Category Archives: African literature

Jos Theatre Comes to Abuja: Jos Repertory Theatre’s Queen Amina of Zazzau opens in Abuja on 13 November, and I archive my review of Africa Ukoh’s play 54 Silhouettes

Jos-based theatre director Patrick-Jude Odeh just sent me an email asking me to pass around information about the Jos Repertory Theatre’s production of

The Jos Repertory Theatre's performance of Wale Ogunyemi's Queen Amina of Zazzau, in Jos, February 2013 (c) Jos Repertory Theatre, used by permission

The Jos Repertory Theatre’s performance of Wale Ogunyemi’s Queen Amina of Zazzau, in Jos, February 2013 (c) Jos Repertory Theatre, used by permission

Wale Ogunyemi’s play Queen Amina of Zazzau in Abuja. There will be two performances a day, at 4pm and 7pm, on the 13th and 14th of November at the Abuja Sheraton. I love the Jos Repertory Theatre’s productions and I have actually seen them perform Queen Amina of Zazzau several years ago, so Abuja people should check it out. The tickets are N5,000 regular and N150,000 for a table for six. For reservations, please call 0703-246-0159 and 0905-365-2544 or call Eniola at 0909-287-3099. Tickets are available at Silverbird Galleria and at the gate. The production is supported by the Center for Arts Management, Nigeria.

But the primary reason for this post was to follow up on Noah Tsika’s recent review of the Netflicks distributed film Beasts of No Nation based on the novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala, and a subsequent twitter conversation I had with playwright Africa Ukoh. Tsika’s review of Beasts of No Nation, a film which I have not yet seen, argues that the film fits into a “child soldier” movie genre that is often presented to largely Western audiences.

[…] the film evokes the type of Tarzanism by which Western cultural producers perpetually seek to gain artistic legitimacy, proffering a cinematic vision of reflexive violence (couched as inherently, ahistorically “African”) as well as an especially aggrandizing, extratextual portrait of an American male director who made a “risky,” malarial, downright Conradian trek into the darkness of the global South.

Tsika points out that the film, like the novel, is set in an unnamed African country, but is shot in Ghana (and…em…Brazil….) and the characters speak Twi:

That Twi goes unmentioned in the publicity surrounding Beasts is a measure of the filmmakers’ commitment to their gimmick—to the coy presentation of an ill-defined “Africa” as a screen on which spectators might project their assumptions.

Tsika also critiques Netflicks, the distributor of the film, for bypassing distribution units most easily accessible in Africa.

Scholar Amatoritsero Ede, in a recent article in Research in African Literatures, has critiqued the original novel for similar reasons, claiming that it demonstrates a “self-anthropologizing impulse”:

Iweala’s work is a sweeping allegory of a war-torn continent with its retinue of child soldiers. Due to the absence of a specific geographical setting, the whole of Africa becomes a war zone and is symbolic of conflict—especially war at its most bestial, considering the ghoulish boy-narrator’s automatic, almost psychopathic killing instincts.

Ede points out that it is not the subject matter that is the problem. As I argued previously, we are faced with very real and brutal stories of war that affect very real people–most recently in Nigeria, the stories that have come out of the Boko Haram conflict. Instead, Ede critiques the language in which the story is told:

Beasts of No Nation replicates that African inarticulacy in Agu, who is given, instead of proper speech, “a violent babble of uncouth sounds” much like Conrad’s black characters in Heart of Darkness (Conrad 84). […] Nigeria alone has over 250 languages, apart from a universal Pidgin English spoken by the uneducated mass across indigenous language barriers. In such a context, Agu’s inarticulacy becomes symbolic of “a return to origins.” This is because it is not explained by plot or yoked to any important narrative insight more than to the fact that this boy-soldier is uneducated and even incapable of the simplest thought in clear pidgin, a language so universal that every child and most uneducated adults take refuge in it. Nor could Agu speak his own native tongue. Instead he descends into a Conradian incoherence, alleviated by a “gerunding”: “It is starting like this . . . I am opening my eyes and there is light all around me coming into the dark through hole in the roof, crossing like net above my body. Then I am feeling my body crunched up like one small mouse in the corner when the light is coming on” (1, emphasis added). All that, even though he says, “I am learning how to read very early in my life from my mother and my father” (24, emphasis added). And this child-soldier who sings, “Soldier Soldier / Kill Kill Kill. / That is how you live. / That is how you die” (31), in order to remind himself of his fate, motivate himself against remorse, does indeed seem to understand the difference between a verb and a gerund after all.

Thinking of Beasts of No Nation, especially after Africa Ukoh tweeted me a review so egregious I initially thought it was satire, reminded me of his play 54 Silhuettes, the premiere of which I saw performed in Jos in November 2013. The play was a critique of the very sort of one-dimensional Hollywood representations of Africa at war that Tsika implies Beasts of No Nation continues. In the play, a struggling Nigerian actor in Hollywood, Chimezie, faces a crisis of conscious over playing an African soldier to Hollywood specifications. I published a review of the premiere performance in my column in Weekly Trust on 23 November 2013. Because Trust has, for some reason, “beheaded” all of my archived articles, cutting off the first paragraph, I am slowly trying to archive them here on my blog, with their heads retrieved from my pre-edit file and pasted back on.

I thought that the conversation surrounding the “Hollywood” production of this Nigerian novel, was a good time to revisit Africa Ukoh’s play. Please find my original review after the premier copied below.

IMG_5171 (c) Carmen McCain

Premiere stage performance of Africa Ukoh’s play 54 Silhouettes skewers Hollywood

“I’m not really in the mood to do any raping today.” One of the best one-liners I’ve heard ends Africa Ukoh’s brilliant play 54 Silhouettes, a satire about Hollywood’s imagination of Africa. The Stratford East/30 Nigeria House prize-winning play was originally produced for radio by BBC after coming first runner up in BBC’s 2011 African Performance competition. The first stage performance by the African Renaissance Theatre, directed by the playwright Africa Ukoh, premiered on 16 November at the Jos Alliance Francaise.

The story revolves around a Nigerian actor Victor Chimezie (Promise Ebichi), who is trying to break into Hollywood. When his Nigerian agent Sonny Chuks (Williams Obasi) gets him a role as a lieutenant named “Tiger” in a film set in Africa, Sonny thinks he has made Chimezie’s career. Chimezie and the scriptwriter/director Larry Singer (Idris Sagir) hit it off in the beginning, as both turn out to be Wole Soyinka fans: Larry once directed Death and the King’s Horseman and Chimezie once acted the king’s horseman Elesin. In Soyinka’s play, a patronizing colonial district officer Pilkings denounces as savage the tradition of ritual suicide by the oba’s companion after an oba’s death, but in “saving” Elesin he contributes to the death of Elesin’s son Olunde, who takes his father’s place. Chimezie and Larry recite dialogue from the scene where Elesin tells Pilkings, “You have shattered the peace of the world forever. There is no sleep in the world tonight.”

This symbolic tribute to Soyinka’s play resonates throughout 54 Silhouettes: Chimezie, like Elesin, faces great temptation to betray his people for a good life, and the well-meaning Larry, like Pilkings, is so blinded by his prejudices that he undermines (through his writing) the cultures he tries to represent. For a man who directed Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, Larry knows very little about Nigeria. In fact, he’s a hack. His film script is about an American journalist pursuing a ghost story in a “war-torn” Nigeria, somewhere in the Niger Delta. Larry manages to, as Chimezie points out, include “voodoo priests, a wrestling match with a lion, cannibalism, and half-naked dancing women” all in one film. The section we get to see performed features a warlord with a non-Nigerian name, played by an actor with a butchered “African” accent, who orders a child soldier kill a saintly Irish priest with lines like this: “You are an African. There is beastliness in your blood, and I shall unleash it.” Or “This is Africa. We are already in Hell.”

