The task of piecing together women’s history has been difficult. So acute is the dearth of information, particularly documentary evidence, that some of the outstanding women in history have been mistaken for men and their achievements, attributed to male rulers!
— Prof. Bolanle Awe. Circa: 1992.
African women in history have always strived to be the best at what they do, shuffling between major roles that they play as mothers, wives, lovers, teachers, workers – roles which they carry out with due diligence and dedication. Suffice to say, they moulded the core of many developed societies, women are the very mud that holds the foundation of the society.
History has not been fair to the contributions of women to nation-building. Through decades of negligence, patriarchy, and the injustice of the oversight of their achievements and the role they played in history, the high value that women bring to the table has almost been reduced. However, the circle of life is not complete without women in its rotation.
A lot has been said and argued by historians around the achievements and records of the Legendary Queen Amina of Zazzau (modern-day Zaria). These arguments border on doubts concerning whether she actually did exist in the annals of history.
Amina (meaning truthful, honest) was born the eldest daughter of Queen Bakwa Turunku, who founded the Zazzau Kingdom in 1536. Queen Amina came to power between 1588 and 1589 A.D. Unlike her younger sister, Zariya (from whom the city of Zaria derives its name); Amina is generally remembered for her fierce military exploits. Many wars she did fight and all she won. And through her conquests, she expanded the area under her reign southward to the great River Niger — including Idah and Nupe Land — and up to Kano in the north.
Zazzua, where Amina was born, is one of the several Hausa city-states which dominated the trans-Saharan trade after the collapse of the Songhai Empire to the west.
A brilliant military strategist, Amina erected great walled camps during her various campaigns and is generally credited with the building of the famous Zaria wall. She is today remembered —by some fondly, by others less so — as Amina, Tar Bakwa ta san rana, meaning Amina, daughter of Bakwa, a woman as capable as a man.
When Bakwa died in 1566, the crown of Zazzau passed to Amina’s younger brother, Karama. Their sister, Zaria, fled the region and little is known about her.
Although Bakwa’s reign was known for peace and prosperity, Amina chose to hone her military skills by learning from the warriors of the Zazzau military. As a result, she emerged as leader of the Zazzua cavalry. Many accolades, great wealth, and increased power resulted from her numerous military achievements.
As a child, her grandmother ‘Marka’ the favourite wife of her grandfather; Sarkin Nohir once caught her holding a dagger. Amina holding the dagger didn’t shock her grandmother; rather what shocked her was the exact way Amina held the dagger – exactly the way a warrior would.
By the time her brother Karama died after a ten-year rule, Amina had matured into a fierce warrior and had earned the respect of the Zazzau military and she assumed the reign of the kingdom.
Amina led her first military charge a few months after assuming power. For the rest of her 34-year reign, she continued to fight and expand her kingdom to become the greatest in history. The objective for initiating so many battles was to make neighbouring rulers her vassal and permit her traders’ safe passage. In this way, she boosted her kingdom’s wealth and power with gold, slaves, and new crops. Because her people were talented metal workers, Amina introduced metal armour, including iron helmets and chain mail, to her army.
Some historical documentation argues that she was never a queen, but was a strong-willed, no-nonsense princess.
However, the earliest source to mention Amina is Muhammed Bello’s history Ifaq al-Maysur, composed around 1836. He claims that she was “the first to establish government among them,” and she forced Katsina, Kano and other regions to pay tribute to her. Bello, unfortunately, provided no chronological details about her. She is also mentioned in the Kano Chronicle, a well-regarded and detailed history of the city of Kano, composed in the late 19th century, but incorporating earlier documentary material.
In all her greatness, she never wanted to yield to anyone, and she never even considered marriage. It has been said that she had lovers in each of her captured cities after each battle and, following their night together, she would have the (un)fortunate man killed in the morning.
Different historical records give different accounts as to how she and where she died. There was the 1st account of her dying during a military campaign at ‘Atagara’ near Bida around 1633. There was the 2nd account of her encounter with the wealthy Arabian prince who had heard of her fame and crossed the desert to be with her. He spent a night with her and before Amina could wake up in the morning to kill the Arabian Prince who had seen her naked, he had escaped before dawn into the desert. It was said that the Queen went amok knowing the fact that a man lived to see her naked and talk about it. She took her life when she couldn’t bear the torture of the affair becoming public.
Whichever of these accounts speaks truth; it would be forever engraved in the books of history that Queen Amina was a conqueror. Her achievements till today are seen around the ancient town of Zaria and even within the corridors of the 7 original Hausa states.
The exploits of Queen Amina gave a more vigorous definition to the definition of ‘Feminism’ of what stands for today, creating the perfect balance and opportunities for women to stand up and achieve whatever they so desire.