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Abbas M Dalhatu (‘Yan Dakan Kano)

Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim

Mr. Chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen
I’m greatly humbled but honored to be asked to speak at this year’s MATA conference. Initially I was supposed to speak in the presence of HH MSII. So, I became a bit apprehensive. This was because I’m ever in awe of HH – his intellect, his eloquence and his remarkable recollection of historical facts. But I eventually comforted myself that it was only by speaking before the masters and cross-fertilizing different perspectives that new grounds are broken, and new ideas are born. At any rate, previous engagements have graciously kept us apart.

The theme of this year’s conference has me twisted in knots. In my view, the picture of “The 21st Century African Woman” is frankly still a work in progress. Considering hindsight is 20/20, we should have been talking about “The 20th Century African Woman” with a view of contemplating the degree of course-correction needed to achieve the better, even if not, perfect picture of The African Woman today.

Be that as it may, I broadly researched the topic and its intricacies and found the picture of the African Woman in everything from Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s “Lady” to Professors of high science and arts; from being the victims of wars and oppression to presidents of Republics. The African Woman has been thriving despite walking through the proverbial valley of the shadow of death. For me, there was a recurring decimal. The struggle of the African Women is still, more or less, the same. It is a struggle for survival of the fittest. Those with exceptional talent – inherited or learnt, and tenacity would usually survive and even excel. Yes, nature and the circumstance of birth do play a huge role but the total number of those affected by these natural endowments is relatively small.

Winnie Mandela with a clenched fist. Photo: Gille de Vlieg

At the end, my research led me to a homecoming of some sort. The forces and events that shaped the lives of the African Women and even determine the ultimate narrative are still the same from precolonial to the present-day Africa. It is just that the 21st Century African Woman has far more portent tools at her disposal than hitherto. These forces and events and the tools sculpturing the picture of the African Women ultimately created an amusing albeit very personal picture – the picture of my mother. It was a bit unsettling, but I followed my facts. I eventually developed the courage to seek my mother’s kind permission to share her story with you today and she obliged. I therefore seek your indulgence to share this (my) very intimate story as a means of provoking further discuss and introspection about what it means to be A 21st Century Woman relative to the situation of women prior.

My mother got married @ 14. This was an enormously unfortunate but not entirely unexpected turn of events. She had ambition and her ambition was not unfounded. She wanted to go to school because her older sisters had gone to school. In 1947, her father, my grandfather who from all indication was a social liberal, had allowed his daughters to go to a girls’ boarding secondary school. Indeed, my aunties going to school was gradually becoming a pleasantly surprising clan tradition. However, the enrollees of 1953 happened to be the last. For my grandfather died in December of that year and my aunties didn’t return to school from that Christmas vacation.

Then, my uncle inherited my grandfather’s realm and family. My uncle is a social conservative and a deeply religious man. He, like my own father, believed that the honor and glory of daughters is best achieved and protected by the institution of marriage – and the earlier the better. So, my uncle married off his sisters and his daughters as soon as they were about 13 or when they simply looked biggish. I still wonder which category my mother fell into, for she was more than 13 but was not exactly biggish.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my father; I love my uncle and I love my grandfather. They were good men. Using them as examples is definitely not to malign or judge their actions ex-post. I totally and honestly believe their actions were based on their understanding of the dynamics of their time and guided by love and compassion for their daughters.

Howsoever, my mother went off to marriage hood ruing the missed chance to go to school. But she promised herself that if she had a daughter, she would definitely go to school. It is worth noting here that my mother was fairly literate – she could read and write in Ajami (using Arabic letters) and in Hausa (using Latin letters). So, she had best tales-by-moonlight party in town where she read the likes of Magana Jari and Shehu Umar to bewildered but very attentive village kids. My mother learnt tailoring and eventually acquired a sewing machine from the wife of a Dutch missionary who ran a missionary hospital in the nearby town. So, with a standard 4 education and a little set of skills, marriage and village life weren’t too bad for my mother, she had explained to me.

Three years on, my mother had a child – a girl. She was elated. It was the 1960s and times were changing. Girls going to (secondary) school was gradually becoming the norm. The routing was simple – girls, like boys go to Makarantar Allo and learnt to read and write in Arabic; they then study the early chapters of the Holy Quran before enrolling in primary school. They then went to secondary school, after which most of the girls then got married. The lucky ones got a chance to mix marriage and higher education, but for the vast majority, that was as far as formal western education went.

Ladies and gentlemen, to my mother’s horror, my sister – my mother’s first born was becoming big-boned and biggish. Remember my father had the same set of social understandings as my uncle. And hard as my mother tried, my father married off my sister at 13 with just a primary 7 education. My mother was crushed. But she prayed! And prayed!! And prayed!!!

My mother prayed that The Good Lord would grant her daughters – and by then she had 4, the chance to get an education as a means of self-fulfillment and an avenue to better life for her descendants.

