Say Please, Thank you – Dr. Aliyu U. Tilde

Basic words of appreciation matter a lot. They are in short supply among Muslim Northerners. This may shock us, but it is true. Last week, I had to write thumbprint terminal operators and food monitors in our schools about the importance of appreciation and politeness to the success of their work. They essentially concern saying some few, simple words: Please, nice, thank you, sir and sorry. Let me discuss each.

Basic words of appreciation matter a lot. They are in short supply among Muslim Northerners. This may shock us, but it is true. Last week, I had to write thumbprint terminal operators and food monitors in our schools about the importance of appreciation and politeness to the success of their work. They essentially concern saying some few, simple words: Please, nice, thank you, sir and sorry. Let me discuss each.


The word please does not exist in Hausa. You can argue and argue. The truth remains. It just does not exist. And this is a big trouble for us with Hausa dominated tongues.

The coming of Islam demanded for one. So the phrase “don Allah” was invented. A sentence like, “What’s the time, please”, thus becomes “Don Allah, ƙarfe nawa ne yanzu?” Before Islam, and even now, the most likely way of imputing please in speech in Hausa is most likely using a pleading tone, like: Ko karfe nawa ne yanzu? Even this would require extra effort and a gentle tone.

In most cases, we save ourselves the trouble of adding “please” in our daily speech. So it is hardly used. Even in Fulfulde, Fulani in Hausaland, unlike those of Adamawa, hardly use the word “useni” or and “kusu” in common speech. This lands us in trouble when we speak a language, like English, in which the word please is very important. Come with me to Central London, December 2004.

One morning, a friend agreed that we buy some grapes from a roadside grocer. I approached him and said in a typical Malam B. fashion: “Half a kilo of grapes.” The guy did not respond but looked at me in the eyes. I repeated my phrase. Again, he just kept gazing at me. The third time, same. My friend, a German, watching the drama and conversant with the deficiency in my speech from the many discussions we had in Nigeria on such matters, smiled and she said: “Add, Please.” I added “please” to the phrase and the guy smiled and served us the fruit.


That afternoon, we visited her mother in Kingston, not very far from our hotel in Richmond. The mother has prepared a lunch for us, a Nigerian dish of rice and stew. She had a tutorial on the Nigerian dish from the daughter the previous day. The table was ready. We were welcome by the great mother who led us to the table after some moments. We started eating. Malam B. was busy clearing his plate, quietly, without any reference to the meal. Ashe na kobsa.

Then the mother, who has been waiting for the usual appreciation from me, asked: How do you find the food? I replied, it is nice, very nice. It then dawned on me that I was supposed to give the compliment early in the meal as they often do in films. Having realised my mistake, I made sure I did not miss thanking her for the meal at the end of the visit as we took our exit.

We just do not do these things here. You will even be considered fake and manipulative when you praise the meal in a friend or relative’s house. The Hausa word for this is koɗawa, praising to please.

Thank you

The third is not saying “thank you” in our speech or expressing gratitude openly in words when good is done us by our associates, who may be relatives, colleagues of or friends. Do any good to us, the best we do is to casually say, madalla or na gode. In complying with our demand, we hardly say thank you. Ask your wife for a glass of water or even a whole meal. Do you, as Mal. B., say thank you when she serves you? We treat our children the same way. When you ask a child to bring something, or you send him to the market to buy something, do you, as a mother or father, say thank you. Hardly.

Our mother in Kingston might have noticed this. After taking us to a number of schools to see how Phonics was used, she bought some greeting cards and handed them to me, addressed to the schools. She told me to post them to the individual school head teachers, emphasizing, “It is considered important here.” I did as she advised.


Another word we find difficult to say, except to senior colleagues, is the word “sir” even when we speak in English. When I say it to some people who are not my seniors on social media or at meetings, they often feel strange and say, I am not your sir. Even seniors find it difficult to answer. When my elder brother Dr. Usman Bugaje heard me addressing him as Sir, he tried to stop me. But I am used to it already and he just had to allow it.

Actually, we should address our seniors and anyone we want to comply with our demand with “sir.” If you are an immigration official, please say, “Can I have your passport, sir?” It is even more polite than saying, “Can I have your passport, please?” depending on the tone. After he examines it, he would, handing it over to you, say, “Thank you sir”. To Malam B. the three words are hard coming.

Once we are in a position of advantage, as clients, customers, officials, etc., we feel it is our right to command compliance.

Christians and Southerners

Of all the Hausa Muslims to whom I sent complimentary gallons of yoghurt or copies of books in the past four years, only one ever called me to say thank you. I once gave two bottles of Yoghurt to a Malam B. and our former American lecturer when they paid me a visit. After they left, I told a friend, wait and see, only the American will call back to say thank you. And that is what exactly happened.

Contrarily, do any good to a Christian or a southerner, you find him or her full of gratitude. He will always remind you of the next day. “Thank you,” he or she will say, “of yesterday” or “that day”. At a point I started wondering whether they ate taught this nice habit in the church.

Does it mean that there is a religious dimension to this defect in our speech? Yes. That is the only implication of this evidence. Many of us feel that good is done for the sake of God and the reward of the doer is with Him. Or we feel that we also do same to them, so there is reciprocation; or we do appreciate them in our hearts. So expressing it is needless. The verse “We do not need from you reward or praise”, is often quoted to justify this attitude. I do not think it is right. Even God likes to be thanked.

Or do we charge some sociological factors like polygamy that is largely convicted for ingraining in our minds the attitude of command, as learn from our parents when we were young? I do not know.

It does not mean that we are an ungrateful lot, though. No. Far from it. It is just that words like thank you are implicit, not explicit, in our speech. We do appreciate good, sincerely in our hearts, perhaps more than some who may fake it openly in some situations. We, generally speaking, just hardly acknowledge them explicitly.


Since my return from the 2004 trip, I completely changed my attitude. I say thank you to my wife, child and all others that do me anything good, no matter how little, and became so much used to it.

Please, can I use your pen? Can I have your pen, sir?, Yes sir. Thank you. Thank you, sir. Yes, Madam. These are expressions I use since 2004 to address anyone or acknowledging any good done me, big or small.

So when last week I received a complaint from a school in Bauchi town about the attitude of one of our fingerprint terminal operators, I promptly wrote this on our WhatsApp group:

“All of you must treat principals, teachers and other workers with utmost respect, please. They are your seniors, by far, in every respect. In fact, many of them are old enough to be your parents. Address them with “sir”, always. That is how I address them. Your ability to carry out your job seamlessly is the only guarantee for the continuity of your employment. If your get yourself into trouble or become insubordinate, you may lose your job.”

The teachers of the school were extremely happy with the above intervention from me, the Teacher-General of the State. The chap was transferred to another school.

Women and Others

The lack of compliments is affecting the perception of our women about us. Northern women see us as ungrateful. We hardly thank them for all the sacrifices we do. Others see us as arrogant and thankless. May be they are right.

A simple change in our lexicon will change that perception. Let us learn using the four words: Nice, please, thank you, sir. The same way, if we hurt someone or caused him a discomfort, deliberately or mistakely, let us learn to reach out to him and say, “sorry” – another big word that we do not have and hardly use.


Sorry, the essay was long. Thank you for reading it. That’s nice of you, sir. Please, like it.

Dr. Aliyu U. Tilde, Commissioner, Ministry of Education, Bauchi


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