Historical Echoes: The Literature of Hausa Women by Sada Malumfashi

Credit: “Malouma” by Isabel Fiadeiro, from the Solitude Issue.

 

1. Tatsuniya (Storytelling)

950 A.D.
Old Kano,
(Modern Day Northern Nigeria)

Habi hurries to finish her chores to join the circle of children already pestering Grandmother for a story. Chickens strut about pecking; little girls are giggling under the feet of an old woman who’s sitting on straws of bamboo sticks. A disk of light from the crescent moon is reflected on the round thatched mud houses. Grandmother bends her head down and glances at her listeners, wearing eager and curious faces, squatting on the ground like little cones, their heads between knees. With her husky voice, Grandmother unbridles her enchanting stories, captivating the minds and imaginations of her young listeners in the world of her words. Roughhousing children are hushed. Power of Grandmother’s narration sweeps them away. Habi, sandwiched between fragile skins, cranes her head upward. Indulged in the power of her blind grandmother’s storytelling posture, expressive face, swaying of hands, bulging eyes, tingling voice, a deep voice, and then a high voice. Habi inhabits a parallel world of her own.

The art of storytelling by Hausa women is as ancient as the history of the Hausa language. In traditional Hausa society, oral art forms had a far more widespread influence; women were fundamental to the rendition of imaginative narratives. The oldest woman of the household or neighbourhood—the grandmother—is usually the master storyteller. Her old age symbolizes a deep empirical understanding of life. With her oratory and storytelling skills, she becomes a transmitter of knowledge across generations. Animals featured highly in these tales. Gizo, the two-legged walking spider, usually took the lead. Traditional tatsuniya tellers evoked images resembling modern-day cartoon animations.

The beginning of literary creativity in Hausaland did not begin with the economic contact with Arabs, not with the traders of Timbuktu, not on the whips of slave masters, not from the east riding with the breeze of the Sahara, not with the Islamic Jihad of Usmanu Danfodiyo. In all these instances, creativity was mostly borne by women. Some of these women incarnated not only the artistic spirit of their times, but also continued legacies of times long before theirs. Nana Asma’u daughter to Usmanu Danfodiyo certainly embodied legacies of literary accomplishments in her own time.

2. Nana Asma’u (1793-1864)
(Poet)

I have written this poem of admonition
For you to put to good use in the Community.
—Nana Asma’u.

1832 A.D.
Sokoto, Western Sudan

The sun rolls overhead. Asma’u drapes herself with a blue abaya – a covering. She steps outward to the dry harmattan breeze of the largest state in Africa and the most significant empire of nineteenth-century Africa. Acrostic verses play with calming tunes in her mind. Her recitation is barely audible, marrying one poetic technique to another.

Outside, women sit in a semi-circle waiting for their leader, their scholar, to recite her verses, so that each will carry along a line, a stanza, a page, a book, back to other women in the surrounding villages, to spread the word, to enlighten. Asma’u speaks Arabic, Hausa and Fulfulde within the twist of a tongue and writes the three languages with ease.

Asma’u surveys the sea of tired and ragged women facing her. Farmers, tanners, sellers, traders, all of them readying, reciting past verses, waiting for further deliberations. Their young children tugged at their robes oblivious of the collective chatter.

Their eyes stare directly at Asma’u’s soul. She is the power here, not her father the reformer, not her brother the Caliph. She draws a long breath, and prepares for her primary duty. To deliver power.

In early nineteenth century, Nana Asma’u, the daughter of the Shehu, was known around the Sokoto emirate and beyond as a legendary scholar and writer. She was the notable founder of a women’s education movement, the ‘Yan Taru movement. With the ‘Yan Taru collective, Asma’u created a literary corps made up of women. The mode of instruction was poetry, and through verses, lessons were delivered to the masses:

The usurers will see their bellies swell
bigger than gourds
In size and exposed to Ahmada.
They will rise on the Last Day as if
possessed of the Devil
The Qur’an told their fate, Ahmada.
The stink of the adulterer is worse than
stench of carrion:
He will be driven away, so that he is
far from Ahmada.
The slanderer, the hypocrite
And he who gives false witness will
not see Ahmada.
With their tongues hanging down to
their chests, they will be exposed
For they will not get salvation from
Ahmada. [1]

