The Birth of Hausa Blues


The shortest distance between two people is a story.-Patti Digh

I met Zenab while working in a classroom for medically fragile preschoolers with multiple disabilities. My role as the Speech/Language Pathologist was to facilitate functional communication skills. Hers was to assist one of the young children with daily g-tube administered meals and medications. One day at work, we sat around a kidney-shaped table to eat lunch along with the classroom teacher, two para educators, and our seven students. I observed as Zenab bit into a mango through the skin—like one would an apple.

“Do you want me to get you a knife?” I asked her, trying to be helpful.

“Oh!” she said, embarrassed. “Do you think it’s a bad example for the kids to eat it this way?”

I laughed. “No!” I replied, revealing my surprise that she would worry about that. “I’ve just never seen anyone eat the skin of a mango like that.”

mango-tree-239x300“In Africa, I used to climb trees with my brother and sometimes sit there on a branch eating six or seven at once,” she mused nostalgically.

It sounded kind of dreamy. As a child I had loved climbing the apple tree in my back-yard, but the fruit was small, sour, and practically inedible. It was hardly a sweet, juicy reward like a mango ripened by the hot, African sun.

“When did you live in Africa?” I asked.

“My whole life—well, until about five years ago,” she replied.

What followed next was a series of questions that Zenab graciously indulged me by answering. As she openly told stories of her tribe in Africa, I knew that in her life were clues to mysteries I hadn’t even thought to discover yet. I felt drawn to her and wanted to get lost in her story for a long time, pondering the differences in our experiences. Her life as a Muslim woman born to a wealthy, polygamist family in Cameroon, Africa was entirely foreign to me. Perhaps more intriguing though was how I felt strongly identified with her—despite the fact we didn’t appear to share much in common on a surface level.

In the summer of 2012, we began a journey of exploration together. One in which I had agreed to write a book about her story and she eagerly told me everything. We met every Monday, talking for 3-4 hours at a time, as we recorded our conversations. I spent the week between our visits listening to the recordings over again, transcribing her words, and immersing myself in her experience. At the end of that summer, I began to write the first few chapters of her memoir.

When we first embarked on our partnership, Zenab and I had barely been acquainted. I didn’t know all the details of her story, whether we would work well together, or even how to go about writing someone else’s memoir. Still, I perceived the privileged invitation to commune with my love of words, and so I embraced the process. As our partnership developed, we discovered a very intuitive compatibility. The friendship Zenab and I now enjoy unites us in a desire to give her story to the world, and watch like hovering parents that path it finds for itself.


PUBLICATION UPDATE: After much deliberation, the original plan to self-publish in November of 2014 was suspended when a prominent literary agency expressed interest in the possibility of representing Hausa Blues to traditional publishing houses. Zenab and Shelah felt it was an avenue they needed to explore. Just a month after withholding its release date, Hausa Blues received an award from Shelf Unbound Magazine as a Notable Book of 2014 in their 2014 Indie Best Contest. At this time, Hausa Blues is open to consideration of all offers for representation and/or publication.


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(image: flickr creative commons Churl)

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