NOT TO BE MISSED
"Baba de Karo. L'autobiographie d'une musulmane Haoussa du Nigeria" (Baba of Karo. A woman of the Moslem Hausa) , an autobiography written by Mary F. SMITH
Translated from English into French by Geneviève Mayoux.
Paris: Plon, 1969. 354p.
ISBN: 2 7500 0148 X.
Ce compte rendu en français
To devotees of early African social history, the autobiography of Baba of Karo is a treasure chest. The author was born in the small town of Karo at the end of the 19th century, well before it became part of the British Empire, let alone Nigeria. Her book provides much detail on a bygone generation. Baba's upbringing in a Hausa Muslim family, her marriages and interactions with hundreds of relatives, slaves, bosom-friends, co-wives, praise-singers, tam-tam players and people of all ages and conditions in large compounds is just fascinating. Life was tough, hierarchical structures unforgiving, and social etiquette full of constraints; but this autobiography does not dwell on the moral dimensions of social inequalities. Rather it tells of the idiosyncrasy of womens' experience and the story of a community, both in the commonality and diversity of its people's expressed responses to the challenges of their time.
One of these challenges was definitely England's active engagement against slavery that came about when Baba of Karo was a teenager. Born to a rather affluent land-owner family, she lived through the progressive emancipation of slaves and the return to the fields of her relatives, bereft of their slave labour. This shift, however, did not change greatly the power structures and it had little impact on Baba's life, except for the fact that a turbulent era was coming to an end. During her childhood, families and slaves lived within the safety of high mud walls, but as many anecdotes show, high walls were not always sufficient to keep bandits, pillagers, slave-raiders and Mai-Sudan's men at bay. Women and children were kidnapped, villages ransacked and victims sold into slavery. Security only increased as slave-traders lost their markets following England's abolition of the legal status of slavery.
At first, except for manumission, England's domination of the region did not have a major influence on people's beliefs, traditions and social intercourse. More money was channelled towards the new masters by way of taxation, and pennies complemented the traditional cowries on local markets (300 cowries for a penny, she says) but, by-and-large, the main thrust of social interaction did not change. Gender roles in particular stayed the same: "Boys follow their fathers, they learn to farm and recite the Koran; girls follow their mothers, they spin and cook" (p.54). Koranic scholars and teachers retained their influence, heads of families remained all-powerful; so too the local dignitaries in charge of settling differences and family feuds. Furthermore, an incredibly complex set of customary usages, conventions and proscriptions continued to rule every aspect of daily life. Men and women of all ages were subjected to these demands, but as in all things human, social mores were not always in tune with people's dreams and behaviour. Women's motley reactions to their subservience is but one good example, and widely illustrated in this autobiography, which deals extensively with women's issues from a woman's point of view.
One of Baba of Karo's earliest memories, for example, alludes to the couple of years she spent with her grandmother A'i when she was about four or five years old. The concept of a nuclear family did not exist in Baba's environment and an aunt, sister or grandmother adopting the child of a relative was a common practice. And like thousands of other children of her age, Baba would have been happy to grow up with her grandma. Yet it was not to be, and her sojourn in her compound turned out to be a dreadful experience, not only because she was abruptly separated from her mother, but also because grandmother A'i was a very abusive character who beat and scolded her constantly, gave her little food to eat and made her work very hard. It took two years for her mother to convince her husband that he should bring Baba back home.
It did not take long before Baba reached another critical moment, that is her marriage at an early age. That gave rise to a complex exchange of ritual gifts and money between families all described in their minutiae by the narrator. In principle, the agreement of the bride-to-be was sought and "if [a girl] refused to be married to the man her father had chosen, they tried to persuade her; but if she kept on refusing, they dropped the matter" (p.99). However, upon turning the pages, it becomes increasingly clear to the reader that Baba and her contemporaries had little choice but to obey their father and to agree with family elders: "Allah does not like argumentative women" (p.148), and for many it was a sacred duty not to argue with one's father.
