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Beverly Blow Mack and Jean Boyd
One woman's Jihad : Nana Asma'u, scholar and scribe

Bloomington ; Indianapolis : Indiana University Press, c2000. xv, 198 p.

How I “Found” Asma'u

Asma'u, daughter of Shehu ɗan Fodiyo, is best known by her name and honorific: N ana Asma'u. She has been famous throughout West Africa for more than 150 years, although very few people are able to describe exactly what she did. Like all other British expatriates in Nigeria, I had no knowledge of her when I landed on that country's shores in 1955 as a newly recruited woman education officer in the British Colonial Service. I was posted to Katsina to teach at the Provincial Girls School. The girls, who ranged in age from eight to twelve, had been drafted in to provide future entrants to the only girls' secondary school in the north, which was situated five hundred miles away in Ilorin. The history we taught was about the coming of the Europeans. Even at secondary-school level, the textbook in use, The House of History, was the same as that being used in English grammar schools in the 1930s, it being deemed “reactionary and lacking in vision'” to study indigenous or Islamic history. This was patently wrong, but no one did anything. All around us there was evidence of layers of historical development which we teachers knew nothing about. In 1963, when I found that children were being taught about David Livingstone in the nearby school, I thought it was time to do something, so I collected stories about Katsina history. My mentor was the Wali of Katsina, Alhaji Muhammad Bello, who translated Arabic documents for me.
It quickly became clear that all paths led to Sokoto as far as nineteenth-century history was concerned, so when we returned to live there in 1967, I started to quarry the history of the area, without knowing any Arabic but with a fair degree of fluency in Hausa. I was a total amateur. The watershed historical event of the region was the Sokoto jihad (1804-30), which had been led by Shehu Usman dan Fodiyo. What set my imagination going was a visit to the site of the Battle of Tabkin Kwatto, the turning point of the jihad, and the victory likened by Asma'u's father, the Shehu, to the Prophet Muhammad's victory at Badr. I did not know these things when I got into a Land Rover and motored down corrugated roads and along field tracks to Kwatto. In the simple unroofed mosque I saw the stakes which the victors had driven into the ground in 1804 to ensure that the place was never forgotten.
I found this exciting and wanted to write about it. I wanted the children I was teaching to know and value their past. Anxious to learn more, I asked one of the teachers at my school, Sidi Sayuɗi, now a qadi (judge), if he could translate a short paragraph from a book called Infaq al-maisur by Caliph Muhammad Bello. This led to our decision to translate the whole of Infaq into Hausa, a project which would in turn lead directly to my involvement with Nana Asma'u.
However, we quickly ran into difficulties. There were no maps with the text, and we didn't know with any degree of precision where many of the places were; here we are not talking of major towns but rocky outcrops, tributary rivers, watering holes, ancient abandoned villages and campsites. Over a two-year period we visited the places mentioned in Infaq using transport usually provided by the present Sultan, Alhaji Muhammad Maccido, who was then Sarkin Kudu of Sokoto. He also informed people of our coming, which meant we were welcomed.
It was a fascinating thing to have done, and it certainly could not be done today in the same way because roads and dams have changed the countryside. Our hosts were always the local dignitaries: they provided the accommodation, food, and informants. We sat on mats in halls lit by kerosene lamps listening to old men's recollections, climbed precipitous hills to reach walled fortresses, crossed swollen rivers in leaky dugout canoes, drove deep into the Saharan fringes to view Dutsen Zana, the Hill of Disappearance. Over one Christmas the entire family became involved when we journeyed for days to reach Tafadek, where there are hot springs in a desert place and where the Shehu had lived for a year.
During the whole of this time I knew only a little about Nana Asma'u, but I did become a student of her descendant, the famous Waziri of Sokoto Alhaji Dr. Junaidu. Waziri Junaidu took a personal interest in the translation of Infaq and made the final corrections in the typescript. We met with him on numerous occasions in his house and it was there I asked him about Nana Asma'u. I told him that I understood that she had written five poems in Arabic and requested that he lend me copies of them. “Five?” he queried, “Are you sure?” He left the room to return holding aloft a gafaka, or goatskin satchel, which contained his collection of her works written on old yellowing paper. There were not only the poems in Arabic but all the rest written in Fulfulde and Hausa. He gave me the gafaka, which held many more than five poems.
I photocopied the works and returned the originals to the Waziri. I then had handwritten copies made of each document, a process that took months. Meanwhile I learned to read Arabic script and then acted as an amanuensis, writing down in Hausa roman script the translations from the Arabic and Fulfulde and the transliterations from the Hausa poems which had been previously written down in Arabic script. The experts—the Waziri, Malam Sidi Sayuɗi, and a Fulfulde-speaking scholar called Malam Muhammadu Magaji—worked with me on this project for years. We made no attempt to translate the texts into English, concentrating instead on the complex issues of interpretation. To understand a poem about a battle, one had to know what the rules of engagement were. To find out about these, the books written on warfare by Asma'u's contemporaries had to be studied, books which one couldn't get from a bookshop and which were in Arabic. To explore matters such as medicine, gender relationships, tax collection, the structure of government, and friendships took years, especially as we all had full-time jobs: the Waziri was the Sultan's chief adviser, Malam Sidi was a judge, Malam Muhammadu had his business interests in cattle, and I was a head teacher.
I had the privilege of visiting the room where Nana Asma'u lived and worked, and of interviewing scores of women who were descended from the students she taught in the period 1830-63. I rode on horseback where she had ridden in 1804, listening to the wind blow through the guineacorn and watching the birds by the river. With a donkey to carry my loads and two brilliant horsemen at my side in case of disaster, I reached my destination at Alkalawa believing that I had seen something of what she had seen.
On one of his visits to our home, Professor Murray Last advised me to register for a higher degree in England and promised to supervise my studies. In 1982, before leaving Nigeria finally, I submitted a master's thesis on Asma'u. We left Nigeria for the last time in 1984. After that I developed ten radio programs about Asma'u which were broadcast in Hausa on the World Service of the BBC, and my thesis was published in 1989 as a biography of Asma'u called The Caliph's Sister. Meanwhile, I had been seeking a suitable home for my collected research notes and papers on Asma'u. The archivist from the library at the School of Oriental and African Studies came to assess the collection and accepted it on loan. In addition, I took the documents to the British Library, where I had the manuscripts copied as microfiches, each work alongside its Hausa translation. One microfiche found its way to Yale. At this point I believed that I had done all I could with Asma'u's papers. What I have written here tells how I “found” Nana Asma'u. What happened after that is another story involving Beverly Mack.

