Hadiza el-Rufai: Kaduna’s Tigress For Less Privileged, Sickle Cell Patients

Early life and Education

Her calm disposition notwithstanding, she is a tigress inwardly when it comes to her fire in assisting the less privileged and sickle cell patients. A tigress is a woman resembling a tiger, as in fierceness or courage. The wife of Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State, Hadiza, was born Hadiza Isma, to Mohammed Musa Isma and Amina Iya Isma, on June 21, 1960, in Kano. She is a Nigerian writer, and her father was a civil servant.

She has a B.Sc and M.Sc in Architecture (1983) and an MBA (1992) from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, as well as and another masters degree in Creative Writing (2012) from Bath Spa University, United Kingdom. From there, she worked as a lecturer at the Department of Architecture at Kaduna Polytechnic, a few more years at the National Electric Power Authority, before working in private practice. She also speaks French language fluently.

In 1985, she married Governor El-Rufai whom she met in 1976 at the School of Basic Studies, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. He later became the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Minister. The Kaduna First Lady is an advisor to her husband governor, and often plays a role in social activism. The position is traditionally held by the wife of the governor of Kaduna, concurrent with his term of office, although the Constitution of Nigeria does not recognise the office of the first lady.

Before her, there have been five others who held the title of a first lady since the inception of civil rule in 1999. They are Hajiya Asma’u Muhammad Makarfi (1999-2007), Hajiya Amina Namadi Sambo (2007-2010), Mrs Patrick Yakowa (2009-2012), and Hajiya Fatima Ramalan Hero (2012-2015). Hadiza’s tenure began on May 29, 2015.

In 2008, she started writing and realised that she needed to learn the craft. So, she went to the UK and obtained a master’s degree in creative writing. Last year, she released her debut novel, Abundance of Scorpion. It is a novel inspired by a volunteer work she did at an orphanage in Abuja, and her desire to write about an orphan.

The subject matter appealed to her and she wrote the story. “I started thinking about writing the book as a result of the work I did with the Abuja Children’s Home. Many a time I would go there, sit with the children and it made me often wonder, we are not conscious of our identity and how chance makes us who we are. She continues, “we have two key programmes; the Women Literacy Programme and the Creative Writing Programme.

‘’In the women literacy programme, we target women that dropped out of schools; there are many of them that have dropped out of schools. Some dropped out of primary school, some have gone as far as JSS2 but they could not continue with their education. So, we want to enhance, brush them up and let them be able to speak the English Language very well, have some basic numeracy skills that will help them in whatever trade they are doing. Even if you are selling, you really need to know that two plus two is four. So, those kinds of things are what we are trying to do.”

For Hadiza, there is need to encourage more people to write because a lot of the stories that have been written about Nigeria are not about the North. She believes that most people know about Nigeria is from the perspective of the southern part. “I think we should encourage people to write because people need to hear our stories from us.”

The programme took off in 2017. “We have six centres in various places in Kaduna. In each centre, we have 25 women; we chose those women in collaboration with the communities and then we tested them because we want a certain category of people,” she says. That’s why she really and truly came out in ‘boxing gloves’ to fight the challenge. She will do so for a long time, because she had seen what it means for women to be empowered.

“We don’t want to deal with people that don’t even know ABC at all. So we ran it for about a year but a few days ago, we had a meeting where we reviewed what has happened and we realised that none of them is at the stage that we will say we are graduating them. So, we are just going to roll them over and continue because the main idea is that we don’t just want to say we are churning out, we want to graduate people at the stage that we want them to be,” the lady confesses.

She adds, “what we want them to be is to be able to stand up anywhere and speak confidently in the English Language, explain their products, what they are selling, whatever they are doing, and they have not reached that stage yet, but they have improved. Because we did a review recently and a lot of them were surprising to me, they have improved. You know, some of us take certain things for granted. A lot of the women were so happy that now they are able to help their children with their homework. Honestly, I didn’t know that was an issue, some of us take things for granted when our children are growing up, because we are educated. They said before, we used to go to the neighbours and beg them to help our children with their homework but now we can do that. When I am in their midst I used to stay at the back and I hear them say it to themselves. So they are improving, but they have not reached the stage where we will say we are graduating them.”

