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Profiling Baba Of Karo, A Hausa Woman Who Grew Up In 19th Century Pre-Colonial Nigeria

Baba of Karo is the autobiography of a Hausa woman who grew up in 19th century pre-colonial Nigeria. Baba lived in the farming hamlet of Karo, when the region was part of the Islamic empire, the Sokoto Caliphate.

Her story was written down by an English woman, Mary Smith, in 1949, while she was working in northern Nigeria with her husband, the anthropologist, M.G Smith. The book became a key text in studies of pre-colonial Africa.

Baba was an old woman when she told Mary her story and it began in a time when Nigeria did not exist. Baba’s story gave an insight into the world of slavery. Baba’s family had slaves but slavery was a risk that everyone faced.

In a chat with BBC, Mary, who is now old, talks about the life of Baba, whose story she made into a book.

“In those days, there was always fear, war, war, war. They caught a man and they made him a slave or else they killed him,” excerpts from the book read.

According to Mary, individual kingdoms of the Sokoto caliphate were fighting one another very often and part of the warfare that went on was slavery.

“In times of war, the Chief would order the drummer to climb up on a high place and beat the deep drum so that the villagers and people in the surrounding hamlets should come inside the town walls. The drum rhythms said, “come in, come in, come in,”excerpts from the book read.

Sadly, while people are hurrying into the town wall, raiders could come out of nowhere and capture them. And that was what happened to Baba’s family.

“They went first to the hamlet of my father’s brother, Ubangida. The raiders came at night, they broke into the compound and took away three of his children and his wife, who was long pregnant and about 10 of his slaves. 30 days later, we heard that the raiders had gone away and father said they could go out of the town to look at his rice field near the river.

They were all working. Silence. Then suddenly, there were horsemen and men on foot surrounding them. The farm slaves ran away but the raiders caught father’s wife and Kado’s bride. They tied their hands across their breast, each hand on the opposite shoulder with rope and they carried them off to Kastina.

We were in our compound inside the town when the slaves came back and said they had been seized. We cried and wailed,” excerpts from the book read.

Baba’s family got their relatives back but it wasn’t after they paid a huge ransome. Mary explained that, at the time, divorce was very easy.

“All the elders, men and women, they said, “You must go on with your marriage.” I said “no, I didn’t want him. I desire the son of the blacksmith.” When Aunty Rabi came home, I knew she would help me, I told her that I didn’t like the marriage and she said, “very well, go and break it up,”” excerpts from the book read.

Baba’s story goes beyond marriage and divorce. She talks about everything from the coming of the British colonialism, the end of slavery to rituals of childbirth and spirit possession.

Baba never had a child, but it didn’t stop her from answering mother to children her extended family willingly gave up to her. Baba, like many women of her time had serial divorces but there was no stigma or labelling to their status. At the death of her husband Hasan, she experienced widowhood but this too led to no social rejection.

In Baba’s time, it appeared to be a world full of marriages. Polygamy thrived even more as women had the urgency to end their marriage. In expressing this, Baba tells of her marriages and the reason she went into them. She married her cousin and first husband Duma to please her father:

‘There was also Malam Maigari who wished to marry me, I promised him I would come to him later. Duma came to visit me, I accepted his money because father wanted me to do so. But because I didn’t really love him, I left him after a few years…Duma was tall and handsome and sensible, we lived together in peace with no quarrelling.’

After her Iddah (a 90 day period of celibacy observed by divorcees), she fulfilled her promise and married Malam Maigari. 15years after, she divorced him amicably and married Malam Hasan the farmer and prison keeper. After Hasan’s death, she had a marriage of shoes (where the wife lives apart from husband) with Ibrahim.

Compared to her sister-in-law Hasana who married 11 men, one of whom she married four times, Baba had an average record for the time; just four.

Months after recounting her story to Mary, Baba died in June 1951.


Written by PH

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