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William Finbarr ‘Barry’ Burgess (1948-2021)

Umar Yusuf Karaye who worked with him at the Hausa Service said, “The late Barry Burgess can simply be called the father of the modern…

Graham Furniss


Barry was born on October 8, 1948 in Birmingham and visited Nigeria in his teens when his father worked for Dunlop in Lagos. He enrolled at Trinity College, Dublin, but transferred after a year to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) where he started a four-year degree in Hausa and Linguistics in 1969. He was interested in languages and developed a knowledge of Gaelic and Yoruba, as well as Hausa. On graduating in 1974 he joined the Hausa Service of the BBC as a producer. Over the following 25 years he rose to become Head of the Hausa Service and became a familiar name to millions of Hausa speakers across West Africa. His nickname was “Barau na Ceɗi, mai ɗan kunne” which means “Barau of Ceɗi, the man with earing”. Cedi was the ward in Kano where he lodged on his recruitment tours in Nigeria and Niger Republic looking for journalistic talents.

Mansur Liman, the Director General of the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN), who began work at the BBC Hausa Service as a translator while a PhD student and left as Head of the Hausa Service in 2015, said, “Barry Burgess was a boss who nurtured people. He identified talent and developed it. He was easy going and understanding. His death is a great loss as he was one of the few people who studied and knew Hausa language and culture well.”

Umar Yusuf Karaye who worked with him at the Hausa Service said, “The late Barry Burgess can simply be called the father of the modern Hausa Service…In 1989, the Director of Regions, Mr Peter Udal, summoned us: Barry, late Deputy Head, Roger Ketskemety, and myself as senior producer, to his office for a playback session of some programmes. Mr Udal was not happy with the programmes and he gave us three months to go and overhaul them. That was when we started recruiting reporters from Nigeria, Niger Republic, Cameroon and Ghana. We also had a reporter in the former Soviet Union and another in China. All this was done under the leadership of Barry Burgess. As head, he was also very concerned with staff welfare to the extent that he would remind a person of entitlements that they were perhaps not even aware of.

“A major transformation in the BBC Hausa Service took place on Barry Burgess’ watch, driven in part by the rapidly changing technological environment of broadcasting and partly by shifts in the location of editorial power. When he began at the BBC, the work consisted predominantly in translating news bulletins from English to Hausa. As he pointed out in an interview in 2017, news from reporters in Nigeria came through printed telex messages until phone lines began to be reliable for recording interviews or filing of reports.

“In the 1990s the World Service and the Hausa Service moved from splicing tape on reel-to-reel machines and using typewriters and paper to computer screens and online editing of sound files. In the early days, phone lines from Niger were much more reliable than lines from Nigeria.

“This opening up had two policy consequences for the Hausa Service. Barry began to recruit journalists from areas outside the ‘standard Hausa’ world of Kano and Northern Nigeria. New voices on the service were first from women, and from the dialects of Niger, Northern Ghana and other parts of Nigeria. This was accompanied by a shift in the location of power in what made its way onto the airwaves.

“The editorial rule at the time was that the BBC would only broadcast a story if they could confirm it through two independent sources, unless it came from one of their own correspondents, in which case they would not necessarily require that corroboration. There were periods when reporting from Nigeria was very difficult and a correspondent might be writing about Nigeria but be based in Abidjan. There were occasions when, with communal tensions very high in parts of Nigeria, the Hausa Service knew that what they broadcast could make or break a riot. With the BBC English language newsroom making all the decisions about what would go out on the evening broadcast in Hausa, Barry and colleagues would sometimes find themselves reluctant to broadcast an item that appeared to be unlikely or unreliable but which the newsroom had marked for broadcast. At the same time, they were aware that many of the approximately 12 million listeners would tune into the Voice of America (VOA), Deutsche Welle (DW) or other international broadcasters, as well as Nigerian radio, to hear different versions of the news. When BBC Hausa reported a riot in Zaria which turned out to have been an accident involving a truck in a market, they discovered the following morning they had perhaps come close to provoking a riot rather than reporting on one.

