I write to change status of women in Northern Nigeria – Balaraba Ramat Yakubu
Balaraba Ramat Yakubu is one of the pioneers of Hausa romance literature, popularly known as ‘Soyayya’ novels. Yakubu, a sister of late military head of state, General Murtala Mohammed, has written nine books and owns several companies. Here she shares her vision for women, how she overcame criticism from religious leaders, and how writing has changed her life.
Bookshelf: You were one of the earliest authors of what came to be known as the ‘Soyayya’ Hausa literary movement or Kano Market Literature. How did you start writing?
Balaraba Ramat Yakubu: In early 1982, I enrolled in for Certificate course at the Bauchi Adult and Non-Formal Education Institute. We were given an exam to write a story for a short stage drama. My story was chosen as the best. My instructor advised I take writing seriously. Later, I developed this story, Kyakkyawar Rayuwa, 1991 to become my fourth book. I became so engrossed in thinking and writing down ideas. I had several challenges first on what to write about. I thought about writing on culture and tradition, history, and about education generally. I had these conflicts about what I wanted to write. Finally, I thought that as a woman, my writings will be more important if I write about women and their social status in Northern Nigeria at that time. In a word, the troubles many women go through silently will be brought to light. I therefore finally decided to write in this area.
Yakubu: At primary school – before I was married off-I loved reading. I can still remember a day we were asked what our ambition was by a female teacher and I said I wanted to be a teacher.
Bookshelf: After you published your first novel in 1987, religious leaders preached against you and you even got some threats. How did you overcome the experience?
Yakubu: Yes. Those were very, very uncomfortable times. I was, or we were, misunderstood by a section of the religious establishment then. The conservatives of the old school flatly rejected our ideas and labelled us moral terrorists of sorts. They said we were refined by the West to brainwash and demoralize their children into disrespecting their choices for them. We narrowly escaped being mobbed but were nonetheless stoned at Mandawari Quarters of Kano in early the 1990s.
But then, how could an uneducated lady brainwash people? How? However, sections of the society saw the importance in what we were doing and were helpful with advice.
Personally, it was difficult for me but I took it up as a challenge. I wanted to be a role model for others so I worked hard not to fail. There were bumpy times with the religious scholars and censorship, but with all that staring me in the face, I got across my message. Over the years, more than a hundred female writers emerged in Kano. I organized women to establish the first all-women writers association -the Kallabi Writers Association (KWA).
Bookshelf: Girls attending school back then in Northern Nigeria was not popular. How challenging was it for you?
Yakubu: After my first marriage, my mother resolved to support my education. She secretly enrolled me in an adult literacy class and anytime my father asked where I was, she gave the pretext she sent me on errand to one relative or the other. I learnt to read and write in Hausa and English – though I found English difficult – in these informal classes. Again, I got married and everything stopped. However, I learnt knitting and sewing which became a source of income for me then.
Bookshelf: How has your experience as a child impacted your stories?
Yakubu: My story has kept propping me up to keep fighting for women to have productive lives. In all my books, I have tried to make my readers appreciate the importance of girl-child education. Personally, I believe that education is a very vital element in the life of a woman and that of a society. Once a woman is educated, she is emancipated. She can live a fruitful life. I equally believe that good parental mentorship and support is key. It makes one determined to succeed.
Bookshelf: In the novel ‘Wa Zai Auri Jahila?’ (Who Would Marry an Ignorant Woman?), published in 1990, a 13-year-old Abu gets pulled out of school and married off to a man more than three times her age. What part of your past inspired this story?
Yakubu: This is similar to my story to some extent. At any rate, this was the practice in that period – girls being forced into marriages and at the end, many of these marriages failed. This is not to say there were no success stories at all. In fact, some have blossomed over decades. But the undisputable fact is that this led to many troubles for women.
Bookshelf: You are the first female Hausa-language author to have her book translated into English. How did this happen?
Yakubu: Professor Abdulla Uba Adamu, the current Vice Chancellor of the National Open University of Nigeria, introduced the Director of Blaft Publications, Rakesh Khanna to me. I gave them the right to translate the book after agreeing on terms of royalty.
Bookshelf: What specific objectives do you hope to achieve each time you write?
Yakubu: My writing objectives are to reform my society and change the social status quo of women in Northern Nigeria. And I can see this unfolding speedily.
Bookshelf: How many novels have you written so far?
Yakubu: I have nine titles so far. But I am also a script writer for various organisations – BBC, Population Media Centre, and also for the Hausa film industry. I am also a Hausa movie producer. My recent movie project, ‘Juyin Sarauta’ (The Royal Throne Ascendancy) is one of the highest budgeted films in Kannywood. It depicts early 20th century Hausaland palace in northern Nigeria. One interesting thing about the story is that it shows that women are the real power axis in Hausa society. They shape the political space and enthrone Kings. I therefore recommend that Her Excellency, Mrs Aisha Buhari, the Wife of the President, and all the state first ladies and women ministers and directors to watch women in action hundred years back.
Bookshelf: In your translated novel, ‘Sin is a Puppy that Follows You Home’ (Alhaki Kyukuyo) you told the story of Alhaji Abdu and his long-suffering wife, Rabbi. What triggered the birth of the novel?
Yakubu: I want to show women in such conditions that learning and engaging in a trade is very vital to their survival in a patriarchal society like northern Nigeria. Sometimes, this serves as security in their respective futures in marital homes and when separated. Women can engage in food and catering services to take care of themselves and their kids, and also provide employment for others.
Bookshelf: Is there any plan to do a film version of the book?
Yakubu: ‘Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home’ has already been filmed by FI-LAPS in 1997. They bought the story and I was the Costume Manager in the production.
Bookshelf: Have you ever considered writing something historical, perhaps in memory of your late brother, former military head of state, late General Murtala Mohammed?
Yakubu: No, because I do not write biographies. It is not my line. I write fiction stories.
Bookshelf: What do you do aside writing?
Yakubu: I work with Murtala Mohammed Foundation as the Director of the Centre for Trauma Counselling, Kano. I am also a business woman trading in general merchandise. I have three companies, Ramat Productions Limited for feature film production, Ramat General Enterprises Limited for books and general trade, and Mukaddas Nigeria Limited. I also give consultancy services to two state governments and other organisations.
Bookshelf: What words of encouragement do you have for aspiring female writers in Nigeria and the north in particular?
Yakubu: I urge them to carry on and work studiously. It can be difficult, financially and otherwise, but that should not discourage them. That mirror they have in their minds must be transformed into doorways. As always, my door is open for mentoring. My books have formed research topics and subsidiary theses in the research of students at different levels of higher education in Nigeria and abroad. Alhamdulillah.