Baba of Karo as she is known, tells stories that holds the secrets of the history and existing social systems in Hausa Land in Northern Nigeria that I never knew. Compared to the realities of the present day Hausa’s which I am familiar with, things have definitely changed.
Baba with her story-telling skills and remarkable memory takes us through her life’s path within her community, sharing event of the past decades as she sincerely remembers it. In a time when women when Women’s voices from her region was rarely heard or captured in any book, Baba’s voice gives some illuminating view into the realities women lived and with what lens they viewed the world around them with.
Her chronicle of events through her childhood, her four marriages, a life time of bareness and old age begins prior to the era of British control of the Nigerian territory, down to 1950 when she recorded the narratives with the author Mary Smith. Contextualising that era, Baba shared stories of domestic war, slave trade, and slave raiders, overwhelming culture of polygamy, and also the trend of marriages. She had no problem with expressing her opinion on tribalism, sharing her dislikes for other tribes like the Fulani.
Her identity as a Muslim Hausa woman was presented in ways I envied as she negotiated objectively with the concept of freedom through all her marriages. The degree of autonomy she expressed through roles that today could have been considered constraining, was admirable and a rarity with women of like identity in today’s world. Baba never had a child, but it didn’t stop her from answering mother to children her extended family willingly gave up to her. Baba, like many women of her time had serial divorces but there was no stigma or labelling to their status. At the death of her husband Hasan, she experienced widowhood but this too led to no social rejection.
In Baba’s time, it appeared to be a world full of marriages, I considered titling the book ‘ A book of Marriages’. Polygamy thrived even more as women had the agency to end their marriage. In expressing this, Baba tells of her marriages and the reason she went into them. She married her cousin and first husband Duma to please her father:
‘There was also Malam Maigari who wished to marry me, I promised him I would come to him later…Duma came to visit me, I accepted his money because father wanted me to do so. But because I didn’t really love him, I left him after a few years…Duma was tall and handsome and sensible, we lived together in peace with no quarrelling.’
After her Iddah (a 90 day period of celibacy observed by divorcees), she fulfilled her promise and married Malam Maigari, 15years after, she divorced him amicably and married Malam Hasan the farmer and prison keeper. After Hasan’s death, she had a marriage of shoes (where the wife lives apart from husband ) with Ibrahim. Compared to her sister-in-law Hasana who married 11 men, one of whom she married four times, Baba had an average record for the time; just four. The high incidence of divorce highlighted what I could term the instability of the Hausa marriages or in another perspective, the agency of women to end what doesn’t fit their life.
Using relevant indexes, Baba of Karo’s story, set at the inception of what we may call development in Northern Nigeria, raises questions on what social progress could mean in a society. Circa 1950 Hausa land, Hausa people unlike now, seemed more progressive, meeting the needs of its people, women enjoyed more freedom, enabling them to enhance and sustain the quality of their lives, thus being able to reach their full potentials. In those times, Karuwai, Prostitution was legal; it was also illegal to owe prostitutes. Yandaudas the homosexuals were recognised in the larger society without being stigmatised, teenage pregnancy was a rarity, adoption of children was without stigma, divorce was acceptable even on a serial level and domestic violence existed at an insignificant level. There was no Sharia law and yet the people were law abiding with only few criminals in jail. Poverty was not a severe issue as people sharing food and things was part of the existing giving culture. Set aside the high level of infant mortality that had existed at the time as captured by Baba of Karo, I am still wondering through this book if development had indeed brought much good or taken away the good in Hausa Land? The wealth of cultural resources and social mechanisms which I have come to know of through this book, are definitely missing in the modern day Hausa land.
Most striking in all Baba‘s narratives where some ideologies underpinning many challenges of development which we battle with today. Baba serving as a midwife, like some modern day adherent shared societal beliefs and misconceptions of her time regarding, circumcision, medicine and breastfeeding; all of which did not emerge from any form of empirical test.
‘Sometimes, if it is a girl child, the father refuses to allow the clitoris to be cut. But the mother will never refuse to have this done, she wants her daughter to grow big and strong. If you do not clip the clitoris, you will see the girl getting ill, she gets thin until she dies. If she starts to become like that, and the clitoris is clipped, and medicine put on, then she recovers.’
‘When a child is seven days old, we rub the soles of his feet with his mother’s milk to kill the flesh there, then even in the dry season he won’t feel the heat of the path. If the mother’s milk gets onto the child’s genital, it will kill them too…she should always cover other breast with her cloth so that the milk shall not fall on the child’s genitals… if the child is a boy he won’t be able to do anything with a women; if a girl, there will be no entrance, it will be blocked up or her genitals will die.’
‘A mother should not go to her husband while she has a child she is suckling. If she does, the child will get thin, he dries up, he won’t get strong, he won’t get healthy. If she goes after two years, it is nothing. It is not sleeping with her husband that spoils her milk, it is the pregnancy that does that…If he insists, she should wear the Kolanut charm…there is medicine to make the pregnancy ‘go to sleep’, but that is not a good thing.’
Putting this book in any single class or genre of conventional literature or academic writing remains a challenge. The author Mary Smith blends history, ethnography with elements of autobiography embellished with songs to give readers an enduring book highlighting political issues of race, culture, slavery, marriage constructs, adoption, widowhood and gender among others.
Mary Smith’s anthropological record of the Hausa people captured through oral accounts given by Baba, carries a sense of compelling authenticity. Nonetheless, there is still the danger of a single story to consider.
Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye