Big People’s Wife: By Molara Wood

Dear Habib,

By the time you get this letter, I will be dead. We have asked you to come home after your final exams in two weeks, but I know I cannot hold on until then. 

‘Nothing more we can do for you at this stage, Hajia,’ the Chief Medical Officer had told me at the specialist hospital in Zaria, so I asked to be brought home to Funtua. I have returned to this house that has nurtured me and kept my secrets safe, kept our secrets safe. Salisu – you remember Salisu? He had this depth of sadness in his eyes when he said we mustn’t give up, that I should be flown abroad, perhaps to England where you are. But I said no, enough. Use up our life savings when I know within me that my time is near? We have struggled with my illness for two years and it has only grown progressively worse. And so I have accepted my fate. I am fortunate to have Salisu and his wife Fatima as my constant support. Allah has granted me a rare blessing, which is the calm measure of my own end. Today is a Friday and I hear the call of the muezzin. Nothing is hidden from Allah, he intones, Allah sees all things. Habib, there are truths I must lay bare to you. 

And so, I am writing this letter to tell you my story, which is also your story. It is also Salisu’s story, and Fatima’s story. To those around here, Salisu is my handyman, the driver who became an overseer on my property. His Excellency the Alhaji had hired him to help look after the rolling acre I got as sadaki after the nikkah, and to drive me in the Volvo Alhaji threw in as icing on the dowry cake. Salisu and Fatima occupied the outhouse as their staff accommodation. But Salisu has been much more than that, I must tell you, my son. As for Fatima, she became more like a sister to me. I need you to understand how we evolved my somewhat unusual arrangement with these two people, for it has brought me peace and comfort, even love. No doubt it would have scandalised the old circle in Zaria, not least my late parents, if they had known. 

To write this letter, I have lifted myself out of bed and summoned my last strength to sit at the mahogany desk in my room. The desk is by the window, you may remember; and when I look up from this vantage point on my upper floor, I imagine you looking out the same window as you read these words. If you look intently enough and the day is clear, you may see the elongated shapes of the poultry farm and its corrugated aluminium roofing that once reflected the sun and the skies but which have long rusted brown. And beyond that, so far down the lay of the land it cannot be gleaned from this window, the fish farm. Two endeavours I embarked upon after my marriage to His Excellency the Alhaji, and which could not have flourished without Salisu’s dedicated hands. 

Although this letter will be left unsealed on this desk, it will hold its secrets until your arrival. Salisu speaks little English, as you may recall from those times we visited you at King’s College, before you proceeded to England. Fatima speaks only Hausa. It was partly on their account that I stressed the need for you to master the language, and why I encouraged you to study Hausa and Arabic at SOAS as a second degree. I am happy there will be no language barrier on your return because you will need to understand Salisu and Fatima, and you. You may wonder why. Yi hakuri. To tell it, I must go back to a time before you were born. 

You see, when I finished at Ahmadu Bello University all those years ago, I found that the next thing on everyone’s mind was for me to get married. They quickly ruled out Abdullahi, a fellow student at ABU. Abdullahi and I used to take leisurely walks on campus, sometimes to the dam; other times we lingered in the Love Garden, gazing across at Ribadu Hall. Inspecting the fruits of neem and cashew trees, we talked dreamily about the future. 

My mother’s friends tut-tutted at the mention of Abdullahi, saying, ‘Kai, this girl! Haba.’

‘Who is the boy’s father?’ asked one, raising her hand to inspect the fresh lalle, the calligraphy of a henna artist. 

‘Who is his mother? Who are they?’ asked another.

‘Where do they live?’ My mother’s sister did not wait for an answer, since there could be no satisfactory response. 

‘This Abdullahi, his family, who have they married?’ asked one Hajia. ‘Who do we know that has married them?’

My mother turned down her mouth and shrugged conspiratorially. The questions were also her questions. I knew they were mere cover for the real questions, aimed at sniffing out Abdullahi’s pedigree, the antecedents of his family. Did we run into them in the Gold Souk in Dubai? Did we see them at Umrah, or were they folks who only went to Mecca when the Pilgrims Commission paid or organised airlifts? The questions were also about money, who had and who had not. Old money, but more than that, old glory. I resented their class snobbery, but what was I to say? Abdullahi was from a modest background. His father and grandfather did not go to Barewa College, but he was kind and had acquitted himself well at university; that was all that mattered to me. In the end, it wasn’t up to me; Abdullahi married a girl paired with him by both their families. A friend showed me photos of his nikkah, and there he was, beaming next to the veiled bride. 

