If you thought concubines are a legacy of the past, guess what?
When the British came with their colonialism, they imposed prohibitions on slavery in Northern Nigeria. This was only halfhearted though, as the British policy implicitly accepted the patriarchal nature of concubinage. Colonial courts had to deal with cases involving slave women, some of whom were concubines. One of the reasons they were not exactly cool with openly outlawing concubinage was because of the number of women who would run to British strongholds, in Bauchi in 1902 and Nassarawa in 1904 for example, in escape. Escaped concubines were considered fugitives, and the fact that women ran away at all challenges this apathetic approach researchers adopt when writing on concubines. They make it seem as if all the concubines of the past were content with their lot. Colonial records also show that some women refused to be concubines at all such as one Agunge who was jailed in Ilorin for refusing to marry her “master”.
Similar cases happen with concubines today. In some ways, we can draw assumptions on how concubines in the past may have felt based on the experiences of concubines today. As I’ve stated above, history books overlook concubines. Some may want us to believe that most if not all concubines accepted their status, or they stayed as concubines because of their children. Yet the story is always more complex right? In the 2000s, women who were forced to be concubines ran away leaving their children behind (even when they did not want to), some were sold by their parents.
The human rights organization Timidria wrote a report on wahaya. This report isn’t dated by must have been written after the last quarter of 2008. It shared life stories of women who were sold as concubines and forced to serve as sexual companions and slaves for life to strangers. The report also includes the story of a man who owned concubines believing it was necessary for his status. These women are dark-skinned Touareg are from Niger and were trafficked across the border to Nigeria where they lived with elite and wealthy men in historical cities like Kano, Sokoto and Nassarawa. When the report was written, wahayu were bought at prices ranging from €305 to €610. Apparently most of the money went to so-called masters but sometimes the mother of the woman was given some money.
As in the bygone days, wahayu are sold when they are young, often before they are 15 years old. Children of concubines are considered legitimate however they face discrimination from society for being children of a wahaya. For those wahaya in royal households, they often worry about the well being of their children who may be the target of jealous legitimate wives seeking to safeguard the inheritance of their own kids.
I’ve made a list based on the observations I made from reading this NGO’s collection of life stories
- Some women had indeed accepted the sexual attentions their “master” forced on them. Tikirit Amoudar who was 45 at the time of interview said she put up with her “master’s” visits against her will and because she did not know how to attain her freedom.
- There is solidarity between concubines. And again reminiscent of the Legend of Zhen Huan, in some cases like that of Tabass Aborak, concubines would long for their “master” to show interest in them.
- A sanctuary village called Zongon Ablo exists where escaped concubines can find refuge. Zongon Ablo is apparently comprised largely by women from other places, a good number of them were concubines in the past. Could such a place have existed in the past? Some scholars suggest that concubines had no choice but to run to or with men but imagine women banding together for their own safety.
- Every woman who could took the chance to escape. Some saved money, others ran away under the cover of celebrations. They managed despite their fear of being discovered.
- Women like Tebarkote Adafor who was 80 years old at the time of the interview and sold when she was 12 or 13, wanted to escape with her children but found that impossible. They lived in freedom filled with regret for abandoning their kids. For others however, their children grew up to find their mothers and take care of them.
- Those with slave status were conditioned to look only to their “masters”, some women mentioned that they thought black magic was used to make slave children indifferent to their parents. Tagat Ajakoke spent 55 years in slavery and on top of that had to buy her freedom.
- Free people could be made slaves, when slaves got their freedom, they could still be forced into slavery. Even after escape concubines would be searched for and tracked down to be taken back. Sometimes the “master” who had sold the woman in the first place will refuse to sent her back to the man who bought her. According to Akarat Idimi, “That’s what the Hausa from Sokoto didn’t understand. In their view, the slave is part of a human herd that the master can draw on as he wishes. So that is how my so-called marriage ended, because I categorically refused to return to it.
- “Legitimate” wives would apparently resort to sorcery to prevent concubines from giving birth to boys who were considered future competitors. Some “masters” are benevolent and will treat their children equally and not differentiate between his wives and concubines.
- One woman was sold by her father, who had also sold her sister before her (in 2007!). Talamt Adafor was 17 years old when she was interviewed and was still a concubine. This even though the sister who had convinced her to accept her lot as a concubine ran away to marry the man of her choice.
- The man who was interviewed Adafor Wadossane considered the practice of concubinage contrary to Islam. In fact, the report seems to associate it with Touareg forms of enslavement.
What I read
Vereecke Catherine (1994), “The Slave Experience in Adamawa : Past and Present Perspectives from Yola (Nigeria)”, Cahiers d’études africaines, vol. 34, n°133-135. L’archipel peul. pp. 23-53.
Paul E. Lovejoy (1990), “Concubinage in the Sokoto caliphate (1804–1903)”, Slavery & Abolition, 11:2, pp 159-189
“Wahaya: Domestic and sexual slavery in Niger”, A report by Galy Kadir Abdelkader and Moussa Zangaou