After the recitations, Asma’u coronates each woman as a sub-jaji, a branch leader. She relies on each woman to act as a mentor and to bring other groups of women to her. Each Jaji leaves in a different direction, back to her home, to her family, to her collective, wearing a large hat made of fine silky grass, usually worn by men over turbans. Their leader’s prowess for the spoken word has given them power. But the real power is transmitted in their hands, as they carry a copy of Asma’u’s latest poetic masterpiece written in Hausa, The Path of Truth, a volume of 142 verses. Later at night, Asma’u sits on her praying mat to meditate. A quiet moment. Smoke from firewood lingers from the evening meal. She reads from the Qur’an and embraces her son, lolling him to sleep. She then picks up a leather paper book hooked across the bed and proceeds to write—about her women disciples. There is power in her spirits. There is power disseminating across the Sokoto Caliphate…

The teacher of women, Habiba
She was most revered and had great
presence.
I speak of Aisha, a saint
On account of her asceticism and determination.
And Joda Kowuuri, a Qur’anic scholar
Who used her scholarship everywhere…
There were others who were upright
In the community of the Shehu; I have
not listed them.
Very many of them had learned the
Qur’an by heart
And were exceedingly pious and zealous. [2]

For over fifty years, Nana Asma’u was part of events at the center of the caliphate as the daughter of Shehu the Caliph; then sister to his successor Caliph Bello and wife of the Waziri and Vizier, Gidado; and then later, mother to the new Waziri and also aunt to the new Caliph, Aliu. She was committed to poetry and admonition throughout her life and composed about forty-four pieces in Arabic, pieces that advocate improvement of religious practices and righteous living.

A century later and some five hundred kilometers from Sokoto, another female artiste emerged. Perhaps directly influenced by Nana Asma’u’s work, she had a completely different hue from the aristocracy and religious class that Nana Asma’u embodied. Amidst the struggles of a collapsed caliphate against European colonialism Uwaliya Mai Amada rose to become a powerful voice for political and social concerns of her time. Building on Nana Asma’u’s religious folklore and songs, Uwaliya took folk songs into the domain of social and political unease, entertaining, teaching, and giving hope to her morally dampened people. One thing united Uwaliya’s work with her forebear Nana Asma’u, notwithstanding different historical and social concerns: creative vigour, and the vitality of freedom.

3. Uwaliya Mai Amada (1934- 1983). Oral Poet, Singer.

Uwaliya Mai Amada was a vocal singer and entrepreneur per excellence. At the peak of her career, she had over ten assistants, including her husband, Sale Nayaya, who beat the calabash and danced for her.

Economic rights are integral to Hausa society, especially to most Hausa women. Literate or not, a Hausa woman is concerned with her right to spend money without any interference from her husband. Uwaliya was raised in this mould of economic posterity.

Whilst in her matrimonial home, Uwaliya engaged in gainful clothing and knitting. It was in the process of her local entrepreneurship that she began to sing her supple lines. Uwaliya’s vocal ability served as selfmade advert, attracting women in the neighbourhood to buy her wares if only to enjoy her songs. Uwaliya introduced a cultural world of women’s song spiked with metaphors in indigenous Hausa language.

The calabash turned upside down, floating on water, provided a revolutionary type of music, and Uwaliya’s generic voice blended it with her poetry. This was the birth of the Amada music.

Uwaliya’s first performance was an invitation to the House of Malam Shehu. It was an evening of boisterous vivacity. Uwaliya the diva in the middle hitting her water-filled calabash drums and rendering her lines with prowess. Women trundled in a queue shaking their bottoms. Her husband by her side, a loyal assistant, providing backup beats and chorus. Uwaliya’s lilting voice excited the audience and enthralled passers-by outside the mud walls as music vibrated in the air.

