Hadiza el-Rufai: We Need More Northern Female Voices 

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Hadiza el-Rufai
  • Why My Husband Named His Book ‘Accidental Public Servant’
  • I Immortalised my daughter with the Yasmin El-Rufai Foundation

Kaduna State First Lady, Hadiza Isma el-Rufai’s down-to-earth disposition is, no doubt, a plus. She is committed to touching the lives of indigent people, particularly orphans, illiterate young girls, and women. Recently, her love for creative writing gave birth to her first novel, “An Abundance of Scorpions”, which was one of the books discussed at the just concluded Kaduna Book and Arts Festival. In this interview, el-Rufai speaks on meeting her husband, her writing career, gender issues, humanitarian work, and why the North needs many female voices, among others. Peter Uzoho brings the excerpts:

How did you meet your husband?

We met in school, we basically came into the School of Business Studies, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, the same year and we were just friends, and then of course one thing led to the other.

Did you see him then as someone promising, who could rise to the position he is today?

Not at all, not the kind of position you are thinking as governor. Let me tell you, my husband being in politics is totally out of the plan. I think that was why he named his book ‘Accidental Public Servant.’ Because that was never the plan, he had always been in the private sector. He’s a Quantity Surveyor by training; he has his Quantity Surveying firm for many years. I think the first time he was in government was when Abdulsalami Abubakar was governor where he served in one committee set up by the governor then, and later Obasanjo appointed him as minister of FCT.

Why is KABAFest so dear to you?

Of course you can see from the fact that I have always been here every day means that this Kaduna Book and Arts Featival (KABAFest) must be very dear to my heart. This is something I enjoy doing, I love being in the midst of writers and other creatives. I am the wife of the governor and of course I have to take up certain roles but those roles are not necessarily roles I love performing. This is what I consider my primary constituency, I love the environment, KABAFest, and since you have been here, I am sure you have been to some of the panel discussions; you can see how vibrant and interesting the discussions were.

Gender disparity, as concerns women, have been part of the discussions in this festival. Don’t you think we are late in starting conversations around such issues – gender discrimination and violence against women?

I guess they say, better late than never. You can argue that it’s late but I think some of the issues that are being discussed here should not be the issues in the year 2018, but unfortunately they’re still issues. But it’s a good thing because the starting point is to bring out these things and discuss them openly. That is why we always say KABAFest is a safe space, no judgment, people should be free to say what is on their mind and we should not judge each other.

How do you feel joining the league of writers? 

I am happy. I feel very great about it, especially as a Northern Nigerian woman. I think we need our voices, we need more Northern Nigerian women to write so that we know what they say about writing our own stories. It is better for you to write your own stories because if you don’t other people will write and they will skew it anyway they want. So it’s very important for us to keep writing our own stories. And I would like to encourage young women especially, to try their hands at writing.

After your book, An Abundance of Scorpions, what are we expecting next?

Well, I don’t want to say too much about it but I’m going to get a sequel. You know how writing goes, even if I tell you now this is how it’s going to be, it might end up being a totally different thing. But the only thing I will say is that I’m working on something at the moment.

How soon should we expect that to happen, because you are definitely going to be much engaged when the politicking begins fully?

Even now, I don’t get much time to write. I try to write, but you know there are other duties and things that get in the way. I guess that’s why writers go on writing retreat because when you go on writing retreat you know that’s what you are there for. You leave your environment and you know you are there to write. So like you rightly said, right now I don’t really have much time to write, but I guess maybe after the elections I will go away, somewhere where you guys cannot find me.

Your book, An Abundance of Scorpions, was inspired by what you saw in an orphanage and the role you played there. Can you share with us some of those things you found there that prompted the book? 

Yes, I started thinking about writing the book as a result of the work I did with the Abuja Children’s Home. Many a time I would go there, sit with the children and it made me often wonder, we are not conscious of our identity and how chance makes us who we are. People used to come to adopt and you know that is also a factor of chance because if a person adopts a child, most likely he will mould him towards his own identity. So I started thinking about that and I decided to write about a child growing in an orphanage, and of course one thing led to another and that’s how the book came to be.

How do we create a strong voice for Hausa literature to be globally appreciated in a world where English language seems to be dominant?

