Kano, Nigeria – She was taken out of primary school at the age of 12 to marry a man in his 40s whom she had never met before. At first, Balaraba Ramat Yakubu enjoyed the presents she received at the wedding and the golden ornaments decorating her new home, but she had no idea what marriage was about.
Today, that illiterate girl who didn’t even know how to boil water and who, one year and eight months after the wedding, was finally sent back to her father’s house in disgrace, has become one of northern Nigeria’s most well-known writers and the first female Hausa-language author to be translated into English.
“If you know where I came from, you’ll realise how much I have fought,” says the 57-year-old author of nine novels.
Resentment resounds in her voice when she speaks of the end of her first marriage. “It still pains me,” she says. “My husband never told me that he loved me, that he wanted me. And then one day someone just came and took me back to my parents.
“He said I was too young. Didn’t he know that when he married a child?”
Yakubu used this traumatic experience in her novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila? (Who Would Marry an Ignorant Woman?), published in 1990, in which 13-year-old Abu gets pulled out of school to be married off to a big-bellied man more than three times her age.
But like Yakubu, Abu does not remain a victim: She finds a better life through education.
The book is a statement against child marriage as well as a plea for girls’ education, something that was not the norm during Yakubu’s childhood in Kano, the largest city in Nigeria’s predominantly-Muslim north. Girls in her father’s family were not allowed a Western education; they were sent to Quranic schools until they were ready to marry – preferably before they had their first menstrual period.
According to a National Literacy Survey from 2010, almost half of the women in northern Nigeria cannot read or write in any language.
The only reason Yakubu attended primary school at all was because her mother had sent her there in secret. At the time, she recalls, she was the only girl among her grandfather’s 80 female grandchildren who went to primary school. When her father discovered it, his response was the arranged marriage.
Her older brother, Murtala, was vehemently opposed to the wedding, but could not stop it. He was the one who had encouraged her mother to send his little sister to primary school in the first place. “My brother had only my best interest in mind,” says Yakubu, who still does not like to talk about his death. Forty years ago, her brother, who was by then Nigeria’s military ruler, was assassinated in his car on the way to Dodan Barracks in Lagos.
Yakubu was 17 years old when her brother died. Until today, she refuses to read anything about Murtala Muhammed’s murder, and she has never visited Lagos’ National Museum, which exhibits the bullet-riddled Mercedes in which her brother was shot. But she misses him every day.
After her first divorce, her mother again became her co-conspirator. Yakubu had pleaded with her father to allow her to enroll for knitting and sewing courses. What she didn’t tell him, though, was that those courses had introduced her to a center for adult education.
So when she went out with her sewing machine, it was actually to learn how to read and write Hausa, the language of the largest ethnic group and the lingua franca in the north of Nigeria. “Only my mother knew,” Yakubu remembers. “She helped cover for me when my father asked where I was.”
In the meantime, she sewed as many baby dresses as she could in order to sell, this serving as an alibi for all the time she spent away from home.
When one day her father found her primary school diploma in her bag, he reacted by revealing to his daughter that he’d found another suitor. Yakubu was 15, but gladly accepted the marriage: She was happy to have completed elementary education and felt she was now mature enough to face a relationship.
Very quickly, though, it became clear that she had learned too much to fit into the role of the obedient wife.
Always reading the newspapers and asking questions, always looking up words she didn’t know, she was too independent for her spouse’s liking. In this marriage, she had her first child, a son, but after three years, she was again sent back to her parents.
When she returned home, she announced to her father that this time she was insisting on continuing her education. And he accepted. “Maybe because he’d grown older, he was now much softer. That was my hallelujah moment,” she says.
At 18, she started her studies at the Kano State Agency for Mass Education, where she would eventually teach Hausa to other women.
Able to provide for herself and with a fulfilling career, Yakubu still hadn’t given up on matrimony. But in Hausa society, a single adult woman is not respected, and she tried marriage two more times and had five children in total. Her fourth and final marriage, which she describes as a happy one, ended when her husband decided to take a second wife. “I knew what I wanted now and refused to take the abuse that I’d taken before,” she explains.
Now, she is no longer looking for a man, even though she knows how the community perceives her.
“A happy divorcee is viewed with suspicion. People describe me as strong-headed because I don’t need a man.”
The bookshelves in her modest two-bedroom bungalow display all nine of her novels – well-known titles, some of which are even listed in the secondary school curriculum.
“These days, I’m fortunate: When people see my name on something, they want to read it,” Yakubu says, leaning back in the couch in her sitting room and rearranging her white chador.
Her popularity did not come overnight. After she published her first novel in 1987, religious leaders would preach against her, and she would receive threatening letters denouncing her and her children, which she described as “the most hurtful thing you can do to a mother”