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Review of Muslim Women Sing


By Karin Barber

Muslim Women Sing. Beverly B. Mack. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2004. pp302. ISBN 0-253-21729-6 (pb). £17.95

This book combines a substantial introduction to a little-known dimension of Hausa verbal art - the written and oral compositions of contemporary women poets - with the presentation of thirty-five long texts (in translation) by six leading women poets. Recordings of their performances are also presented in an accompanying CD.

This is a good format, well suited to the subject matter. The descriptive opening chapters present much illuminating information about the poets, their background, the social and ideational context in which they live, and the poetic traditions within which they work. In the process, Mack quietly dismantles a number of wrong assumptions: starting with the idea that there are virtually no women Hausa poets (the book testifies to a rich, long-standing and prolific tradition); the idea that in the patriarchal Hausa culture, secluded women lack opportunities for creative expression; the idea that because of lack of western-style education Hausa women belong in a traditional zone untouched by the transformations of modernity. She shows that the ‘private’, domestic space is the heart of the Hausa Muslim world and that women’s seclusion (always intermittent and partial) does not prevent them from engaging fully with national, political and moral issues. The chapters are interspersed with biographical profiles of the poets discussed in the text. These show how diverse are the backgrounds, interests, and levels of education of these women and how dedicated they are to their art. Hauwa Gwaram, with several years of primary schooling as well as Qur’anic education imparted by her father, was a public servant who wrote many of her poems as educational texts for Kano State government courses. She moved in educated circles and was a member of the prestigious Wisdom Club of Kano (led by the noted intellectual and writer Mudi Sipikin). Hajiya Maizagardi, by contrast, was a traditional praise singer in the court of the Emir of Kano: the daughter of a drummer, from a rural background, she performed extemporaneously for her royal patron and other notables.

The poems themselves are delightfully translated, revealing a great range and variety of style, form and subject matter. Most of them (thirty out of thirty-four on the CD) were written texts, recited or sung by the poets from a script, in performances that often betray hesitation and self-correction. The remaining four, performed extemporaneously, are not surprisingly more energetic and vital as performances, and in some cases are enlivened with percussion or string accompaniment. But there is no clear-cut distinction to be made between the oral and the written. As Mack shows in her introduction, oral and written traditions in Hausaland have long been so intertwined, and shifts from one to the other happen so continually (a point also well made by Graham Furniss in Poetry, Prose and Popular Culture in Hausa, 1996), that a binary oral/literate distinction would obscure more than it would reveal – even though the value of literacy is fervently upheld by the poets themselves. It would also be inappropriate to associate the extemporising poets exclusively with traditional values: one stirring oral text, by Binta Katsina, is addressed to the “women of Nigeria” and exhorts them to compete with men for white-collar jobs; another, by Maimuna Choge, addresses university students with a richly ironical commentary on the value (and uselessness) of book learning.

The poems offer rich material in which to explore the tensions and accommodations between Islam, Hausa moral traditions, and national development and modernisation projects. Hauwa Gwaram, whose twenty-four poems dominate the collection, writes on dress, drugs, debt, the transition to right-hand driving, the introduction of decimal currency, Universal Primary Education and Abdu Bako’s Zoo. In one of her most entertaining poems, on the War on Ignorance, she tells of one Nomau who wandered about “Bringing misfortune upon himself because of ignorance” (194). His private affairs were exposed because, being illiterate, he had to dictate letters home to a professional letter-writer; when he went to sell his produce, he was cheated because he could not read the scales; he wanted to relieve himself, but went into the women’s toilet because he could not read the sign; he missed his train because he could not tell the time; then he caught a train - but the wrong one, because he could not make out the destination… Blundering through this world transformed by literacy, Nomau has only himself to blame: “He brought it all on himself by not fighting ignorance” (195).

Some readers would probably have liked to have the Hausa text as well as the translation, though the CD - with recordings of the full text of all but one of the poems – provides a good alternative. For most readers, the book will serve as an accessible, attractive and evocative introduction to a world of poetry previously beyond our reach.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 68 (2006), pp. 108-109]

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