Why you should care
Because there is bound to be plenty of wahala in 2018.
Imagine that you’ve just become the latest victim of identity theft, and after several hours of trying to reach customer service, you still haven’t found someone who can help. Or imagine queuing at immigration, only to finally arrive at the front of the line and be escorted to a back room for further questioning. Or you’ve just landed your dream job only to discover that your boss persists in making inappropriate comments about what you’re wearing or the shape of your body, and human resources advises you to stop complaining. The situation is frustrating, a headache, a pain in the ass, pure aggravation. These are the moments for which the Nigerian pidgin English word wahala was designed:
Wahala: Trouble, annoyance and headache, all rolled into one
Other languages have ways of expressing these feelings in the form of phrases, often with colorful or expletive adjectives added for emphasis. But in Nigerian pidgin, it’s simple — just one word of exclamation: wahala! With the accent in the middle, it sounds like a forceful slap, sigh and curse all appropriately bundled into one.
Pidgin is described by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a simplified language containing vocabulary from two or more languages, used for communication between people not having a common language.” Nigerian pidgin is rooted in English (the language of its colonizer), with significant borrowings from other Nigerian languages.
The word wahala has been around for decades and is recognized not just in Nigeria but across West Africa. However, if you were to ask a Nigerian about wahala, it’s one of those words that might be mistaken for an original Yoruba word. “The reason for the confusion,” says linguist and scholar Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, “is the fact that the words no longer look like their original selves imported from Arabic through the trans-Sahara caravan routes.”
Wahala comes from the Arabic “wahla,” meaning “fright” or “terror.” But whereas the “h” in the Arabic version “is pronounced as a voiceless pharyngeal fricative / ħ /, common to many Middle Eastern languages, the Nigerian version has been distorted and modified many times on the way through the desert and is more humorous and free-flowing,” explains Túbọ̀sún.
Nigerian pidgin is particularly adept at capturing everyday feelings with humor. Here are a few additional examples:
How body? (How are you?)
Shine your eyes. (Beware/stay alert.)
Ajebutter. (A rich or spoiled kid.)
Abeg. (Depending on tone and context, a plea, as in “I beg of you,” or an offhanded dismissal, as in “Please!”)
Ginger my swagga. (Help someone feel good/energized.)
My oga at the top. (My boss’ boss.)
Interestingly, the opposite of wahala — no wahala (meaning “no problem” or “no worries”) — may have more resonance outside West Africa than wahala itself. This is partly due to the popularity of the international single “No Wahala” by Demarco featuring Akon and Runtown, with its catchy Afrobeat and dance-hall rhythm.
As we enter into a new year filled with all kinds of collective geopolitical wahala — floods, fires, furies, sizes of buttons and the threats of nuclear war — it might be more important than ever to retain the sense of humor and perspective embodied in the phrase “no wahala.”