Nigeria’s Balaraba Ramat Yakubu: Translating Injustice Into Inspiration

In News by Dennis Abrams

Turning her own story into women’s rights advocacy, Nigeria’s Balaraba Ramat Yakubu is the first female Hausa-language writer to be translated into English.
Image - iStockphoto: Peter Hermes Furian

Image – iStockphoto: Peter Hermes Furian

By Dennis Abrams | @DennisAbrams2

‘An Obligation to Society’
Balaraba Ramat Yakubu is a woman who was pulled from primary school at the age of 12 to marry a stranger, a man in his 40s, as reported by Femke van Zeijl at Almost two years after the marriage, Yakubu was sent back to her father’s house and has become one of northern Nigeria’s best-known writers, the first female Hausa-language author to be translated into English.

Balaraba Ramat Yakuu. Image: Worldreader

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu. Image: Worldreader

As the 57-year-old novelist tells van Zeijl, “If you know where I came from, you’ll realize how much I have fought.”

Yakubu used the experience of her first marriage in her novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila? (Who Would Marry an Ignorant Woman?), published in 1990. At the end of the story, the character Abu, like Yakubu, refuses to be a victim, using education to forge a better life.

Yakubu attended primary school only because her mother sent her there in secret. Of her grandfather’s 80 granddaughters, she was  the only one who went to school. And when her father learned about it, he married her off.

After her first marriage ended in divorce and she was returned home, Yakubu persuaded her father to enroll her in classes in knitting and sewing. But what she didn’t tell him was that those courses were part of a center for adult education, where she learned to read and write in Hausa, the language of northern Nigeria’s largest ethnic group. “Only my mother knew,” she told Al Jazeera. “She helped cover for me when my father asked where I was.”

Again her father learned the truth, and again, he married her off. It was obvious though, that she had “learned too much to fit into the role of the obedient wife.” Always asking questions, always reading the newspaper and looking up words she didn’t know, she was too much of an independent woman to please her new husband. Three years after the birth of her son, she was, again, sent home to her parents.

This time, on her return home, she was confident enough to tell her father that she planned to continue her education. And this time, he agreed. “Maybe because he’d grown older, he was now much softer. That was my hallelujah moment,” she said.

Yakubu began teaching other woman. And writing. After publishing her first novel in 1987, she received letters threatening her and her children. Religious leaders preached against her. But she persevered.

In the Al Jazeera feature, van Zeijl writes:

Femke van Zeijl

Femke van Zeijl

“As a female Hausa writer, Yakubu is seen as one of the pioneers of the ‘soyayya’ genre. These romance novels (soyayya means love) written by northern Nigerian women, have become very popular among female readers in that part of the country. At every market in Kano, stalls sell these books and female customers – from veiled schoolgirls to grandmothers – can be seen browsing through the books…

“Experts describe Yakubu’s style of popular fiction as transcending the level of the general soyayya novel, but for a long time, only readers of Hausa could enjoy her work. This changed in 2012, when Indian publisher Blaft translated her second book as Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home. This made her the first female Hausa writer to be translated into English, and since then, she says, she has not been able to keep count of the number of journalists and researchers who have come to see her to discuss Hausa literature.”

“These days, I’m fortunate: When people see my name on something, they want to read it,” Yakubu says.

“When I write, I feel lifted. I grew up with a strong father whom I could not confront. My books gave me a window to express myself.

“I write my stories as if I was in your house, or at your neighbours’. Women recognize them. I feel I have an obligation to society to tell those stories that otherwise would not have been told.”


About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.