Ode to Nana Asma’u: Voice and Spirit

Nana Asma’u sits in the pantheon, of the great educators of Africa. Taught by female scholars – such as Aisha -  in her family, as well by her more well known father (Usman dan Fodio), uncle (Abdullahi dan Fodio) and older brother (Muhammed Bello), she gained a deep knowledge of Quranic teachings, as well as four languages – Arabic, Fulfude, Hausa and Tamachek: a paramount aid, in her pioneering educational endeavours.

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Her first years were spent in the religious community of Degel, in northern Nigeria, established by her revered father. In this spiritual enclave, she was the recipient of the highest in pedagogy, as well as piousness.


A potrait of a Nigerian woman by a Nigerian Artist, Obi Nwaegbeis (Source)

From this great springboard, she dived into the problem of female education. Most girls in northern Nigeria were/are married between the ages of eleven and fourteen and unless they had a supportive husband, father or older brother, their education came to an end. The new bride soon came to know the seclusion of the married female, rather than the association of fellow students. Originating from a tradition of supportive men, Nana Asam’u knew she had the backing of her father when she set up the Yan Taru organisation. The Yan Taru organisation was a collective of travelling teachers, trained by herself - then sent out into the villages and towns, to where the underdeveloped lived, shrouded by seclusion.

Her school, which preceded the Yan Taru project, taught men, as well as women – and those not of her faith. Nana Asma’u was also an archivist - of her father’s work; a governmental advisor, to her brother; a community mediator of wide renown; writer of works, on diverse subject matter, such as law, medicine and education; a poet, who used her poetry as teaching  aids; a translator, who used her skills as a polyglot, to enhance the options to learning. She was also a mother of six – and the manager of a large household. When at the time of writing, there is still overwhelming illiteracy, amongst the women of northern Nigeria, Nana Asma’u, an early 19th century figure, was truly monumental: a humane, saintly spirit, honoured by all. Women, as well as men, spoke well of her; the young, the old; Hausa as well as Fulani; traditional believer, as well as the follower of Islam. She was on a mission – and everyone was included.

As we celebrate the founder, we celebrate her legacy also. The Yan Taru mission continues: in Nigeria, Niger and parts of America.[**]

Voice and Spirit

Celebrating Nana Asam’u

poem for two female voices

Voice: Took a walk with Spirit today.  A time of total enchantment, because the spirit was called Sisterhood. As we went along, she spoke of the great female teachers, of sub-saharan Africa: but most of all, she spoke of Nana Asma’u.


Atlas of Africa (Source)

 Spirit: Like a Sarkin Ruwa*,

She ferries them across;
Navigating to Sunna*.

Voice: Spirit spoke of so many. Such as Aishatu Hamidu, a founder of schools, from a family of scholars. She studied in some of the great places of scholarship, in homeland Mauritania: in Tichit and and in Boutilimit. She knew Mecca and Medina too: as a teacher, as well as a student. Back in her homeland, she gathered the women together, to talk of Prophet Muhammad - as well as law, medicine, recitation: teaching the children in the morning - their mothers in the afternoon and evening. But she was not the first female teacher, no, for she herself was taught by female scholars, as Nana Asam’u was taught by the wives of her father – her beloved Aisha.

Spirit spoke much of Yan Taru, the educational association for women, that Nana Asma’u set up. Of the women, once trained, who were sent out to villages, near and far, trudging through rainstorm and sandstorm, to teach the women, undeveloped by seclusion.

Spirit: He's already been walking for two hours. Heat and dust will not deter him. Tiredness is an alien concept. For today, he seems to have been blessed, with an extra portion of energy.

His mother came home, bursting to talk of her. Of this wonderful teacher, who took the time to uplift the unlettered ones – and those in bondage. Designing tools of learning, so all could understand. His mother came home, reflecting the light of this iridescent being. She began to pass on, what she had learned. Throughout the villages, there was a stirring, an awakening; a passion to learn.

When the woman of his destination, comes to the door, he's almost speechless. After a nervous explanation, she invites him in. Even though she was immersed in her writing, she bids him enter; offering tea and dates.

A little later, he bids her farewell. For he knows that she is busy; and he must return, as soon as possible. Enchanted by her kindness, he goes bouncing along, cheerfully greeting one and all - animals too. Understanding something, of the new woman in his ageing mother. Her mission to dispel darkness. Her proud ownership of the malfi.

Going homeward, relishing the ginger drink she gave him. Sipping, where normally he would have gulped. Savouring; saving as long as possible, this farewell gift, from his brand new heroine.

Voice: She brought them all together – victims of war and displacement, of all ethnicities - to share learning, food and the love of God.


"One Woman's Jihad: Nana Asma'u, Scholar and Scribe" by Beverly B. Mack and, Jean Boyd (Source)

Spirit: Nana says Bismallah* – then they begin to eat. The enthusiastic discourse diminshes, as each partakes of the food, that they have prepared in unison. Rice with peppers, cooked in palm oil.

