In the ’50s, when Nigeria was still a British colony, a few Lebanese film exhibitors decided to try something new. Instead of expensive American movies, they brought in Bollywood films. It was a stupendous success particularly in the Nigerian city of Kano, home to the Hausa people. Even in 1997, Mother India played to packed houses there. Most remarkably, there emerged in the ’80s a genre known as “love literature” or soyayya literature that was inspired by Bollywood. Over 20 years later, soyayya is as popular as ever and has become an important tool in Hausa women’s campaign to modernise their community.
The Hausa adopted Islam in the 11th century and remain strictly conservative. It may seem strange that they identify with the melodrama of Bollywood, which is predominantly Hindu. But pared to just imagery, expressions and music, commercial Hindi cinema struck a chord. Unlike American films, Hindi blockbusters – with the demure heroines, the emphasis upon family, the modest, eyelash-fluttering depictions of love – felt familiar. Hausa audiences latched on to the basic theme: tradition versus modernity. It was a dilemma many faced in their lives.
Soyayya literature whipped Nigerian reality into Bollywood storytelling and created pamphlets of romantic pulp fiction. Mostly written and read by women, soyayya stories are bestsellers, cheap, and usually talk about social issues. It’s estimated that more than 300 women in northern Nigeria write soyayya literature today. This has led to grumbles and growls from conservatives. That these stories criticise practices like child marriage, polygamy and dowry has led to soyayya being dubbed a corrupting influence.
Yet, soyayya authors are proud of the traditions they’ve been born into, as the lives of two soyayya pioneers, Bilkisu Salisu Ahmed Funtuwa and Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, show. Funtuwa lives in purdah; Yakubu is a devout Muslim. Their intention isn’t to rock the boat, but to help rid society of evils.
Yakubu’s Sin Is A Puppy That Follows You Home – possibly the first Hausa to English translation according to publishers Blaft – won’t feel revolutionary to many of us. Its heroine Rabi is a long-suffering wife and mother of nine. Her husband, Abdu, falls in love with a vamp, marries her and throws Rabi and the children out. Rabi struggles at first but settles down eventually. She starts a business that does well. When misfortune strikes Abdu, he realises what a good woman Rabi is. He apologises and asks her to return home. Though Rabi initially resists, Rabi and Abdu eventually reconcile. He is humbled. She doesn’t give up her business. Everyone lives happily ever after.
As in Bollywood, there’s no such thing as moderation in Sin Is A Puppy. The line distinguishing its melodrama from a B-grade blockbuster is almost invisible. But contained in all this pulp is rebellion that isn’t so subtle if you consider the society for which Yakubu writes. Polygamy is accepted practice among Hausa. So Yakubu’s insistence that a man cherish only one wife is as radical as her decision to give Rabi a career.
While some have called Yakubu a feminist, she chafes against that label. She describes herself as “half humanist and half feminist”, and she’s proud of her Hausa identity. Curiously, she’s not particularly fond of Bollywood. “I don’t like the songs and dances because it is not our culture,” she said in an interview. Sin Is A Puppy is rich with local Nigerian flavour and detail. At the same time, it’s informed by values like monogamy, loyalty and familial solidarity that are staples of classic Bollywood plots. But though the films can often be disturbingly regressive, they have inspired a genre that seeks to empower. If soyayya authors are successful, it’ll be as close to a happy ending as we can imagine in real life.