History Nigeria

This was supposed to be about divorce

When people around me are going on about how divorce is such a problem in “our generation” and modern times, I’m quick to object. 🗣🗣🗣 Divorce has always happened! Basically, wherever women had the right to divorce, they took it. In the region that is now Nigeria, it was easier for women of certain ethnic groups to get divorces in the past than today.

If being married was a rite of passage, everyone had to go through it to become adults in the eyes of society. Perhaps it was practical then that after a marriage, people could divorce and move on with their lives. In Hausa society, as narrated by Baba of Karo in the biography “Baba of Karo”, girls typically married when they were between the ages of 13-14. And typically, they went on to marry two times or more. Baba herself was married three times iirc.

In Baba’s case, her first marriage was agreed to under duress. She was pressured into marrying her cousin Duma when she didn’t want to and in fact wanted someone else. Before her forced marriage, Baba had the support of her Aunt Rabi. However after Aunt Rabi was captured and sold into slavery, Baba was married to her cousin. After Aunt Rabi was rescued and came back home, Baba took the opportunity to get divorced.

How Baba divorced her first husband Duma

The first step was running to Aunt Rabi’s house and announcing that she no longer wanted to live in the hamlet (where the farms were) but in the town.

“My ‘parents’* told me to go back to him, but I refused. Then my husband’s ‘parents’ came and said I must go back. When I still said I would not go, then all the elders, men, and women, came to Aunt Rabi’s compound and assembled in the entrance-hut.”

“Some of them said ‘ She must have patience and return’, others said ‘Since she dislikes the marriage it is better that they must part’. Then they sent for me, I came in and they said ‘You must put up with it, you must have patience; your husband is your kinsman, you must go on with your marriage’. I said ‘No’…

Duma was there, it was he who has said ‘I want her to calm down and come home; send for her’. I came and knelt down, and he asked me ‘What have I done to you? Be sensible and come back. You know I want you, stop being angry and come home.’ I said ‘No’.

He wanted me very much, but I didn’t want him. I desired a son of the blacksmiths, Maigari of the South Gate. When I was a girl he used to give me money on market-days; he wanted to marry me, but I refused so that my parents should not be angry with me and beat me. I had promised him that I would come, I said ‘Be patient, I will not remain there’.”

Aunt Rabi called out the family for forcing Baba to marry Duma, ‘Now I have come back and she is not going to stay married to him’. After the family wahala, it was to the Chief’s compound where the divorce was finalised.

The part that’s kinda about divorce but more about cheating

As I read through “Baba of Karo” looking at my notes for other mentions of divorce, I came across two juicy stories that I just had to share. In sharing stories of how women who came to the town to meet the Chief for divorces sometimes slept with other women’s husbands, Baba started talking about why women cheat on their husbands.

Married women can only go to other men when their husbands are away–like Tambudi and Sarkin Tandu in Zarewa; he went away, then she hastily washed her body, she washed her face, she sent a message to her lover and he came to fetch her to the compound of his friend.

Just as they were about to enter the hut by the door of the compound, she heard talking inside the hut. It was one of those huts with two rooms in it, you know the kind. When she heard voices she stopped–it was the voice of Sarkin Tandu and another woman!

She heard them talking inside the hut, she went in and caught them, she seized her cloth and her kerchief, Sarkin Tandu rushed home and hid in shame. He didn’t ask her what she had been doing there, she said ‘I heard you, I heard you, today I caught you both!’ He didn’t know she was there with her lover.

She had had three children by him, she didn’t break off the marriage; she didn’t take him before the Chief of Zarewa; there were her children, one of them his and the other two which she had brought with her from a previous marriage. She kept his secret for him.

The way houses were built in this region, there were separate entrances into a compound for different genders. The entrance-hut was at the forecourt of the compound and because there were separate entrances, it was easy to sneak in and out.

There was Dandada, a young man–we lived in the same ward in Zarewa–his wife Abu slipped out into the town, and when he looked in her hut and didn’t see her he also went into the town, he went to a certain compound, he peeped into the hut and saw her by the light of the lamp, with her lover. He said ‘Get up and we will go home’. She was terrified. He pulled off the man’s gown, he seized his blanket, he put them together and took the case to Sarkin Zarewa.

It was her own young man whom she wanted to marry, but she had been taken as a bride of alms to her husband; he knew she really wanted the other one. He took the man’s gown to the chief. Sarki caused them to be sent for, they were brought to his entrance-hut for judgment; the man was bound, but the woman was not. The chief passed judgment and fined her lover thirty shillings, which he paid.

Her husband whipped her, he beat her so that she was ill and couldn’t get up. When she got up she went to break off the marriage, she said she didn’t wish to live in that compound, Zarewa forbade her to marry her man so she married Nasamai, the son of my Aunt Rabi; she became pregnant and miscarried, when she had miscarried she left Nasamai.

Then she married the man she wanted and Zarewa did not prevent it, she had married another before she had married him. Then she became pregnant, she had a boy; when she had weaned him she had a girl–a most beautiful girl. She had three children with her lover, she is still there in his compound; she is happy with him, they are marrying off their children now.

Her kin forced her to marry against her will, that was what caused all that; she has stayed with the man she wanted right up till now.

Baba’s explanation for why women cheat? “…whether women like their husbands or not, they will go to other men; give them a little money and they feel pleasant, or they want to deceive their husbands.”

*’Parents’ in quotes because here it refers to not just her biological parents but their siblings so essentially aunts and uncles are considered ‘parents’ too.


    1. Thanks!

      Nope, Islam was established at this point. However, at the same time the traditional religion (bori worship) was more commonplace as well.

  1. “If being married was a rite of passage, everyone had to go through it to become adults in the eyes of society. Perhaps it was practical then that after a marriage, people could divorce and move on with their lives.”

    This is really interesting! So you had to get married to become an adult, but you didn’t have to stay married. I imagine there are lots of societies where this is still sort-of the case, even if it’s not made explicit.

    1. “So you had to get married to become an adult, but you didn’t have to stay married.”

      Exactly! I really wonder about other societies like this too.

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