Chimezie grows more and more disturbed by the part he is being asked to perform and gradually makes enemies of most of his Hollywood contacts. Although Larry is smitten with Chimezie and seems to be open to suggestions, the swaggering cigarette-smoking “big-shot” producer Howard Flynn (played by the playwright and director himself Africa Ukoh) is irritated by Chimezie’s challenges to the script, telling him he knows “Africa is a big country.” He is also irritated that Chimezie does not seem “jubilant” enough at the news that Denzel Washington will star in the film. Flynn seasons his speech with racist slurs, calling Chimezie “Boy” and “Chimpanzee” and asking him if “you require jungle drums in order to express yourself.”

IMG_5150 (c) Carmen McCain

Sparks also fly between Chimezie and Kayode Adetoba (brilliantly played by Charles Etubiebi), the Brighton-born British-Nigerian actor whom everyone calls Tobi. He speaks with a South London accent, mispronounces Chimezie’s name just as Larry and Flynn do, and when he plays a warlord speaks with what internet critics call a “generic African accent.” When Chimezie protests, “That name is not from anywhere in Nigeria” and “That is not a Nigerian accent,” Flynn forces him to speak with the generic African accent too. When Tobi performs the hammy role in Larry’s script, asking Chimezie’s character what he is “insinuating,” Flynn asks “isn’t that too fluent?” Despite Flynn’s racist treatment—at one point saying “Down, Tobi” as if he were a dog—Tobi sides with the producer over his fellow actor from Nigeria. Tobi becomes increasingly incensed at Chimezie’s insistence on responsibility to “his people”—what Tobi calls “romantic idealism.” He tells Chimezie, “I was born in Brighton, I live in London. The closest I’ve ever been to Africa is in a plane flying over it.”

IMG_5141 (c) Carmen McCain

The tension also grows between Chimezie and his agent and friend Sonny Chuks, who has cashed in on a favour Flynn owes him to get Chimezie the role. When the two Nigerians get particularly passionate in their argument, they break into Igbo. Chimezie recites a proverb about the tortoise, “They say he is strong and wise, but when he sits for too long, he is seen as a stone. Who is to blame?” “I have a proverb for you,” Sonny counters, “Money, Make money.”

54 Silhouettes brilliantly skewers Hollywood representations of Africa in movies like Tears of the Sun or Sahara and even slyly weighs in on the casting of non-Nigerian “Hollywood” stars and British-born Nigerians who can’t get the accent right in films set in Nigeria, as in the recent film Half of a Yellow Sun. (See my critique of the casting here: first paragraph, rest of column.) Complementing the ethical questions at the heart of the play are a multitude of biting one-liners. The satirical dialogue reveals the subtle and not so subtle bigotry of the characters: “I make movies to make money, not to promote foreign relations,” Howard Flynn says. “The budget alone could feed a third world country,” Larry quips. “The only reason I kept this bizarre excuse of a name is because the sheer oddity of it gets me attention and makes me stand out,” Tobi seethes.

Of course, what looms over the play but is never spoken is the word “Nollywood,” and the absence of Nollywood here is perhaps the major hole in the play. While the first act pops with biting humour, in the second act, Chimezie enumerates in long monologues the invisibility of the African voice and his ethical problems with performing in the film. Here the play begins to drag a bit and seems repetitious—a flaw that could perhaps have been solved by looking to the new possibilities open to actors in Africa. The choice is not between suffering in anonymity, as Sonny puts it, or acting in a compromising Hollywood film. In a BBC interview with Ethiopian-American filmmaker Nnegest Likké about Africans in Hollywood, she emphasized the need to build an alternative African tradition, as if this was something that should be built within Hollywood. But while there is certainly a need to improve the chances of Africans and African-Americans in Hollywood, there is also a thriving alternate film tradition on the ground in Africa, from Accra to Lagos to Nairobi, which could be enriched by the passions and skills of actors like Chimezie.

IMG_5179 (c) Carmen McCain

Despite the perhaps false dichotomy presented here, the acting in the premiere stage performance of 54 Silhouettes was brilliant. I listened to the BBC radio performance online and, with a few exceptions, I thought that the character interpretation in the live performance was better, perhaps because the playwright Africa Ukoh was directing this production. The actor Idris Sagir who plays Larry Singer butchers his Hollywood character’s American (?) accent with a mixture of an American southern accent and some odd unplaceable accent full of “r’s.” But since so much of the politics of the play was about bad African accents by non-African performers, the (perhaps intentionally?) bad accent felt like poetic justice to me. The bad American accent like the caricatured Hollywood icons, and the over-the-top racism were all subversive gestures that mock and undermine Hollywood’s dominance, and the character of Chimezie becomes the ultimate deconstructor.

“I’m not really in the mood to do any raping today,” says Chimezie, effectively committing professional suicide. And in this moment, his resolve seems more like a satirical version of Elesin’s son Olunde in Death and the King’s Horseman, who killed himself so that tradition could live. What follows in my imagination is a “Part 2,” where Chimezie resurrects in Nollywood, moving beyond anxieties about Hollywood to tell stories his own way.

The play will be performed at the French Institut in Wuse 2, Abuja on December 5-6, and will be back in Jos on 7 December at a venue yet to be confirmed. Go see it.

Translation Conference in Kano and Glenna Gordon’s exhibition of photographs of Hausa novelists opens this evening at New York’s Open Society

Glenna Gordon's photo book Diagram of a Heart advertised on her site.

Glenna Gordon’s photo book Diagram of a Heart advertised on her site.

I’ve just finished attending a translation conference at Bayero University, Kano, hosted by the Centre for Research in Nigerian Languages & Folklore and the Nigerian Institute of Translators & Interpreters (NITI).  I heard papers on translation from Hausa, Fulfulde, Igbo, Yoruba, and Swahili, and on proverbs, poetry, film subtitles, and novels, as well as papers looking at more technical translations in the media and the efficacy of google translate Hausa. It was an academic conference, but there were also dozens of journalists there, who regularly translate news from English into Hausa. As Hafizu Miko Yakasai, the current president of NITI pointed out, translation is particularly important to “national development” in Nigeria because of Nigeria’s diversity of languages and cultures “with over three hundred language groups.”

NITI is a useful resource for translators, although I was a little worried by the proposed legislation in the National Assembly that would require translators to be a part of the organization before doing this work.

In a document passed out at today’s Congress, entitled “Nigerian Institute of Translators and Interpreters (NITI) International Translation Day (ITD) 2015,” the Secretary General/Registrar of NITI Joachim Okeke writes that in 2008 NITI’s bill “passed the second Reading at the National Assembly and, shortly after that, we were invited to the House for the public hearing.” Although the bill has not been passed,

When the bill is passed and it becomes law, it will make the practice of translation and interpretation regulated in such a way that it would be an offence for those not authorized to claim to be members of the profession to practice, exactly like in other professions: accountancy, law, medicine, engineering etc.

Of course, such associations are excellent resources and can do much to “professionalize” the industry. Translators should be as respected as accountants, for example and renumerated accordingly. As such, it is a good idea to have a respected body that can vouch for the skill of translators and advocate for them. However, I am concerned about creating laws that force creative professionals to be certified to practice their craft, especially as it seems that so far NITI has been more focused on linguistics, interpretation, and technical translations than literary translation, which is much more closely related to creative writing. When someone commented that the translations of advertisements on the radio about birthdays were wrong because “there is no birthday in Hausa culture,” I worried that the forum could become more about policing narrow ideas about culture than supporting people interested in doing creative translations. That said, it is good to have an association to belong for that is looking out for the rights of translators and setting standard rates and skill levels that both translators and those who commission them are encouraged to meet.

It was literary translation that brought me to the conference. I wanted to find out more about who else was doing it and whether anyone else was translating contemporary Hausa literature. Abdulaziz A. Abdulaziz presented the only paper on translations of what he called “contemporary Hausa prose fiction” but which he pointed out has been

“variously described as Kano Market Literature (Malumfashi: 1994 cited in Adamu 2002; Whitsitt: 2000, 2003), Hausa Literary Movement (Adamu 2002), Hausa Popular Literature (Furniss: nd) or the ‘littattafan soyayya, love stories” (Larkin: 1997).”

