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. (She eventually turned it in to a photobook Diagram of the Heart.) 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, Mamuwa.com, by the Mace Mutum women writers association led by novelist Rahma Abdulmajid. [Unfortunately, in 2015, this site is no longer viable.]
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.
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.
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 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,
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
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.