She is also interested in creating a strong voice for Hausa literature to be globally appreciated in a world where English language seems to be dominant. Her words: “The two are important, Hausa literature is important, literature in the English Language about the Hausa community is also important. Why literature written in the Hausa Language is important is because at least it gets people to read. I think whatever makes people to read is a good thing. So there’s a vibrant book market especially in Kano, a lot of people writing in Hausa Language and many of our women read these stories that are coming out.

‘’So, there are many of these books, and like you say, as Nollywood churn out movies, that’s how they churn out books in Hausa Language, which is very good. Because it’s getting people to write, to read, and I am sure within those books, there are talks on social issues as well that will make people think about social things. The point I am trying to make is that, it is all well and good but we should not forget to know that it is important to tell our own stories to the world at large, because the Hausa literature is just targeted towards a certain market, the Hausa speaking community. Our indigenous languages are also important, we shouldn’t let them die but nobody can run away from the fact that in the world today, the English language is a very important means of communication.” People used to come to adopt and you know that is also a factor of chance because if a person adopts a child, most likely he will mould him towards his own identity. So I started thinking about that and I decided to write about a child growing in an orphanage, and of course one thing led to another and that’s how the book came to be,” she says.

She still wants to establish herself as a mature writer, whose work will be subjected into critical exegesis, but her duties as mother, wife, politician and first lady will not permit her for now. But she is focused on getting another book out in a not too distant future.

Hadiza, of course, is famous for the Yasmin El Rufal Foundation, something that she says helps her to immortalise her late daughter and also get to mentor budding writers. “I named the Foundation after my daughter that I lost in 2011 and she had interest in creativity and literary things as I myself do. So, I thought the best way to imortalise her, to keep her memory alive was to set up a foundation in her name.”

Besides being an architect and creative writer, she is also a golfer. She co-ordinates the Yasmin el­-Rufai Foundation, a non-governmental, non-profit and non-political organisation, which she set up in memory of her late daughter. She spoke to Arts and Culture Editor, Gregory Austin Nwakunor, on her encounter with books. “I like being among writers. I am happy. I feel very great about it, especially as a Northern Nigerian woman’’, adding, “you can see from the fact that I have always been here every day means that this Kaduna Book and Arts Featival (KABAFest) must be very dear to my heart. This is something I enjoy doing, I love being in the midst of writers and other creatives. I am the wife of the governor and of course I have to take up certain roles but those roles are not necessarily roles I love performing. This is what I consider my primary constituency, I love the environment, KABAFest, and since you have been here, I am sure you have been to some of the panel discussions; you can see how vibrant and interesting the discussions were.”

In a soft voice, she says, you are likely to hear in the choir, “I think we need our voices, we need more Northern Nigerian women to write so that we know what they say about writing our own stories. It is better for you to write your own stories; because if you don’t other people will write and they will skew it anyway they want. So, it’s very important for us to keep writing our own stories. And I would like to encourage young women especially, to try their hands at writing.” The moment the chat starts, her train of thoughts moves from one issue to the other, and her sentences peppered with jokes and anecdotes. But she is most animated when talking about the girl child in the North. Although she enthuses about the challenges of getting them to stay in school, acknowledges the impact of education.

An Abundance of Scorpions (Ouida Books), was however, presented at the 2017 edition of the Aké Arts and Book Festival. The work has been described by Helon Habila as “a heartbreaking tale of loss and an uplifting story of a woman’s strength and determination”. She set up the foundation in 2013 with her husband, in honour of her daughter who died of an epileptic seizure in her flat in London in November 2011.

Her literary nonprofit was fully launched in 2017 with the aims of nurturing creativity in children, “particularly the girl child, between the ages of eight and 19” and young/adult women, providing them “resources with teachers and the books that they need to enhance their literacy.”

She uses her influence in Kaduna for philanthropic purposes to benefit the less privileged, donating drugs to sickle cell patients in the state. In April 2020, El-Rufai, had responded on twitter to a comment about her son using language with a threat of sexual violence against a critic during an argument on the social networkwith “Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind. All is fair in love and war.”

The remarks caused a lot of backlash on social media, including at Brittle Paper, a literary magazine, where an editorial disagreement between the editors about how to present the report led to the departure of the deputy editor. El-Rufai eventually apologised for her comment, saying she had misunderstood the earlier conflict and would “never condone sexual abuse in any shape or form she later threatened to sue the group that accused her of condoning her son’s sexual assault remarks.