They say na gode*, after finishing what God has provided. Excited, they await the next instalment of learning. Poems with prayer, composed in piety.

Voice: Spirit told me of how she used her poetry to teach the women, using Hausa, the everyday langauge of northen Nigeria, rather than Arabic, the language of scholarship. She would teach her poems to the trainee teachers, who would go on to use them, as interactive learning aids – central to the teaching.

Spirit: Chant a poem of Nana;

Listening to the verses,
Reverberate through the village.
Our teacher sang a stanza; From the songbook of Sunnah*,
Resonating from heart to heart.

Voice: As well as the teacher, she was the advisor too: not only a governmental advisor, to the Caliph*, but to the everyday women too, who were dealing with disruption and loss. She knew great loss also: that of her beloved father and brother, Shehu and Bello*. So she was there for them, when the women came to her, to cry on salvation shoulder.

Spirit: ''Cry when you need to Nana''

Said the Voice,
''When crucial ones are no longer there''.
Those who shared the dream,
Who nurtured it;
Handled it with utmost care.
Watchmen of the vision,
Guarding it's front,
Protecting the rear.
As she sits alone,
Weeping for Shehu and Bello*;
Shedding a quite tear.

Voice: The women looked to her and she looked to Prophet Muhammad – and to his 11th century follower, Abdul Qadir Gilani, founder of  Qadirriya sufism.


Sufi women in west Africa - Seyda Zeynabu Mbaj during Hadrah by Joseph Hill (Source)


"The Caliph's Sister: Nana Asma'u, 1793-1865, Teacher, Poet and Islamic" by Jean Boyd (Source)

Spirit: I can see why your family loved him, Nana.

I heard the story of the Qafila and the robbers.
Of the rose and the Baghdad Scholars*.
Of the nightime audiences,
Listening to the Master.
The followers in Iran,
Indonesia and West Africa.
Naming your first son,
In homage to the founder.

Voice: Spirit also told me, that just like her father, she belived in education for all - female as well as male. That all members of a household should have access, to the treasures of education: all its gems and iridescence. So she taught men, as well as women: non-Muslims, as well as followers of the faith.

Spirit: Drinking hibiscus tea, Nana contemplates the new sad'aka*, owned by her neighbour, a fadawa*. A  teenage beauty, of the Hausa people - purchased with cowrie shells. She knows she will warm his bed; performing also, the other tasks of domesticity. In return, will he warm her heart with knowledge?

Voice: During that sweetest of  strolls, she informed me, that the only thing higher to her than education, was her faith. Part of her Yan Taru mission, was to share that faith, bringing women closer to a knowledge of God: she was known to be a lover of prayer.

Spirit: Feeling the 6am sun on her face, when the city of Sokoto is quieter. The green pigeon flying above, the rainbow-hued lizard, flitting below. Marvelling anew, at the wonders of God. Sitting again at the table, she completes the poem of praise; giving thanks, for another day of blessings.

Voice: As well as a woman of deep learning, she was one of wide experience. In later years, in her book called Wakar Gewaye, she wrote of her time of displacement, the lot of the refugee. History was one of the subjects she wrote about, as well as others, such as education, medicine and governance.


A young woman in Nigeria. Picture: Lindsay Mgbor/DFID (Source)

Spirit: In a time of tents,

In the zones called Frontline,
An eleven year old girl,
Knew war and starvation,
As ingredients of every day.
Years later,
As a noted scholar,
She wrote of the Struggle,
In a work called the Journey,
Otherwise known as Wakar Gewaye.

Voice: Spirit said - and I agree with her, that there should be an official recognition of Nana Asmau’; that schools  especially, should commemorate her. That if not for the whole of the country, nortthern Nigeria at least, should declare her birthday a regional holiday: because she was a bringer of light, to thousands of women, past and present.

Spirit: Although I still await, an annual Nana Asma'u Day, it's good to know she's remembered in other ways. Schools for girls and halls of residence, are named in her honour. Many women across Nigeria and Niger, are still educated through Yan Taru. An American segment of this service was founded in Pittsburgh, in the nineties - now spreading across the country. You remain Nana Asma'u: you are still here.


Supposedly imaginary potrait of Nana Asma’u - artist so far unknown - (Source)

Voice: Spirit told me she was quadriligual - proficient in four language languages. So her dream of reaching everyone was almost attainable, because she spoke four of the  main languages, heard in northern Nigeria, in the early 19th century: Hausa, Fulani, Arabic and Tamacheck - the tongue of the Tuareg.

Spirit: Covered from head to toe, I see Nana walking through the city of her brother, to a meeting with a Caliphate official. Pass the tamarind tree, where an old man takes shade; while the street boys are constructing their clay figurines of camel and horse – hoping for something in return. Pass the horse market, where the animals and saddles are purchased. Nearby, the tanners are rubbing hides with butter, to soften them - en route to pliability. A blind beggar sings, playing the goge; singing for his sustenance. The young Fulani women, going from door to door, selling cheese and butter. The Yoruba slave girls, busy with pestle and mortar. So many to reach. So many.

Voice: Spirit and I spoke, of her reputation as a peacemaker. Seems like she was everyone’s first choice, when engaging a mediator. Obviously, her facility with languages made the interaction easier.  I think that just her presence, would have dispelled a lot of negativity: just being there.

Spirit: Hearing a commotion outside her house, Nana steps out to investigate. There she sees a Nupe eunuch* and a Ilorin slave, fuelled by frustration, shouting at each other. Sensing the oncoming lava – volcano in a quite street, she goes toward them, to counteract the heat. Using her counselling skills of wide renown, the temperature subsides and chaos is avoided. After the cooling, and the giving of milk drinks, life proceeds as normal. The mediator returns to her abode; to continue her meeting, with a Moroccan scholar.

Voice: She said they came to her, for her empathy, as well as her erudition. To those who reluctantly carry the plastic bowl, she must have seemed like the Patron Saint of Beggars.

Spirit: ''Come, little one'' she says, as she hears the almajiri*, with plastic bowl, on his everyday mission of begging. A boy aged seven, camouflaged by dirt. Trudging barefoot; with hair that wishes for a comb – and skin that begs for oil. She gives him sesame seedackes, embellished with honey – and a large drink of tuffam*. For the first time that day, a smile emblazons his serious visage. After wishing the blessings of Allah on her, the unknown boy from another madrassa, continues his precarious existance.

Voice: Spirit said she was mother to a multitude, that she had the largest capacity to embrace, in the whole of northen Nigeria; that she loved more than anything, the crucial interaction of sisterhood - all its energising and redemptive power.

Spirit: They have taken time with her. Dalanda decorated her feet with henna; Aisha, using the same substance, adorned her hands. With patience and the practised hand, Adeesa applies pinaari* to her eyelids. Fatima, with equal deft, shaped her eyebrows. Hadiza and Amina, undid and re-plaited her hair. Aissatou, enlivened her whole being, with a concoction, of frankincense, kola nut, myrrh and cloves. A time of sweet sisterhood; laughter, advice, anecdotes and prayer. Scented, embellished; the  bride is ready, for the short journey to the home of her husband. An eight year old orphan, befriended and supported by Nana. Now a teenager: Nana is her Chosen One, to be the chief escort, on the walk across town, to the hope of partnership.


Nigerian students (Source

* Glossary

  • Sarkin Ruwa – chief of the river; Hausa official, in charge of ferrying and trade.
  • Sunna/Sunnah – recommended living for Muslims, as represented by the life of Prophet Muhammed.
  • Bismallah – Islamic recitation – ''in the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate''.
  • Na gode – Hausa term for thankyou.
  • Qalifa/Caliph – leader of the Islamic community.
  • Baghdad Scholars – renowned academics; paramount figures, in the House of Wisdom.
  • Sad'aka – servant/concubine.
  • Fadawa – Hausa official.
  • Shehu and Bello – her father and brother, founders of the Sokoto Caliphate.
  • Almajiri – Islamic students, forced to beg for their daily sustenance.
  • Eunuch – castrated slave.
  • Tuffam – milk drink, served with or without sugar.
  • Pinaari – Fulani word for kohl/mascara.

** Bibliography and References

  1. Beverly B. Mack and Jean Boyd, One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000). (Link)
  2. Beverly B. Mack and Jean Boyd, Educating Muslim Women: The West African Legacy of Nana Asma'u 1793-1864 (Kube Publishing Ltd, 2013)
  3. Jean Boyd. Collected Works of Nana Asma'u Daughter of Usman 'dan Fodiyo (1793-1864)  (Michigan State University Press, 1997) [Link]
  4. Jean Boyd. The Caliph's Sister: Nana Asma'u, 1793-1865, Teacher, Poet and Islamic Leader (Routledge, 2013)
  5. Beverly B. Mack. Muslim Women Sing: Hausa Popular Song (Indiana University Press, 2004)
  6. Muhammad Jameel Yusha’u. Nana Asma'u Tradtion: An Intellectual Movement and a Symbol of Women Rights in Islam During the 19th Century DanFodio’s Islamic Reform (Bayero University, Kano, (Link)
  7. Sutura Sa'idu Mukoshy. Nana Asma'u: An Annotated Bio-bibliography (Islamic Academy, 1995)
  8. LLC Books. Nigerian Sufis: Usman Dan Fodio, Nana Asma'u, Sheikh Muhammed Jamiu Bulala (General Books LLC, 2010)
  9. MuslimHeritage.com: International Women's Day (Link)


Nigerian students by Andrew Esiebo/MSH Nigeria (Source)

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