The two are important, Hausa literature is important, literature in the English Language about the Hausa community is also important. Why literature written in the Hausa Language is important is because at least it gets people to read. I think whatever makes people to read is a good thing. So there’s a vibrant book market especially in Kano, a lot of people writing in Hausa Language and many of our women read these stories that are coming out. So there are many of these books, and like you say, as Nollywood churn out movies, that’s how they churn out books in Hausa Language, which is very good. Because it’s getting people to write, to read, and I am sure within those books, there are talks on social issues as well that will make people think about social things. The point I am trying to make is that, it is all well and good but we should not forget to know that it is important to tell our own stories to the world at large, because the Hausa literature is just targeted towards a certain market, the Hausa speaking community. Like I was saying the other day that literature from Nigeria is usually from the perspective of the Southern part, and the Northern part from statistics is half of the country. So there’s another huge population out there that is overlooked, a large population whose culture is ignored. So we need to get those things and the only way you can do that is by writing in the English language. We can’t run away from it. Our indigenous languages are also important, we shouldn’t let them die but nobody can run away from the fact that in the world today, the English language is a very important means of communication.

Yasmin El-Rufai Foundation is a project that is so dear to you; can you tell us how it came about?

Well, as you can tell from the name of the foundation, I named it after my daughter that I lost in 2011 and she had interest in creativity and literary things as I myself do. So I thought the best way to imortalise her, to keep her memory alive was to set up a foundation in her name. So what we do at the foundation basically: we have two key programmes; the Women Literacy Programme and the Creative Writing Programme. In the women literacy programme, we target women that dropped out of schools; there are many of them that have dropped out of schools. Some dropped out of primary school, some have gone as far as JSS2 but they could not continue with their education. So we want to enhance, brush them up and let them be able to speak the English Language very well, have some basic numeracy skills that will help them in whatever trade they are doing. Even if you are selling, you really need to know that two plus two is four. So those kind of things are what we are trying to do. Another programme is the creative writing pogramme where we have workshops. We have already opened creative writing clubs in some schools and then we carry out workshops for young people.

How many people have graduated from these programmes since you began?

The programme took off a year ago. We have six centres in various places in Kaduna. In each centre, we have 25 women; we chose those women in collaboration with the communities and then we tested them because we want a certain category of people. We don’t want to deal with people that don’t even know ABC at all. So we ran it for about a year but a few days ago, we had a meeting where we reviewed what has happened and we realised that none of them is at the stage that we will say we are graduating them. So we are just going to roll them over and continue because the main idea is that we don’t just want to say we are churning out, we want to graduate people at the stage that we want them to be. And what we want them to be is that we want them to be able to stand up anywhere and speak confidently in the English Language, explain their products, what they are selling, whatever they are doing, and they have not reached that stage yet, but they have improved. Because we did a review recently and a lot of them were surprising to me, they have improved. You know, some of us take certain things for granted. A lot of the women were so happy that now they are able to help their children with their homework. Honestly I didn’t know that was an issue, some of us take things for granted when our children are growing up because we are educated. They  said before, we used to go to the neighbours and beg them to help our children with their homework but now we can do that. When I am in their midst I used to stay at the back and I hear them say it to themselves. So they are improving, but they have not reached the stage where we will say we are graduating them.

What is your position on the issue of affirmative action for women representation in politics?

I think it’s important, you know sometimes when you talk about affirmative action or quota system people only see the bad side of it. Because when you have a quota system or affirmative action it doesn’t mean you should lower the standard. For instance, now in the political field women have many reasons why they are not able to compete with men. So I think it’s a good thing if we could say maybe if you are looking for certain positions, certain numbers should be women. What this means is that for those roles or those offices, no man will compete together with the women. But it doesn’t mean you will just go and pick a nonentity and put her there. What it means is that you are just leaving it for women. So all the women that feel they are good enough can come and compete with themselves so that you pick the best amongst them, and you know that indeed they are very good women. I think because of our culture and so many things, unless we do that, we are not really likely to see any improvement.

Can we tie these women’s challenges to low level of girl-child education?        

Of course, because the girls are already disadvantaged; you enroll boys and girls 50:50 but they don’t finish, the boys finish but the girls don’t, they drop out. So it’s important that we make sure that girls continue and finish.

Is there anything you are doing to encourage the girls to, at least, be able to compete with the boys?

That’s what the foundation is doing through the women literacy programme and we are doing all of that without any support from the government.