The fact that he was the only one at a translation conference in Kano to talk about translating the thousands of novels that have built up one of the largest indigenous-language reading publics in Africa, indicates that there is a serious gap between the intellectual translators in the academy and the readers and writers creating the work. Several professors made condescending comments about contemporary literature after his presentation, even proposing that the novels were all “translations” from Western novels. Clearly, there  is much more work that needs to be done. And at the moment, much of this work is being done outside of the university.

Coincidentally, this conference comes at the same time as the opening of an exhibition in New York featuring photographs of several Hausa novelists, including several  of my translations of short novel excerpts.

A few years ago, photojournalist Glenna Gordon got in touch with me and asked if she could talk with me over Skype about culture in northern Nigeria. She had been doing a series of photographs on Nigerian weddings, but thus far most of the weddings she had photographed had been in the south. She was planning to go to Kano and wanted to know about northern Nigerian culture.

I told her about my own research on Hausa novels and films and sent her several academic articles on Hausa literature and culture. But I told her that the best thing for her to do would be to read Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel translated as Sin is a Puppy by Aliyu Kamal. Glenna read it and was enchanted, featuring it as  her “springtime read” at Guernica, where she is photo editor. And later when she came to stay with me for a week in Jos while working on her wedding project, she photographed some of my collection of “soyayya” novels and told me she wanted to do a photography project on Hausa women who wrote. Although I had started my own project writing about Hausa novelists several years before, and had given an editor a brief chapter in a book to be published in Nigeria that has yet to come out, I was in the middle of the slough of despond that is ABD, trying to finish my dissertation. And I thought it would be a fine thing for Hausa novelists to receive publicity in the kind of publications Glenna had access to like Time and New York Times. So, I contacted several writers’ groups asking women if they would be interested in being photographed for the project, and I put her in touch with a few other writers I knew. She took it from there, visiting Kano, Kaduna, and other parts of the north off and on for two years taking photographs of writers, weddings, and other things.

Earlier this year, she told me she would be exhibiting the photos with the Open Society’s “Moving Walls” series in New York and asked me if I would travel to Kano to purchase some novels from the market for the exhibition, as well as help

My own non-artistic photo of the books I was sending her before I shipped them off.

My own non-artistic photo of some of the books I was sending her before I shipped them off.

with summarizing some of the novels and translating excerpts for them for the exhibition. I did this in July, spending a week visiting writers, buying their novels and other novels in markets and at used book stalls, and interviewing them about their writing. As I read Hausa slowly, I recruited my friend Sa’adatu Baba Ahmad, a journalist and also one of the novelists Glenna has photographed to help me read and summarize some of the novels. She gave me ten summaries in Hausa, and then I wrote up the rest, depending (probably too heavily) on my interviews with the novelists about their books and from my own readings. I also translated five excerpts from novels by the authors Glenna was featuring: Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, Farida Ado Gachi, Hadiza Sani Garba, Jamila Umar, and Sa’adatu Baba Ahmad. After the exhibition has been up for a while, I will put up a few excerpts here.

The Open Society exhibition is opening this evening in New York  from 6-9pm and will be open until 13 May 2016. Glenna has also put together a book Diagram of the Heart featuring 75 photos and a few of my translations, which is currently available for pre-order on her site. Her photos were also earlier featured in the exhibition Photoville in Brooklyn. If you are in New York, check out the exhibit at Open Society at 224 W 57th St, New York, NY 10019. If you are not in New York, consider pre-ordering the book.

Lola Shoneyin polygamist satire in The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives

Nigerian writer Lola Shoneyin at the Leselenz 2015 in Hausach (c) Harald Krichel, via Wikipedia

Last week, I was chatting with a colleague recently moved to Nigeria about  contemporary Nigerian literature. She was enchanted by Lola Shoneyin’s novel The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. I mentioned to her that I had written a review of the novel, which reminded me that I have dozens of reviews I wrote in my column at Weekly Trust from 2010 to 2014 that I need to archive on this blog. Sadly, there is something wrong with the Weekly Trust archive, and now every single one of my articles has been “beheaded,” ie. they are all missing their first paragraph.

I am going to begin slowly re-posting my favourite columns, first paragraph reconstructed from my file of drafts I submitted to my editor, onto this blog. This week I will begin with my piece on Shoneyin’s novel.

As I re-read my review while editing this blog post, Shoneyin’s description of Baba Segi reminds me a great deal of the character of Ibrahima Dieng, in Ousmane Sembene’s 1968 film Mandabi that I showed my students a few weeks ago. For those who’ve seen the film and read the book, what do you think? There’s a similarity there, no? In both the caricature and ultimately the sympathy with which these rather vain and silly men are treated.

Lola Shoneyin polygamist satire in The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives

(courtesy of Cassava Republic Press)

By Carmen McCain | Publish Date: Nov 10 2012 5:00AM | Updated Date: Nov 10 2012 5:00AM (Weekly Trust)
Re-reading and reviewing Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s translated novel Sin is a Puppy… (Blaft, 2012/1990) last week, which presents a woman’s perspective on life in a polygamous household, reminded me of a book I had been meaning to read for two years, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin (Cassava Republic, 2010). Shoneyin’s novel was long-listed for the Orange Prize for fiction in 2011 and for the NLNG prize this year. Once I started the 245-page Secret Lives…, I couldn’t put it down. The novel is stunning—one of the best novels I’ve read this year. This week while working on this article, I picked it up again, meaning to just flip through and find the passages I needed for the review. Instead, I found myself re-reading the entire book again.

The novel, set in Ibadan, is extraordinarily well crafted, immersing the reader in a world so vivid that it takes some time to emerge out of it. Shoneyin has a sharp satirical eye. She captures the foolishness and hypocrisy in the polygamous household of the title with a biting precision; however, she also has a tender touch. As I was reading, I came to care for the characters despite their flaws.
Although there are a few chapters told with third person narration, most of the chapters are told in the powerful distinct voices of Baba Segi, his four wives, and his driver. There is Iya Segi, the first wife, a fat entrepreneurial woman who loves money more than nearly anything else. She is the real force behind the household. There is Iya Tope, a kind and sincere but easily intimidated farm girl who loves simple meticulous tasks like weeding or braiding her daughters’ hair. There is Iya Femi, a vain, vindictive woman who bleaches her hands yellow and spoils her children but loves cooking and cleaning. There is the fourth wife Bolanle, a graduate, who is haunted by a trauma in her past. She loves children but is having trouble conceiving any of her own. Finally there is Baba Segi, a big-hearted man whose greatest joy in life is fathering children.

Shoneyin devotes this brilliant piece of characterization to her title character:

“Baba Segi could never keep things in. He was open-ended. His senses were directly connected to his gut and anything that didn’t agree with him had a way of accelerating his digestive system. Bad smells, bad news and the sight of anything vaguely repulsive had an expulsive effect: what went in through his mouth recently shot out through his mouth and what was already settled in his belly sped through his intestines and out of his rear end. Only after clearing his digestive system could Baba Segi regain his calm.”

While Baba Segi is a vain, and sometimes absurd, character, he is also generous. His household becomes a shelter where wives find refuge from hard backgrounds and cultivate their secret fantasies and desires. Iya Segi puts it more cynically: “Women are my husband’s weakness. He cannot resist them, especially when they are low and downcast like puppies prematurely snatched from their mother’s breasts.” While, Baba Segi celebrates his sexual prowess and is proud of his kindness to the women he takes in, he eventually becomes as disillusioned by polygamy as any of his wives, telling his son “When the time comes for you to marry, take one wife and one wife alone. And when she causes you pain, as all women do, remember it is better that your pain comes from one source alone.”

