‘Who was…?’ a series that explores the African women who pop up in history yet remain mysterious.
I think it was from the ladies of Old Oyo post that I started remarking on the powerful women in West African history. It should come as no surprise that in the Hausa city-states, women also occupied positions of power. Even with the concubinage and enslavement, women slaves could become rulers. In places like Kano and the Sokoto Caliphate, there was a long legacy of enslaved women holding high positions.
Take for example the jakadiya, the slave who was in charge of the harem. She not only managed the needs of concubines, wives, children and other dependants but also took care of guests and their entourage. There were the kuyangi, court messengers who like the “wives” of the King of Dahomey would transmit messages between rulers and their court.
The concubines of the Kano palace were on a whole other level. The Kano palace was built in the 16th century when Islam had reached the ruling family. The palace’s layout was so that women had their separate corners outside the men’s. In the 1500s, the Kano palace was home to “hundreds” of royal concubines and they held a lot of power, apparently because of their fertility. This changed with Usman dan Fodio and the creation of the Sokoto Caliphate but more on that later.
While the Emir’s wives were women with strong political links, his concubines were of his own choosing. Apparently councilors encouraged the heir to be the son of a concubine. They believed that heir’s slave background would help him get along with his counselors as his mother being a foreigner had no local alliances leading to less influence from palace politics.
The royal concubines of Kano were in charge of the granaries. Grain was acquired by the palace both through its own plantations and from taxes which came from near and far away frontier towns. In the earlier years of the palace (1500s and 1600s) grain was a form of tribute. Tribute would later evolve to include cowries. Concubines would organize all grains, then distribute it through the palace. Apparently, the palace could last for almost 165 days just on grain from the granaries.
Grains as tribute meant that the concubines were the ones keeping track of which farms had paid tribute and which ones were late. Their role was so important that an office was created for it, that of the korama. The korama was a woman who controlled grain prices and regulated what went into the market. Like other powerful women in this part of the world at the time, the korama could dress in men’s robes and mantle. She rode a horse and appeared in court to give daily and weekly reports. After the jihad, the position of korama was given to a man.
While the korama worked outside the palace, the mai-kudandan controlled grains within the palace. It is speculated that the mai-kudandan also served as a midwife and pre-jihad may have tended to bori spirits. As with the korama, after the jihad, the concubine who served as mai-kudandan was replaced by a male slave. The jakadu were respected women guards who flanked the king as he walked and guarded the palace, ensuring that everyone who entered was dressed appropriately. They were also responsible for guarding strategic exits and acted as messengers for wives and concubines. Basically, they were a corps of women spies, no you can’t tell me any different.
As you may have already seen, when waves of the Sokoto jihad reached Kano, things changed. The strict seclusion between sexes that was not required in the past suddenly became enforced. The space for women in the palace shrunk and the one entrance in the women’s section of the palace that ensured women could sneak out and do xyz outside the palace was sealed in the 19th century. This was largely because dan Fodio believed that women should be secluded and kept inside the house. As with the korama and mai-kudandan, the jakadu team of women spies were replaced by male jakadu during the late 19th century. Their positions were given to free men who were generally from the Fulani ethnic community.
A “who is…” post wouldn’t be complete without questions. Are you not wondering what other stories exist regarding the powerful concubines? As usual, I have to ask, what are their stories? I’ve read that some of these concubines were free women who chose to be concubines and I wonder why. Also what were the concubines sneaking out of the palace going to do? Yes this is nosy but what sort of business were they conducting? Did they engage in economic ventures outside managing grains in the market? What were these institutions like before Islam reached the region? Can I have just one name of a korama or mai-kudandan and a detailed description of her life? *sigh*
What I read
Anna Taylor, “The Sokoto Caliphate’s Effects on Women’s Social Status”
What I’d love to read
Heidi J. Nast, “Concubines and Power: Five Hundred Years in a Northern Nigerian Palace”
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