Jean Boyd
Penrith, Cumbria
June 1999

In 1979 I went to the city of Kano in northern Nigeria on a Fulbright doctoral dissertation grant to find, record, and analyze Hausa women's praise poetry. The male royal praise poets had by then been the subject of M.G. Smith's anthropological studies, but no one had studied the women praise poets of the Emir of Kano, presumably because few Western women had embarked on research in the region, and it took another woman to mingle with Muslim women in the privacy of their homes. In the research process the study broadened to include not only extemporaneous praise poets of the royal court, but also literate women poets versed in the Arabic literary tradition. In the course of graduate studies I had learned of Shehu Usman dan Fodiyo, but heard nothing of women's roles in nineteenth-century Hausa-Fulani history. It is extraordinary that nothing had been published about Nana Asma'u or her works either in Nigeria or here in the West. In Nigeria Asma'u was a legendary figure among women, but there were no books about her; she had no official place in history. As an outsider, I had no means of knowing about Asma'u, so I was surprised when an indignant Hausa woman poet challenged, “How can you ask whether I have my husband's permission to write? Did Nana Asma'u ever need her husband's permission? Go to Sokoto and find Jean Boyd. She will show you Nana Asma'u!”
Obedient to her command, I made the pilgrimage across hundreds of miles of arid savannah to find a twentieth-century woman whose name had come to be linked with Nana Asma'u's. In Sokoto I asked the first person I saw where I might find Jean Boyd. I was led to her house, and introduced myself When I said I had come to look for Nana Asma'u, Jean said I was about a century and a half too late, and invited me in for tea.
Our conversation that day revealed that Jean had been working with Asma'u's poems for many years, and despite the immense corpus of the works, progress had been made. There were, after all, many years of historical context to be accounted for, and several layers of language to unravel in the transformations of the works from one language to another. Asma'u was multilingual, like all accomplished scholars of her time. She had composed works in three languages: Arabic, Fulfulde, and Hausa, all written in the Arabic script. British colonial rule in the twentieth century brought roman script to the region, and since the 1920s Hausa has been written in that Western form, while Arabic and Fulfulde remain for the most part rendered in Arabic script. Jean's translations of Asma'u's poems were from the Arabic script versions of three languages into what had become the predominant language, Hausa, and the predominant form, roman script. As a researcher I was simultaneously thrilled and dismayed at this discovery. I was thrilled to know of Asma'u's works, and dismayed to have no access to the works as a comparative reference. I had a strong intuitive sense of Asma'u's relevance to the contemporary poets I was studying, and was eager to compare their works with Asma'u's. Since I knew Hausa, I was able to read them, but the “Asma'u papers” were still in Jean's home, and still inaccessible to scholars. The best I could do was to encourage Jean to make the material available by publishing it somehow. Her long residence in Nigeria was coming to an end, and my research drew me back to Kano. I saw Jean and her husband once more before they left for England in 1984. By the mid-1980s Jean had donated her notes, comprehensive catalogues of the works, and the poems themselves to the University of London School for Oriental and African Studies archives, where they were stored on microfiche. By 1986 I was teaching at Yale University, and had just procured Jean's microfiche catalogue of the collection. Microfiche are themselves difficult to read, and the massive body of material was nearly impossible for the uninitiated to use effectively. Trained in literary analysis and historical method, I wanted to use the works themselves, in versions as close to the originals as possible, as a context for my own work on contemporary women's poetry. I contacted Jean and asked whether she would consider putting them together in a volume of English translations with extensive notes for those newly acquainted with Nana Asma'u. The thought of translating to English thousands of lines of poetry that span Asma'u's entire lifetime was daunting. We both realized it would be a formidable task, taking a number of years, but fortunately we had no idea of the true magnitude of work that lay ahead. To this end, I wrote and won for us a collaborative grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities that supported us both for two years, full-time, to work together on the project now published as The Collected Works of Nana Asma'u, 1793-1864 (1997). That 753-page book represents what Asma'u held in her head. Whenever the computer crashed (I wore out a hard drive on this project) and we wanted to give up, we realized that quitting was not an option our subject would allow; Asma'u's fortitude and productivity in the face of hardship inspired or shamed us into seeing the project through to the end.
Ironically, when that book was done, we realized we still were not finished, because the text and translation tome was insufficiently accessible to average students. We felt they should know about Asma'u, a nineteenth-century Muslim woman who defies contemporary stereotypes, and who typifies the ideal of the scholarly, pious, and yet worldly woman. Asma'u helped transform her society by resocializing war refugees and contributed significantly to the Islamic reformation process in northern Nigeria. She has long been a role model for Hausa-Fulani women, and continues to be to this very day. Her formidable literary legacy represents but a portion of the effect she had in reshaping her society. Now at last, I am able to return to the Hausa women's poetry of my dissertation and put it into historical context, understanding why and how contemporary Hausa women poets consider Asma'u their mentor.

Beverly B. Mack
Lawrence, Kansas
June 1999