My mother’s friends tried to school me on the socially acceptable marriage. They adjusted their silk robes as they chattered in the glass-screened lounge next to our roofed inner courtyard. I suppose there was a part of me that longed to be like the women in my mother’s circle one day. They were fragrant, witty, and clear-eyed. They came from money, they married money, and in so doing, they consolidated money. Their Dutch wax blouses and skirts were made from the most exclusive Hollandais. They glided around in flowing silks, and satin abayas, Hermès scarves, hijabs and shawls and veils which they adjusted fluidly from time to time. Kwalli-lined eyes crinkled at the edges and modestly glossed lips parted in demure smiles as they held court. Every movement accentuated by 24-carat gold glinting from delicate ears and caressing jawlines, rows and rows of bangles swishing on their wrists. They were mildly amused at what they saw as my naivety concerning marriage, an affliction they were determined to rid me of, as they had been weaned of similarly inconvenient innocence in their younger days. Now they embraced fully the social mores of their class, tenets to which they had become fully subscribed.

‘You will marry,’ one said to me, ‘and insha Allah, you will remarry if it comes to it, wallahi.’  

Seated next to my mother was the radiant Hajia Maina, a doyenne of the group. Married four times, Hajia Maina was a true matar manya, Big People’s Wife. When her first husband, an absent-minded industrialist and scion of a groundnut pyramid fortune, forgot her on their trip to Singapore and boarded a flight for a business meeting in Paris without her, several rich Alhajis sent their Mercedes Benzes to meet her at Kano airport on her return. It was the end of the marriage, but the talk of Zaria was the courtly jostle for her by some of the most eligible men in the north. Men who had their hands full with wives and assorted concubines. 

As my mother told me, ‘Hajia Maina is sought after not only because of her many attributes, which are plain to see, but also for the caliber of her husbands.’ Men who ruled their world pining for a woman who knew her way around in the world, who lived well and deserved men of means and status to keep her in the required standard.

Hajia Maina’s second husband was a big man at the port in Apapa. He came up north once a fortnight, and she still had to take her turn in the roster of wives. So she settled into a life of enchanted leisure and sensuous piety, cocooned in the trappings of her husband’s wealth. She kept busy with a hectic round of social events, regularly lounging with women of her circle over teas – Harrods selection box, spiced Arabian tea poured from a flask into multicoloured Moroccan glasses. Complementing the teas – honeyed-dough alkaki, syrupy dubulan, donkwa, chin-chin, and other local treats – and shortbread in tins with Knightsbridge embossed on them. They were big on spiced meats – dambu nama, balangu and beef jerky; they tucked in with relish, saying, ‘Kai, this kilishi is good.’ Henna artists were on hand to ink their hands and feet in intricate lalle designs in red and black as they feasted. They giggled and whispered secrets about how to keep the men enthralled when they did have their time with them. And every so often, the conversation turned to how to get their offspring married off well. The hennaed ladies around my mother retained the same ease and openness for themselves regarding the unending possibility of new starts. 

‘The more highly placed or wealthy our previous husbands, the more our value and desirability increases with prospective suitors,’ Mother’s sister told me. 

I must confess, my dear Habib, that I remained skeptical. Truly, many women of a certain age in my world had been married many times.

Hajia Maina said there was a method to it all. ‘The idea is to marry up,’ she told me. Her gold tooth gleamed as though to buttress the point. ‘Marry a man more powerful and wealthier than the last. That way, you maintain your social cachet, you stay ahead. No time for regrets.’ Hajia Maina dabbed at a trickle of perspiration on her milk-fair forehead and asked for the AC to be turned up. 

You might say she was prepping me with the toolkit for women of our class living out their enviable lives in the splendour of the north. 

Hajia Maina and the other women were paragons of the life they espoused. They had found the secret of some kind of happiness, and their lives, their way of being, flowed in tandem. Hajia Maina’s third marriage was to a governor who designated one of his other wives as first lady, leaving her to luxuriate in the shadows. When her marriages ended, she kept the mansions and the furniture, the gilt-edged chairs and the Tuareg leather pouffes. She kept cars and jewellery. Everything worth keeping. Money consolidating money. 

In time, I conceded that the henna session women had won a lottery of life, though I still nursed my bruised heart after Abdullahi walked so casually away. If I could just be like Hajia Maina, I would be fine, I felt. And then one afternoon, my mother sent me to deliver embroidered Senegalese boubous to Hajia Maina; the Dakar style was quite a trend in Zaria at the time. Arriving at the house, I was ushered to her bedroom wing and I walked in carefree as anything, as the door had been left open. And there she was, sprawled on her carved four-poster bed, weeping, the outlines of her body hazy under a torrent of mosquito netting. 