The story, woven together from these multiple perspectives, emerges with this portrait of a family: a smug head of the household oblivious to the intrigues in his house; his wives with their secret passions, hidden tragedies, and private goals of which their husband knows nothing. Despite tensions, the household runs fairly smoothly under Iya Segi’s firm hand, until the educated Bolanle arrives as fourth wife. Bolanle’s presence causes a crisis in the household and changes the lives of Baba Segi and his wives forever. The other wives resent her education and accuse her of being arrogant. Iya Segi and Iya Femi turn down all of her overtures of friendship and threaten Iya Tope when she timidly responds.

In the meantime, we begin to get more of Bolanle’s backstory: her ambitious youth, her nagging mother and drunken father, the tragedy that destroys her dreams and eats away her personality, until finally she thinks she has found peace in Baba Segi, the man with many wives who initially accepts her as she is. Although her mother calls him an “overfed orang-utan,” Bolanle sees him as “a large but kindly generous soul.”

Although Bolanle’s marriage to Baba Segi is pivotal to the plot of the novel (and is actually based on a true story), it left me unsettled. Despite the description of Bolanle’s psychological woundedness and her gratefulness for his acceptance, I couldn’t quite believe that such a sensitive, un-materialistic degree-holder would actually agree to marry an illiterate man as ridiculous as Baba Segi.

Shoneyin caricatures polygamy as a relic of another time, an institution that Bolanle finds difficult to reconcile with her education and sophistication. Bolanle initially sees herself as a self-sacrificial missionary to a backwards field: “Living with them has taught me the value of education, of enlightenment. I have seen the dark side of illiteracy. […] I will not give up on them. I will bring light to their darkness.” She is embarrassed by Baba Segi’s behaviour at the teaching hospital where they go to investigate her inability to conceive. The doctors treat her with pity and her husband with condescension. Eventually, Bolanle realizes that she has been living in “a dream of unspeakable self-flagellation.” Bolanle’s description of being with “people from a different time in history, a different world” draws a distinct boundary between the world of education and hospitals and modernity and the world of polygamy.

But this presentation of polygamy as an institution of illiterates, while it works well in the novel, oversimplifies the choices educated professionals often make in entering such marriages. I think of Ghanaian novelist Ama Ata Aidoo’s novel Changes: a Love Story (Women’s Press, 1991), which describes an educated career woman, who falls for the charms of a married man and agrees to be his wife. While she, too, becomes disillusioned with polygamy, her initial attraction to her dashing husband seems more understandable than Bolanle’s marriage to the awkward Baba Segi. Hausa novels also present the complex decisions of characters who decide to enter into such marriages. Alhaji Abubakar, in Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Sin is a Puppy…, for example, is described as a charming, romantic suitor of the girl he makes his third bride. The young woman eventually finds out that living with rivals complicates the romance. In real life, educated men and educated women choose to enter such households. They are not all buffoons.

Ultimately, however, the novel, as satire, slyly questions the vanity of men who think they can satisfy more than one woman. Women willing to share a husband, the novel implies, might do so more out of a need for security than genuine love for their husband.

Wa Zai Auri Jahila? Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel on Child Marriage

The novel was published in two parts. This is the second part, of 164 pages.

The novel was published in two parts. This is the second part, of 164 pages.

In 2013, Abuja-based Cassava Republic Press asked me to choose a September 2013 “Book of the Month.” I wrote about Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Hausa novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila (Who Will Marry an Illiterate Woman?). Unfortunately, Cassava Republic took down the piece the next month to make way for their next book of the month. I was recently reminded of the short essay as I have been working with my friend Hausa novelist and journalist Sa’adatu Baba Ahmed on summaries and short translations of Hausa novels for an exhibition of photographs by photographer Glenna Gordon at the Open Society. I thought it was about time to make the piece available online again through my blog. Note I am reproducing it as it was originally published with updates in brackets.

Wa Zai Auri Jahila? Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel on Child Marriage

Much of the public discourse about literature in Nigeria is about literature written in English. According to most African literary prize-giving institutions, English is the language of literature. Yet, Nigeria also has a rich heritage of literature written in languages such as Arabic, Efik, Fulfulde [see here and here], Ibibio, Igbo [see here and here], Tiv, and Yoruba [see here and here], among others. Hausa literature is, however, currently the largest indigenous-language publishing movement in Nigeria, if not in Africa. According to scholar Abdalla Uba Adamu, between the 1930s and mid-1980s, fifty-four Hausa-language novels were published mostly by government-subsidized publishers. The upsurge in literacy promoted by the UPE (Universal Primary Education) initiative from 1976 and the advance in personal computer in the 1980s led to an explosion in Hausa self-publication in the early 1980s. Since that time, thousands of novels in Hausa have been published. The School of Oriental and African Studies in London has over 2000 of these novels in their collection.

Called variously Kano Market Literature, or “Soyayya” (romance) novels, scholar and author Yusuf Adamu’s suggestion of the term “Adabin Hausa na Zamani/Contemporary Hausa literature” is probably more appropriate. These novels cover a wide range of genres and themes, from crime fiction and romance, to muckraking social critique and fantasy adventure. While they are often printed in multiple parts in 80-120 page pamphlets to make it affordable for students and housewives, most are not novellas but serialized novels that sometimes run to 700 pages or beyond. And they are wildly popular. According to the author’s print run records, the bestselling novel of the movement, Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino’s two part novel, In da So da Kauna, published in 1990, sold over 100,000 copies—200,000, if you count sales of individual parts. Gidan Dabino is currently preparing to release a new edition of the novel in a single three hundred page volume. Other exciting developments in Hausa publishing include the opening last month of an online shop for Hausa novels,, by the Mace Mutum women writers association led by novelist Rahma Abdulmajid. [Unfortunately, in 2015, this site is no longer viable.]

Rahma Abdul Majid and Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino with me in 2005.

Recently, I have been reading the novels of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, one of the pioneers of the so-called “soyayya” movement (and also the younger sister of the former head of state Murtala Muhammad). She was part of the Raina Kama writing club that began in the late 1980s, which also included authors, Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino, Dan Azimi Baba, Aminu Hassan Yakasai, Alkhamees D. Bature, Aminu Abdu Na’inna, and Badamasi Shu’aibu Burji.

Raina Kama literary Association photograph duplicated in many of their books

Raina Kama literary Association photograph duplicated in many of their books

Married at 12 to a 48 year old man and quickly divorced, [as she recounts in this short autobiographical text], Hajiya Balaraba was finally able to access education through adult education offered in Kano. She began by writing plays as class assignments and published her first novel, Budurwar Zuciya in 1988. She has written over nine books, including novels and plays. She has also produced several films and writes popular radio plays. Her novels are generally muckraking exposés of the corruption of hypocritical men and they critique polygamy, forced marriage, and other issues of concern to northern women. While she was not the first woman to publish a novel in Hausa—that honour goes to Hafsat Abdulwaheed, whose short novel So Aljannar Duniya won a 1979 Northern Nigerian Publishing Company (NNPC) writing competition and was published in 1980—Hajiya Balaraba is the first woman to have a novel translated from Hausa to English.

Hausa novelists Balaraba Ramat Yakubu and Hafsat Abdulwaheed at an event celebrating the work of literary critic Ibrahim Malumfashi, Kaduna, December 2012 (c) Carmen McCain

Hausa novelists Balaraba Ramat Yakubu and Hafsat Abdulwaheed at an event celebrating the work of literary critic Ibrahim Malumfashi, Kaduna, December 2012 (c) Carmen McCain

In 2012, the Indian publisher Blaft sponsored and published Aliyu Kamal’s English-language translation of Hajiya Balaraba’s 1990 novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne…Ubangidansa Yakan Bi as Sin is a Puppy… that Follows you Home.

The translation of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu's novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne published in 2013 by Blaft Publishers.