My father died in 1975. He was mourned and is still missed

My mother, then young widow with grown kids did the extraordinary – she went back to school, a girls’ boarding school in her late 20’s. She didn’t mind that some of her schoolmates where younger than her own kids; she overcame the stigma of a widow and even the latent pressure from family that assumed it was disrespectful to the memory of our late father to go back to school among kids.

My mother eventually graduated with a Grade II teacher’s certificate and got a teaching job. I honestly think my mother going back to school – a boarding school, must have been the most monumental event in my young life. Because I just lost father who was extremely fond of me, and my stepbrothers all had their mothers to comfort them, but mine I was told had gone back to school. My little imagination even wondered what the purpose of school was, since I was sure my mother was not doing it for the money – she was a princess who could have had most of what she could materially aspire to by simply (re)marrying into wealth or power. Whatever her reasons, I simply resigned to the fact that SCHOOL WAS VERY IMPORTANT.

Anyway, back to my sister and how her luck and my mother’s prayers and practical examples shaped her own life: first my sister’s husband turned out to be a passionate believer of girlchild education. So, he encouraged his new wife to join night school, which was about the only place for a married woman to continue her education then. Against all odds, my sister earned a GCE O/L certificate; then joined a college of education and earned an NCE, which got her a teaching job. But either my sister was not satisfied, or my mother’s prayers were still portent. And so, with the encouragement of her husband, my sister applied and got admitted to ABU for a part-time degree program which was the only practical option considering marriage, kids and a job to take care of. Six years on, the degree program was done.

I think Abba, my sister’s husband, was part of The Good Lord’s mechanism of answering my mother’s prayers for her daughters. For, he yet again nudged his wife to consider a graduate degree which would open more career opportunities. So it was that my sister went back to ABU for a master’s degree – now in addition to a marriage, career and kids, there were even grand kids.

To cut the long story short, we woke up one day and realized that my mother’s dreams and prayers have been completely and comprehensively answered – she eventually got an education; her first daughter, against all odds got an education and is now a senior lecturer at a college of education; her second daughter got an NCE and later a university degree and is a principal at a girls school – to my mother’s utter delight; her third daughter just bagged her Ph.D. and heads a Federal Government Agency; her fourth daughter is a university lecturer and is billed to complete her Ph.D. next summer; and yours’ sincerely has also managed to a couple of degrees so as not to disappoint.

But the crowing of all these struggles and the fulfillment of my mother’s prayers is actually in the promise of the coming generation in her family. My oldest sister’s daughter just graduated from medical school and qualified to practice medicine last week. My two other sisters also have daughters in final year medical school. This is of course not counting the boys who are also excelling very well in various fields already.

I have always wondered what my mother would have achieved if she had the opportunities of the 21st century woman:

a. What if she had a more accommodating brother and she was allowed to go to school and even exercise a degree of self-determination?
b. What if institutions like the National Open University existed then?
c. What if the internet and the chance for distance learning existed then?
d. What if the opportunities to learn new skills, crafts and trade existed then?
e. What if she had the opportunity to conference with people of like minds to share and exchange ideas as we are doing now?
f. What if………

I think the answers to these questions and the opportunities and freedoms they provide are basically the difference between the 21st Century African Woman and women of yesteryears. I think the 21st century African Woman is advantaged that she, more or less, controls her own destiny in terms of opportunities. It is what she makes of those opportunities that still baffles historians.

History would seat in judgement of the 21st Century African Woman and wonder if she learnt or even inherited something, or anything from the struggles of her mother: for the tattoos and tribal decorations of the yesteryears African woman has been replaced by glam, tummy-tuck and breast augmentation surgeries; the will and the struggle of yesteryears women have sometimes been a bit tainted by the lack of will and easy surrender to the luscious enticement of dishonorable men. Indeed, the 21st century and the resultant globalization has largely resulted in a westernized understanding of progress, advancement and achievement. The objectification and sexual exploitation of women has cast a very long shadow of the current and future picture of the African Woman.

I cannot and must not complete this speech without citing examples of pioneer African women whose image has and would continue to shape the narrative about the African women going into the next century:

  • Nana Asmau bn Fodio was an 18th Century School and women’s rights activist
  • Hajiya Mariya Sanusi – Mother, Merchant, Philanthropist
  • Hajiya Umma Bayero – A mother and a pioneer 20th century businesswoman
  • The Jakara Girls – 4 sisters that from inner city Kano who are now all medical doctors
  • All the professional and incredibly educated and talented who stay at home to give care
    and train the next generation.
  • My conclusion, therefore, is that the picture of the 21st Century African Woman is the picture of the 20th Century African Woman and her struggles against incredible odds but now with CHOICE!

  • Indeed, if you take away CHOICE from the equation, the picture I see is that of my dear mother in her struggles for self-determination and the fulfillment of her dreams. The struggles of my mother and many hardworking African Women of yesteryears is encapsulated in the story of her Granddaughter, the daughter of my sister – my sister who, despite incredible odds got educated, got a job and saw that her young, unmarried daughter is already a medical doctor. Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you the picture of the 21st Century African Woman.

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