‘Hajia, what’s wrong?’ I rushed to her and pulled at reams and reams of netting until I was out of breath, and yet it remained a gauzy barrier between us. Her milky skin was streaked with tears and the kwalli was smudged around her eyes, such that she looked like some tragic queen condemned to an imperial chamber. Her head was bare and her hair, silken from some Arabian ancestor she could no longer trace, was a tousled vision. 

‘It’s nothing,’ she said, between sobs. ‘Wait for me in the parlour. I’m coming.’

I backed away slowly and looked around the room, anywhere but the figure on the bed. Such was my embarrassment at seeing Hajia Maina like this. It was like being let in on a terrible secret. A light curtain billowed in from an open window, porticoed on the outside, bringing slanted daylight and the bittersweet tang of overripe fruits from the orchard. 

‘It feels like being dead,’ I heard Hajia Maina say in a squeaky voice on the bed, oblivious to my continuing presence in the room. ‘A death. Like I am already dead.’

I retreated to the parlour and sat down. Her children were away in schools all over the world. Her fourth husband, a big shot in the Customs Service, was seen more on television than in person in Zaria. Mustapha, who organised Hajia Maina’s feeding of the almajiri who trooped to her compound after Friday prayers, sent in a platter of masa for me, with zuma and yaji on the side. I looked from the honey to the spicy ground-pepper and thought perhaps life was offering me a pathway, and that if it ever came to it, I must make a choice that was mine and mine alone. Not one imposed by society, as seemed to have happened with Hajia Maina. It might interest you to know that I did not touch the masa, inviting though it was. So disturbed was I at the scene I had just intruded upon. Mustapha also sent milky tea in a fluting metal cup on a miniature tray. I sipped the tea and waited. And waited. A muted durbar floated past on the television, flowing robes and turbans, reds and greens and golds, royal equestrian masters on decorated horses, and the throngs of spectators, outsiders and insiders joined by pageantry. The next day, Hajia Maina was back at our place, her usual self, eyes lined like Nefertiti, rich notes of oud wafting in her wake, like the scene in her bedroom never happened. 


It’s now Saturday, my Habib. I paused this letter yesterday so I could get some rest. Let me cut the story short and say that by the following year, I was the fourth wife of His Excellency the Alhaji. He was our ambassador to one of the European countries, where he lived with his official spouse. The first wife lived in Kano, the third in Kaduna, and so it went. For me, he chose Funtua, where he had investments in cotton and hoped to run for the senatorial seat one day. That was how I ended up in Funtua. Imagine, Habib: I was Alhaji’s placeholder for nebulous plans. Nothing to do with any plans or interests of mine. 

After the nikkah, we went on Hajj together, following which I acquired the title of Hajia. The house was ready on our return from Mecca. Away from my family and friends in Zaria, I was mostly on my own after I settled into this house; Fatima let slip that this was unusual for a woman of my status, but there was a part of me that treasured solitude. The conjugal rotation came around to me perhaps once a year, and then it stopped altogether. Between the official wife in Europe and those in various cities and the mistresses, there was no time for me, it seemed. I had become matar manya, Big People’s Wife. And with no hennaed ladies for fanciful pastimes. I came to a better understanding of what Hajia Maina had meant by feeling as though one was dead. 

But it was His Excellency the Alhaji that croaked suddenly in Dubai. He had a mistress in the room with him. They put his body on a plane home for immediate burial according to Muslim rites. At the Fidau, I noticed that there were eyes on me. As a young widow of an ambassador, I was matar manya, a spur for every man who considered himself fit to take on the mantle of His Excellency the Alhaji. And soon began a parade of suitors seeking to add me as a feather in their caps. Women also came as go-betweens – matriarchs, matrons and Hajias from Zaria. 

‘Think about it,’ they said with placatory gesticulations, ‘Matar manya ought to remarry and in befitting style, gaskiya.’ 

The last suitor came unannounced. A Bureau de Change magnate with a tenuous claim to one of the emirates, he swept into Funtua in a Bentley; his courtiers spilt out of a coaster bus in capacious robes and turbans, blowing on their kakaki and fiddling on the goje. A hail of noise that roused the entire neighbourhood. The suitor sat on Alhaji’s designated settee with his courtiers at his feet, or so I was told since I never saw him. By this time, the ambassador’s official flags had been removed from the behind settee, as we had dispensed with protocols on Alhaji’s death. 

‘These will make colourful table covers,’ Fatima had said as she took the flags with her to the outhouse. I should say that Salisu and Fatima would not be confined to the outhouse much longer. This whole place would become ours, everything on it, mine as well as theirs, as well as yours, my Habib. 

It’s Sunday, and I must conclude today so I can retire to my bed. I am drained from sitting at this desk as well as by the writing. And the remembering. So much that has gone unspoken until now as I write to you, my son. 

As for that last suitor, he left deflated, trailed by his courtiers, their musical instruments struck dumb. I had intended to meet with the suitor and listen to his empty words till he’d tire and take his leave. But my feet grew heavy as I left my room, so heavy that I saw no option but to sit at the top of the stairs. In that instant, a mental picture flashed in my mind: Hajia Maina trapped in the net of her charmed life in her bedroom. I heard myself muttering what she had said: It was as though I was dead. I had been dead a long time, Habib. Fatima, adjusting her wrap nervously around her shoulders, wheeled by several times to remind me of the August visitor, to no avail. When the suitor had left, Salisu shadowed the doorway at the bottom of the stairs, tall and lean-hipped in his jalabiya, shoulders so wide they seemed to fill the width of the doorframe. 

A dawning came upon me at that moment. I had walked the entire length of the land with him on many occasions, and together we had viewed the abutting lands I hoped to acquire. I had discussed with him the positives and negatives of businesses I thought we might start. Salisu knew Funtua, was born in Funtua; I relied on his local knowledge, his diligence, his trustworthiness, his gracious nature, and yet I had never given much thought to these, not until that moment seeing him in the doorway with the sun waning behind him. I realised then that Salisu was the most dependable man I had ever known. 

‘Toh,’ Salisu said resignedly. ‘The prince left, Hajia.’

‘I couldn’t, Salisu. I just couldn’t,’ I said, shaking my head. 

‘Such an important visitor, Hajia.’ 

Not knowing what more to say, I gripped the balustrade and made to get up, but my foot tripped on a step and I lost my balance. Arms flailing and my abaya and my wrap all a-tangle, I was falling down the stairs. But Salisu caught me just in time, and I was held firmly in his grip. And for reasons I cannot quite explain, I burst into tears.

‘Can’t you see I am dead, Salisu?’ I said. ‘Another marriage to a big man, it would be a death. And I cannot, I can’t die a second time.’ 

‘Ah, Hajia…’ Salisu wiped my tears with his sleeve and helped me slowly to my room. My body leaned heavily against his, my hands around his waist, his taut midriff, and his clean masculine scent. I felt the stubble of his chin, the lobe of kolanut in his breast pocket. He was sturdy as a Dongoyaro tree, and yet so gentle. 

‘It’s all right, Hajia,’ he said softly. ‘Yauwa. There’s no injury. You’re fine, Alhamdulillah.’

He stepped out of his footwear at the door of my room and assisted me to the bed. He sat me in my bed and lifted my feet onto the sheets, peeling off my slippers before he did so, my feet tingling at his touch. My hands clung to him, so he sat at the edge of the bed, his upper body leaning into me. Our eyes locked in that room with the dusk rolling in beyond the windows. My scarf slipped from my head and I think that was the first time Salisu saw my hair uncovered, and I felt he was seeing me anew. 

And the parade of suitors? Well, the grave insult to the last suitor deterred others, for one thing. Then word got out that I was pregnant. My people were joyful in Zaria, that Alhaji had planted a seed after all. What they didn’t know was that he had not been to Funtua nor had he sent for me in two years before his death. I think by now you know what I am trying to say, my dear son: His Excellency the Alhaji was not your father, and could not have been your father. One reason why, when we went to register your birth – Salisu, Fatima and me – we harked back to tradition, and chose for you a surname that honours where you were born. It may interest you to know that Salisu’s family name is also a homage to his birthplace: Funtua. 

We shut the world out during the pregnancy, secured the perimeter wall of our property and withdrew into our secluded lives. Salisu went out occasionally to scout for land for our poultry business and fish farm, and to transact on our behalf, order supplies and so on. Fatima did our household shopping at the market in Bisije; we also farmed a subsistence plot on the side. It was Salisu who went to the post office to send my letter to an old school friend, Maryam, who trained as a midwife but had decided to become a nun. Maryam came, took delivery of your birth here at home, and two days later, got back on the bus to head to the convent and was never seen again. 

I have jumped ahead of the story. You see, the morning after Salisu helped me to my room, I don’t know and cannot say what conversation he had with Fatima about where he had been. All I know is that I woke up alone, wondering if I had dreamt the night before, but the rumpled imprint beside me on the bed told its own story. I went downstairs to the dining room to find the table set. A fine spread for one. Sliced bread, boiled eggs, a tub of Blue Band, koko da kosai, creamy fura de nono, with a hot water flask on the side for tea. 