Given half a chance, teenage girls would have married their sweethearts rather than men they did not like; but it rarely happened that way, as brute force was used when fatherly demands failed to persuade their daughter that they had to grin and bear it. As Baba tells of her first marriage: "I did not love Duma, but my 'fathers' said they would beat me, they would tie my legs and beat me again and again, so I said nothing more, I agreed." (p.112). Many survived the ordeal and made the best of a bad situation, but for others, it proved too much to endure and they ran away: Young Hassana, who was given in marriage to an elderly Koranic teacher, runs off twice before escaping to the next town. Gude, the chief's best-loved wife, asks for a divorce after she has been surprised with her lover and beaten senseless by her husband; countless wives leave their compound for an uncertain future because they cannot bear their father's choice, their husband's demands, their co-wives' hostility, or the bullying of unsympathetic relatives. And as they grow older, the list of reasons that bring them to leave becomes longer: old men die, speaking one's mind becomes easier as one grows older, repudiation is common, divorce easily granted by the local judge and, "old fornicators" (p.226), fleet-of-foot, take every opportunity to get rid of an older wife to marry a younger one.
Thus the many husbands many women go through in the course of their lives. Baba will have four, but many will have a good deal more. Baba's co-wife, Salamatu, had been married twenty times when she leaves their compound following an altercation with Baba; and one loses count of her husband's twin sister's relationships. She has a bad temper, is always keen to pick a fight and never stays for very long with the same man: "After she had left Musa, Hassana came back to Giwa and married Tafarki; they spent forty nights together, then there was fighting and beating, the marriage went to pieces. When he had divorced her she married Kantoma, Fagaci's retainer; when they had been thirty nights together they started quarrelling, we watched while he beat her on the road we laughed very much. When this marriage was finished she made another, with Tula at Giwa. It did not last a year: after four months there was a fight and he drove her away. She married Balarabe and in two weeks that marriage was broken. [...] Next was Maiturmi, a trader who was staying at Na Arewa's compound..." (p.169).
Women's response to matrimony is diverse and their interaction with the outside world depends upon their social status and husband's circumstances. The richer the more secluded they tend to be. But here again, a woman's occupations and movements vary according to her marriages and her husband's fortune. Baba's destiny illustrates the point. After divorcing Dama, she married Malam Maigari, a Koranic scholar who she says, "she loved very much" (p.118). She stayed with him for fifteen years, accompanying him during his teaching expeditions while her co-wives remained at home with their children. "In the raining season", she says, "Malam Maigari was at Zarewa, farming; when the corn had been harvested and stored in the granaries, then we would set out, Malam and I and twenty boys... we travelled in a leisurely fashion, stopping at every walled town and putting up in the compound of the Imam... We used to be away from home for about five months altogether" (p.132). But bearing no children to the holy man led to their separation. Her subsequent marriage to farmer and warder of the district gaol, Malam Hasan, did not end in pregnancy either, but it opened a new chapter in her life. Her new husband was "a good man" (p.164), she says. And he was well-to-do. On top of his income as warder, he owned his compound and three farms where he grew grain, cotton and groundnuts (p.182). In line with his affluence, his wives were expected to stay behind the high walls of his concession, and so they did, including Baba. But as Hassan's health began to decline and the income linked to his official duties disappeared, life changed in his compound: "When our husband became ill", Baba recalls, "we were no longer confined to the compound, we went out; when he had been well, he paid boys to fetch us wood and water, but when we saw that he was in pain, we went and fetched the wood and water ourself" (p.211).
Baba's life follows a path determined by the will of Allah and her husbands' fortune. But her submission to Muslim faith does not prevent her from embracing whole-heartedly the pre-Islamic world of bori, the spirits who inhabit every compound and are prone to invade people's minds. These spirits are most important in local beliefs and they cohabit in people's minds with the Islamic precepts. Venerating the Holy Koran does not preclude engaging with traditional rituals as well, and traditional songs and dances are part social intercourse.
