I met Zenab while working in a classroom for medically fragile pre-schoolers with multiple disabilities. My role was to facilitate functional communication skills and hers was to assist one of the students with daily g-tube administered meals and medications. She was a quiet, polite, and decidedly lighthearted young woman—I estimated she was in her late 20s. When she wasn’t on duty, she poured over textbooks–studying for her nursing school exams. It wasn’t until April of that school year that we had an exchange beyond pleasantries required of our working relationship.
As we sat around a kidney shaped table to eat lunch with the classroom teacher, two para educators, and our seven students, Zenab bit into a mango—through the skin—like you would an apple.
“Do you want me to get you a knife?” I asked her, trying to be helpful.
“Oh!” she said, embarrassed. “Do you think it’s a bad example for the students to eat it this way?”
I laughed. “No!” I replied, revealing my surprise that she would worry about that. “I’ve just never seen anyone eat the skin of a mango like that.”
“In Africa, I used to climb trees with my brother and sometimes sit there on a branch eating six or seven at once,” she mused nostalgically. It sounded kind of dreamy. As a child I loved climbing the apple tree in my backyard, but the fruit was small, sour, and practically inedible—hardly a sweet, juicy reward like a mango ripened by the hot, African sun.
“When did you live Africa?” I asked.
“My whole life—until about five years ago,” she replied.
As she casually began to tell stories of her tribe back in Yoko, Africa, I knew that in her life were clues to mysteries I hadn’t even thought to discover yet. I felt drawn to her and wanted to get lost in her life for a long time, pondering the differences in our experiences. Her life as a Muslim woman born to a wealthy, polygamist family in Yoko, Africa was entirely foreign to me. Perhaps more intriguing though was how I felt strongly identified with her—despite the fact we didn’t have much in common on a surface level.
In the summer of 2012, we began a journey of exploration together. One in which I had agreed to write a book about her story and she eagerly told me everything. We met every Monday, talking for 3-4 hours at a time—and recording our conversations. I spent the week between our visits listening to the recordings over and over again. I transcribed her words and immersed myself in her experiences. At the end of that summer, I began to write her memoir.
Hausa Blues is Zenab’s unforgettable, coming of age story. Born to a wealthy, polygamist, Hausa tribesman in the remote village of Yoko, Africa she seemed destined for a life of favor. But when at the age of 12, Zenab’s father expels his first wife from the family’s tribal compound, she resolves to avoid the spiritual death that defeated her mother by deciding to boldly strive for a modern, free life—like the Americans and Europeans that captivate her on the village’s only television set. Yet at the age of 16 she learns of her arranged marriage to a Hausa man, circumventing her aspirations to one day graduate from law school.
Wearing blue jeans and touting a penchant for carousing with Christian girls, her fiancé inspires hope that her role might veer off the traditional path of a submissive, servile Muslim wife. Yet, when her wedding is postponed due to a fatal car accident, it’s the beginning of a series of events that cause her to believe her sisters were right all along—someone has placed a malicious curse on her. Although bad fortune repeatedly thwarts the realization of Zenab’s vision for her life, serendipity intervenes when she crosses paths with a night manager at her local bus station—a man from a scorned, Christian tribe. This forbidden friendship empowers her to risk everything for the chance to reclaim her dream, igniting Zenab’s faith in both herself and others.