A “Cinderella” tale in the Hausa Muslim women’s imagination

A “Cinderella” tale in the Hausa Muslim women’s imagination

Alidou, Ousseina

AN IMPORTANT ATTRIBUTE of Hausa oral literature, as of Afro-Islamic and other African oral literatures in general is improvisation. The tale exists only when it is narrated/performed, and with virtually every new narration it assumes a new life in response to the artist’s interpretation of the new situation -time, location, setting, mood, and material conditions-within which it is contextualized. This essay looks at how Islam has impacted a recent narration of “The Story of the Orphan who Marries the Prince of Masar”-a “wicked stepmother” tale akin to the one popularly known as “Cinderella” in the West. This takes place at a time of increasing Islamic resurgence and a growing participation of women in redefining Islam in the Hausa culture of West Africa.

Elsewhere I have argued that in general Hausa women’s voices have been marginalized as a result of both the local culture and colonial patriarchy. Of course, a tiny minority of women of upper and middle class households did manage to contribute to the public sphere, especially in the field of Islamic knowledge and literary production (Alidou, forthcoming). The cultural and political activism and literary works of the daughters of Sheikh Usman Dan Fodio, the Islamic founder and leader of Sokoto Caliphate, for example, of which Nana Asma’u’s legacy remains one of the most remarkable, are already well documented (see Boyd; Boyd and Mack; and Mack and Boyd). In general, however, traditional (Islamic) colonial and postcolonial educational structures combined to disempower women. In this process, Islamic knowledge-still primarily under the control of men-was continuously deployed to construct an ideology that justified the silencing of women, especially in the public sphere.

However, the wind of democratization that swept the continent in the 1990s, calling for pluralistic rights of social constituents-for example, Christians and ethnic minorities-in the Niger republic, created room for women to seek Islamic knowledge on their own terms (even if still within patriarchal space) as a means of reaching a new understanding of women’s rights within Islam and Islamic societies. Ever since, women have seized the political space of liberalization to assert their own knowledge of Islam, to contribute to the socio-cultural and political reshaping of the nation, and to engage in the discourse of defining a “Nigerien” Muslim identity by providing a woman’s perspective (Alidou, “Women and the Politics”). This development has become particularly noticeable in the media, both print and electronic.

Nigerien women’s persistence in inscribing their voices in the public space, as the analysis of the radio storytelling of this version of “The Wicked Stepmother” will show, is a significant indication of their resistance against patriarchal forces which had long controlled symbolic meaning-be it of a religious, cultural or political nature-in the nation. Their reconfiguring of this ancient tale, with its cross-cultural thematic resonance, demonstrates their willingness to use their knowledge of religion and agency to subvert the oppressive patriarchal elements that silence them. Furthermore, through their presence in the media and their appropriation of cultural fields of meanings such as religion and folklore, Nigerien women are creatively participating in the construction of a more gender-balanced democratic order. This effort by women to resituate their voices in the public sphere in which meaning (including self-definition) is constructed is a trend that is sweeping across many cultures of the Muslim world, in part as a result of the forces of globalization, especially its technological dimension. Thus, radio, for example, has become both a tool and a site for women to engage their societies and the world with their narratives.

The tale of “The Wicked Stepmother” is one that is universal-appearing in different versions throughout the world. Its universality bears both multiculturalist and interculturalist traits. The multicultural property is revealed in its thematic universality: the tale easily accommodates culturally specific accounts of how injustice and the abuse of power are punished and how the weak triumph in the midst of numerous trials and tribulations. Moreover, in spite of the many variations of the tale, both within and across cultures of the world, common narrative elements remain, especially the psychological representation of the wicked character and the mechanism of her failure, as well as certain symbolic attributes that allow a crosscultural recognition of the tale as that of the Wicked Stepmother or Cinderella (see Manh Kah, Climo, Cox, Dundes, Gough, Onyefulu, Haviland, and Rustin).

The intercultural characteristics of this universal fairy tale are manifested in the motifs of the narrative that reflect a confluence of cultures, indigenous and foreign, in the society within which the tale is narrated. This essay focuses on one example of such a cultural convergence by analyzing how Islam has impacted the Hausa version of this narrative: “The Story of the Orphan Who Marries the Prince of Masar.” And consonant with a modern woman-centered reinterpretation of Islamic culture, the analysis of the tale reveals how an abused female character uses her intellectual prowess to attain her freedom from her oppressor, as well as to manipulate a patriarchal social structure in order to rise up the socio-economic ladder.

