Sunday, November 16, 2008

The 25th good thing about Northern Nigeria: Visiting the Emir's hareem

Our trip organizer, Paulette, has been a good friend of the 2nd wife of the Emir of Ka-*no for many years, since she lived in Ka-*no* in the 1980's. Because of her connections with the palace, the women in our group were able to visit the hareem of the palace, the women's area. This was a really interesting experience.

We arrived in the afternoon and entered the outer palace gate.

And then we went through another gate into the women's part of the palace. The men in our group wouldn't be allowed to visit this part of the palace. However, Paulette's son, who is now in his 30s, could come in because he grew up friends with the children of the Emir. He's considered a member of the family in a way, so he is welcome here.

The palace complex is very large, like a city, with several thousand people living there.

When we entered into this older part of the palace, there were some rooms with women sitting on the floor. Paulette greeted them as we passed, but I wasn't sure what their role in the palace community was.

Paulette wanted us to visit with Aba, the Emir's 2nd wife, in one of the older parts of the palace, because she thought they were more interesting. She actually lives in a newer building. Paulette is known by the palace folk as "the woman with the baskets," because she's always coming with gifts for her friends. She said it's quite rare for a Western woman to have the access she has to the palace.

There were a lot of girls and women around. The Emir is allowed 4 wives, but he also has concubines -- I don't know how many of those he has. Paulette said that the relationships between the wives and the concubines can be complicated, of course, but sometimes they can be friendly. She said the Emir's "favorite concubine" lives in the same house with the 3rd wife. I guess each of the wives has their own house, and the Emir visits them in their separate residences. But the concubines don't have the status or as comfortable living situations as the wives. Lest any of my male readers think that sounds like a pretty sweet situation, be advised that for a special occasion such as the Durbar, the Emir has to buy new clothes for everybody in the palace. That's a pretty hefty bill.

This was not a luxurious palace, by any means. Some parts of the palace were built in the 1400's. None of the areas we were in were air conditioned.

The room where we met Aba was painted in the traditional Hausa manner, with bold, bright geometric designs.
But the room was kind of shabby in other ways -- a TV on an old TV stand, a promotional calendar on the wall, an old shag rug on the floor. It wasn't fancy in any respect.

We visited with some girls who came to see the white visitors. As we were chatting with them, I was admiring the hennaed hands of one of them and I took a picture of her henna. She noticed my watch and admired it -- and I kind of had a sinking feeling because I knew what was coming next. Yes, she said it would look very pretty on her arm and she asked if she could have it. I kind of stammered -- "well it's my only watch and I really need it to stay on time." She replied with surprise "it's your only watch?" Well, it was my only watch that I had with me on this trip, and I wouldn't be opposed to giving it away to someone truly in need, but I was certain that didn't include this resident of the palace. Paulette overheard her and chewed the girl out -- she asked someone else who she belonged to (which mother). She said that Aba would be so disappointed and embarrassed that she was begging in the palace. It seems even the privileged in Nigeria are not immune from the culture of begging.

We waited for a little while for Aba to come -- her assistant came and said she was praying, but she would be with us soon.

Here's a picture of Paulette and Aba. It was clear that they were very close friends. Aba is allowed to visit Paulette in Lagos and she said that she really loves coming to Lagos. She loves the freedom of taking a break from the palace community, and she loves being by the water, and eating the fresh fish she can get there. As a Muslim woman, she is not allowed to travel freely on her own, she must be chaperoned when she leaves the palace. But when she's in Lagos, Paulette is her chaperone and she is able to relax and they have a good time together.
Aba seemed to be a very nice woman, very friendly and warm. She welcomed our questions about her lifestyle.

She told Paulette that when the Emir last came to eat dinner with her she had fixed a particular salad (when she said that I later asked her to clarify -- no, she hadn't fixed it herself, she had her cook prepare it) that they had eaten when she visited Paulette, and the Emir had enjoyed it. She was obviously concerned about pleasing the Emir when he visited her and she took care and forethought to provide him with something special to eat.

After our visit, there were more women gathering in the courtyards. Paulette said that when the Emir and his entourage were heading out to join the Durbar, that the women here would be waiting to see him off and there would be music and drums and excitement. Young girls from the palace could go outside the walls of the hareem and see the Durbar, but the women would have to stay inside.

Everybody was dressed up in their nice party clothes.

The Emir is celebrating 45 years on the throne this year, and he is 78 years old. He was a Commissioner of Police before he was chosen to be the Emir. He is a Fulani -- the 13th Fulani Emir of Ka-*no and the 12th son of his father, who also served as Emir. I understood Paulette to say that when he was chosen as Emir, he had to set aside his family and marriage (he made sure they were taken care of financially), and enter the palace and make marriages that were politically expedient. And if he were to be deposed as Emir, the hareem would stay in the palace when he leaves and they become the responsibility of the next Emir. I guess that's partly why there is such a big population inside the palace. But he seems to be a very popular Emir, so my guess is that he won't be leaving any time soon, though he's not guaranteed the job for life, like a king. If he comes out of favor with the ruling council, they can decide to depose him and choose someone else.

We had quite a crowd of young girls walking along with us as we left the hareem.

*[I used a convoluted spelling here for the city in this post in an attempt to hopefully foil search engines just in case posting pictures of the interior palace would not be approved by the powers that be.]


Anonymous said...

It was so great "catching up" with you thru your post! What an adventure and amazing experiences you are having.

I've really been thinking of you a lot lately and can hardly wait to see many more days?

Write when you get a chance...Alice

Anonymous said...

My husband stumbled upon your blog postings of Lagos. I randomly check your updates for positive outlooks on our new home there in Lagos. Our small family will be moving to Ikoyi island in about 2 weeks for a 2 year posting from Washington, DC area. being able to connect with a member of the church across the ocean would be quite a blessing.