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 and 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, 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 nowhere to run to. She continues to bear the ordeals. Naja denies her conjugal rights an act which is considered a taboo. But her denial of sex is not sustained anymore when she needs money for treatment of her sister who is infected with Vesico Vaginal Fistula (VVF). Her need for money eventually makes her succumb to her husband’s sexual urge, in exchange for his financial support to pay the bills for Kaamila’s surgery that will stop the urine leakage. Sadly, her husband defiles her and refuses to pay for the surgery as earlier bargained for. Naja is battered by her husband on false allegations of infidelity; she runs to Anty Zahra, a lawyer who visits 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 Africa 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.
Naja’s encounter with Anty Zahra changes their lives and determine the course of the story. Zahra has a busy schedule as a practising lawyer with a politician husband who maltreats her. She ends up helping Zahra take a bold step to end her marital slavery and seeking legal redress.
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 lead her to uncover new ideas and information, which she uses to the advantage of women in her society.
She 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 school. Even though she has very little education herself, she believes it is her responsibility to enlighten fellow women around her, to let them know they are being cheated and used by their men. She introduced indoor Islamic education for women. She has no classroom to use, so she uses the courtyard of her matrimonial home for her classes. 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 Yero in 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 for a better life for herself and the women around her. This is the path every woman should thread to bring about true development.