Islam, Folklore, Gender, and Modernity

The Hausa people represent one of the largest ethnolinguistic groups in Sub– Saharan Africa who converted to Islam probably much earlier than the Middle Ages. Moreover, Islam is as important a marker of Hausa cultural identity as it is of Hausa religious identity. Even the tiny minority of the Hausa subgroups who are still animist or Christian tend to be Islamic in cultural practice, having been assimilated into the majority Hausa Muslim community in their mores and values to the point that they are often mistaken for Muslims. The Islam practiced by the Hausas, however, reflects a syncretism between Islamic spirituality and an earlier, pre-Islamic, Hausa cosmogony that continues to prevail, especially in Bori (spirit possession). This synthesis of spiritual worldviews is not unique to Hausa Islam, but is found in most other Afro-Islamic communities, such as those of the Somali, the Swahili, and the Bambara.

The impact of Islam on oral literary production in Hausa culture has been multifold. First, the inception of Islam in Hausa culture infused the themes, style, and language of Hausa oral literature with an Islamic ethos and aesthetics. Its mode of characterization also took a turn towards a more Islamic conception of personal conduct that defines a person as “good” or “evil” Furthermore, many modern Hausa epics and folktales contain metaphorical allusions to spaces relevant to Islamic history and experiences (see Skinner, Anthology; Starratt, Oral History and “Islamic Influences”).

Secondly, Islam brought literacy to Hausa culture (which had no writing tradition) in both Arabic and Ajami, the latter being a modified version of the Arabic script used in writing Hausa language. This development had certain implications for Hausa oral literature. Hitherto, male storytelling took place in the public space and was associated with the narration of epics or factual events, current or past. This domain of “male stories” is known as labarai. On the other hand, women’s stories, known as tatsuniyoyi, were more akin to fictional fairy tales and were performed in the confinement of domestic space. Traditionally, the custodians of this female folk genre were elderly women in the community, who, through this cultural medium, both entertained and instructed the young. But, because Islamic literacy was primarily the domain of men, the twentieth-century transcription of Hausa folktales was undertaken mostly by male scholars. This male invasion of a traditionally female narrative space inevitably infused it with a male voice and subverted some of its oral features (Alidou, “Gender”; Starratt, “Islamic Influences”). In addition, this male invasion of the female folkloric domain transfomed both the language and style of the original tales by inscribing them within an Islamic linguistic and symbolic space. Islamic literacy thus came to mark the beginning of an apparent “degendering” of Hausa folktale production and narration in modern times.

The interplay between Islamic literacy, folktales, and gender was crucial to early European cultural anthropologists, who were interested in collecting oral folk narratives in Hausa culture during the colonial era. These scholars relied on Hausa male literati who served as collectors, transcribers, and interpreters of the folktales (see, for example, Schon and the three collections compiled by Skinner). But European colonization also had a modernizing impact on Hausa culture through the introduction of printing, radio, and-more recently-television. These modern technologies completely transformed the conception, transmission, reception, and interpretation of folktales in Hausa society. They also account for both the professionalization of folktale storytelling and the new trend of “regendering” this traditionally female narrative genre, a “regendering” that has largely resulted from the hiring of both male and female radio and TV storytellers to craft and narrate folktales and other types of folk stories. It is within this professional sphere of storytelling through Radio Amfani that the version of “The Wicked Stepmother” I am examining was recorded. The narrator in this case was a young female radio storyteller working for one of the private radio stations in Niamey, the capital city of Niger, during the summer of 1997. What follows is my English translation of her version of this tale.

The Story of the Orphan Girl Who Married the Prince of Masar

“Here it goes, here it comes to you” [a formulaic opening in Hausa tatsuniya]. Once upon a time, in a far away land, there was a trader with his two wives. One wife was called Delu and she had four children, who were all girls. The name of the second wife was Rakiya. And Rakiya had only one female child, whose name was Facima. In this polygamous living arrangement, Rakiya was more favored than Delu by their husband. And this was the origin of the rivalry that defined their daily shared living.

