Sitting sideways on the crossbar of the bike, Hamsatu gripped the center of the handlebars as her father, pedaling hard, navigated the winding, narrow roads of Maiduguri. They were on their way to Gamboru Jr. Primary School where Hamsatu would begin her education.
The morning sun, shining through the feathery leaves of the neighborhood’s many neem trees, cast dappled shadows on the hard-packed route. Looking down, Hamsatu saw the steady rise and fall of her father’s black boot — part of his uniform as an inspector at the local slaughterhouse. She smiled at the sight of her own small feet, dangling in red rubber sandals, bought especially for this day.
She’d been looking forward to it ever since she’d overheard her father telling her mother that it was his decision that Hamsatu — their firstborn daughter — attend school.
“Why?” Hamsatu’s mother had asked. “Why can’t she just stay at home, like I did?”
In the Hausa tribe Hamsatu’s mother was from, girls were typically given in marriage at the age of 12 or 13. For women in that time and place, book-learning seemed superfluous for a life spent cooking, cleaning, bearing and raising children. Many children.
“The world is changing,” Hamsatu’s father answered. “Our daughters will go to school.”
Hamsatu was aware of other differences between her mother and father. Her father, a member of the tight-knit Kanuri tribe that made up nearly the entire population of Maiduguri, was the son of a renowned Islamic scholar, and an Islamic scholar himself. He grew up in the home where he now lived with his wife, children — Hamsatu, the oldest — and his aging mother, who was also a Hausa. Theirs was a compound gifted years ago by the emir to Hamsatu’s grandfather because of the depth and breadth of his knowledge of the Quran.
Hamsatu’s father was fluent in the language of the Kanuri, but at home they all spoke Hausa. It was the only language the little girl — now on her way to a school full of Kanuri children — knew.
Hamsatu lifted one hand off the handlebars to pat the head scarf that covered her hair, intricately plaited in a style called zanan yawo, unique to the Hausa culture. She leaned lightly against her father’s chest. His arms, firmly on the handlebars, enfolded her like a hug.
She looked up at him. The hue of his skin, the set of his eyes, the line of his lips — all so much like her own, people often said. Unlike most in their community, neither Hamsatu nor her father bore the tribal markings on their cheeks of the Kanuri tribe. Scars that told her world, “If you don’t have these, you don’t belong.” His mother, who’d lost several children early on to sickness and accidents, couldn’t bear to have her youngest child — Hamsatu’s father — put through the pain of that tradition.
Hamsatu loved her father, even when he scolded her if she neglected to say the daily prayers he’d patiently taught her in accordance with the Quran. Or when she mischievously snuck some extra bites of the kola nuts he’d set aside. Or when she overfed and accidentally killed a passel of newly hatched chicks, playmates of hers in a make-believe tea party gone wrong.
Up until now, Hamsatu had had few playmates. Her world had essentially been circumscribed by the thatch fence that surrounded the family compound. And her grandmother was extremely protective of this child who’d been named after her.
“Come, Chiwuna, sit,” she’d say, using a term of endearment for Hamsatu that meant “namesake,” and patting the cotton cover of her bed. “I’ll tell you a story.”
“Yes, Na’am,” Hamsatu dutifully answered, settling in for another re-telling.
The happy thought of finally having friends her own age fueled Hamsatu’s excitement this morning. And when the bike slowed through the shade of the mango trees near the entrance to the school, Hamsatu felt her heart racing.
With her father signing the admission paperwork in the school office, Hamsatu was escorted by a teacher to the first grade classroom — a structure made of mud bricks and roofed with corrugated metal, much like Hamsatu’s house.
The familiarity of that bolstered her a bit as she shyly made her way into the room, past the stares of the 20 or so children already there, sitting on the ground. And as she sat down to join them, a collective murmur coursed through the room, followed by muffled laughter as a boy with scarred cheeks and forehead — like most Kanuri children — mockingly whispered, “A Hausa girl is here. A Hausa girl is here.”
And even though Hamsatu didn’t understand all the Kanuri words he was saying, she heard the term “Hausa” and felt the derision with which it was said. That moment marked the beginning of a kind of covert hazing of the Hausa girl by the children she had once hoped would be her first friends.
At recess no one played with her. She ate her lunch alone. Kids taunted her about the millet mixed with yogurt they knew to be a traditional Hausa staple, a dough called fura. “Dough-eater,” they sneered in low tones as she walked by.
