History Nigeria

Squad goals: Kawaye

Friends can make or break you and one of the major themes in “Baba of Karo: A Woman of the Muslim Hausa” is just how important bonds between women are. Baba gives us a glimpse into the complex social constructs that went into these bond friendships, there’s jealousy and betrayal, but there’s also support.


A kawa is “your special girl-friend” (kawaye is plural) and women have several throughout their lives. Interestingly, what seems to count first in establishing bond friendships was beauty, or handsomeness as Baba put it. Basically, you see a girl whose looks you like (and is around the same age as you are), then you ask her to be your kawa.

And like with marriages when girls become kawa, they exchange gifts; gifts of liking and gifts of friendship. Bond friendships between women had “nothing to do with men”, who have their own forms of bond friendships but on as large a scale as women have. Below is Baba’s account of one of her first kawa.

“[Matan Sarki] was nine years old and I was nine at that time, too. When we put on our best clothes and went to the market, our mothers looked at us and saw that we were both handsome, so they said it would be nice to make us kawaye. Since I was already living here in town, I bought ten kolanuts and some perfume and henna and I called my younger sister and gave them to her to take to Matan Sarki’s mother who had married our ‘father’. They gave her the gift-bearer’s dues, a small share of the gift she had brought them.

The following Friday, Matan Sarki sent her younger sister to bring gifts to me. There we were, then when the Great Festival came round one friend would get out her money and buy oil and perfume and henna and kolanuts and take them to the other, so that she could dress her hair for the Feast.” (p.56)

Baba had four kawaye when she was an adolescent. Another account:

“Kande lived near the market, when we went to the market we used to see her, the daughter of the sellers of salt. One day she said ‘Do you like me?’ I said ‘Yes I like you’. I said ‘Kawa?’ she said ‘Kawa’. There was no more discussion, we liked one another…I had been seeing her for a long time, then the day that desire came we became kawaye.” (p. 57)

In the biography, Baba boasts that none of her kawaye were ugly.

Things to do with your kawaye

Before she married, a girl would often go to the market with her kawaye during the day and at night, they would go dancing.

In a prime example of how women hustled back in the day, unmarried girls would travel together to trade and make money. Bands of women, some up to 30, would travel from one village to the other, buy foodstuff (for example yams, groundnuts, sweet potatos), make food then go to sell them at the market.

This shows the level independence girls as young as nine had. These trading expeditions meant girls were away from their hamlets for a couple of days. All profit made from trading belongs to the girls. Want to guess how they spent the profit they got from their trading? On their kawa and dancing.

“…at night you danced and gave the praise-singers money, you danced and gave the drummers cloths*. Next day you would go to your mother and say ‘I haven’t any money, I spent it all on the praise-singers!'” (p. 62)

As you’ve read in my earlier post, when one kawa got married, her friends would escort her to her husband’s home. Another thing kawaye do is sneak out to watch karuwai (courtesans) dancing bori.

Spending money on your kawaye

This has already been mentioned above but I’m dedicating more to expand on the gift-exchanges. One very fascinating aspect of kawa is how similar establishing this bond friendship is to establishing a marriage. The process starts first with a woman sending a messenger to the woman she wants to be her kawa. The first gift is the gift of friendship; a bottle of perfume, twenty kolanuts, and powder. The kolanuts are shared with the household and kin, just like with marriage gifts. If the other woman likes the initiator, she send back a gift of liking. The bond is established by the women meeting to greet each other.

Kawaye also exchanged gifts during the Feasts. One would buy two chickens, a calabash full of rice, salt, onions, locust-bean cakes, a calabash of kolanuts, a bottle of oil and sending them to her kawa so that she “should eat good food”. The other replies by sending money so that her kawa could get her hair and nails done (henna for the hands and feet).

Like with courtships, the money a woman gives her kawa doubles but here instead of with each market day, it’s with each ceremony. So if there’s a ceremony in her kawa’s compound and she sent 4 shillings, her kawa would send 8 shillings when  it’s her turn to have a ceremony in her company.

Kawaye as a grown woman

Baba had different kawaye as a girl and then as a married woman when she moved to another hamlet. Interestingly, Baba mentions “having” kawa for long periods suggesting that at a time they stopped being kawaye. As adults, kawaye would take care of each others children, “her daughter is my daughter, her son is my son”.

There are other bond friendships but this post is lengthy enough. I can’t elaborate more that this; while kawaye are women of similar age, there are formal relationships between a younger woman and an older woman. Yayan rana-kanwar rana isn’t as balanced or as recipocral as kawaye. Here the older woman, yaya acts more like a mentor to her kanwa. The yaya gives her kanwa gifts and the kanwa does things like grind corn for her yaya.

So women have many friends of different kinds but Baba advices against this because “you cannot really like so many people”. Women who have too many kawaye have to deal with quarelling and jealousy.

“Between different kawaye of the same woman, there is jealousy and quarrelling as there is between co-wives.” (p. 201)

When a woman saw her kawaye arguing due to jealousy, she pretends not to notice and doesn’t stop them or intervene. The fact that her kawaye are fighting because of her shows that she’s liked. Talk about unhealthy relations.

Next week, I’ll share an excerpt from “Baba of Karo” on the perils of bond friendship.


*Back in the day, women would take off their clothes and offer them to the drummers, Baba describes women running away when they ran out of clothes to give.


  1. This is such an interesting post. I’m glad I’ve encountered this kawaye trend in so many African cultures.

    I realise as Nigerians (or maybe this is an African thing) women and men lead such separate lives so maybe it’s natural that women had such intimate lifelong relationships. And maybe that’s also why Nigerian men seek to sever such relationships (the dreaded “My husband said I shouldn’t keep unmarried friends”) to completely isolate their woman and maintain control over her.

    Sadly, I have no squad even though I’ve always thought it would be nice. It’s lonely out here.

    1. Do share which other cultures you’ve encountered the trend in.

      I’m biased so I think the separate lives thing is actually better. And it makes sense that some men would want to harm a woman’s bonds outside the marriage. I never got that thing about not having unmarried friends once you get married.

      I’m rooting for you and that you find that squad soon.

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