It is within these conditions that, one day, Rakiya fell sick and died. However, before she passed away, she called her co-wife, Delu, and asked her if she would promise her to take good care of her daughter, Facima. A few days after her mother’s death, Facima began to experience terrible hardship, for all the chores of the household became her sole responsiblity. This terrible situation reached such an extent that she was not allowed to eat the food she had cooked. She was only permitted to eat the burnt parts or leftovers. And even when she pounded millet for porridge and made the beverage, she was not allowed to have a sip of it. She could only drink the soaked husk. On the other hand, Delu and her children took delight in living off Facima’s labor, and their father had no ear for anyone besides Delu and her children. Thus, during that time Facima’s survival became completely unbearable.

However, one day their father was preparing to travel to a land called Masar [Egypt], and as he was ready to take off, Delu’s daughters rushed to him. The first one said, “Father, when you arrive in Masar, buy me a wrapper”; the second one said, “Buy me a dress”; the third one said, “Father, buy me shoes”; and the fourth one said, “Father, I request you to buy me a headscarf.” When the father was done with Delu’s children, Facima approached him. She had a data [a penny] in her hand. She said: “Father, here is my dala. When you arrive in Masar, buy me the prince of Masar with my dala.”

When the father arrived in Masar, he got busy first with his trading business. After days and days, when he was done with his trading priorities, he remembered his children’s gift requests and he spontaneously fulfilled each wish of Delu’s daughters. When it was Facima’s turn, he went to search for where the prince of Masar was on sale. When people realized that what he was looking for was not to be found in the market, they told him to go to the king of Masar’s palace. Maybe that would be the most appropriate place for him to get what he was looking for.

He rushed to the king’s palace, announced himself, and asked to speak to the prince of Masar. The guards indeed took him before the prince of Masar. Then he transmitted his daughter Facima’s request. When the prince of Masar heard it, he asked Facima’s father to return home and tell his daughter that “He himself, the prince of Masar will be coming to visit that same night; therefore, she must look for a place to hide herself, for he is visiting that night”

When he reached home and rested a bit, Facima’s father gave every daughter what she had requested. And when it was Facima’s turn, he told her in detail what he had discussed with the prince of Masar. When Facima’s rival sisters heard this, they said: “Serves you right! May they come to kill you!” Facima then entered her room and started to cry and kept saying that she had called this upon herself. She kept thinking that if she had known, she wouldn’t have made such a request to buy the prince of Masar.

When night came, the prince of Masar showed up at Facima’s as he had promised. Even though Facima’s room was closed, that did not prevent the prince from entering it. Moreover, he was so determined that he entered the room through its roof. As soon as he entered the room, Facima went into a trance and began to cry and shake her body. When the prince saw this, he asked her to stop crying, because he wanted her to know that he understood her intention. When Facima calmed down, they began to talk, she and the prince of Masar. When the conversation became sweet [interesting], Facima began to notice that every time the prince of Masar spit, a piece of gold dropped from his mouth. So, every day after their night meeting and courting Facima collected the drops of gold pieces that came out of the prince of Masar’s mouth and hid them in a closed jar.

They had been meeting for six months and things were as they were, when one day one of Delu’s daughters, who was very naughty, entered Facima’s room and out of her nosiness found a piece of gold. She couldn’t wait and as soon as she got out rushed to show it to her mother, Delu. And when Delu asked her daughter where she had found the piece of gold, the daughter replied, “In Facima’s room:’ When Delu heard this, she asked, “Who would give gold to Facima? Or has she begun stealing?” When the father came Delu informed him by saying, “Now, Facima steals. Nowadays, only a thief can get gold.” At this point they rushed into Facima’s room, searched her entire belongings, and collected all the gold that Facima had amassed. But this was not satisfying to Delu, who wanted to see the person who had brought this gold to Facima. She mounted a surveillance until she understood the way by which the prince of Masar got into Facima’s room. With this knowledge, Delu looked for needles and threads, which she planted in the route followed by the prince.

That same day the prince of Masar came to visit Facima as usual. He was not aware of the planned mischief by Facima’s stepmother, Delu. Then, kwaram [boom!] he fell down on those needles she had set to destroy him. These needles seriously penetrated the Prince’s body to the extent of causing him to vomit blood. When Facima saw this, her heart was shattered, because the prince, her lover, was on the brink of dying. On that day their nightly meeting was cut short, and the prince of Masar, feeling very sick, returned home quickly. Once he arrived home, the prince of Masar fell grievously ill.