In the course of a recent interview, Gabonese author Kaïssa said that the thing she most admired about her grandmother was her talent as a singer, "as everything was expressed through songs" . The same could be said from Baba's reliance on the power of songs to tell her story. They are central to the narration and serve as prompts to jog her memory. There are songs for all occasions, from children sullying the name of grandmother A'i, behind her back: "A'i who scolds, A'i who scolds, A'i who beats, A'i who curses!" (p.48); to friends inviting a famous musician to play his drum: "Ahmadu with the farming drum, For the sake of Allah take out your drum We will go to Saurawa So that we may go and see wealthy people At your house there is farming At your house there is no useless wood Ahmadu with the farming drum" (p.77); Or the local population singing the praise of chief Fagaci who was well-liked by all, from the King to the farmhands: "Allah preserve for us the owner of the land, Allah preserve Fagacin Zaris, Grandson of Gando, grandson of Gando, Fagacin Zassau Grandson of Gando, Kantomati's son" (p.221).
These songs are the building blocks of Baba de Karo's extended knowledge. They also define the milestones of her life and her multi-facetted relationships with significant others over three quarters of a century. And in some kind of paradoxical way, their transposition in written words also provides a powerful reminder of the self-contained power of orality in defining who we are, where we come from and where we are going.
Baba of Karo's autobiography addresses a wide range of topics that include the rituals of weddings, "marriage of Alms", childbirth, formal female's friendships, life in the compounds, tax collection, etiquette, adopted children, family feuds, love affairs, prostitution, etc. The themes are innumerable and hundreds of parents, neighbours, and passers-by are mentioned throughout the book, testifying both to Kano's rich social fabric and elderly Baba's exceptional memory. Few detailed records of the life of African women born before 1900 are available to our generation, and this rendering of Baba's life-story, recorded in Hausa by Mary Smith in 1949, subsequently translated into English and French, is a unique and fascinating portrayal of a Moslem Hausa community of yesteryear .
1. Even if it was a factor of change in unexpected ways: "Formerly boys used to be beaten a good deal, but now they don't do it much in the past a boy couldn't run away from home for fear of wars and slave-raiders" (p.112).
2. Kaïssa. "Le chant de Yaye". Interview of the author, 2011. [http://aflit.arts.uwa.edu.au/AMINAallela_kwewi11.htm Sighted 28 June 2012]
3. Baba of Karo begins her autobiography with her family history, saying: "The grandfather of our grandfather was the chief of Kukawa, a town away to the north in Bornu. When he died, his sons, who were our great-grandfathers, quarrelled because all of them wanted to inherit his title and position. One of them, the Galadima of Kukawa, was made chief of Kukawa and two of the Galadima's half-brothers by a different mother, the Ciroma and the Turaki, left Kukawa in anger and came south to the kingdom of Kano, to Zarewa town, and it was they who built our hamlet of Karo" (p.87). A short review of a book on the history of the al-Kanemi Dynasty of Bornu sheds some light on the kind of troubles that confronted Baba's ancestors in a turbulent 19th century: "La mort d'al-Kanemi en 1837 voit se perpétuer quelque temps la situation de double pouvoir: les Saifawa continuent de régner, mais les successeurs d'al-Kanemi détiennent la réalité du pouvoir. La personnalité des uns et des autres rend la confrontation inévitable. L'épisode final voit le maï Ibrahim s'allier au Wadai contre Umar, successeur d'al-Kanemi, et la victoire de celui-ci qui apparaît comme le véritable représentant de la "nation" du Bornu face la monarchie traître. La "dynastie" des Shehus s'installe ainsi en 1846". "Cahier d'Etudes africaines" 61-62, XVI (1-2), p. 410. [http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/cea_0008-0055_1976_num_16_61_2910_t1_0409_0000_1 Sighted ] 28 June 2012]
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities