Revisiting Alkali


Image:  Lashifae

Image: Lashifae

Children should not be caged, he reasoned, for if the cage got broken by accident or design they would find the world too big too live in.
— - Zaynab Alkai in The Stillborn

Over the past 6 months, I have revisited a number of books from my childhood - from Ekwensi to Emecheta and, most recently, Zaynab Alkali. One of the reasons I loved - and still love - books is their ability to take you to places you have never been and may never be; to cause you to make friends with characters so well written, that you feel like you may bump into them on the street. These books have the ability to challenge one’s perception, and previously unquestioned acceptance of stereotypes or norms.

The first time I read Alkali’s books - ‘The Stillborn’ and ‘The Virtuous Woman’ - at 11 or 12, it was with some surprise at how the girls written about, barely older than I was at the time, thought about marriage and imagined themselves in love. Both books were set in Northern Nigeria, circa 1960s, and offered a glimpse at a different time, culture, and way of life. Alkali’s way of describing the villages in which these books are set are so profound that you almost feel the dust rising from the earth and settling on you

In the 6 months I lived in Bagauda, Kano, 6 years ago, some days brought back memories, as it felt like I was walking through the pages of some of my childhood books set in Northern Nigeria. Rereading Alkali now, who was one of the first female novelists to emerge from Northern Nigeria, I realise that she was not writing stories about ‘Northern life’ - it only happened to be the setting. Her books could have been about young girls anywhere. They are essentially about love and longing, youth and yearning for adulthood, dreams and how they play out.


Of Stillborn Dreams

The Stillborn explores - and subtly questions - the quest for modern life and an assimilation of foreign ideals - a thing sweeping through the village and eagerly adopted by Li’s father. In this novel, Li, the main character, is a reminder of my teenage self. At 14, she is keen to reject the order of life her father is desperate to keep his children within. She looks, sometimes with contempt, upon her parents’ rules: questioning her father’s strictness and his label of traditional practices as ‘heathen’. Li has big dreams, and longs to break free so she can live the perfect life she imagines. 

Told in vignettes, The Stillborn moves through time to show how dreams are built and can crumble, or shapes shift as life happens to them. For Li, who falls in love and marries as a teen, a foray into her dreams is marked by descent into chaos as her husband takes another wife in the city and treats her with derision. Yet, despite the tragedy that dogs her 20s, Li rebuilds herself, her life, and her dreams.

One of the most striking moments for me - encapsulating the essence of the book and how events change people - is a conversation between Li and her older sister, Awa, towards the end of the book.

“You have gone incredibly soft,” Awa shook her head.

“And you big sister, surprisingly hard.”
“It is the way of life,” Awa said sadly. “Do you remember when we were girls? Our dreams? None of our dreams seem to have come true…”


Finding Self

Alkali’s The Virtuous Woman, on the other hand, is another coming of age story, set in the early 1960s in Zuma - a multi-ethnic Northern community. It is about the lives of Laila, Hajjo and Nana Ai, 16- and 17-year old students. Mostly one long road trip, it follows the three girls as they leave the comfort of the familiar for the unknown.

Laila, with the exuberance of teenage-hood, is flighty and has no sense of danger, while Hajjo is stuck between familial obligations to her niece, Laila, and a friendship she desires to have with Nana Ai. Nana Ai, wiser than her 17 years, is at once certain and uncertain of herself in that place of crisis that dogs teenagers just discovering their identities. It is beautiful to watch her admit her insecurities about self, including body insecurities, and then shed them.

Soon after we meet Nana Ai, it is said of her: 

“It never occurred to her that it was in her to be whatever she wanted to be.” 

But as one moves through the pages, Nana Ai blooms - embracing herself, her family history, and falling in love for the first time.


A Refreshing View on Women

Alkali loves to tell stories within stories; it’s her way of filling her books with colourful characters like Li’s Grandmother, who often boasted that she had been married 14 times; Li’s Grandfather, Kaka, who had divorced her 3 times in spite of her refusal to leave; and Nana Ai’s herbalist Grandfather, Baba Sani.

Through her characters, Zaynab Alkali touches on the need for female education and equality, in such an organic way, you almost miss it. Without delving into actual politics of the newly independent Nigeria and the continuing influence of the British in those years, she also shows the reality of the times through the description of the European Quarters in The Stillborn and Her Majesty’s College in The Virtuous Woman.

In such a time as now when I have grown weary of the portrayal of female characters in African writing, especially by male authors, Alkali’s writing feels refreshing. While a lot of the literature that include characters from the predominantly Muslim North, portrays them as one dimensional characters who are uneducated and restricted by both culture and religion from making decisions for themselves, Alkali’s books have none of this stereotypical portrayal of Northern women as subservient and non-autonomous characters. 

There is no doubt that Nigeria, largely, remains a patriarchal society, and so it is with surprise that I find that these books, set in the 1960s and published in 1984 and 1987, deviate from the single story and, contain strong female characters who are not content with doing things the way they have always been done. These women can be seen finding themselves and owning both the good and the bad consequences unapologetically.

They are women who want an education, and a future that does not just revolve around a man. They are a reminder that there is always multiplicity of ways of living, even in the same geographic location. They reflect an importance of literature that deviates from the lazy low-hanging stereotypes about any set of people.

Ever read any of Zaynab Alkali's books? Which was your favourite?