When the king of Masar saw that his son was sick, he became very preoccupied and sought for help to heal his son. This led him to gather all the Malams [learned Muslim teachers] and all the Bokas [the traditional healers], who possessed the secret of healing. However, all the people gathered failed to cure the prince of Masar. This increased the king’s worries. When the king realized this failure, he called upon experts beyond his national boundaries for a cure. The king also promised to reward the successful healer with a great deal of wealth.

Meanwhile, Facima became very concerned, for the prince of Masar had not visited for several months. She began to think that probably the disease was sucking away her lover’s strength. She then said, “There will be no rest for me:’ She decided first to shave her hair to complete baldness. Then she looked for traditional Muslim male attire: white pants, a white jallabiya, and a white turban. She put on the clothes and wrapped the turban. Then Facima looked for a small Islamic slate and a gourd of water and disguised herself as an Almajiri [a young male Muslim student wandering to proclaim devotion to Allah while living on sadaka (charity) ]. She was all in white. She went in exile from her land and headed for Masar without notifying her family or any other person.

She walked for a long, long time across forest and bush areas. When she became exhausted, she rested in the shade of a great tree. While resting she overheard some birds chatting from the branches of the tree above her. They were telling one another in song: “May a holy person pass by and collect our excrement spread here on the ground below this tree, mix it, and give it to the prince of Masar. Once he drinks the potion, he will be cured” The birds kept repeating the song, and Facima made certain to catch its details. Once the birds finished their conversation and flew away, Facima got up and collected their excrement. She filled up her gourd and resumed her journey to Masar.

As soon as she arrived in Masar, she headed for the king’s palace. She announced herself and introduced herself to the guards of the palace, who mistook her for an Almajiri. They asked her what had brought her to the palace, and Almajiri replied, “I came to heal the prince:’ When the chief guard heard this, he said, “Please, Almajiri turn back if you want to keep yourself alive and in peace. How can you a mere Almajiri succeed where famous Malams and Bokas have failed!” But the young Almajari insisted that he must be introduced to the king. Once the guard saw how determined Almajiri was, he took his hand and led him to the king.

The guard informed the king of the child’s intent. After the king listened to Almajiri’s story, he told him, “Alright boy! I heard you and I agree. However, if you don’t succeed in healing my son, I will kill you. And if you succeed in healing him, you can request anything you would like, even if that means to grant you my throne” At this point, Almajiri asked to be led to the prince of Masar.

When Almajiri arrived at the prince’s place, he saw his lover, meaning “she” saw “her” lover, in great pain, completely worn out, and close to dying. He then asked for water. After the water was brought to him, Almajiri asked the crowd to leave him alone with the prince of Masar. [Facima did not reveal herself to her lover.] Once in private with the prince, Almajiri opened his gourd, poured the birds’ excrement in a plate, and mixed it up for him to drink. As soon as he drank the concoction, the prince kept vomiting until all the needles in his body came out. And he was instantly cured!

Once the king saw his son cured, he asked Almajiri what reward he would prefer. Right there, Almajiri replied nothing extraordinary, just three simple items. First, he wanted the prince’s finger ring; second, he wanted the prince’s turban; and third, he wanted the prince to promise to punish whomever afflicts him, unless it is Almajiri (in case he wronged the prince). Right there, Almajiri was granted all his requests. He was given the turban and the prince of Masar’s ring, and the prince swore to keep his promise. After this event Facima, still disguised as Almajiri, returned to her homeland where she resumed her old life of hardship at the hands of Delu, the cruel stepmother.

However, Facima’s rival half-sisters were not happy with her return. In fact, both her stepmother and her half-sisters wished she had died. They would have felt relieved of her presence in the family household. A few days after her return home, the prince of Masar decided to visit Facima’s homeland in order to kill her, for he believed she was the cause of his sickness. Upon arriving at her house, he took out his sword and was ready to cut off her head. When Facima realized that he was determined to kill her, she rushed to say to him: “Forgive Almajiri in the name of the promise you made to him. Please for Allah’s sake, forgive Almajiri. Prince of Masar, spare me, Almajiri, who cured you!” When the prince of Masar heard this, he was deeply surprised and dropped his sword. Then he wanted to know who had informed Facima of Almajiri’s story. Right there, Facima began to tell her story to her lover-from her life with a cruel stepmother to her entry into his father’s palace to save him from the wicked doing of her stepmother.

After she finished narrating her story, the prince of Masar, not quite convinced, told her, “If you are telling me the truth, you must show me a proof of that!” Facima then quickly fetched his finger ring and his turban and showed them to him. Even with this proof, the prince was not convinced. He told her, “But Almajiri was a boy!” Facima then took off her headscarf and showed him how she had shaved her hair to baldness. When the prince of Masar saw that, he was so touched by Facima’s truth and commitment to their love that the blood running in his body cooled down. He believed Facima. The prince told her: “I must return home to talk to my people. They must come to ask for your hand. We must get married”

As soon as he reached home, as he had promised, the prince of Masar sent his people to Facima’s parents. When they arrived, they introduced themselves and informed Facima’s parents of the purpose of their mission. When the stepmother heard them, she jumped up and warned them to go away, for they misunderstood whose hand they were to ask for. She told them, “You must have been sent to ask for the hand of one of my daughters. Go back to the prince and ask for more clarification!” And the go-between said, “No, the prince was clear and we clearly heard him. He asked for Facima’s hand” The stepmother, Delu, sent them off, and Facima’s father did not intervene one way or the other.

After he heard his representatives’ account, the prince of Masar decided to go himself to ask Facima’s parents for her hand in marriage. He made it clear to Delu that he was not there for any of her daughters. The marriage was celebrated before the evil eyes of Delu and her jealous daughters. The prince of Masar took Facima to his father’s palace in Masar, and they are still living there to this day enjoying life! In fact, they gave birth to five chilfren, “Well, well! Tale return on the head of Hyena” [an ending of Hausa folktales].

Analysis of the Fairy Tale

In this section, I turn to an analysis of the motifs within this fairy folktale that reflect the syncretism between Islam and African spirituality, a syncretism which also inspired the narrator who developed this version of the “Cruel Stepmother.”

The folktale begins with an introduction of the main characters and provides the names of the major players of the story, such as the cruel stepmother, Delu, her co-wife Rakiya, and her daughter Facima. These three names are important for understanding the Hausa naming system. While Delu is a name of non-Islamic origin that is typically given to a child born shortly after the death of her father, the names Rakiya and Facima are clearly of Islamic derivation. Here, then, we witness a dual heritate of naming, part Islamic and part indigeneous. But the name Delu also symbolically opens the possibility of non-Islamic conduct on the part of the stepmother. The husband is introduced simply by his occupation, trading, and we also know that Delu has four daughters whose names are not revealed. The husband’s namelessness foreshadows the decline in his authority and his reduced function in the story. As for the four daughters, since both their actions and attitude toward Facima are dictated by their mother, Delu, their identification by name is less important than their actions.

However, the identification of the husband as a “trader” from a forest and bush land who brings his ware to Masar points toward the trans-Saharan trade that linked the Sahelien population, among whom are the Hausa, with the peoples of North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe during the Middle Ages. Moreover, as historians such as Ibn Battuta have reported, trade is always associated with the inception of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as in other parts of the world visited or conquered by Islamic peoples.

We also learn that the wicked psychology of the stepmother evolves as the result of unfair treatment by her polygamous husband. Polygamy is a matrimonial practice that was prevalent among the Hausa both before and after their conversion to Islam (which allows a man to marry up to four wives). However, Islam also demands fair and equal treatment of the wives (Qur’an, Sura 4:3). By violating this tenet and favoring Rakiya (Facima’s mother), the father in this narrative essentially sets the stage for the animosity and cruelty that develops after Rakiya’s death allows Delu to regain her husband’s attention and avenge her mistreatment. Inevitably, Facima becomes a living reminder of what Delu suffered while Rakiya was alive, and, as a result, Delu breaks her promise to the dying Rakiya to take care of her daughter. In Hausa Islamic understanding this represents the breaking of amana (cin amana), a violation of trust. This type of violation has a negative moral implication, especially when it involves the violation of an orphan. After all, the Qur’an makes it clear that orphans are to be maintained with fairness and justice, and spoken to with kindly speech (Sura 4:24).

It is ironic, however, that Facima’s mother, who enjoyed preferential treatment over her co-wife, would ask Delu to make and abide by the amana to take care of her orphan daughter upon her death. One would assume that, given the rivalry and the jealousy endured by Delu, Facima’s mother would not expect such a promise to be fufilled. But the myth suggests that Delu does in fact accept the amana to care for Facima, and by failing to abide by that pledge, Delu acts contrary to the Hausa Islamic conception of mutumniya mai kirki (a kind woman) or mutumniya wai zuciya d’aya (a woman with one heart)-that is, a “good” person endowed with imani or compassion.

In the aftermath of Rakiya’s death, Delu’s internalized bitterness begins to unfold, as does Facima’s tragic fate in her hands from that point on. Moreover, Facima also experiences her father’s distance, silence, and complacency in the face of the cruelty of her stepmother and stepsisters. There is a Hadith, a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, that when a Muslim sees a wrong being committed (s)he should stop it with his/her hands; if (s)he cannot, then (s)he should stop it with his/her words; and if (s) he cannot, then (s)he should at least feel saddened by the wrong being done. And that is the lowest level of faith in Islam. The father’s obliviousness to Delu’s wickedness and Facima’s suffering thus places him outside the referential conduct of this Hadith.

As already mentioned, the depiction of the father as a detached character is important for the unfolding of the tale. This depiction allows the stepmother’s cruel psychology to evolve out of an unusually excessive desire to avenge herself and her daughters for her husband’s past unfairness. Thus, while the death of his preferred wife pushes the husband to lean on Delu’s affection and her pledge to care for his orphan daughter, this new monogamous restructuring of the household and Delu’s status as a surrogate mother to Facima provide her with the means to dominate everybody. Facima is, thus, left alone in her struggle.

Equally important in the Afro-Islamic construction of the story is the journey to Masar from the land of forest and bushes that corresponds to the Sahelian savannah where the Hausa live. The importance of Masar can be interpreted from several angles. First, Masar (Egypt) is the first Saharan region in Africa where Islam took hold. This resulted from its conquest by the forces of Umar, the second Khalif of Islam, in the first half of the seventh century. Because of the cultural affinity between the Hausa people and the rest of the populations of the Saharan region, this historic beginning has special meaning in the religious imagination of the Hausa people. Second, Masar was historically one of the resting sites in North Africa for sub-Saharan Muslims on their religious pilgrimage to Mecca, known as Hajj, before the development of modern transportation systems. In more modern times, Masar has also become an important site of Islamic learning and cultural activities for Muslims throughout the world. It is the home of the leading (and one of the oldest) Islamic universities, Al-Azhar, and of some of the most influential Muslim thinkers in modern times. Thus, in Hausa culture a journey to Masar is both an act of religious significance and a means to exhibit economic status, for Masar is also a major trading center for merchants through– out the Muslim world. All in all, then, Masar represents a site of cultural convergence where Afro-Islamic populations, such as the Hausas, interact with other African and non-African populations.

Third, Masar also has a Qur’anic reference that goes back to pharaonic Egypt: Moses tells his followers, “Get ye down to Masar [Egypt] -for ye shall have what ye have asked” (Sura 2:58). Moses is here, of course, rebuking the Jews for complaining about the hardships of the desert as they migrated to Jerusalem. But the passage also alludes to Masar as a place where one can secure any form of material desire-good or bad. In keeping with the spirit of this verse, the daughters of Delu in this Hausa version of the Cruel Stepmother expect their father to bring from Masar the gifts they had requested. But more importantly, it is from Masar that Facima hopes to gain the freedom she yearns for. Unlike her sisters, whose choices exemplify a naked materialism, Facima sees the material opportunities of Masar as a means to a higher ideal of freedom and as a possible site for the transformation of power relations. Moses failed to humble the pharaon. But in her assumed identity of a “mere” Almajiri, Facima succeeds in humbling the royalty of the city: in his desperation to find a cure for his son, the king of Masar agrees to give up his throne to Almajiri, while the prince himself becomes eternally indebted to his lover from the ranks of the down-trodden. It is through her journey to Masar that Facima is able to emerge as the victor over her wicked stepmother, Delu.

