Kano, Nigeria – She was taken out of primary school at the age of 12 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 even know how to 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.
“If you know where I came from, you’ll realise how much I have fought,” says the 57-year-old author of nine novels.
Resentment resounds in her voice when she speaks of the end of her first marriage. “It still pains me,” she says. “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.
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, was 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. “My brother had only my best interest in mind,” says Yakubu, who still does not like to talk about his death. Forty years ago, her brother, who was by then Nigeria’s military ruler, was assassinated in his car on the way to Dodan Barracks in Lagos.
Yakubu was 17 years old when her brother died. Until today, she refuses to read anything about Murtala Muhammed’s murder, and she has never visited Lagos’ National Museum, which exhibits the bullet-riddled Mercedes in which her brother was shot. But she misses him every day.
After her first divorce, her mother again became her co-conspirator. Yakubu had pleaded with her father to allow her to enrol for knitting and sewing courses. What she didn’t tell him, though, was 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. “Only my mother knew,” Yakubu remembers. “She helped cover for me when my father asked where I was.”
In the meantime, she sewed as many baby dresses as she could in order to sell, this serving as an alibi for all the time she spent away from home.
When one day her father found her primary school diploma in her bag, he reacted by revealing to his daughter that he’d found another suitor. Yakubu was 15, but gladly accepted the marriage: She was happy to have completed elementary education and felt she was now mature enough to face a relationship.
Very quickly, though, it became clear that she had learned too much to fit into the role of the obedient wife. Always reading the newspapers and asking questions, always looking up words she didn’t know, she was too independent for her spouse’s liking. In this marriage, she had her first child, a son, 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. “Maybe because he’d grown older, he was now much softer. That was my hallelujah moment,” she says.
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. “I knew what I wanted now and refused to take the abuse that I’d taken before,” she explains.
Now, she is no longer looking for a man, even though she knows how the community perceives her.
“A happy divorcee is viewed with suspicion. People describe me as strong-headed because I don’t need a man.”
The bookshelves in her modest two-bedroom bungalow display all nine of her novels – well-known titles, some of which are even listed in the secondary school curriculum.
“These days, I’m fortunate: When people see my name on something, they want to read it,” Yakubu says, leaning back in the couch in her sitting room and rearranging her white chador.
Her popularity did not come overnight. After she published her first novel in 1987, religious leaders would preach against her, and she would receive 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 (soyayya means love) 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.
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.
The books tell everyday stories of the lives of northern women and address issues like rape, polygamy and domestic violence.
Even though soyayya novels are deeply pious in tone and portray marriage as the single most important goal in a woman’s life, in the strict Islamic north of Nigeria – where senators defend the right to marry 13-year-old girls, and where, especially in the lower-income rural areas, women are expected to remain indoors – these entertaining and affordable books challenge taboos and empower women.
Even for the authors, the experience is empowering. Yakubu explains in English, every once in a while resorting to Hausa when her words fail her: “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.”
Lost in her story
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 grown-up son Muhammed remembers how he and his siblings would know their mother was in her writing mode. They would find her on a mat in the living room, resting on a pillow: a pen in her hand, lost in her story.
Her children knew better than to try something naughty though, because however enthralled their mother might seem, she always kept an eye on whatever her offspring were up to, Muhammed adds.
With a smile, his mother recounts how she involved her children in the writing process. “My handwriting is bad, like an old doctor’s. So I used to let my children copy what I’d written. That’s why I was certain I wasn’t doing anything wrong, and I knew Allah would see that, too. Do you think I’d write anything unfit for my children’s eyes?”
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. This changed in 2012, when 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.”
That Yakubu’s achievements go beyond the entertainment industry becomes clear when you visit her at her office at the Murtala Muhammed Foundation, where she is a programme officer coordinating trauma counselling. Over the past few years, with the rise of Boko Haram, her job has become almost entirely about supporting the victims of bomb blasts.
With her team, Yakubu goes to meet the wounded in hospital and identifies who to refer to counsellors. That isn’t easy because most of them refuse to talk. “They often say, ‘What good is talking? You can’t bring back the dead or return my body parts.'”
Yakubu understands. She feels her own traumatic experiences make it easier to communicate with these casualties. “I know how it is to feel powerless and unable to speak out.”
Her own struggle to regain control over her life and claim her voice as a woman has made Yakubu an outspoken advocate of women’s rights. 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.
And she can name many more examples like that. “These days, we have women in politics, business and the military. We even have female pilots. To the West, it might not seem like much. But to women here, it is progress.”
With the enrolment of girls in schools and universities on the rise, she is optimistic that the position of women will improve. The next generation of women will continue the struggle more effectively, she thinks.
“When I was fighting, I did so with passion because I lacked an education. But the young women today will fight with knowledge.”