History Nigeria

A lasting legacy

A Month in Western Sudan
Beginnings: Degel and the Hijra

Nana Asma’u was just one among other women who wrote in her time. Five of her sisters, and her cousin were writers and their works remain today but there may be countless others whose works have been lost in time. Nana Asma’u’s name is remembered today because of her prolific work for the Sokoto Caliphate and the reforms she made to education.

She may not have started writing until later in her life, Asma’u’s first work is dated 1820 when she was 27 years old. Most of what Asma’u wrote were elegies or educational poems. She wasn’t just writing for the fun of it, each of her poems had a purpose whether it was mourning the dead or turning the people towards Islam. In fact Nana Asma’u’s writing has been described as the “ideological jihad” that accompanied the battles. Asma’u spoke several languages and wrote in them too. Fulfude was her mother tongue and her poems in the language tend to be more emotional. Her Hausa poems were written to educate as Hausa was the language of the masses. She was fluent and wrote in Arabic, and also spoke some Tamasheq.

Nana Asma’u often wrote with her husband Gidado. Husband and wife collaborated often. For example both Asma’u and Gidado wrote about Bello and dan Fodio after his death however they focused on different topics. Gidado was more fascinated by karama, knowledge beyond the physical world etc while Asma’u focused on character, piety and contribution to society. There was a lot of cross-referencing, translating each others works, borrowing themes from other manuscripts and adding to them. As such poems were rewritten, reworked, lengthened and translated from Fulfude to Hausa or Arabic to Fulfude. It was not uncommon for people to exchange poems too.

In 1836, Bello wrote a book on women Sufi leaders and intellectuals drawing from Safwa al-Safwa, a book written by ‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn al-Jawzi in Baghdad. Sokoto was urban in many ways. It was home to travellers and traders from other parts of the Sahel including Arab bakers and merchants. Manuscripts from North Africa and Makkah reached Sokoto through the trans-Saharan trade. Safwa al-Safwa chronicled Sufi women in the Middle East and Bello used it as a template to document Sufi women in his part of the world. Asma’u then translated Bello’s book, which was written in Arabic, to Fulfude and Hausa adding her own bits and retracting others.

Nana Asma’u’s character is described as strong, frank and direct but her elegies reveal her pain. When her beloved brother Bello died she wrote;

“When I try to sleep I turn restlessly in grief
as I remember Bello
I pray God will reunite us”
This was completed to be
“I toss and turn
And return again to Allah on whom I rely
I weep as I say my prayer beads
When I try to sleep I turn restlessly in grief
as I remember Bello
I pray God will reunite us”

In other poems, she made political observations and recorded the battles she witnessed. These poems were recording history and were aimed at boosting morale. Take this poem Asma’u wrote in 1844 to celebrate the defeat of the Gobir Chief Mayaki, who had joined forces with the Tuareg Dan Mari against the Caliphate.

“Dan Mari fled in great haste not stopping to glance backwards
He was anxious not to get lost.
He did not know the road that he took
As for Mayaki, he fled without so much as a horse, without pausing for a moment
The entire force was destroyed including all the turncoats”

Household duties
Earlier I suggested that women like Nana Asma’u had time to write because they were not burdened by household tasks yet this may not have been the case. A little note on the lives of women in the region; women were heavily involved in trade. They made money through spinning thread from cotton and selling it. According to that traveller, Hugh Clapperton, elite wives in Sokoto (or Soccatoo as he wrote it, he was Gidado’s guest in 1824) were, “occupied in directing female slaves in their work, cooking their husband’s food, cleaning cotton, dressing hair, teeth and eyebrows, sending slaves to market to sell cotton, grain and various foodstuffs”. Consider motherhood too, Nana Asma’u was a mother to five sons but likely adopted or raised others. So in some ways, the uwar-gida (first wife, head of the household) was still occupied in running her home. Yet, I am not entirely convinced that the work done by the uwar-gida and that done by the slave or concubine is comparable.

mossi traders
Young Mossi selling cotton at the market. Dated 1891

Religious instruction
Nana Asma’u was occupied herself with integrating concubines into Sokoto’s Muslim society. Captured women were uneducated and were devotees of bori. However as concubines they lived with Muslim families, were servants to Muslim wives and gave birth to children who were free and would be raised Muslim. “The Satan named bori”, as Nana Asma’u referred to it, was considered a religious threat to religious conformity.

In 1839, Asma’u wrote Tabshir al-ikwan which listed Quranic remidies for a list of illnesses including mental ones. In the past when women would have gone to the Inna*, the head of bori adepts and the King’s sister, seeking advice on issues they now consulted with Nana Asma’u. Where bori would have been used to heal mental and physical illnesses**, Asma’u relied on the Quran, Sufi beliefs and indigenous herbal medicine. Issues ranged from black magic in polygamous homes to requests for divorce.

Nana Asma’u’s main concern was educating women, from the concubines to those in rural areas who she thought of as needing education the most. According to Boyd, this makes her an outstanding Islamic and African educationists whose name demands more than the slight notices. Asma’u began the yan-taru movement in the 1840s. She developed this yan-taru system which involved recruiting women to educate other women under Nana Asma’u’s authority. These bands of women were actually young girls and divorced or widowed women who were free to travel as married women were often in purdah and had their movement restricted.

Among the women a leader (or jaji) was appointed, there were also modibos who were sort of regional heads. Under the guide of their jajis, women would trek to met Nana Asma’u bearing gifts such as butter, honey or cloth which Nana Asma’u distributed to the sick and disabled. Once they reached Sokoto, they learned poetry from Nana Asma’u, transmitted questions sent by women who could not travel and returned home with new ideas.

In her lifetime, Nana Asma’u was a literary icon among both men and women. She was a respected political advisor and influential teacher. Nana Asma’u’s influence increased with age and it shows no signs of fading anytime soon. When she died in 1865, Asma’u had disciples through the Caliphate and was apparently known as far as in Morocco and Mauritania. She is one African woman from history who is still clearly remembered today. The room she lived in still stands in Sokoto, schools and dormitories are named after her. Across the Atlantic Ocean, a group of Muslim African American women Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania have drawn inspiration from the yan-taru movement.

What I read
Jean Boyd & Beverly Mack (2013), Educating Muslim Women: The West African Legacy of Nana Asma’u, 1793-1864
Jean Boyd (1999), The Caliph’s Sister: Nana Asma’u, 1793-1865, Teacher, Poet and Islamic Leader
Mariah Ahmed (2015), Nana Asma’u, Bori, and Colonialism: Education and Women’s Roles in Northern Nigeria, 1820-1930

*The Inna held a very interesting position. Variations of women rulers existed throughout the Sahel and like I’ve suggested, throughout West Africa. While she mentored bori adepts, the Inna was considered the mother of all townspeople in general and the chief of women in particular. She arranged marriages for members of the royal family. She employed women officials who helped her in collecting taxes. She acted as regent when her brother the Chief/King was out of town. The Inna was also present on the battlefield. She dressed in clothing associated with men; trousers, boots, a turban. The Inna was not someone to play with …for more on this, check back next week.
**Sterility, depression, mental illness were usually healed through bori. Interestingly this is similar to Mami Wata worship in parts of Igboland but that is another post for another day.

Image sources
Featured image: Nana Asma’u’s “So Verily”, scanned from Jean Boyd & Beverly Mack (2013), Educating Muslim Women: The West African Legacy of Nana Asma’u, 1793-1864
Au marché de Satiri. Jeunes vendeuses de coton, Memoire Vive


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