The translation of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne published in 2013 by Blaft Publishers.

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne published in 1990.

The novel tells the story of a wealthy but womanising trader, who spends most of  his salary chasing prostitutes, only giving a fraction to his wife Rabi for the upkeep of the nine children in the house. When he marries an old prostitute who picks a fight with Rabi, he divorces his wife and sends her and her children away. Although Rabi finds life independent of her selfish husband liberating, she is eventually forced by her brothers and her son-in-law back into a more traditional home. The novel critiques the patriarchal society in which Rabi and her daughters are caught with bitter irony rather than explicit condemnation. [For my longer review of the translated novel, see this blog post.]

Wane Kare ba Bare ba is perhaps Hajiya Balaraba’s most controversial novel,

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu's novel Is the Man a Dog or Just an Outcast? published in 1995.

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Is the Man a Dog or Just an Outcast? published in 1995.

and it quickly went out of print shortly after publication in 1995. It is about the outwardly respectable Alhaji Gagarau, who in private is a predatory sexual deviant. He molests almost every young girl he comes into contact with, including most of his daughters and his wives’ sisters. As in Sin is a puppy…., however, Alhaji Gagarau’s sins will follow him home; this time in the form of a hand wounded while committing a rape, which turns gangrenous and begins to rot. Like Oscar Wilde’s picture of Dorian Gray which shows the secret corruption of its owner, Alhaji Gagarau may be able to hide his sins but he cannot hide the smell of his rotting hand, which eventually exposes his secret.

Amidst these muckraking tales of corruption in the home, my favourite is the tender novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila?/Who will Marry an Illiterate Woman? in which Hajiya Balaraba draws on her own experiences as a bride of 12. Published in 1990 [and soon to be adapted into a mini-series produced by Hajiya Balaraba], the novel is relevant to the ongoing debate of child marriage, recently brought back to public attention by Senator Yerima’s vociferous insistence that he has the religious right to marry a wife or give out his daughters in marriage whenever they start menstruation, whether “at the age of nine, 13, 14.” In Wa Zai Auri Jahila?, Hajiya Balaraba counters this male narrative with the woman’s side of the story. Thirteen-year-old bookworm Abu is withdrawn from school when her Qur’anic teacher tells her father it is no longer appropriate for a grown girl to be out in public. Embarrassed, Abu’s father quickly seeks to marry her off to her childhood sweetheart, her cousin Ahmadu, to whom she has been promised for years. But Ahmadu, now in university in Kano, has had a taste of city life and city women and will have no more of his young village cousin, whom he calls illiterate and backward. Meanwhile, a local aristocrat, the potbellied, red-eyed fifty-two year old Sarkin Noma has been plotting to marry Abu before he has even seen her, as a way to subdue his three other quarrelling wives. The headstrong Abu makes no secret of her disgust for him, but her father, humiliated by the immature Ahmadu’s rejection of his daughter, forces his young daughter to marry the old man. Sarkin Noma, initially just in search of fresh new blood, continues his pursuit of Abu as revenge for disrespecting him, telling her, “No matter how much you refuse me, I will marry you.” The first part of the novel traces the ever more wretched conditions Abu faces, as a child bride facing brutal rape by her old husband.

However, Abu is not a subservient victim, and she takes her fate into her own hands, running away to Kano to make a new life for herself. The second part of the novel traces Abu’s maturity and knowledge as she enrolls in adult education classes and begins a career, first as a teacher and later as a nurse. Like the corrupt men in Hajiya Balaraba’s other novels, as Abu grows in power, Sarkin Noma dwindles away and becomes impotent. But he is the only one in the book who

part 1 of the novel, 182 pages.

Part 1 of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila.

is not changed for the better by Abu’s self-improvement. As the other men in the novel learn humility and respect for their female companions, they find much sweeter lives. Ultimately, Abu is allowed the happiness that escapes many of Hajiya Balaraba’s other heroines—having redefined her value, not just as an illiterate girl to be given away but an educated woman who has much to give back to her family. The title is thus ironic, the real question is not “Who will marry an Illiterate Woman?” but rather “Who is good enough to marry an Educated Woman?”

Wa Zai Auri Jahila? challenges the stereotype of the northern woman as merely silent and oppressed and gives her an agency of her own. Unfortunately for those who read only English, Wa Zai Auri Jahila? is available only in Hausa. However, if you want a taste of Hajiya Balaraba’s writing you can read her novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne, published in translation as Sin is a Puppy… by Blaft. If more effort were put into building up an infrastructure to support translators, perhaps a wider public would be able to access more of these striking stories written by women and young people in northern Nigeria. Instead of awarding a single author with $100,000 every year, the administrators of the NLNG prize may want to consider that.

Read my previous reviews of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novels Sin is a Puppy… and Wa Zai Auri Jahila? here.

Words Without Borders features African Women writing in Indigenous Languages

screenshot from the Words Without Borders October edition

screenshot from the Words Without Borders October edition

The October 2013 issue of translation journal Words Without Borders focuses on African Women writing in indigenous languages. The magazine has an impressive pedigree. Check out this statement from their “about” page, for example:

Every month we publish eight to twelve new works by international writers. We have published works by Nobel Prize laureates J.M.G. Le Clézio and Herta Müller and noted writers Mahmoud DarwishEtgar KeretPer PettersonFadhil Al-AzzawiW.G. Sebald, and Can Xue, as well as many new and rising international writers. To date we have published well over 1,600 pieces from 119 countries and 92 languages.

I am encouraged that they are drawing attention to the literature being written in African languages that often falls below the radar. Please check out their latest issue.  

I wrote a mini-review of the issue in my column this week, which you can read on the Weekly Trust site, the All Africa site, or copied below, with links and photos, on my blog.

Words Without Borders Draws Attention to African Women Writing in Indigenous Languages


The online translation journal Words Without Borders, which has published English-language translations of creative work in 92 languages from 119 different countries since it started in 2003, has devoted its October 2013 issue to African women writing in indigenous languages.

The special issue, which also includes never-before-seen translations of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s poetry, features fiction translated from Hausa, Luganda, Runyankole-Rukiga, Tigrinya, and a non-fiction essay which includes translations of Wolof songs. In an African literary landscape where English-language literature often dominates discussions, this is a refreshing and important contribution. Because the journal is online and free, it is accessible to anyone in the world to read, and several of the stories have a bilingual version, where you can read the original and the English translation side by side. (See the English translation of “Baking the National Cake” side by side with the Runyankole-Rukiga original and the English translation  “My New Home” side by side with the Luganda original).

Rahma Abdul Majid (courtesy of Ibrahim Sheme’s blog Bahaushe Mai Ban Haushi)

Closest to home is Ibrahim Malumfashi’s translation of the first chapter of Nigerian author Rahma Abdul Majid’s massive Hausa novel Mace Mutum. This timely English translation comes close on the heels of the “child marriage” debate in Nigeria. [I’ve previously reviewed Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila, which also deals with the theme of young marriage.] In the opening of the novel, which is set in a rural village, an eight year old girl Godiya narrates, “My father, a farmer, has three wives. The only difference between our compound and others is that our household is not a kid factory; my father has only three children, while most of his compatriots boast a complete Barcelona team against Real Madrid, excluding the reserve.” Godiya tells her sister Lami’s story in this opening chapter, a girl who at fourteen is considered by gossips to be “old goods” until her father bestows her on a “haggard old” itinerant Qur’anic teacher. By the end of the chapter Godiya is nine and has seen girls die in childbirth and aunties divorced for being late with the cooking. What will she do

Professor Ibrahim Malumfashi, December 2012, Kaduna. (c) Carmen McCain

Professor Ibrahim Malumfashi, December 2012, Kaduna. (c) Carmen McCain

when she hears her parents talking about marrying her off as well? While I do not have the original Hausa novel on hand to compare it with the translation, Professor Malumfashi successfully carries the story over into English. I wonder whether the vocabulary used by the young characters is not sometimes too sophisticated for their age and level of education? Fourteen year old Lami, for example, in one of her soliloquies about the suffering of women, complains about the “Herculean task of taking care of another man’s household.” However, on the whole, the angry tone of the narrative reminds me of the novels of Egyptian novelist Nawal El Saadawi, whose Arabic novels available in English translation harshly chronicle the abuse, disrespect, and violence against women in Egyptian society. I’m so glad Professor Malumfashi has made Rahma Abdul Majid’s work available to English speakers.