Unlike her half-sisters, Facima offers her own money for the purchase of her gift from Masar. In this way the narrator signifies Facima’s autonomy from her father and her lack of expectation regarding gifts from him. This contrasts with her siblings, who are close enough to the father to feel comfortable requesting gifts without offering any money. As the storyteller puts it: “When the father was done with Delu’s children, Facima approached him. She had a dala [a penny] in her hand. She said: `Father, here is my dala. When you arrive in Masar, buy me the prince of Masar with my dales: ” Although requested innocently, the item of her desire-that is, the prince of Masar-symbolically epitomizes the power whose acquisition might eventually liberate her from the claws of her cruel stepmother, and thus is another illustration of her autonomy. In most versions of the story of the Wicked Stepmother told in Hausa culture the mistreated stepdaughter is depicted as a weak, sorrowful, and unimaginative character waiting for either the assistance of the ghost of her deceased mother or a God-sent savior to liberate her. This modern version, however, offers, through Facima’s actions, an alternative representation. Here we see a young woman actively using her mental faculties in an attempt to create the conditions for her freedom from subjugation.

Facima’s daring request for the prince of Masar, her father’s search for him, the prince’s belligerent determination to meet this audacious young woman from the forest land, his secret nightly visits to Facima, and his spitting of gold pieces are all elements of this modern version that lend additional mythical meaning to the tale. For instance, the spitting of gold could be interpreted as symbolic of the role that gold played in the tran-Saharan trade between Muslim populations of the Sahel, where the Hausa live, and their partners from the North. In addition to re-enacting the importance of gold in Afro-Islamic transactions, the incident also foregrounds the significance of gold in Hausa culture as a gift of love from a man to a woman.

That the prince spits gold is also used as a pretext in the story for yet another exploration of Delu’s wickedness. This new revelation in Facima’s life leads Delu to plot to eliminate the prince with poisoned needles planted on his route. The prince becomes severely sick after falling prey to Delu’s machinations, compelling Facima to undertake a journey to Masar in search of a cure to heal her lover. An important Afro-Islamic element is again introduced at this point. In this attempt, Facima cross-dresses and shaves her head to pass as a male. In addition, she carries an Islamic slate and gourd, items that usually characterized itinerant Malams, Muslim priests. The narrator’s inspiration for this disguise was most likely the form of attire often worn in a quasi-Islamic parody called Taushe, a form of entertainment during the month of Ramadan which can involve comic disguises and cross-dressing to satirize the religious literati or provide a social commentary against wrongdoing in the community. To this extent Facima’s disguise is also a symbolic message against the prevailing oppressive order in her life. The Islamic male disguise, then, allows Facima to escape from her hometown without the suspicion of her relatives and members of the community. It also assists her in fooling the guards, the king, and even her beloved prince in order to gain access to the prince and administer the cure that eventually heals him.

The white color of Facima’s disguise may also have an Afro-Islamic symbolic meaning. In Hausa Bori, spirits that appear in white are identified as positive and non-malevolent. And in Islamic culture, white represents purification of the soul, body, and action. Facima’s choice of white clothing, then, not only conforms to a Hausa Islamic male dress code, but it also projects the purity of her intentions and actions in relation to her planned trip to Masar to visit and cure her lover, the prince. Hers is a whiteness of declared innocence.

It is also important to look at how the narrative suggests a shrinkage of time and space. The prince of Masar pays a daily visit to Facima who resides in a faraway land, a journey that in actuality might involve weeks and even months of travel on the back of a camel or a horse. This seemingly unreal characterization of space-time accords perfectly with the “magical realism” of Hausa and other African oral literatures generally, a quality that has clearly influenced some modern African imaginative writings. But this shrinkage of time and space could also have been inspired by the Islamic tradition of miraj, of Prophet Muhammad’s journey to the heavens and back. In one version of this account, the angel

Gabriel came to Muhammad at night, mounted him on a winged beast called Buraq, and took him to Jerusalem, where Muhammad led all the prophets [of the past] in prayer. Then Gabriel took Muhammad up through the seven heavens, introducing him to all the angels and the prophets [of old] residing in each of them and then to hell and paradise. Finally Muhammad went alone into the presence of God. (Chittick 117)

By morning the prophet was back in Mecca. Within a single night, therefore, the prophet traversed the horizontal distance between Mecca and Jerusalem and the vertical distance between the earth and heavens, all in the age of the camel. He further traveled centuries backward in time, all the way to the time of Adam. The daily trips of the prince of Masar thus seem to have been framed within both the Islamic tradition of mi’raj and the indigenous tradition of magical realism.

