24 November 2017

Nigeria: Putting Women's Writing On the Map - the BBC Hausa Example

Photo: The Guardian

For generations, the BBC Hausa service has been telling stories that resonate with millions of people across the world. Now we are at yet another milestone indeed we honour winners of our second annual short story writing competition. We introduced it last year to encourage the culture of writing among women and give them a platform to share their stories. We believe that women have strong stories and this comes through very poignantly in the news stories we cover all the time.

Our exclusive interview last year with Nawal Alhawsawy (the first female Saudi pilot of Nigerian origin) was one of the most widely read and shared stories on our website; our interview with the wife of the Nigerian President Hajiya Aisha Buhari, was also another big scoop that got the whole world talking. And just a few days ago, we featured Haddy Rapiya, the 19-year-old hijab-wearing Hausa rapper from Kaduna. Her story was also widely read and shared across different platforms.

We know that each time women speak, people listen. And it's even more profound when they write. When we introduced the competition last year, the inspiration partly came from the stunning success we had with the programmes we made on Hausa romance novels in Kano which are mostly written by women. It's such a huge market with women writing about their dreams, fantasies and daily realities.

We wanted a way of taking this energy and creativity to the next level that is why we came up with the idea of the contest which we called Hikayata (My story).

A mother of three from Katsina State Aisha Sabitu won the maiden contest. Aisha's story, Sansanin 'Yan Gudun Hijira (Refugee Camp), was inspired by a visit to a refugee camp in Nigeria's North-eastern state of Adamawa. In Adamawa Aisha came face-to-face with the horrors of the Boko Haram crisis. The short story is actually a long, emotional tale of the triumph of will, over loss and devastation. Her protagonist, Falmata, outlasted Boko Haram's cruelty and barbarity: The insurgents killed both her parents and her brother. They also later abducted and raped her. Falmata finally finds inner peace in a refugee camp where she works as a volunteer helping other victims as a way of coping with her tragic fate.

We also had two runners up and 12 entries which were highly commended by the judges.

The winners became instant stars, and I still remember how words failed a tearful Aisha when she was asked to give an acceptance speech. Tears of joy flowed freely down her cheeks throughout the awards night. Overcome with emotion, she searched in vain for solitude among the curious crowds who wanted to savour the moment with her.

Encouraged by last year's success, we decided to make the competition an annual event. We've increased the prize for the first place winner from $500 to $2,000. Of course it's not just about the money - as most writers know - but the recognition that comes with one's writing being assessed and selected (by very strict judges) as the best amongst hundreds of entries. And the icing on the cake is having one's entry read on BBC Hausa radio and shared on its digital platforms.

Aisha Sabitu clinched the crown because the judges thought she was a master thriller writer. She has a lot in common with this year's winner, Maimuna Sani Beli: They were both married at an early age.

Maimuna's story, Bai Kai Zuci Ba (Not from the heart) is about a woman who is obsessed with her children and constantly dreams of what might befall them if she dies. She even tells her husband to marry her best friend who loves children if she suddenly dies so she can help take care of her children. She always dreams of dying and coming back from the dead to visit her children. The judges were impressed by Maimuna's bold writing style as, with ease and creativity, she takes the reader from the land of the living to the spirit world. The lead judge, Professor Ibrahim Malumfashi says "not every writer is confident enough to take on subjects like life after death."

We would soon be airing the winning entries and all the stories that were highly commended by the judges. And I am almost certain once the stories hit the airwaves and our digital platforms, the same old questions will be asked again: Why is the competition for women only? Why don't you open it to male writers as well? Can a male writer submit a joint entry with a female counterpart? The questions are just endless.

I've personally had to answer some of these questions many times over since we launched the contest last year, but it seems the key query still endures - why women only? Our reason is simple: women are up against very strong forces - not of nature, but of man.

Polygamy, divorce, early marriage, sexual harassment and even rape are some of the daily man-made realities of life for women especially in Hausa communities. The problem is compounded by poverty and enduring armed conflict. Who else is more qualified to write about all these problems with authenticity and a real sense of victimhood?

This year's winner could not complete secondary school because she was married off at 14. But the fighter and writer in her eventually won. Undaunted, Maimuna enrolled in an adult school for women after having her second child.

Another reason the contest is for women only is the fact that historically, women had always been at the forefront of literature in Hausa communities. The world still remembers the literary exploits of Nana Asma, the daughter of the 19th century Islamic reformer, Usman Dan Fodio. Her poetry is still studied in universities around the world. This great literary tradition is still maintained by women today. One of the judges for this year's competition, Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, is a shining example of Hausa women's writing. One of her novels, Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne (Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home) has an English translation and is available on Amazon and Kindle.

Writing is such a strong tool for self-expression for women especially in Hausa-speaking parts of the world, and we are proud of the modest achievement we've recorded with Hikayata. We are now working on publishing the wining stories, and we may later adapt some of the entries for genres like television.

Saleh is the Editor of the BBC Hausa Service.

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