Encyclopedia Womannica

Beautiful Minds: Nana Asma'u

Episode Summary

Nana Asma’u (c. 1793-1864) was a princess, poet, and teacher who helped to shape the values of the Sokoto Caliphate.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

This month we’re talking about Beautiful Minds -- intellectual powerhouses whose work had an extraordinary impact on the world. 

Our story today takes us back to 19th century Nigeria to discuss a princess, poet, and teacher who helped to shape the values of the Sokoto Caliphate. Let’s talk about Nana Asma’u. 

Nana Asma’u was born around 1793. Her childhood was riddled with conflict. When she was about 11 years old, she was a close witness to the Fulani War between her father’s forces and his former student’s. Her father was victorious and was elected “Commander of the Faithful” by his followers. He became the founder and Sultan of the Sokoto Caliphate, an independent Islamic Sunni state in West Africa. 

The Sokoto Caliphate was one of the most significant empires in 19th century Africa. It eventually grew to encompass more than 30 emirates and 10 million people. 

Nana’s father placed a high value on universal education and on teaching. Nana studied the Quran, the classics of the Arab world, and learned four languages. As part of the state’s leading family, she had great insight into what was happening politically. 

In 1807, Nana got married and six years later she had her first child. In 1819, she wrote what’s known as her first work of poetry. 

Over the course of her life, Nana authored a huge number of poems including accounts of historical events, elegies, and lessons about the founding principles of the Caliphate. 

Nana earned the reputation of being a leading scholar in the region. When her half brother, Muhammad Bello, became the second sultan of the caliphate, Nana served as his counsellor. In that role, she wrote instructions from the Sultan to governors of the Caliphate and she corresponded with foreign scholars. 

In a letter, scholar Sheikh Sa’ad wrote to Nana:

"Greetings to you, O woman of excellence and fine traits!

In every century there appears One who excels.

The proof of her merit has become well known, east and west, near and far.

She is marked by wisdom and kind deeds; her knowledge is like the wide sea

Sincere greetings, benefactions and felicitations from one who loves your family.

Restless from traveling deserts I long to meet you and your good traits again.”

Nana’s surviving written works show the Caliphate was founded with an emphasis on women’s leadership, inclusion, and rights. They also illustrate Nana’s devotion to education. 

Around 1830, Nana organized a group of women teachers to travel around the Caliphate to educate women in their homes. Each teacher received a hat called a malfa tied with a red turban. The teachers used Nana’s poems and those of other Sufi scholars to teach conquered populations about Islam. Nana wrote her poems with a specific rhyme and meter that made them easier to memorize. For example, she wrote a thirty-verse poem that teaches the names and order of the 114 chapters of the Quran.

Newly educated students formed a cohort of learned women called the “yan-taru,” or “the sisterhood.”

 The crew of teachers, called jajis, became a symbol of the Sokoto state. 

Nana Asma’u’s legacy is significant in her region. To this day, many schools, meeting halls, and women’s organizations are named after her in Northern Nigeria. 

Nana died in 1864. More than 60 of her written works have survived. 

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Beautiful Mind

Special thanks to my favorite sister and co-creator, Liz Kaplan.

Talk to you tomorrow!