Her wide-ranging experience in commerce and other aspects of life featured prominently in her lines. These experiences navigated topics from social issues and education to significance of small-scale trading by women. Women empowerment; the power of women. At the early stages, she performed lyrics targeted as sarcastic outbursts against the sexual activities of marabouts and Muslim scholars who used their position of spiritual trust to abuse women sexually. Uwaliya sang for women. With her energetic vocals she gave women power. In Malam Ya Ga Wata (Malam Has Eyed Another One) she sang:

Malam has finally arrived
Malam has eyed another one
But, this cannot be a Malam
Staggering and swaying, his legs cannot
lift him
He is limp and cannot get up
Malam has crashed with sheer ecstasy. [3]

4. Sa’adatu Barmani Choge (1945-2013). Oral Poet, Singer.

2013 A.D.
Funtua, Nigeria.

The Muezzin lifts his arms and the multitude of males behind him follow suit. In this prayer there is no prostration. It is done standing. It is prayer for the body of Sa’adatu Barmani Choge wrapped in white linen, placed on a blue mat. The princess of Amada Music is no more. The warm breeze is full of power. Poetic. Electrifying. It carries within it the power of Amada Music. Today, Barmani is playing solo in sync with the voice of the Muezzin. Grains of sand are poured into a grave to conclude the burial.

When Barmani was born, Funtua streamed with brothels, a spirited town buoyant with life. This was the location where Barmani’s hit song “Wakar Duwai wai,” “The Bum Bum Song,” snugged with lewd lyrics, dropped. In that song Barmani applauded the female appearance and the power a woman could wield over her society. The song was a smash with women. Even men smiled to its bawdy beats.

Barmani trotted on the colossus of her literary power with her popular lyrics. Her feministic inclinations radiated through her glorification of Hausa women’s economic activities in her songs. In “Dare Allah Magani” (“Night Cure of the Lord”), she crafted beautiful lines using manipulative language laced with feminine jealousy:

Whoever causes a second wife to be
ferried to your house
Show them no courtesy for a full nine
months
Shower them with insults, day and
night
Allah is the night in the darkness.
Wait and hear the names of a co-wife
Black scorpion with a terrible sting
Black snake with a horrible bite
The bitch, the leech with a hundred
mouths
And what biting teeth, the bastard
With teeth entrenched she jiggles her
head to and fro. [4]

Barmani usually serenaded her audience with spicy lines amidst ululations and applauses, the flagrancy of her words and her exotic renditions full of ruthless visions of individual independence. Her focus was mainly on domestic relationships. In her early Choge song, Barmani is vicious against censoriousness, especially one directed at women. She articulates her disdain against social repression and female pigeonholing in such scathing lines as the following:

And I would say let us hit the calabash
By Allah let your hands be free
Hit the calabash with zeal
And also open your mouths
Some are giving us money
Some are raining abuses
What’s anyone’s qualm with us
If not rudeness and mischief
You could live with a thief
Why not a praise-singer then. [5]

5. Hafsat Abdulwaheed (b. 1952). Novelist.

1970 A.D.
Gusau, Nigeria.

Hafsat Abdulwaheed sits crosslegged. Her silky hair drops across her shoulder covering part of a book on which she writes. It is a manuscript she had written in English, but with the recession in the Nigerian economy, traditional publishing channels have also deteriorated. This situation put Hafsat’s English manuscript in a comatose.

It now flows in subtle Hausa after a laborious translation session. Writing and re-writing. Crossing and striking out lines. Adding finishing touches to words, metaphors, and Hausa proverbs.

The work is now finished. She will be dispatching it out to the Northern Nigerian Publishing Company Creative Writing Competition.

So Aljannar Duniya, Hafsat’s Hausa manuscript, will be the only entry by a woman and will go on to win the 2nd Prize and shortlisted among books to be published. Hafsat will become the first Hausa novelist from Northern Nigeria and would set the Hausa world alight to a powerful roller coaster of romance writing.

In 1978, the Northern Nigerian Publishing Company (NNPC) organized a competition, and among the entries to the competition was So Aljannar Duniya (Love is Heaven on Earth) by a hitherto unknown fresh voice, Hafsat Abdulwaheed. This novel was published by the NNPC in 1980. As such, So Aljannar Duniya became the first novel published in Hausa by a woman.

In So Aljannar Duniya, Hafsat’s narrative power wrests open a romantic adventure between a Fulani girl and a Libyan boy, sprinkled with revolutionary and feminist visions. The writer takes us through the changing dynamic of Hausa society at that time. The character, Bodado, a young Fulani girl escapes the dominant and restrictive norms of her Hausa society. Bodado does not feel ashamed to tell her parents how she feels about her boyfriend and the issue of marriage:

Marriage! No aunty, I am not going
to marry anybody but my heart desire,
are you not aware that time has
changed?

