometimes excellent and averagely good English subtitles, but not, sincerely speaking, in many films. Films in this category include: Sai Na Kashe Miji Na (I Will Kill My Husband) directed by Bello Muhammad Bello aka General BMB; Dan Marayan Zaki (An Orphaned Cub) directed by Aminu Saira, Dan Mutum (The Human Child) directed by Ali Gumzak, etc. But on the other hand, the poor subtitled films are numerous, examples: Mai Farin Jini (The Popular Bachelor) directed by Ilyasu Abdulmumini Tantiri, Wata Shari’ar (The Unclaimed Verdict) directed by Yakubu Muhammad, Maja (Merger) directed by Sadiq N. Mafia, Bakin Zinari (The Black Gold) directed by Imrana S.I Ashir, Azeema (Azeema) directed by Kamal S. Alkali, among many others.


The table below shows some of the grossly inaccurate subtitles, the Hausa dialogue and the films they are used:



Hausa (speech) English (subtitle)


Me ke faruwa, fahimtar da mu? “What’s going on, makes us understood”

Bakin Zinari

Idan ya mutu alhalin mutane sun san muna da… “If he gots death while peoples knows we are having…”

Bakin Zinari


Sauran mutane za su ce fad’an kabilanci ne “Other people will referred it as a tribal wat…”

Mai Farin Jini

Shi ya sa ka tsaida ni “Is that the reason why you stops me?”

Wata Shari’ar


Dr. Hassan ne ya aiko ni in gaida kai “Dr. Hassan sends me to greets you”

Wata  Shari’ar


Ta na da zabin zuciyarta “She has her hearts choosen”


The filmmakers should be in the better position to know that the perimeter of Kannywood audience goes beyond the Hausa people. This is true if you consider these three major reasons:

1)      Many Hausas living in non-Hausa communities, some even abroad like myself, will like to share their films with their friends and acquaintances. But only the English subtitled films could be shared and there is a dearth of that;


2)      Non-Hausa actors like in Maja, Oga Abuja, Wata Shari’ar, etc. are featured. It will be highly embarrassing for, say, the ace Jim Iyke who is a cast in Wata Shari’ar to sit down with his family or friends to watch the film for, if it is going by film subtitle, no one could comprehend anything; and


3)      A film like Bakin Zinari whose thematic preoccupation is to promote unity and integration among Nigerians, but the unintelligible subtitle alone hinders the message from reaching a number of its intended audience.


Expanding or Exposing the Film Industry?

One cannot help but to ask: is that truly expanding the films to the non-Hausa viewers or exposing, nay, validating the long held belief that the North is populated by ignorant illiterates that cannot speak any good English? This is true because according to socio-linguistic studies of film, watching films with subtitles can be a special identity-forming experience especially by foreign viewers. Many among our southern counterparts pooh-pooh Hausa films, and look down upon the actors, for their being conspicuously absent in Nollywood, which is more or less considered the national film industry. Only Ali Nuhu, Sani Danja and General BMB are cast in Nollywood films; Ali Nuhu’s performance has been greatly applauded and thusly garnered him many awards, while the other duo barely feature in many serious film, but they also perform well. Ali Nuhu too had once, in an interview, opened up about the consternation he had had learnt being carried around about them (Kannywood actors) when he began to feature in the Nollywood films.



I believe anything worth doing is worth doing well. If the Hausa filmmakers think it fitting to subtitle their films, then the subtitles should be done in the best possible way. And this should be done by the people who know how to do it, i.e. learned and experienced in English. The subtitle should undergo editorial manipulation before the release of the film. These are only a few major steps to be taken. But that subtitle, which many will not take so serious, could so quickly alter or modify peoples’ perception of your culture and generally way of life. Bollywood films, for instance, use error-free subtitle whenever that is deployed. Since we learn, in fact draw, much from them, then the subtitle should equally be learned. This will, again, attract the attention of academics to read, and write about the films in, and beyond, Nigeria.

Muhammad Muhsin Ibrahim

Department of English and Literary Studies,

Bayero University, Kano

[email protected]

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