By John Otim, writer and journalist

Lango YouthsSome years back Professor Joseph Opio-Odongo told me this story. It was a story I could not discard. Opio-Odongo is Lango is Northern Ugandan is a former Makerere University professor of Agric. Econ. He once lived and worked in Northern Nigeria.

A strange thing happened to him and his wife. He was teaching at the Ahmadu Bello University in Northern Nigeria. That morning he and his wife were going shopping at the local market.

Nigeria is well known for its huge and lively markets. (A program called Story, Story: Voices from the Market, wholly Nigerian produced, is currently running on BBC World Service). Every town has a market. Almost anything from anywhere in the world can be bought in these markets. If it is manufactured, they say, you will find it there.

Nigerian markets are more than markets. You can turn up and find a dance group performing nearby. Many of the locally made products are great works of art. Leather goods, ceramics, fabrics, woodworks, bronze works; as though their producers were competing in a talent show.

Let’s follow Opio-Odongo as he and his wife head for the Zaria City market. Zaria is the location of the huge university where he taught. Zaria is also an old city along the lines of Timbuktu in nearby Mali with which it once enjoyed a vibrant trade, mostly in leather and fabrics.

Opio-Odongo and his wife have arrived. Their car is parked under a tree by the market gate. Their house on campus is only a few kilometers away.

A young and jolly couple, now they talk and argue boisterously for that was his style. Two men in their early twenties, are seated by the same tree by which Opio and his wife still stood. The men are observing them.

Their argument seemingly over, the couple appear ready to enter the market. As they leave, the two men rise and approach them.

“We know all what you have been discussing.” One of the men speaking in English addresses Opio directly. Opio is surprised.

“How?” Opio asks. He and his wife had been talking in Leblango all along, a Northern Uganda language none in Northern Nigeria understood. Or so they thought.

“We know all what you have been discussing!” the man repeats, but in the friendly Nigerian manner. Unlike the English, the Nigerian does not wait to be introduced. It is great for starting a conversation going between total strangers.

“Okay!” says Opio, smiling although at the back of his mind he harbored the suspicion that the men were government spies. “Tell me all what my wife and I have been talking about.”

Without missing a beat, the two men tell Opio exactly what he and his wife had been talking about.

Opio was amazed. “How do you know this language? You are not Ugandan.”

“It is our language.” The men say.

“Your language?”

“It is our Language.” the Nigerians insist, they smile, they bow, they move away; talking in Hausa, the lingua franca of the region.

Opio could see for himself that it was unlikely the men had ever set foot outside the borders of their country. But there was no doubt that they understood his own language. How did they do it?

“There had to be a community in northern Nigeria”, Opio argued, “that speaks some version of my language.” A fact which linguistics and history had missed. Opio was left wondering. He felt like pursuing the men. But the men had vanished and melted in the market crowd.

“Could these people be part of the well-documented migration of the Lango people from Ethiopia into Northern Uganda three and half centuries ago?” Opio wondered. Cogitated, was the word he applied to himself. “Was there a group that split off and found its way into West Africa, Northern Nigeria in particular?” Many northern Uganda names abound in West Africa. Okai, Aremu, Ademola, Ayeni.

One thing was certain. Opio knew he had encountered in Zaria two ordinary people apparently Nigerians who spoke his own northern Ugandan language. Was there a link between Northern Nigeria and Northern Uganda? Opio-Odongo once emailed me:

- On Thu, 2/26/09, Joseph Opio-Odongo <> wrote:
From: Joseph Opio-Odongo <>
Subject: Re: tom brown's schooldays
To: "john otim" <>
Date: Thursday, February 26, 2009, 11:44 PM

Dear John,
When you mentioned that the girl looks Lango, it reminded me of an incidence at Zaria market when some guys there told us that they understood the language that my wife and I were speaking. Challenged to tell us exactly what they understood, they were on the mark.
I suspect that a sub-tribe of the Langi exits somewhere near the Bauchi Plateau!
Best regards.

Joseph Opio-Odongo