A window into the oldest profession
’Yartsana, a novel in Hausa by Ibrahim Sheme; published by Informart, Kaduna, 2003; 272 pp.
By Moh-Srajo Abubakar
My reading of Ibrahim Sheme’s Hausa novel, "’Yartsana," reveals a heroine unjustly treated by the trio of her society, her family and her creator – the writer. In response, I attempt here to discuss the forms of injustice meted out on her; point out a careless error (inconsistency) in the book and commend the author’s style and narrative technique.
Let me begin by arguing that Zainab/Asabe is a victim of circumstances, perhaps beyond her control. First, her father sets her on the path of prostitution by refusing to marry her to the apple of her eye – Tijjani Ahmed - out of sheer sectional sentiment. And when she habitually flees from the husband’s house, he (the father) refuses to take any decisive action about it. Eventually she takes refuge in the home of her grandmother who, unfortunately, is avaricious and thoughtless enough to endorse her extramarital affair with the sick but lecherous Alhaji Maidogonsoro for some material benefits. And when, as a result, she becomes pregnant, he practically disowns her instead of showing her understanding. The villagers ridicule her right from this moment to the time she gives birth. Upon seeing this, the father throws her out of his house and unto the streets. Surely, most teenagers caught up in this mesh can hardly maintain their cool. So, Zainab opts for a French leave and ends up being a prostitute!
Against this background, Zainab/Asabe ought to have married Tijjani, if anything for her deep affection for him. We are given an instance of her love for him when she agrees to elope with him when it is clear that her father is marrying her to Abubakar Jauro, a man related to her but whom she does not love. Another instance is that throughout her ignoble and wayward life, the loving thoughts and sweet memories of Tijjani never leave her up to the moment she is rescued through his design. This love sticks despite her being taught one of the fundamental survival strategies in prostitution, namely, making a prostitute’s heart impervious to emotion. And even her involvement with Lado Acibilis, Basiru and Tahir on one hand; and her sleeping with innumerable clients on the other hand, cannot obliterate or shake her love for Tijjani. Yet, in spite of all this, the writer denies her the happiness of becoming Tijjani’s wife – even for a second! One would have loved to see her re-united with Tijjani at the end, perhaps to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit, but the writer thought differently.
This injustice, as I see it, becomes more pronounced when the author not only denies Zainab this privilege but also makes the more promiscuous friend of hers, now reformed, a wife to Tijjani. This lady, we are told, teaches Asabe more thoroughly the art of prostitution and in the process takes her to Mararraba, a place more famous for its notorious prostitutes than for anything else. Here, Asabe dives more deeply into the murky ocean of this unwholesome trade. Not only this, Bebi Sai-Tumoro (for this is the name of the ‘teacher’) exposes Asabe to harmful drugs like marijuana and also encourages her to carry out an abortion.
In fact, Bebi is the last person we expect to be reformed because of the curses heaped on her by the elders of Kurkudu for her detestable role in initiating young and innocent men into sexual misdemeanour. In spite of this sordid history, this accursed prostitute is given the enviable status of Tijjani’s wife. Nothing can be more unjust in my eyes. Of course, the injustice is not in reforming her. Far from it. It is rather in placing her above Zainab. This I find disagreeable. The writer might have done this to show how bad people can be reformed and reintegrated into a morally upright society despite their immoral past. But then what stops him from demonstrating this fact of life with Zainab/Asabe?
Then comes the AIDS question as another form of unfairness to Asabe. Undoubtedly, the book has an overdose of veteran promiscuous characters like Fati Gidauniya, Bebi Sai-Tumoro, Magajiya Dije and Abu Maijigida who could be afflicted with and killed by the dreadful disease. But only Asabe is killed by the disease, though Gidauniya too is a victim.
Another curious thing about the author’s treatment of this heroine, which I find objectionable, is that whenever she becomes remorseful, she doesn’t pray for reformation but only hopes for it. The only instance of her closeness to God is the night of her death when amidst prayerful devotion she is cut short by the traditional medical vendor advertising his herbal concoctions and boasting about their efficacy, which naturally makes her to call him in.
The serious inconsistency in the book is found in the educational history of Zainab. In a flashback, it is revealed that Zainab finished her secondary school (p.52) though with a bad result evidently due to the psychological torment she was in then. Then at a point further in the book, we are told that she was withdrawn from school in form four (S.S. One) and married to Abubakar Jauro. Do we then see Zainab as a school leaver or dropout? I hate to think that the author, a very experienced writer, has fallen into the abyss of what Dul Johnson described recently as the rush to be published resulting in unqualitative products. Similarly, as if to prove Johnson’s theory, my copy of the book has many corrections in form of words typed on small pieces of paper and glued to appropriate places. Whatever the case please we eagerly await the revised edition.
There’s, in addition to the above shortcomings, a wrong impression capable of thwarting the effort of the writer at campaigning against AIDS. This impression is that only sophisticated loose/free women contract AIDS. This can be seen in how all the veteran but ‘low-classed’ prostitutes like Magajiya and Abu Maijigida and people of their rank die ‘naturally’ while the sophisticated ones like Asabe, Gidauniya and their even more sophisticated, polished and enlightened clients become victims of the disease. Is the author saying that the disease is for the latter class of people only? Otherwise why hasn’t he afflicted the former class with even the commonest sexually transmitted disease like gonorrhea and syphilis?
However, the book is far from being poor all through. We can see its literary richness in how the author builds the heroine from a naïve prostitute of 20 years to a seasoned one of 34 years. Surely, only an experienced writer of Sheme’s calibre can give a progression of events lasting 14 years in a book of "’Yartsana"’s volume, and in the most interesting way, too. Then, his drawing from classical Hausa singers like Dansaraki, Garba Supa, Mamman Dankashi, etc., is quite unrivalled in our day. Hardly can one find a recent work of fiction which has drawn so vastly from oral literature.
Again, the author’s use and handling of the flashback technique is quite unique and interesting; he sandwiches it between ongoing events in the book, thus ensuring that the reader does not get bored.
And the most interesting aspect of the book is how the writer let us learn the life style of prostitutes from the culprits themselves. By their brazen and lewd nature, among others, we are sometimes shocked by what they say or do in carrying out their illicit duties, but there is no better window to see through them than this. No doubt, the author has done a good job of opening this window for us to peep through.
In conclusion, the author should consider "’Yartsana" as the beginning of his effort to educate our society through literature, especially in this era when qualitative indigenous works are lacking. The participants in the Great Soyayya Debate should redirect their focus to producing something of "’Yartsana"’s nature – educating, exposing and entertaining. To readers like me, the book is a veritable reference material. So, we hope our national examination bodies and our tertiary institutions will incorporate it in their Hausa literature syllabuses.
Abubakar is of the Sunnah High School, P.O. Box 329, Bukuru, Plateau State.