This is the story of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, a Nigerian woman who was married off before her teen age. However, she has evolved into a prolific author who now inspires and gives other Muslim Nigerian women a voice in fiction.
Ramat was born in Kano state, Nigeria and at the age of 12 she was withdrawn from primary school to marry a man in his 40s whom she had never met before.
At first, Balaraba Ramat Yakubu enjoyed the presents she received at the wedding and the golden ornaments decorating her new home, but she had no idea what marriage was about. Today, that illiterate girl who didn’t know how to cook or even boil water and who, one year and eight months after the wedding, was finally sent back to her father’s house in disgrace, has become one of northern Nigeria’s most well-known writers and the first female Hausa-language author to be translated into English.
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If you know where I came from, you’ll realize how much I have fought,” says the 57-year-old author of nine novels. It still pains me. My husband never told me that he loved me, that he wanted me. And then one day someone just came and took me back to my parents. He said I was too young. Didn’t he know that when he married a child?
Yakubu used this traumatic experience in her novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila? (Who Would Marry an Ignorant Woman?), published in 1990, in which 13-year-old Abu gets pulled out of school to be married off to a big-bellied man more than three times her age. But like Yakubu, Abu does not remain a victim: She finds a better life through education.
The book is a statement against child marriage as well as a plea for girls’ education, something that was not the norm during Yakubu’s childhood in Kano, the largest city in Nigeria’s predominantly-Muslim north. Girls in her father’s family were not allowed a Western education; they were sent to Quranic schools until they were ready to marry – preferably before they had their first menstrual period.
According to a National Literacy Survey from 2010, almost half of the women in northern Nigeria cannot read or write in any language. The only reason Yakubu attended primary school at all was because her mother had sent her there in secret. At the time, she recalls, she was the only girl among her grandfather’s 80 female grandchildren who went to primary school. When her father discovered it, his response was the arranged marriage.
Her older brother, Murtala, vehemently opposed to the wedding, but could not stop it. He was the one who had encouraged her mother to send his little sister to primary school in the first place. According to Yakubu, her mother and brother were the only people who had her best interest at heart.
After her first divorce Yakubu pleaded with her father to allow her to enrol for knitting and sewing courses. But she didn’t tell him that those courses had introduced her to a centre for adult education. So when she went out with her sewing machine, it was actually to learn how to read and write Hausa, the language of the largest ethnic group and the lingua franca in the north of Nigeria. She became a seamstress for a while.
Unfortunately, her father found her primary school diploma in her bag, and threatened to marry her off again. Yakubu was 15, and gladly accepted the marriage: She was happy to have completed elementary education and felt she was now mature enough to face a relationship.
But she didn’t fit in well into her new home as a naive and obedient wife. She was always reading the newspapers and asking questions, always looking up words she didn’t know, she was too independent for her spouse’s liking. She had her first child with her second husband but after three years, she was again sent back to her parents.
When she returned home, she announced to her father that this time she was insisting on continuing her education. And he accepted. At 18, she started her studies at the Kano State Agency for Mass Education, where she would eventually teach Hausa to other women. Able to provide for herself and with a fulfilling career, Yakubu still hadn’t given up on matrimony. But in Hausa society, a single adult woman is not respected, and she tried marriage two more times and had five children in total.
Her fourth and final marriage, which she describes as a happy one, ended when her husband decided to take a second wife. Yakubu didn’t want to take the abuse she had taken before, so she left her husband, realizing now, she no longer needed a man, even though she knew how the community would perceive her.
A happy divorcee is viewed with suspicion. People describe me as strong-headed because I don’t need a man. When I write, I feel lifted. I grew up with a strong father whom I could not confront. My books gave me a window to express myself. I write my stories as if I was in your house, or at your neighbours’. Women recognise them. I feel I have an obligation to society to tell those stories that otherwise would not have been told.
Yakubu has nine books to her name, some of which are even listed in the secondary school curriculum. She published her first novel in 1987, although her popularity did not come overnight. Due to the content of her works and also status, religious leaders preached against her, and sent her threatening letters denouncing her and her children, which she described as “the most hurtful thing you can do to a mother.”
As a female Hausa writer, Yakubu is seen as one of the pioneers of the “soyayya” genre. These romance novels written by northern Nigerian women, have become very popular among female readers in that part of the country. At every market in Kano, stalls sell these books and female customers – from veiled schoolgirls to grandmothers – can be seen browsing through the books.
The books tell everyday stories of the lives of northern women and address issues like rape, polygamy and domestic violence. Even for the author, the experience is empowering. Yakubu explains in English, every once in a while resorting to Hausa when her words fail her. When Yakubu starts writing, she writes everywhere: in the kitchen, in the car, and even on her phone when there is no pen nearby.
Her children were also involved in her writing process due to her not-so-good handwriting. So she allows them copy what she has written, that way they help her edit, criticize and also contribute to the story. Experts describe Yakubu’s style of popular fiction as transcending the level of the general soyayya novel, but for a long time, only readers of Hausa could enjoy her work.
However, in 2012, an Indian publisher, Blaft, translated her second book as Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home. This made her the first female Hausa writer to be translated into English, and since then, she says, she has not been able to keep count of the number of journalists and researchers who have come to see her to discuss Hausa literature.
Incidentally, the translated title was also her first book to be made into a movie. Kano has a lively Hausa-language film industry: It is not uncommon in the city to stumble upon a film crew on the street and the DVDs of local movies are among the traffic hawkers’ best-selling products.
Yakubu was involved in the production process of her book’s movie, and subsequently, she took greater interest in the film industry as she started producing her own projects. Recently, she had gone scouting for a location for her new movie, an epic about Hausa royalty a century ago. Asked for the reason she chose this subject, she says:
Only learned people know about Kano history. I want all our people to know. Without knowledge of your past, you don’t know your roots, and you can’t stand up for your rights.
Yakubu understands. She feels her own traumatic experiences make it easier to communicate with these casualties. She sees northern women claiming more and more public territory. At one time, she was the only female writer in Kano; now, the local association for women authors that she founded in 2005 counts more than 200 members. With the enrollment of girls in schools and universities on the rise, she is optimistic that the position of women will improve, and she thinks the next generation of women will continue the struggle more effectively.