I dis­tinctly recall the moment when I first learned the word boko, now noto­rious as half the name of the Nigerian ter­rorist group Boko Haram. (“Haram” means “for­bidden” or “sinful.”) I was living in a remote, rural bor­der­land strad­dling the border between northern Nigeria and Niger Republic in the early 1980s, con­ducting research as a Ful­bright scholar. The entire com­mu­nity was Muslim, and I was inter­viewing an imam in Hausa, the local lan­guage I had pre­vi­ously learned as a Peace Corps vol­un­teer in the same region. Alhaji Harouna (the hon­orific Alhaji means “one who has gone to Mecca on pil­grimage”) was explaining the dif­fer­ence between makaranta alko­rani — reli­gious school, based on the Koran — and makaranta boko — gov­ern­ment school, imparting sec­ular edu­ca­tion. In alko­rani school, stu­dents learned to write and recite in Arabic; in boko school, it was the colo­nial, Euro­pean lan­guage that dom­i­nated — Eng­lish in the case of Nigeria, French in the case of Niger. As a reli­gious leader and teacher, the imam nat­u­rally pre­ferred Koranic school to book, but he appre­ci­ated the utility of young vil­lagers becoming lit­erate in the offi­cial lan­guage of the country.

When I con­sulted R.C. Abraham’s author­i­ta­tive “Dic­tio­nary of the Hausa Lan­guage,” I began to appre­ciate the ambiva­lence of the word boko, and the cul­tural bag­gage asso­ci­ated with it. For sure, some attribute the term simply to the Eng­lish word “book.” But boko in Hausa also means “deceit” and “fraud.” In northern Nigeria, a bas­tion of Islamic reli­giosity, gov­ern­ment schooling was long seen as a trick.

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