History Nigeria

A month in “Western Sudan”

Did you know that “Sudan” was the term used by Arabs historically to refer to lands south of the Sahara? Ah, it seems this north/south divide is older than I thought. “Western Sudan” refers to north of the river Niger. In this context “Western Sudan” will be the area in what is now Northern Nigeria. The time period will be roughly between the 18th and 19th centuries. That was a period of war and of religious reformation. It was also a time of immense literary activity, where scholars wrote different kinds of poems and manuscripts were bound, kept in leather cases and hung in satchels from the walls to protect the precious words from the elements. You may know of Timbuktu and its important manuscripts, such manuscripts existed across the Sahel and “Western Sudan”.

This era had scholarly families where both men and women were educated and knew how to read and write. Writing was done using the ajami script in languages such as Fulfude and Hausa. You may know of Usman dan Fodio as the man who established the Sokoto caliphate after leading a war in order to revive the sunnah of Prophet Muhammad. However, you may not know that the Fodio extended family was unsuual with the way it encouraged women to seek and become educated.

This month my articles will take you to this period of war and poetry through the eyes of one of dan Fodio’s daughters, Nana Asmau. This woman does not need an inquiry as her name is still remembered in parts of Northern Nigeria today. She was a woman who experienced war for most of her life and wrote extensively about it in her poetry. I will be looking at the women who were privileged enough to spend their days writing while their slaves and servants took care of cores that would have otherwise kept them occupied (ETA: Depending on who you read, others argue that these women were not privileged at all and still have to engage in managing their homes). While reading about Nana Asmau and her achievements, it slowly dawned on me that there was yet another group of women who have been overlooked. Those women were the concubines, in particular the women captured at war and given to men of dan Fodio’s army. Concubinage has existed in parts “Western Sudan” for centuries and it will be interesting to see how such women fared. In the Sokoto caliphate, concubines were usually Hausa, involved in bori and were uneducated. Nana Asmau was tasked with educating these women and turning them to Islam.

I hope you are as excited about these upcoming posts as I am!