Hamsatu told no one what she was enduring. Not her teachers. Not her parents. She didn’t want to continue going to school, but she knew how important education was not only to her father, but also to their religion. The Quran, her father had explained to her, begins with the words, “Read. Read in the name of the Lord who created.” The Prophet Muhammad himself emphasized the importance of learning. “Seeking knowledge is the duty of every Muslim,” he had said.
Every night before another school day, Hamsatu struggled to hold in her tears until she was sure the grownups were sleeping.
Hamsatu came to know all too well that her Kanuri schoolmates viewed her — with her smooth, unmarked face, her completely covered hair, and her Hausa accent — as some sort of alien, some sort of “other.” But what could she do, except do her best to get good grades and make her father proud?
One day, as Hamsatu sat in the classroom, quietly working to do exactly that, a boy popped up and snatched the scarf off her head, revealing for the first time the plaiting of her Hausa hair, so different from the braiding that peeked out to frame the identifying scar on the foreheads of the Kanuri girls.
The teacher came rushing when she heard the children’s hoots, shouts, and cruel laughter spilling into the courtyard.
“Enough!” she said, standing in the doorway.
The commotion stopped.
“What’s going on here?!”
The children squirmed in their places, sliding their eyes in Hamsatu’s direction.
This time her tears didn’t wait.
“Who did this?” the teacher, seeing Hamsatu’s bare, bowed head, asked.
All eyes slowly slid in the direction of the perpetrator — a boy named Loskurima, the tell-tale scarf crumpled beside him.
“I see,” she said ominously. “OK, then. For now, get back to work, children. We’ll deal with this tomorrow.”
The next day, a bell was rung calling the entire student body to proceed to the courtyard for a morning assembly. The headmaster, teacher, Hamsatu, her father, and the boy who took her scarf stood before the gathering group of about 100 students and faculty.
When everyone had finally shuffled into place, the teacher talked about what had happened in her class the day before.
“Now, do you see this person here?” the teacher added, gesturing to the man in the black boots standing beside Hamsatu.
The children nodded.
“He is her father,” she said. “And he is also my brother.” She used the term “brother,” not literally, but to make the point that they were of the same tribe. Kanuri. In effect, she was telling the children that Hamsatu, the daughter of a Kanuri man, was also a Kanuri, in spite of her Hausa hair and everything else.
“So, if anyone here ever dares again to call Hamsatu a ‘Hausa girl,’ that student will be flogged.”
First, Loskurima was ordered to apologize publicly to the Hamsatu.
“I’m sorry,” he squeaked, eyeing the whip made of hippo hide the headmaster was holding.
Then he was told to drop to the ground and lie face to the sand.
All eyes in the crowd watched the supple rod rise. They heard it whistle through the air and land with a thwack on Loskurima’s lower back. Then again. And again. Six times, in all.
Hamsatu watched solemnly as this all played out, flinching ever so slightly each time the whip met its mark.
Things gradually got better after that. But the incident and its implied message would stay with Hamsatu all her life.
The teacher didn’t say, “Children, let’s do our best to welcome this stranger — a Hausa girl — into our midst. Let’s share with her what we know to be true, but also be willing to listen, learn, and in the process, make this world we all live in a little larger.” That would have reinforced what Hamsatu’s father had told her the Prophet had said: “Seek knowledge even if it is as far as China.”
What Hamsatu and her classmates were hearing now was that the only way to gain inclusion in their world was to be a Kanuri. She knew that to be Kanuri was also to be Muslim. Some Kanuri even went an extreme step further, believing that if you weren’t one of their tribe, you couldn’t possibly be a real Muslim.
Hamsatu knew, firsthand, what it felt like to be an outsider. And at the tender age of 6, she also came to know — in an elementary way — that when one’s worldview is defined by the divisions inherent in the labels “Us” and “Them,” all sides suffer.
To Begin Again
Standing in the hot, cramped kitchen a few weeks after delivering her third child in as many years, Hamsatu called for her in-law’s kids to help her with preparations for the evening meal that would break the Ramadan fast. Bone tired and still weak from the birth, Hamsatu felt increasingly overburdened by the traditional responsibilities of being The Woman of the House, the overseer not only of her immediate family’s well-being, but of everyone’s under that roof — several of her husband’s siblings and their children, as well.