Another important Afro-Islamic convergence relates to Facima’s ability to hear the language of the birds. This is partly derived from the African cosmogonic worldview, which presumes a symbiotic relationship between the living and nonliving and between humans and non-humanss in the universe. As Dorothy Blair puts it:

In the traditional animistic beliefs and mythology of Africa there is no dividing line between life and death, between animate and inanimate objects, between animals and humans. All these partake of the same essence and contribute to each other’s total experience of existence. An animal, a child, or a wooden statuette can obtain the spirit of a dead ancestor. (Qtd. in Larson 27)

Facima’s experience with the birds, then, essentially reflects this African spiritual understanding of the world we share. But the incident of Facima and the birds may also have an Islamic origin based on the Solomonic tradition. The Qur’an tells us that Allah granted Solomon the ability to hear birds and learn from their wisdom. As the scripture says:

And in knowledge Solomon was David’s heir. And he [Solomon, using the royal “we”] said: “O men, we have been taught the speech of birds, and we are endued with everything. This is indeed a clear doon from God.” And to Solomon were gathered his hosts of Djinn and men and birds, and they were marched on in bands … (Sura 27:16-17)

Like Solomon, then, Facima is endowed with the capacity to hear and understand “bird language.”

Within the Islamic imagination birds also have special significance. This myth goes back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad when he was fleeing from Mecca to Medina-the event that marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. On the way the prophet hid in a cave. When his pursuers from Mecca arrived at the site they did not suspect that the prophet was hiding within, partly because there was a dove sitting on its eggs at the entrance of the cave. Inspired by this tradition, then, the bird has come to feature in a number of Afro-Islamic narratives as some kind of a “savior” of the oppressed.

Just as Facima understands the birds, however, the birds too have some comprehension of the goings on in the world of humans. They are fully aware that the prince of Masar is critically ill and that only their excrement can cure him. Within some indigenous healing practices, it is not forbidden to use the excrement of animals for medicinal purposes. In Islam, on the other hand, excrement is najs -a religious impurity. But here, too, what is illegal becomes legal under critical conditions of life and death. Within this Afro-Islamic perspective, then, the use of najs to cure the prince of Masar further underscores the extent of his seemingly incurable disease.

Throughout the tale, the narrator consistently develops Facima as an intelligent character with tremendous foresight. Thus, she is able to anticipate that her own beloved prince might not believe that she did not cause his sickness, or that she disguised herself as a man during her successful quest for a cure to heal him. When the prince eventually confronts her and demands that she prove her version of the story, Facima is able to present the three intimate items she had requested from him-namely, his turban, his ring, and his promise not to harm Almajiri. This demonstration of innocence, intelligence, and foresight is what earns Facima, the molested orphan, her freedom from the claws of the cruel stepmother and the complicity of a father who abandoned her, and her rise to the heights of Masar’s hierarchical social structure. Her crucial role as the successful healer who saves the life of the prince of Masar makes her the most powerful woman within the palace. As Sura 2:58 of the Qur’an commands-“Get ye down into Egypt [Masar] ,-ye shall have what ye ask for”-Facima goes to Masar, humbles the power structure, acquires her freedom, and lives happily ever after as the wife of the prince of Masar.


As I have demonstrated above, this is a version of The Wicked Stepmother story that demonstrates a cultural syncretism that heavily incorporates an Islamic dimension. For all practical purposes it is an Afro-Islamic narrative. Given the historical male predominance in Hausa Islamic literacy, the initial “Islamization” of this and, indeed, many other Hausa folktales from the female domain of tatsuniya may have originated from a male transcription of the tale. The narration of this particular version in the 1990s, however, takes place in the context of new attempts to reinscribe the Muslim woman as a significant player in Islamic discourse. Facima is ultimately a product of this reconfigured Afro-Islamic space in Hausaland, enhanced as it is by the new technologies of communication. What emerges in this Hausa version of Cinderella is a tale of liberation that represents women’s agency over their destiny and their triumph over oppression.

Rutgers University

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