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.