“Barry was keen to enhance the agency of, and reliance on, a growing number of Hausa language reporters for news and commentary, with less reliance on the central newsroom. This move accelerated with the rise of Boko Haram. It was not only the Hausa Service which had boots on the ground and the ability to report accurately on atrocities, assassinations and bombings for the Hausa Service itself, it was their network that was relied upon by BBC Television and radio as a whole. The strength and professionalism of the network of reporters in Nigeria reinforced the possibility of moving the BBC Hausa Service from its home in Bush House in the UK to Abuja in Nigeria. While this happened after Barry’s time as Head of the Hausa Service, it was a logical development of the direction that he and the advance of technology had set it on.

“In 1999 Barry retired from the BBC and later joined SOAS, his alma mater, where, as a lector. He succeeded Malami Buba and taught Hausa alongside Philip Jaggar and Graham Furniss for 10 years from 2006. In recent years he took on an administrative role with the International African Institute (IAI) which continued until his death.”

Barry died on February 7, 2021, leaving behind a sister and her family, friends and journalist colleagues in the UK and in West Africa, and a generation of Hausa speakers in West Africa to who his voice and name were so familiar.

Sale Halliru, a former BBC journalist wrote: “I first met Barry Burgess sometime in the middle of 1987 when I was registered for a doctorate at the University College London (UCL). I was then a member of staff of Usmanu Danfodio University (UDU), Sokoto. The university had a policy of sending employees for training with their salaries paid but one had to look for a sponsor to pay the tuition. As a result, our states of origin agreed to pay our tuition fees, but they reasoned that since we were serving organisations other than our state governments, they would not pay our living expenses. Another problem was that one could only remit half of one’s salary outside the country. Consequently, I arrived in London with my tuition paid annually and getting about £180 per quarter from the Nigerian Universities Commission (NUC) in London. That was a pittance for a student with little children.

“After settling down, I found my way to the BBC at Bush House to meet a close friend who is now deceased. He knew the situation under which I went to study and suggested that we should approach Barry for a part-time translation job. I found Barry to be a very jovial and kind person whose control of the Hausa language almost blew me away.

“The same day I met him he gave me a script in English to translate into Hausa and read aloud. He assigned one of the old hands at the time, Ibrahim Musa Gwangwazo, to supervise the whole process. The translated recording was handed to Barry, who listened and confirmed it was well done. It was a Friday evening and he asked me if I could start work the following Monday.

“Barry had contacts with organisations needing translation services. As soon as he was approached by an organisation to recommend a translator from English to Hausa or vice-versa, Barry would pass the task to me. That way I was earning decent extra cash in addition to my BBC part-time work.

“One important way in which Barry truly touched my life was when my daughter was born with a heart issue in 1991. My dilemma at the time was that I had completed my study period and as such I had no cover under the NHS scheme. The hospital ruled that since I was no longer a student, I had to bear the cost of my daughter’s treatment. When Barry heard about my predicament, he offered to give me a three-year full time contract to enable me to stay a little longer in the UK to attend to my daughter’s health issues while holding an employment visa. As the policy required, I quickly returned to Nigeria with my entire family while Barry arranged for the BBC to send British Caledonian tickets to all of us via the airways’ office in Kano. Shortly afterwards my family and I were back in London, now with a regular employment visa. That was how I eventually earned my UK Indefinite Leave to Remain (permanent residency). It was a BBC policy to dispatch a staff member from the language service to the airport to welcome newly arriving members. To my pleasant surprise it was Barry himself who turned up to meet us (my family and I, as well as Bilkisu Labaran who was on the same flight, although we didn’t know her before that time. He put us in a cab, paid for it and concentrated on Bilkisu Labaran; jokingly telling me that I was not a first timer in London.

“When Barry left the BBC he got a teaching job at SOAS, he would arrange for me to visit his class and converse with his students. According to him, he wanted the students to hear a native Hausa speaker. I used to tease him that his Hausa was better than mine. Talking about Barry’s excellent Hausa, I think he had a special gift with languages in general. In my BBC days, I remember him experimenting with words in Fulfulde and Yoruba, apart from European languages like German, Portuguese and Spanish.”

Sleep well Barry!


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