On January 15, 1967 exactly a year after mutinous soldiers assassinated eleven senior Nigerian politicians in a coup that would upset the country’s fragile stability, Hafsat tied the knot in a marriage ceremony to her Yemeni heartthrob, against the general wish of her family. Mutiny. Power.

It was a path previously trod in Abdulwaheed’s own family. Her elder sister had also married an Arab foreigner, rebelling.

This theme becomes a motif Hafsat pursues and portrays vividly and with remarkable power in her trend-setting novel: Reconstruction of the difficulties of interracial marriage and exploration of the power of women’s
ideals.

Today, Hausa women’s creativity has continued to benefit and sustain the rich legacies of the past. Many more women have produced quality artistic work, which are being listened to and read across continents. Women are still rendering oral tales with the same eloquent narrative skills to wider audiences. Presently, Shafa Labari Shuni (Making Stories Sweeter) transmitted from the Hausa service of the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) features mostly female narrators. Women can now be heard rendering tales and oral poetry regularly across the Hausa Service of the BBC World Service in England, Voice of America Hausa in the United States, Deutsche Welle Hausa in Germany, China Radio International Hausa, RFI Hausa in France and other Hausa service stations in countries such as Libya and Iran. The golden age of Hausa women storytelling has continued. Empowered and preserved with transistor radios and modern technologies, this golden age of Hausa women’s art has now become a cultural force.

Hafsat Abdulwaheed’s pacesetting novel brought with it a boom in Hausa popular fiction mostly by women. There is now a thriving field of Hausa literature spearheaded by women writers whose works are attracting global attention: Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Alhaki Kwikwiyo has been translated as Sin is a Puppy; the first chapter of Rahma Abdulmajid’s novel Mace Mutum appears translated on Words Without Borders; “Cry Freedom,” an excerpt from Halima Ahmad Matazu’s novel Amon ‘Yanci translated from the Hausa appears in Praxis Magazine.

Remarkably, some two hundred years later, in a complete roundabout, teachings of the daughter of the Shehu, Nana Asma’u from early nineteenth century, continue to vibrate. Asma’u’s literary corps, the ‘Yan Taru Collective, are still visible and are noticeably influential from the Sahara across to the pacific. A circle is completed, an attestation to the importance of women in the development of Hausa literature.

2010 A.D.
San Diego, USA

Jaji Dylia bin Hamadi Camara heads the ‘Yan Taru Education Foundation and Charitable Trust in the United States. With chapters in Pennsylvania, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, and California, and with thirty-three women in intensive training and seminars, these women adhere to the community and methodology established almost 200 years ago by Nana Asma’u.

These women recognise and highlight the creativity and talent of each other. They teach Asma’u’s poems as means for organising their students to actively participate in social welfare projects. They travel extensively, in sync with the ‘Yan Taru of the 1800s, using the same manuscripts that Nana Asma’u had used to educate.

This re-collection of Hausa women’s artistic contributions in fragments, as dynamic as the different eras they lived in, outlines creative expression as a basic spiritual necessity.
The creative impulse of the Hausa woman has affirmed its literary merit by passing the critical test of “survival” over a dozen centuries.

Notes
[1] Mack, B.B. and Boyd, J. (2000), One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe. Indiana University Press, Indiana, U.S.A.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Adamu A.U. (2011): “The Beggar’s Opera: Muslim-Beggar Minstrels and Street Oral
Poetry Theatre in Northern Nigeria.” Paper presented at West African Research Agency’s
International Conference, Niamey, Niger Republic, July 7-10. (Translation mine).
[4] Furniss, G. (1996): Poetry, Prose and Popular Culture in Hausa. Edinburgh University Press for the International African Institute, Edinburgh, UK.
[5] Gusau, S.M. (1991): Makada da Mawakan Hausa. Fisbas Media Services, Kaduna, Nigeria. (Translated by Sada Malumfashi )

Sada Malumfashi

Sada Malumfashi is passionate about Hausa Literature. He lives in Kaduna, Nigeria. His works have been published in Jalada Africa and Praxis Magazine, among others.

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