Emerging Northern Nigerian Female Poets to watch: A Prognosis (I) ~ Paul Liam

Northern Nigerian literature has for a long time been defined by its well celebrated Hausa texts. For several decades, writing in the Hausa language thrived to global acclaim with legends like Abubakar Imam (1911-1981) winning international acknowledgment as far as back the 1930s for his distinction as a creative writer of Hausa expression. The unprecedented growth of the Hausa literary tradition is linked to the Arabic-Fulani-Hausa culture occasioned by the existence of an Arab-Islamic epistemology which predates the advent of European colonialism in the demography that is today called Nigeria. In other words, the region had an already established knowledge system which accounted for its civilization as is manifest in its people’s high sense and fixation with their culture, which has survived several centuries to this day. A people that were already advanced and in touch with other external realities would have proven a hard nut to crack as it were, for the British colonialists. The history of Usman Dan Fodio’s Jihadist exploits is legendary and foregrounds the growth of a robust Hausa literary culture across a larger part of the region. The phenomenology of female writing in the region is epitomized by none other than the daughter of the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate, Nana Asma’u (1793-1864). She was an embodiment of knowledge and artistry, and was regarded as a feminist, teacher and poet. No doubt, Asma’u’s exemplary life was the precursor to what later became a common vocation among elite Northern women, culminating into the ‘Soyayya’ tradition of Hausa literature.

Creative writing in the English language in the North witnessed a rather slower growth; it was not until the late 1970s and mid-1980s that Northern writers in English language emerged on the Nigerian literary scene. Some of the pioneering writers includes Labo Yari (1942) whose first work, Climate of Corruption was published in 1978, Muhammad Sule (1957) whose novel, The Undesirable Element came out in 1977, Ibrahim Tahir (1938) whose The Last Imam came out in 1984, same as Zaynab Alkali’s (1950) The Stillborn (1984), Abubakar Gimba (1952), his work, Trail of Sacrifice came out in 1985 and Yahaya S. Dangana’s (1954) Corpse as a Bridegroom came out in 1986. These writers formed the nucleus of what began the tradition of modern creative writing in the English language in Northern Nigeria. They pioneered a blooming literary culture that would later blossom into a significant constituent of the larger Nigerian literary tradition and spread across the region in fashion akin to a literary revolution in the region. Today, there are hundreds of old and young Northerners writing excellently in the English language including Helon Habila, E.E. Sule, Ahmed Maiwada, Ismail Bala, Victoria Kankara, Razinat Muhammed, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Umar Abubakar Sidi, Richard Ali, Sue’idie Vershima Agema, Sadiq Dzukogi, David Ishaya Osu, Maryam Bobi, TJ Benson, Halima Aliyu, Mujahid Lilo, to mention just a few.  

It is important to state at this juncture that the crux of this essay is simply to highlight some notable emerging Northern Nigerian female poets, whose works have shown poetic promise and brilliance in a genre that hitherto had very few respectable female voices in the region and the nation at large. This essay was inspired by a discussion which had taken place last year in a WhatsApp group known as the All Poets Network (APNET), between Professor Al-Bishak, Ismail Bala, my humble self and others. By the way, the group is an elite collection of known academics, poets, critics and enthusiasts, membership is strictly by recommendation. So, in the group, the poetic brilliance of these young female poets and others stood out. I had also noticed their leaning towards deviancy which permeates most of their contributions in the group, and they took offence to be regarded as female and would defend their gender whenever they thought it was necessary. We discussed the need for an anthology of Northern Nigerian female poets with the aim of curating the beautiful poems written by these energetic youngsters. It was that conversation that inspired me to contemplate a list of some of these poets. The poets preconceived for this contemplation include: Hauwa Shaffi Nuhu, Maryam Gatawa, Nasiba Babale, Hajaarh Muhammad Bashar, Amrah Aliyu, Aisha Muhammed Danpullo, Summaya Adam Ahmad and Mariya Abdullahi Sidi. There are other notable voices from the North and North Central such as Daisy Odey, Farida Adamu, Ogwiji Ehi and Msendoo Kaase among several others, whose poetry have been recognized for their depth and brilliance. Unfortunately, they do not form a part of this particular exercise, but I am hoping to do different rendition that would highlight their works. 

One particular trait shared by these poets is the uninhibited charm with which they express themselves while engaging sensuality, love, romantic and social themes in their works. The lack of ‘decorum’ or of conservatism synonymous with the writings of their immediate forebears like Hannatu T. Abdullahi, Fatima-Ba’aram Alkali, Maria Ajima, Hadiza Bagudu, Maimuna M. Bala, Jarinatu Disu, Razinat Mohammed, Maryam Ali Ali, Binta Sipikin, etc, shows departure from the old tradition of hijabic poetics. These set of poets are bold and unperturbed by cultural or religious inhibitions, they are offspring of a new era of excess freedom and global interconnectedness. It is this interconnected aided by the social media that renders their poetic expressions universal, they write with a ‘global’ audience in mind. They exhibit a creative consciousness that is reminiscent of audacious and unapologetic shrewdness of Victoria Kankara of the Hymns and Hymen fame, a remarkable poet who regrettably disappeared from the literary scene a long time ago. These youngsters qualify to be addressed as the literary children of Victoria Kankara. They are feminists and unabashedly vocal in their rendering of their feminity. Ismail Bala it was who had attributed the seeming nakedness of their expressions to the influence of the social media, describing them as “Instagram poets”. Because they write and interact with a virtual audience, they seem unaware of the cultural and religious censorship which previously guided the writings of the older generation who wrote for an immediate reading audience. The influence of their social media interactions has given rise to the prominence of exogenous aesthetics in their poems.

Through the freedom of the virtual world, they have gained advantage of a patriarchal society that would prefer they remain unheard. Some of them like Nuhu and Aliyu are becoming famed for their social advocacy and activism. Hauwa Shaffi Nuhu informs us her poem ‘Ash’ that “but like all revolutions,/love is a protest against silence.’ Maryam Gatawa on the other hand, in her poem “…And tell the stars” instructs us thus, “Then tell the stars/To take their leave too/For within our breasts/Shines the inward light/To sail us through/These fields of darkness”. In the work of these poets, one encounters a mixture of boldness and consciousness wedded in fecundity and nuances definitive of all great bards. These bards are equally well educated and modernized; they have quite remarkable command of the English language and the craft of fine poetic expression.   

Ismail Bala in his 2006 bibliography on women’s poetry in English in Northern Nigeria entitled, Women Poetry from Northern Nigeria: A Bibliographic Note’ notes the historical context of women poetry from Northern Nigeria,

Nigerian female writers trail behind their male counterparts for a number of reasons (literary, historical and cultural). This is more pronounced if not more acute in Northern Nigeria, where literature of English expression is slow in evolving, compared to other parts of the country. Poetry of English expression by women from Northern Nigeria is indeed young, and is written in a tradition that is not only new but developing.

Bala’s work, beyond its stated agenda is an exposition on the paucity of female poets of Northern extraction writing in English within the larger Nigerian literary space. In what is a thorough study, only 38 poets are listed in the bibliography. Bala equally observes that “until the 1990s, there was no published woman poet from the region”. And he attributes the dearth of women poetry in Northern Nigeria to the following:

The level and development of (Western) education, conservative, fiercely patriarchal atmosphere occasioned both by cultural and  religious factors, and as a near-total absence of publishing industries all stunted and negatively impacted on literary creativity in the region, especially as it concerns women using the medium of English in Northern Nigeria.

Although, the factors listed by Bala are still a major challenge in the region, but the situation is gradually changing, as many young northern women are becoming more aware of their rights within a deep rooted patriarchal society. There are also more female poets today who are writing in English language, even though the majority of them do not yet have a published book yet, and those who have, have only been published in journals, magazines, newspapers and in the social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram. In an interview with Amatoritsero Ede, Kankara, speaking of her poetry had enthused:  “Feelings in themselves are neither good nor bad, but what we do with them determines their morality”. In other words, we are responsible for the outcome of our feelings. In similar vein, these newer bards seem to be saying that we are responsible for how we choose to interpret their expressions.

The concluding parts would be published soon
Paul Liam is a poet, author, Critic and Associate Editor at The Arts-Muse Fair


  1. This is highly commended to Nigerians and the world. It will serve as encouragement to listed poets and others who see them as models or will so appreciate them.

    Irrespective of the inspiration, allusion to epithets like "hijabic poetry" and "instagram poets" are unnecessary because poetry well-written should be seen as poetry no matter the theme or environment of influence.

    Thanks for doing a fantastic mirroring of these poets of influence. I urge them to keep writing poetry for the benefit of man and society.

  2. Wow wow wow!
    This is both encouraging and shocking.
    Those excerpts are mind bulging!
    Thank you for sharing thus with us.


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