A new novel explores the dilemma of working African women struggling to maintain a happy family while building a career
Breaking the stereotype of the northern Nigerian woman as a passive, non-assertive creature is a difficult task indeed. A long period of silence on the writing scene has created the impression that even the educated women in the north, especially among the Hausa-Fulani Muslims, are submissive and unquestioning. Little surprise, therefore, that when Zaynab Alkali’s novella, “The Stillborn,” was published by Longman in the 80s, attention was focused on the northern women. Ironically, even though Alkali is a Muslim she is not of the Hausa-Fulani stock.
Ever since Alkali’s pioneering work was published, however, many more women have been published in the north. One of them, Nana Aishatu Ahmad published two collections of poems, “Vision of the Jewel” and “Voice from the Kitchen” containing variegated themes that demonstrate her capacity as an emerging strong voice on the literary scene in the north. She might not have attracted much publicity probably due to the “unpopularity” of poetry books in Nigeria. But now she is back with a novel titled “The Twist,” which has just been published.
Mrs Ahmad was appointed a Commissioner in her native Gombe State only yesterday. Until then, she was the Dean of Faculty of Languages at the FCT College of Education, Zuba, Abuja. Born in Gombe, she graduated from University of Maiduguri with a degree in English Literature and obtained M.Ed. (English) from University of Jos. She has taught at Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi, and Federal College of Education, Gombe. “The Twist” is her first published novel.
The novel tells the story of Amina Bashir, a beautiful woman caught between devotion to the sacred vows of love and marriage and the violent rejection of some insidious sins that wreck marital knots. Amina was madly in love with Siraj, a hardworking civil servant, when she was in secondary school. She rebelled against her father’s wish, who wanted her to marry a tycoon, insisting that Siraj was the person she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. She even attempted suicide when the marriage was just about to be consummated with Alhaji Ganima, the local champion. Eventually, her wish was granted and she married her heart-throb.
The marriage seemed to have been made in heaven and everything looked set on remaining happy ever after. Amina and Siraj began to raise their own children. They had moved to Abuja where Siraj had secured a job with a federal ministry, and Amina had become a senior staff in an international NGO. Things became awry, however, when Amina discovered to her horror that Siraj was becoming unfaithful to her. Feeling betrayed, she moved out of the house, taking her children along. For years she buried herself in her work, which provided opportunities for globe-trotting, believing that she had bid goodbye to the marriage that had suddenly become a nightmare. But then the elders of her home town, at the behest of the emir, waded into the crisis. A reconciliation ensued at the emir’s palace. A deeply penitent Siraj, who had experimented with marrying some other women but found they could not measure up to his first wife’s qualities, reunited with Amina. The duo promised to hold onto each other for better or for worse.
The story may appear simplistic on the surface, but it is really a tale that runs deep through the African psyche. It reflects the tension afflicting many modern marriages, especially those where the wife works in an office just like her husband. Working African women have been helping to change the traditional perception of the fair sex as weak and unexpressive. Amina’s rejection of the comfort of her household emanates from her sense of independence, which only a good education could confer. A successful worker who travels abroad on behalf of her NGO and rubs shoulders with men in various endeavours is too important to trample. She saw the denigration of her marital chastity not only as a slap on her treasured womanhood but also a slight on her sense of humanity.
Amina strikes one as a rebellious character – first against her own father who tried to yoke her with traditional practices and impose a husband on her, then against her husband whose romantic antics were camouflaged as an attempt to earn for himself a second wife. She also rebuffed the elders’s effort to reconcile her with her husband until she was ready to dictate the terms. A comparison with her mother Shumo is inevitable here. Shumo is of the old school, seeing women in their traditional role of men’s followers in all cases and never questioning things. Even though she was against the proposed marriage between her young daughter and old Alhaji Ganima, she could not bring herself to oppose her husband stoutly on the matter. And even when the marriage almost hit the rocks, she tried to placate Amina and make her accept Siraj once again warts and all. Amina, a thoroughly modern woman, used rebelliousness as a counterbalance to the men’s retrogressive attitude towards women.
There are other sub-themes in the book, such as respect for elders (for example, Amina giving up her defences when the emir intervened in the crisis of her marriage), forced marriages in the north, girl-child education, the role of international non-governmental organisations in development projects in Africa, maternal health (Maryam’s giving births to so many children because she did not further her education or acquired office work), the extended family structure, etc.
The book is well-written, with the story flowing effortlessly. The author has proved that she can write prose as well as she could write poems. Her diction is simple but punchy, gripping the reader and imposing a sense of urgency in knowing what’s next in the various sharp turns and “twists” in the tale. An aura of poetry pervades her choice of words and use of phrases, a proof that the poetess in her isn’t very far away when she writes. Save for about two typographical errors, it would have been said that the work is flawless.
One notable weakness in the story is that the author did not go deep in exploring some of the themes in the book and developing some of her characters. It would have been good to develop the character of both Amina and Siraj instead of using them hurriedly to convey a rather all-important message that modern working women in Africa will no longer be pushed around by their men.
The book was published by Informart Publishers Limited, Kaduna. Its finishing and packaging were handled professionally in terms of the overall design, choice of colours, cover illustrations, etc.
No doubt, this is an important contribution to Nigerian literature in English. It should be read by anyone interested in the development of society through the betterment of the women’s lot. Educational institutions, government ministeries and parastatals, NGOs, the general reader, etc., would do well to read The Twist.
The implication of a story such as this is that it would provoke the much needed debate over the social structure in Hausa and or Fulani society where traditional practices are intricately embedded and rampant, not only in village life but in the big cities as well. It should also encourage other women to come out of their closets and tell their stories, the stories of African women. No one will tell their stories if not them. And there are too many of those stories waiting to be told.
Hajiya Nana Aishatu Ahmad should not rest on her oars in the difficult art of writing. God has given her the talent to write, shine and excell. She should, therefore, utilise it in the service of casting light on the various practices that hold African women back. By holding women back, no society would develop because women are the bedrock of national survival. Creative writers like Mrs Ahmad are the pregenitors and torchbearers who should show the way.