Naja is a novel that weaves together the story of women’s social challenges in both urban and rural areas. It addresses the issue of insecurity, communal conflicts, and politics. The novel adopts a multidimensional approach to projecting the issues of northern Nigerian society, especially as it relates to women.
The novel Naja reminds me so much of Zaynab Alkali’s The Stillborn. The two stories are related and different at the same time. They are both set in Northern Nigeria and tell the story of the ordeals of the girl child in the Northern family set up. Just like Li in The Stillborn, who is determined and works very hard to achieve a better life against all odds, Naja wants more from life. Naja is married off at a very young age to her father’s friend, whom she had no affection for, but she wanted to see what lies on the other side of the wall. Thus her journey to becoming the woman she turns out to be begins.
She revolts against the forced marriage, but she is unable to leave her husband’s house as she has no sanctuary, noting the culture of her people. She continues to bear the ordeals but denies her husband his conjugal rights, an act considered a taboo. However, her denial of sex could not be sustained anymore when she needs money for the treatment of her sister Kaamila who is infected with Vesico Vaginal Fistula (VVF). The unbearable condition of Kaamila requires a surgical procedure to stop the leakage of urine. As such, her need for money eventually makes her succumb to her husband’s sexual urge in exchange for his financial support to pay for Kaamila’s surgery. Sadly, her husband defiles her and refuses to pay for the surgery, as earlier agreed. Naja is battered by her husband on false allegations of infidelity; she runs to Anty Zahra, a lawyer who visited the village and meets her by chance, becoming her saving grace. Naja offers to go with Anty Zahra to her home in Abuja; to work for her as a maid, in exchange for Anty Zahra footing Kaamila’s hospital bill.
Women in some countries across the globe also face a similar fate. Women are seen to give themselves to men in exchange for different favours all in a bid for survival. Sometimes in exchange for shelter, a job, school fees, food, out of fear, and other needs. When they have nowhere to turn, that seems the only available option to forge ahead. But, more often than not, they are scammed and end up not getting the promised favour.
The heroine has a lot to teach us. Unlike many African women who would give up their dreams for marriage, Naja dared to try to tow another path, which is to be useful to herself and to society. She does not sit and do nothing about her situation and helps out as much as she can. Her resistance, strong-will, and inquisitiveness led her to uncover new ideas and information, which she uses to the advantage of women in her society.
Naja frowns at how her co-wives who are comfortable with sending their children out to hawk before getting money to spend, in spite of the fact that their husband, Mallam Ilu, is seen as a wealthy man in his community.
She also frowns at the idea of giving only male children western education. Under the guise of teaching women Islamic education, she reorients them with issues of everyday life – health, marriage, trading, and issues of social concern in their community, transforming the school that supposedly teaches the Quran to a place of social interaction and economic activities for the women. She encourages women to be assertive in handling their marital affairs or running their homes.
Naja also defies her father and takes her sister to the hospital for delivery to save her life even though it is considered ‘haram’ for a man to see the nakedness of a woman who isn’t his wife. She is able to save her life, despite it being almost too late as the baby is lost, and Kaamila ends up with Vesico Vaginal Fistula (VVF).
By and large, Safiya Ismaila Yeroin Naja defies the norm and culture of silence by telling the story as it is in Northern Nigeria. The heroine is a strong woman who, against all odds seeks a better life for herself and the women around her. This is the path every woman should thread to bring about true development.
Enakeno Victoria Oju