Glaydah Namukasa (Photo Credit: Winston Barclay, Flickr, used by permission)

Ugandan author Glaydah Namukasa’s story “My New Home” translated from Luganda by Merit Ronald Kabugo is similarly narrated by an impoverished child, the young boy Musika. He begins his narrative: “I started drinking alcohol the day I fell into Maama’s womb. Maama died of alcohol. She started drinking young and died young. She drank too much alcohol until she could no longer drink; and then the alcohol in her body started drinking her up until she dried up dead.” Alcohol drives the conflict in the story. Musika hates his grandmother and adores his grandfather. His unreliable childish descriptions paint a portrait of a woman, Jjaja Mukyala, who is afraid her grandson will merely follow the footsteps of the other drunks in the family. Musika describes how Jjaja Mukyala resents him because she thinks he reflects badly on her dead son, who conceived him with a bar maid while drunk. She also hates Musika to accompany his grandfather Mukulu to bars. But Musika loves how tender Mukulu is when he is drunk. “Mukulu was drunk when he told me that he loved

Dr. Merit Ronald Kabugo (courtesy of Words Without Borders)

me, drunk when he told me that Maama loved me, that Maama’s friends Aunty Lito, Aunty Karo, and Aunty Naki, who took turns taking care of me after Maama died, all loved me. Every time he is drunk he tells me he is glad he has a grandson.” Musika ends up wondering “How can alcohol be so bad and so good? Every day Jjaja Mukyala shouts, ‘If there is anything that will kill you it will be alcohol.’ But Mukulu says that if there is anything that keeps him alive, it is alcohol. How can alcohol be so bad as to kill Maama, and yet so good as to keep Mukulu alive?” “My New Home” is beautifully written and beautifully translated. I’d love to read more translations of Namukasa’s work.

I found Eritrean author Haregu Keleta‘s story “The Girl who Carried a Gun,” translated from Tigrinya by Charles Cantalupo and Rahel Asgedom Zere, the most haunting of the fiction published here. As in Mace Mutum, the narrator’s family is trying to force her into a marriage with a man she does not love. She runs off to Ethiopia to join the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, hoping to meet up again with her childhood sweetheart. In the meantime, she becomes a strong and fearless fighter. “… a few months of military training made my soft

Charles Cantalupo (courtesy Penn State)

body hard. I had muscles. My skin grew darker. I could run up and down the mountains. I sprinted over the sand. The oppression of Eritrea and especially of its women changed me into a fighter–far from a girl who was afraid to go outside.” Yet while the freedom fighters talk “about the oppression of women,” the actions of the men she fights with are not always consistent with their ideology, and she faces betrayal and disappointment. Despite her sacrifice to “liberate” her country, her family sees her only in terms of her body, caring only about whether she is married or has had a child. Keleta, who herself is a former member of the independence struggle in Eritrea, ironically invokes the double bind women find themselves in.

Hilda Twongyeirwe (courtesy of UGPulse Literature)

The final story “Baking the National Cake” by Ugandan author Hilda Twongyeirwe, translated from Runyankole-Rukiga by Juliet Kushaba, is quite different from the others in its opulent political setting and third person narration. The story describes the inner struggle of David, the Minister for the Presidency in a fictional African nation who “covers the tracks” of the hedonistic president and vice president: “They leave for two-day conferences and stay away for weeks. It

Juliet Kushaba (courtesy Transcultural Writing)

is David that ensures that the accounts are balanced to include the nonofficial days.” Although he is tired of their shenanigans he finds himself caught ever more tightly in the political web of the despised Vice President. The story was written originally in Runyankole-Rukiga, but the politics of it feel familiar.

Marame Gueye (courtesy East Carolina University)

The last “African” piece is a nonfiction essay in English, “Breaking the Taboo of Sex in Songs: the Laabaan Ceremony” by Marame Gueye that analyzes the sexual language in Wolof songs sung by women during the Laaban ceremony that is a part of Wolof weddings.

The journal importantly showcases writing in African languages often neglected in wider discussions of African literature. Ironically, however, in seeking out these stories, it also demonstrates another problem. Although there are thousands of works in Hausa, as well as literary communities working in Amharic, Arabic, Swahili, Shona, Yoruba and other African languages, Words Without Borders seems to have had trouble finding translations it could publish for this issue, despite a call for submissions put out months in advance. While most of its issues feature eight to twelve pieces that speak to its theme, only four translated works from African languages and one nonfiction essay written mostly in English were published here. It seems to me that this highlights the striking need for literary translators from and into African languages.

I hope several things come out of this issue: 1) An awareness on the part of those who talk about African literature that African literature goes much deeper than literature written in English or French (or even Portuguese); 2) An awareness on the level of writers who write in English but who are fluent in African languages that translation is an important contribution to African letters and that there are well-respected venues for publishing translations; 3) An awareness on the part of writers writing in indigenous languages that while the primary audience may be the most important, as it should be, that there are wider global audiences that could benefit from reading such work; 4) An awareness on the part of institutions that financial and infrastructural support for publication and translation would be a great boon to African literature. Overall, we need to see more interaction between writers in African languages and European languages and more support on the continent for both African language literature and translations.

Kofi Awoonor, Al Shabab, Boko Haram and the struggle for the New Dawn

(courtesy of the Story Moja Hay Festival site

When I heard on Sunday morning, 22 September 2013 that the great Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor had been killed in the Westgate Mall attacks, I began to obsessively follow google news and twitter with updates about the attacks. As I later related in my column for the next Saturday, I guiltily remembered after sitting online all day that even more people had been killed in Benisheik, Borno, than had been killed in the more widely covered siege on the Nairobi mall. It was a gut-wrenching week all round, with terrorist attacks that killed over 70 mourners at two funerals in Baghdad, Iraq; around 160 travellers on the road in Benisheik, Nigeria; at least 72 people at the mall in Nairobi, Kenya; and around 85 worshippers at All Saints church in Peshawar, Pakistan.

As I obsessively followed the news in preparation for my column published the following Saturday, I came across a New York Daily News article (yes, I know it’s a tabloid) that had a screen capture of the HMS Press Office twitter account, ostensibly run by Al Shabab. This was one of the several accounts Twitter shut down during the siege on the Westgate Mall. I had followed the chilling live tweeting from one of the HMS accounts during the massacre. Unlike Boko Haram’s Youtube videos released in Hausa, the tweeting was all in English of a sort that makes believable the speculations that there were Americans and Britons involved. As I read down the list, I gasped at the tweet at the bottom of the image, right before the screen capture cut off. It read “A new era is on the horizon. A new dawn, illuminating towards #Khifaafa. It’s a paradigm shift #Westgate”

Al Shabab tweet--a new dawn--cropped

The use of the metaphor “a new dawn” shook me because I had just spent days reading through the tributes to Kofi Awoonor, his poetry, and the poem widely used as his self-written elegy, from his new collection Promises of Hope: New and Selected Poems to be published in 2014.  

It is named “Across the New Dawn.”

It is easy to read the poem as prophetic now.