‘Breakfast is ready, Hajia,’ Fatima said, bringing a bowl for the lacy placemat at the head of the table.  

‘Na gode, ’I said, and without knowing why, I added, ‘Why not join me?’ 

She hesitated, then she turned and fished out more placemats from the side cabinet to set more spaces at the table. She went to the kitchen to get a bowl for herself. That was the first time we ate together. Salisu, she explained, had gone to show carpenters where to construct the first battery cage. Work was starting that day. A new life coming together. It was a long breakfast, with careful words tiptoeing round the table, and lingering silences. Salisu later sauntered by the open doorway and paused to see us. 

‘Come and join us,’ I called out. I had to say something.

Salisu looked from me to Fatima and back again. His arms hung by his sides.

‘Yes, come and eat,’ said Fatima. ‘Zo kazauna muchi abinchi. I’ll get you a bowl.’ Her chair scrapped the floor as she pushed it back and got up to head to the kitchen, looking over her shoulder at Salisu. He took halting steps to the table and stood with his hands on the back of the chair facing Fatima’s. I looked up but quickly turned back to face my teacup, each of us unable to meet the question in the other’s eyes. Fatima returned and placed the bowl on the placemat in front of Salisu, following which he pulled out the chair and sat down. After that, we always ate together, and gradually, I ceded the head of the table. After Salisu had been up to see me a few more times, I invited them to occupy the lower wing of the house, adjacent to the main living room. Salisu had his room at mezzanine level, at the top of a short staircase that connected to my wing, and Fatima had her room below; he was perched halfway between us. Somehow, things settled into some kind of rhythm. Some evenings he spent with her, some with me. And when he stayed by himself, we let him be. I know this all sounds like an odd revelation to make to one’s own son. But things being the way they are, the least I owe you is honesty as to the fullness and complexity of our lives. I hope you understand. 

Let me say a bit more about Fatima. I later learned that she and Salisu had lost a child in infancy, before they came to live here. And so I shared you with her even though she never asked, just as she shared her husband with me even though I never asked. A fair exchange, perhaps, one that filled some void in all our lives. It came as a surprise to me that it wasn’t life as one of several wives that I objected to so much; rather, it was the lack of attention of so many men, the way a woman could be by herself for long periods, left to her own devices, flighty bird in a gilded cage. 

As I admitted to Fatima one day in the layer section of the poultry farm as we picked still-warm eggs, ‘What got to me was the complacency of men like Alhaji in thinking women could be neglected, moved around or changed.’

Fatima tilted her head to one side, weighing my words. ‘The women also expected to trade men off, to move them around, from what I hear,’ she said.

‘Well, women try to make the best of the cards they are dealt, I think. Given the right circumstances, many women would play life differently.’ 

I refrained from telling Fatima that the source of my contentment in our little unit lay in my being part of the cohabitation on my own terms.

Salisu, Fatima, you and me – we lived in quiet harmony in those early years. We sent you to a local school while we grew the wealth off the acres rolling into the horizon a near-distance behind the house. We converted the outhouse into a warehouse for products off our farm. Our poultry and fish farms supplied markets across several states, not to mention eggs in many shops and supermarkets. I do want you to know, my dear Habib, that we only sent you down south, and later abroad, because by age ten, the angles of your face, the set of your eyes, your stature, revealed you as the very image of Salisu. We were afraid of what people would say, recalling the short and portly Alhaji. 

But that was then, my son. What matters now is that you will return, free of the past. Generations of camels have roamed forgotten in the Sahel, and now, finally, no explanation is owed or due to anyone. What you will come back to is the legacy we have carved for you – the assets, the sizeable fortune, the businesses, the clients, the farm staff, the investments. Salisu, Fatima and I – we have built all this, for you. It’s all in your name. This place along with everything on it, is yours, my son. I know you will build on it and pass it on to your children. I ask only one thing, my dear Habib: that you look after Salisu and Fatima and ensure their comfort and upkeep in this house, on this land, for the rest of their lives. I ask that you look with kindness upon them, especially now that you know what you are to them, and what they are to you.

I have been having a recurring dream of late: that it was Fatima who had a son and shared her son with me. Later in the dream we are in the layer section picking eggs and we chuckle, telling each other that, after all, when the egg is laid and rolls out of the battery cage, who really knows which hen laid it? I wake up thinking the dream is saying something to me, perhaps it says something to you too. 

And now I think I have said everything fit to write, my dear Habib. Allah shi maka albarka, this is goodbye. I must lie down now. I pray you have a good journey home. Marhabba, my beloved. I wish you a wonderful return. 

Your mother,