Bollywood and the Nigerian Woman

Blaft has brought out what is possibly the first Hausa-English translation. I’d never heard of Hausa and after reading Sin Is A Puppy That Follows You Home, I had to do a little reading on the tradition of soyayya literature. There’s a Bollywood angle, which is interesting but what’s far more fascinating is how culturally-specific a word like “radical” is. I’ve written a piece about Sin Is A Puppy… and soyayya literature, which is here. Of course, it had to be cut to fit the page. Here’s the unsnipped version. Yes, it is a touch long. You should also check out Hausa music on YouTube. It’s eerily Bollywood-y.

Bollywood and the Nigerian Woman

Hausa architecture. How gorgeous is that?

In the 1950s, when Nigeria was still a British colony, a few Lebanese film exhibitors decided to try something new. Instead of the expensive prints of American movies, someone decided to see if Nigerians would take to Bollywood. It was a stupendous success. Particularly in the northern Nigerian city of Kano, home to the Hausa people, Bollywood films became enormously popular. Even in 1997, Mother India was playing to packed houses in Kano. People flocked to cinemas to see these movies again and again. Pop songs were written about men who fell in love with Indian actresses. Most remarkably, there emerged in the 1980s a genre known as “love literature” or soyayya literature that was inspired by the storytelling in Bollywood films. More than 20 years later, soyayya is as popular as ever and it’s become an important tool in Hausa women’s campaign to modernise their community.

The Hausa adopted Islam in the 11th century and they remain strictly religious and conservative. It may seem strange that the unflinchingly Muslim Hausa should be besotted by Sridevi or identify with the sentimental melodrama of Bollywood, which is predominantly Hindu. But pared down to just imagery, expressions and music, commercial Hindi cinema struck a chord with the Hausa. Unlike American films, Hindi blockbusters – with the demure heroines, the emphasis upon family, the modest, eyelash-fluttering depictions of love – felt familiar. The audiences responded to the standard tropes of Bollywood storytelling: the weeping mother, the quietly-suffering wife, the arrogant patriarch, the conniving vamp. Hausa audiences latched on to the basic theme of the films: tradition versus modernity. It was a dilemma that many were facing in their everyday lives.

Soyayya literature took inspiration from Bollywood’s sentimental melodrama and whipped it into Nigerian reality to create slim 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 some grumbles and growls from conservatives and the Nigerian government. That these moral-laden stories criticise practices like child marriage, polygamy and dowry has led to soyayya being dubbed a corrupting influence. Authors are accused of being agents of the West and there have been incidents where the books have been burnt as a warning to both the writers and the readers.

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 also a devout Muslim. Their intention isn’t to rock the conservative Islamic boat, but to help rid society of evils. With the power of soppy, Bollywood plots reincarnated as soyayya stories.

Yakubu’s Sin Is A Puppy That Follows You Home – according to publishers Blaft, this is possibly the first Hausa to English translation – won’t feel revolutionary to many of us. The heroine of the story is Rabi, a long-suffering wife and mother of nine children. Her husband, Abdu, falls in love with a vamp and marries her. Rabi tries to adjust to the new wife, but domestic bliss is not to be. Abdu, blinded by lust, divorces Rabi and kicks her and the children out. Rabi struggles at first, but she has the support of Abdu’s family, her own brother and her children. Things settle down and Rabi starts a little business that does well. Then, misfortune strikes Abdu and finally, when he’s literally left with nothing, the prodigal husband realises what a good woman Rabi is. He apologises to her and asks her to return home. Rabi resists initially. However, all the people who had supported her earlier now urge her to give him another chance. So, ultimately, Rabi and Abdu 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. Characters don’t so much speak to each other as wail. Abdu’s new wife is a human pit of vice and immorality, without any redeeming qualities. When Abdu is the bad guy, he’s horrible. When he’s penitent, he tearfully speechifies. Rabi and her children are so unadulteratedly virtuous that you almost expect to have wings and haloes. Everyone bursts into tears at the slightest provocation. Young lovers fall in love at first sight (literally). In short, the line distinguishing Sin Is A Puppy from a B-grade Bollywood blockbuster is almost invisible.

But contained in all this squelchy pulp is rebellion that isn’t so subtle if you consider the society for which Yakubu writes. Polygamy is accepted practice among Hausa. If a man doesn’t have more than one wife, it’s assumed this is because he can’t afford a ‘proper’ family. In these circumstances, Yakubu’s insistence that a man cherish only one wife is distinctly radical; as is her decision to give Rabi a career. Yakubu also goes against the grain by emphasising the need to educate girls. Rabi doesn’t marry her daughter off before she’s finished school. Yakubu constantly reminds her reader that women must not be trampled upon. If she is demure and devout, then she is her husband’s equal. To mistreat such a woman is to be a bad Muslim.

While some have called Yakubu a feminist, she chafes against that label. She describes herself as “half humanist and half feminist”, and she’s extremely 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. “We have our cultural dances and songs, but that Indian style is not our culture.”

Sin Is A Puppy is rich with local Nigerian flavour and detail. At the same time, it’s informed by values like monogamy, loyalty, familial solidarity, and compromising between modernity and tradition that are staples of classic Bollywood plots. The films that are made purely for entertainment and are often disturbingly regressive have inspired a genre that seeks to educate and empower. If the soyayya authors are successful, it’ll be as close to a happy ending as we can imagine in real life.


  1. I had no idea Bollywood films were so popular in Nigeria and have inspired a genre of literature. It just goes to show one can never predict the effects of art. Cool article.

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