 We are the celebrants

whose fields were

overrun by rogues

and other bad men who

interrupted our dance

with obscene songs and bad gestures

There are warring notions here of what this “new dawn” is. Al Shabab presents it as a new era when its brand of extremism will take over the world–a paradigm shift. And if the four attacks across Africa and Asia are any indication, it does seem as though violent terrorists are pushing through a new order based on hate and sadism. It is, as it is meant to be, terrifying. This past week following the horrific attack that killed what the Vanguard claims killed up to 78 students in a hostel in at the Gujba College of Agriculture in Yobe State, I wanted to vomit when I heard of it. My mind couldn’t focus. As I wrote this week, I sat physically at my computer all day long unable to write anything.

What kind of person kills students in their beds? What kind of person joins a death cult? What kind of person slaughters the children of the poor?  In the dark? While they are sleeping?


I fear triteness.

What trite words of comfort can one offer when 78 students have been killed in their beds? When terrorists have murdered sleep in the northwest for over three years?

Yet, the convergence of these two warring notions of what the “new dawn” entails must mean something. I think (I hope, I pray) that Awoonor’s dawn will light the sky after the sun has set on Al Shabab and Boko Haram and Al Qaeda, and other terrorists who would attack innocent people to prove their ideology. Awoonor spent his life writing dirges, recognizing the evil that there is, yet he also he recognizes like Martin Luther King that the “arc of the universe bends towards justice.” There is a wisdom in his poetry built on generations of Ewe oral song that all the hatred of terror cannot twist. He writes of death, as a kind of balance,

No; where the worm eats

a grain grows.

the consultant deities

have measured the time

with long winded

arguments of eternity

And death, when he comes

to the door with his own

inimitable calling card

shall find a homestead

resurrected with laughter and dance

and the festival of the meat

of the young lamb and the red porridge

of the new corn.

It’s the archtypal life cycle of mourning and joy, death and birth, night and morning that runs throughout the Bible, which itself builds on and collects an oral tradition. As the King James version translates David’s song in Psalm 30:5

weeping may endure for a night,

but joy comes in the morning.

It makes me remember how I grappled with with writing about Easter in the dark days earlier this year. In my column the day before Palm Sunday, I wrote: 

But this week, it seems only appropriate to mourn, once again, so many senseless deaths, so much needless violence, to cry out as the Biblical character Job did, “Where then is my hope? […]I cry out to you, O God, but you do not answer,” (17:15, 30:20) to cry out like Jesus did on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
There has been so much tragedy over the past year that I think most of us have become numb. We step over the bodies and keep going. But every once in a while something touches you, the death of someone you know, the news of children targeted and attacked. In these times, the evil of this world envelops you in its horror, and you just want to lie down and let the tears empty you.

It is in this time that I look for scriptures that remind me how humans survive. The beauty of the Bible for me is that it is a document that spans a history of thousands of years, and encompasses dozens of genres. The books within record the sufferings of humans throughout time. The fall into despair in the darkness of night and the release into joy in the light of the morning is an archetype found over and over again in the Bible. It’s ok to cry, it’s ok to groan, we have been doing it for millennia.
The biblical book of Job is written in the form much like a play that tells the story of a good man who loses his wealth, his ten children, even his own health. Finally, he is plagued by “comforters” who insist all of his suffering must be his own fault. As he questions God, he begins to see human life in the context of eternity.

“There are those who rebel against the light, who do not know its ways or stay in its paths. When daylight is gone, the murderer rises up and kills the poor and needy; in the night he steals forth like a thief. […] For all of them, deep darkness is their morning; they make friends with the terrors of darkness.”
Yet such evil men “are foam on the surface of the water; […]The womb forgets them, the worm feasts on them; evil men are no longer remembered but are broken like a tree. They prey on the barren and childless woman, and to the widow show no kindness. But God drags away the mighty by his power; though they become established, they have no assurance of life. He may let them rest in a feeling of security, but his eyes are on their ways. For a little while they are exalted, and then they are gone; they are brought low and gathered up like all the others; they are cut off like heads of grain” (24:13-24)

Job comes to trust that, in time, God will “redeem” his suffering, even when he does not understand: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God. I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another.” (19:25-27). While he cannot control what happens to him, he acknowledges that “The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.’” (28: 12-28)

The lessons Job learns are repeated throughout the Bible. King Solomon writes “Since no man knows the future, who can tell him what is to come? No man has power over the wind to contain it; so no one has power over the day of his death” (Ecclesiastes 8:7-8) He laments “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless,” yet like Job he concludes “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (11:8, 13-14).


The prophet Jeremiah writes “I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him” (Lamentations 3:19-24)  King David writes: “weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

Christians believe that the cycle of death and resurrection found throughout the Bible was embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. In that moment nearly two thousand years ago, the entire universe was “surprised by joy” as C.S. Lewis puts it: overcoming death with life, conquering night with day. It is this hope then that I remember when the days are their darkest. The morning will come. We do not know when, but we wait, pray, hope.

This is not the false dawn of evil men, but a dawn of truth, mercy, justice. And above all love. For

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear… (I John 4:18)


Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. – Martin Luther King, Jr, from “Loving Your Enemies,” in Strength to Love

To read the complete version of my three columns I refer to, see

“Weeping at Night, Waiting for Light” March 23 2013

“Where the worm eats, a grain grows: Kofi Awoonor, Benisheik, Baghdad, Nairobi, and Peshawar” 28 September 2013

“Murdered Sleep” 5 October 2013

Let me end with Kofi Awoonor’s poems, one from early in his career “The Journey Beyond” and the other one of his final poems “Across a New Dawn,”  both of which refer to the boatman Kutsiami of Ewe myth, who paddles the dead to the other side of the river. As I wrote after I heard of Awoonor’s death:

Terrorists thought they killed him. They didn’t know they were just bringing the boatman to ferry him home.

The Poetry Foundation Ghana makes his early poem “The Journey Beyond” available.

The Journey Beyond

The bowling cry through door posts
carrying boiling pots
ready for the feasters.

Kutsiami the benevolent boatman;
When I come to the river shore
please ferry me across
I do not have on my cloth-end
the price of your stewardship.

The Wall Street Journal published one of his final poems “Across a New Dawn” as a tribute after he was killed: 


Sometimes, we read the

lines in the green leaf

run our fingers over the

smooth of the precious wood

from our ancient trees;

Sometimes, even the sunset

puzzles, as we look

for the lines that propel the clouds,

the colour scheme

with the multiple designs

that the first artist put together

There is dancing in the streets again

the laughter of children rings

through the house

On the seaside, the ruins recent

from the latest storms

remind of ancestral wealth

pillaged purloined pawned

by an unthinking grandfather

who lived the life of a lord

and drove coming generations to

despair and ruin


But who says our time is up

that the box maker and the digger

are in conference

or that the preachers have aired their robes

and the choir and the drummers

are in rehearsal?

No; where the worm eats

a grain grows.

the consultant deities

have measured the time

with long winded

arguments of eternity

And death, when he comes

to the door with his own

inimitable calling card

shall find a homestead

resurrected with laughter and dance

and the festival of the meat

of the young lamb and the red porridge

of the new corn


We are the celebrants

whose fields were

overrun by rogues

and other bad men who

interrupted our dance

with obscene songs and bad gestures

Someone said an ailing fish

swam up our lagoon

seeking a place to lay its load

in consonance with the Original Plan

Master, if you can be the oarsman

for our boat

please do it, do it.

I asked you before

once upon a shore

at home, where the

seafront has narrowed

to the brief space of childhood

We welcome the travelers

come home on the new boat

fresh from the upright tree

From “Promises of Hope: New and Selected Poems,” selected by Kofi Anyidoho, University of Nebraska Press and the African Poetry Book Fund, 2014

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila?, which questions child marriage, is the September book of the Month at Cassava Republic Press

Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, December 2012 (c) Carmen McCain

Last month, Abuja-based Cassava Republic Press contacted me and asked if I would contribute a “book of the month” for their monthly book series. I am currently working on a dissertation chapter on three of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novels: Wa Zai Auri Jahila?, Wane Kare ne ba Bare ba?, and Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne (translated by Aliyu Kamal as Sin is a Puppy… ). So, I identified the “Book of the Month” as Wa Zai Auri Jahila? (Who will marry an illiterate woman?), Hajiya Balaraba’s novel about the irrepressible Abu who is forced into marriage at 13 but refuses to let her early trauma at the hands of her 52-year-old husband define her life. I sneaked in a brief summary of the other novels as well. You can read the post here on the Cassava Republic Press blog.[Update, the link is broken on the Cassava Republic Press blog, so I have archived it on my own blog here. -CM, 1 August 2015]

“Wa Zai Auri Jahila?” Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel on child marriage, reviewed by Carmen McCain

The novel was published in two parts. This is the second part, of 164 pages.