Hamsatu was frustrated, too, at the circumstances that had brought her to this moment: an arranged marriage at age 18 to an honorable man, but one old enough to be her father; babies arriving in rapid succession; day-to-day societal pressures at odds with what she’d hoped for in life; and the overarching desire to act always in accordance with her Islamic faith and all that her father had taught her. Coupled with the full load of college coursework she had just completed to earn a degree in English and education, it had all become too much.
She called out again, louder this time. Though everyone was at home, no one bothered to respond, until finally her shouts could no longer be ignored.
“What’s the matter with you?” her husband snapped, arriving in the kitchen along with everyone else in the house.
Hamsatu told him, and a heated argument ensued — a litany on both sides of expectations neither could fulfill. Hamsatu knew her husband had done everything he could to make his young wife happy: grudgingly allowing her to continue her education, even buying her a car to get her to class after the birth of his first child. But his efforts weren’t working any more, if, in fact, they ever had. The pressures of her role in the extended family, her in-laws’ view of her as an interloper, her immaturity, her feeling of helplessness, her hopes for the future — all these things could no longer be denied.
Back and forth they argued, two people in the grip of cultural forces and their own maddening inability to make things right for themselves and each other. In the heat of the kitchen and the moment, Hamsatu’s husband did something he’d never done before. He grabbed her roughly near the neckline of her loose-fitting gumaje and yanked her toward him. Now their faces were so close, they could feel each other’s breath. Neither blinked.
“Let me go,” she whispered evenly. And it was clear she wasn’t simply referring to the fistful of fabric he held in his hand.
Seconds passed in a minute that seemed like a millennium.
“OK then. If that’s what you want, I divorce you.”
With the pot of rice still simmering on the stove and her in-laws speechless for a change, Hamsatu was out the door, running in the moonlight, back to her childhood home.
Only her month-old son arrived at the house on Abba Amsta Nglaiyama Street with Hamsatu that evening. She left her other two children with their father and her in-laws — quite possibly, for good. Her situation felt so bleak, Hamsatu found herself willing to do even that.
Somehow she’d move on. As a divorced woman, she wouldn’t need to ask for her husband’s permission to get a job. Nor her father’s. According to Islamic tradition, she was free. The very next day, she headed to the Civil Service Commission, filled out an application, gained an interview, and was quickly offered a teaching position and a path to self-sufficiency.
But the community was still buzzing with the news of the divorce. Because Hamsatu’s husband had only said the words “I divorce you” one time, not three, the possibility remained — again, according to Islamic tradition — for a reconciliation. Local elders and her husband’s relatives soon began lobbying for the two to get back together. One by one and in groups, they called on her father — the situation discussed at length and without Hamsatu’s participation.
It wasn’t long, though, before her father broached the topic with her.
“We must talk,” he said, striding into the room where she and her mother were sitting.
Hamsatu understood the predicament she’d put him in. People would lose respect for him as a man and a father if he allowed her to live with them when her husband was willing to take her back, as he’d indicated through the steady stream of emissaries.
She thought back to all the times her father been her champion — not just encouraging her to continue into higher education, but also secretly helping her to fund it. She remembered, too, how he taught her the prayers every good Muslim knows, and the pride she saw in his eyes when he heard her recite them perfectly. Back when he had insisted that she marry before she’d begin her college career, he justified it as a means for her to avoid the temptations he said too often befall young women on a campus. And because she had no doubt that he always had her best interests at heart, Hamsatu acquiesced.
Now he told her he understood and sympathized with the challenges of a marriage like hers. But he urged her — pleaded with her, actually — to consider what would become of the children, her little ones, if their mother didn’t return.
Blinking back tears, Hamsatu acknowledged that the unhappiness she’d felt in recent years had had an effect on her ability to be the kind of person and parent she wanted to be.
As a follower of Islam, Hamsatu believed her destiny was pre-ordained. That before she was born, Allah had decided whom she would marry and how many children she would have. Through this difficult conversation she was having with her father, Hamsatu began to see that instead of the new life she’d started envisioning, she was being offered a second chance at her old one — an opportunity not to run from her destiny, but to make peace with it, do whatever she could to quell the conflicts that roiled within her, and continue to honor her father’s wishes.
Tears streamed down both their faces as Hamsatu arrived at a decision: In order to move forward, in good faith, she would go back.
Section title photo: An overcrowded classroom in Maiduguri (Photo provided by Hamsatu Allamin)