Africa History Nigeria

The institution of tsarance

Back to Hausaland and fascinating things I learned reading “Baba of Karo”. We’ve covered marriage, divorce, and cheating spouses, now it’s time to talk about sex. Disclaimer though, tsarance kind of isn’t sex and tbvh, I found the institution slightly disturbing when it hit me how young the girls who participated in it were.

In her biography, Baba mentions tsarance which allowed young boys and girls to be sexually explorative before marriage. Tsarance has been referred to as “sex play just short of intercourse”, “petting”, “cuddling”, “sleeping together” and other similar terms.

With tsarance, young girls and boys would go out at night to dance and play, they would then break off into groups to cuddle, pet, etc in public. Some parents didn’t let their kids go, some kids would sneak out but won’t engage in tsarance, others would sneak out just for that.

Tsarance explained

There were grand events where “chiefs” were chosen among both girls and boys (called Mama and Sarkin Samari respectively). The Sarkin Samari was given a turban by the Chief of the town himself and the children chose titles fashioned after real official ones.

Young boys and girls, along with the Sarkin Samari and Mama toured around the country like with the trade expeditions of young girls. During these tours at night, everyone would be shown their resting places in the forecourt. Then…“Everyone chose the girl he liked best for tsarance. They stroked one another and talked and told stories, then they went to sleep. They don’t do anything more until they get married.”

Apparently, anything was cool unless a girl got pregnant then…wahala. Getting pregnant before marriage wasn’t common according to Baba. If a girl did become pregnant, she’d drink “medicine” (and as a side note, next to this detail I wrote “abortion o!”)*. However, it’s not all rosy with tsarance as some boys would coerce girls into becoming their partners.

Sexual freedom for girls or something darker?

Some white people have written that tsarance was just a way by which Hausa society controlled girls by teaching them to be sexually submissive. They write that a girl can’t refuse a man who insists on performing tsarance with her and that girls who refuse to participate face “severe sanctions”. However, in her narrative, Baba talks about people not letting their daughters participate.

The sources linked in the paragraph above stress that older married men could coerce girls into sex in tsarance. On the other hand, Baba mentions tsarance (that is the tours, night dances and plays) between young boys and girls but also discusses young girls who engage in sexual liaisons.

From what I read, I understood that this was different from tsarance. After all, when sexual intercourse is involved, it is tsaranci (with an ‘i’ instead of an ‘e’).

Apparently, girls who engage in this usually sleep in an old woman’s hut, so when the woman is asleep they can slip out. “Some old women don’t care, they say the girls can go and do what they like, they let them go and sleep with the young men. Others scold the girls.”

In Baba’s words written by Mary F. Smith;

“Old people are the friends of children. Yelwa, my adopted daughter, and the girls with who she is playing often come into my hut, they fill up the hut and sleep; they bring their boys with them. When the old woman is tired of them she drives them out, ‘Run off to the boys’ hut, run off to the boys’ hut!’ Then they all go off to the hut at the front of some compound, they boys and girls all go and they light a lamp, they talk and tell stories and laugh. When they girls get older, some of them become pregnant, but not many; they laugh and joke but they don’t lie together a great deal.”

Then she goes on to discuss girls getting married once they’re 13 or 14** and some being pregnant before marriage.

Still, tsarance as an institution suggests that there was some kind of acceptance of premarital sex despite the boundaries. Reading about tsarance reminded me of conversations with Sugabelly on premarital sex among Igbo societies in the past. Similarly, reading about the Ekoi/Ejagham suggests that they too didn’t frown on premarital sex.

Tsarance today

As you can probably imagine, tsarance no longer exists in Northern Nigeria (even though we can’t say that people aren’t having sex before marriage). It apparently died out around the 1960s yet tsarance and other examples of “sexual deviance” existed in this part of the world even as Islam was being practiced. Ditto the traditional spiritual system of bori.

In “Zina and transgressive heterosexuality in northern Nigeria”, Charmain Pereira quotes an interview with Sindi Medar-Gould and Asma’u Joda (emphasis mine);

There’s very little of it [tsarance] now.… The Adamawa State Women and Law Research,25 when we did it, the older women were laughing at us. They said, “You people that now have the ‘real’ Islam, your life has been destroyed.” They [the older women] used to enjoy themselves.

They were Muslim, the people that I know now have all been Muslims, I mean Islam didn’t just come26.…You know, like a beautiful woman would go home…for let’s say a weekend or for some days, men in that village would come and they’d offer her kola.

The one she picks is the man who’s going to be with her. They know she’s married. They’re Muslims. I mean she’d have a good time with this man and probably she’d even have sex with him. It wasn’t a big deal.

But now that the “real” Islam has come, … a lot of these things have been changed, you now have to be more respectful, you have to stay indoors because you shouldn’t go out, and things like that. Things have changed.


*Apparently, to abort back in the day, girls would drink henna which will cause them to miscarry. “Some tie a kolanut round their waist so that they can sleep with a man and not become pregnant.” There’s even more “medicine” to assure that a woman doesn’t get pregnant according to “Baba of Karo” further proving that nothing is new under the sun.

**To put things in perspective, tsarance started when girls were 9 or 10 years old.

What I read

This article rounds up my posts inspired from reading Baba of Karo: A Woman of The Muslim Hausa by Mary F. Smith. There are a lot of gems in this book but I can’t keep blogging about it forever 😀

I read a number of other sources for this particular post including;

Charmain Pereira, “Zina and transgressive heterosexuality in northern Nigeria”

Paola Tabet, “Impose Reproduction: Maimed Sexuality”

Weimann, G.J. “Islamic criminal law in northern Nigeria: politics, religion, judicial practice”