The novel was published in two parts. This is the second part, of 164 pages.

In July, I also wrote a longer review of Wa Zai Auri Jahila? in my column, which I will copy below. The scholars Abdalla Uba Adamu [see here and here], Novian Whitsitt [see here and here], and Graham Furniss [briefly, see here] have also written about the novel:

The question of child marriage and Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila?

Category: My thoughts exactly
Published on Saturday, 27 July 2013 06:00
Written by Carmen McCain

Last week, after I asked “Where are the translations?”, I was delighted to hear from two professors working on Hausa-English translation projects: Professor Yusuf Adamu and Professor Ibrahim Malumfashi.

I continued to think about the issue of making Hausa literature available to a wider audience this week as I read Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s two part Hausa novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila?/ Who will marry an Ignorant Woman?, first published in 1990. The novel is an important contribution to the ongoing debate about child marriage in Nigeria, and it made me think that if I were to translate a novel, I would love to translate this one. For those who read Hausa, the novel is currently no longer in the market, but Hajiya Balaraba tells me she soon plans to release a new edition in one volume of around 400 pages.

part 1 of the novel, 182 pages.

part 1 of the novel, 182 pages.

The novel, set mostly between the village of Gamaji and the city of Kano, with brief detours to London, Kaduna, and Lagos, tells the story of the headstrong, bookish girl Zainab, nicknamed Abu by her family. In the first part of the novel, Abu’s dreams are threatened by the pride and thoughtlessness of men. When she is thirteen, Abu’s father, Malam Garba, swayed by other villagers who think Abu is too old to be outside the house, pulls her out of school. Amadu, her cousin who had promised from childhood to marry her, forgets his proclamations of love when he leaves the village and goes to Kano to start university. Starting an affair with an older and more educated woman, he refuses to marry Abu—telling her he cannot marry an uneducated woman. Malam Garba, humiliated by Amadu’s rejection of his daughter on the eve of their marriage, insists that Abu must marry anyway and gives her to the first suitor to come along, Sarkin Noma. Her marriage is more about his pride than her well-being. Ignoring her tears, he maintains she will be happy once she is in her husband’s house. It is not until after the marriage that Malam Garba regrets the ridiculous husband to whom he has given his thirteen year old daughter: a fifty-two year man, with a big stomach and red eyes, whose own eldest daughter is four years older than Abu. Sarkin Noma’s insistence on marriage to Abu comes initially out of his own need to reinstate control over his three quarrelsome wives and later out of his desire to subdue the stubborn Abu, who expresses her disgust for him every time he comes courting. His pursuit becomes a horrifying exercise in asserting his power. He tells her “No matter how much you refuse me, I will marry you.” For those who do not believe marital rape is possible or who believe the best place for a young girl is in her husband’s house, this disturbing novel should cause them to reexamine their assumptions.

As against the sort of arguments I’ve seen this week that girls will become wayward if they are not married young, Wa Zai Auri Jahila? provides a different and much needed voice—the perspective of a girl herself. Balaraba Ramat Yakubu has spoken in interviews about how she herself was married as a very young girl to a man much older than her, and her portrayal of Abu’s suffering and determination to succeed rings true. She resists the temptation to caricature Abu’s antagonists as simple evil villains, however. Abu’s father, despite his pride, comes to regret what he has done to his daughter. Even Sarkin Noma who violently forces himself on his young bride dwindles to a pathetic character, shocked by the secrets his wives have kept from him, and frittering away his life longing for a woman he cannot have. The novel does not demonize particular characters so much as show how a patriarchal culture traps and degrades even those men whom it supposedly benefits.

Though Abu is victimized by men as a child, she refuses to stay a victim. Haunted by Amadu’s harsh words about her lack of education, she determines to better herself. She is fortunate to have an aunt in Kano who supports her in her quest for education, and the village girl Amadu rejected for her “ignorance” proves her brilliance once she enrolls in remedial classes. As Abu grows in years, knowledge, and maturity, changing her name from Abu to Zainab, her old antagonist Sarkin Noma dwindles into a pitiful creature. It is as if her success emasculates him. Indeed “…almost everyone knew that Sarkin Noma was no longer a man.” Yet, Zainab’s education is a blessing to almost everyone else, including the other men in her life. Though she makes Amadu suffer when he comes back from schooling in England, he comes to realize how badly he had treated her. Similarly she is able to influence her father so that her sister is not married at a young age as she was but instead allowed to go to secondary school. The title is ultimately ironic, as over the course of the novel the power shifts to create a more equal relationship between men and women. The question becomes not “Who will marry an ignorant woman,” but who is worthy to marry an educated one?

For all the horror of part one, part two is full of sweetness. As I read the last one hundred pages I had a huge smile on my face. There are several love stories here, but the most tender ones are between old married couples. I was touched by the scene where Abu’s parents, Malam Garba and Bengyel, make up after a long quarrel, with Malam Garba humbly apologizing to his wife. The endearments between Zainab’s aunt Hajiya Kumatu and her husband Malam Sango, married for twenty-three years despite their childlessness, brought tears

Hajiya Balaraba’s 1990 novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne.

to my eyes. As with Hajiya Balaraba’s novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne, the happiest moments here occur in households where there is one man and one wife.
In addition to demonstrating the attractiveness of love between one man and one woman, this novel provides a contextual lens through which to view the issue of child marriage. First, as Hajiya Balaraba notes in the introduction to the second part of the novel, the book serves as a warning to parents who force their daughters into marriage, and particularly illustrates the horrors faced by a thirteen year old given to a 52 year old man. Abu would have been much better off had Amadu, who was only four or five years older than her, married her as originally planned. Yet, even that marriage, the author implies, would have had its problems. In his teenage years, Amadu was immature, made the wrong friends, and chased the wrong kinds of women. He was not at a stage where he could have provided a stable home for Abu. Similarly, marriage at 13 for Abu not only complicated her ability to continue her studies but also damaged her body. Although she had gone through puberty, she was not developed enough to give birth successfully, and her old husband’s rough treatment injured her badly.  While not explicitly condemning young marriage in the novel, the author demonstrates the contrast between Abu’s marriage as a child and the much healthier marriage between more educated financially-independent characters in their twenties.

There were occasional moments in the novel that I wish were different. There are several small factual errors which could easily be fixed in the next edition, such as implying that Oxford University, which Amadu attends, is in the city of London. I wish that instead of pursuing nursing, Zainab had gone all the way and become a doctor. I also wish that the unfaithful woman for whom Amadu left Abu was not portrayed as a Christian Yoruba. That said, the author, elsewhere, does portray positive relationships with the “Other.” Amadu meets several kind British characters in England and his friendship with the British woman Jennifer ends up helping him redeem his past mistake. Similarly, in Hajiya Balaraba’s 2006 novel Matar Uba Jaraba, part of the story is set in Ibadan where the Hausa boy Aminu grows up with kind Yoruba neighbours and marries his childhood sweetheart Shola. Ultimately, despite these flaws, Wa Zai Auri Jahila? is an important novel, which gives voice and agency to the “girl-child” who is so often used as a pawn in ideological battles but rarely gets the chance to speak for herself. I just wish that everyone could read Hausa and enjoy as much as I have this novel that takes you from the depths of horror to the joyful heights of love.