Divorce Diaries S01E05: Shafa Umar’s Story

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When I was younger I was a very beautiful woman. My father was the Chief Imam of our town so I was well sought after by suitors. In fact by the time I was 17 I had more than twenty proposals from different families seeking my hand in marriage. Almost every other month my father received a delegation asking him for permission to marry me.

I was in Senior Secondary school preparing for my exams when my father decided that I was too beautiful to be in school. It was in the morning, I went to greet him and say farewell to him on my way to school when he told me. He said I had to start preparing for life without school because
‘You are too beautiful to be seen on the streets walking to school every day’
I thought he was joking so I told him: ‘Abba I can always go to school in one of your cars, that way no one will look at me’. He did not laugh as I expected and there was a sudden awkward silence that befell us. My father looked up from his prayer mat and told me that after that term I would not be attending school anymore. He said he was considering some of the proposals and would soon make a choice for me to marry.

I knew he was right. It was just a matter of time before a husband would be chosen among my suitors. I lost all zeal to go to school, what was the point of passing with flying colors when the ultimate destination was married life? I did not need a lot of education to be married.

My father chose Alhaji Alhassan from among my suitors. He was in his 40s and according to my father, he was very religious. I was told Alhaji Hassan was a just husband between his three wives, but his third wife was a stubborn woman and so he had to divorce her. I was to be her replacement in his household. None of his children lived with him because he sent them to live with his brother in another town. I later learned it was because he did not like noise and tantrums.

Alhaji and I got married 6 days after I finished writing my promotion exams. I was not sure what I was supposed to do as a wife to a wealthy old man. The one thing I remember about my married life is that a lot of the time I was confused. On my first night, the senior wife Hannatu kept me in her room until Alhaji sent for me. She told me to relax that I would get used to life with her and the second wife Jamila. She gave me a hug and sent me on my way.

That night is a night I would rather forget. I had read that the first night was a special moment of passion and love to be shared but what happened to me was neither passion nor love. It was just grunting and pain. I have hated sexual intercourse ever since.

Alhaji did not talk much but when he did it was to admonish us to fear Allah and to abide by the likes of our husband. He said our desire should be to please him so that Allah would admit us to paradise. As his wives, we did not have the usual timetable used in rotating his nights with us. He would sleep with whichever wife he fancied on whatever day of the week he felt like. Sometimes, one wife could be on duty for up to two weeks and some other times we could go months without going to his room. If you were on your period and he summoned you, you would be beaten and raped because he said it was his God-given right to visit his farm in every season or weather I found this arrangement bizarre. I knew that Islam did not accept this kind of arrangement and it bothered me a lot.

My co-wives seemed nonchalant about my concerns and so I kept it to myself. Alhaji forced us to be close to each other. His rules were that we had to eat all meals together, we had to attend all the functions together and we had to wear the same type of clothes at all times. We had to pray together, we even went on hajj all together! This practice was very odd to me because in my father’s house this was not the case. We were also not allowed to discuss loudly in the evenings when he returned from work. Once we heard the gate being opened we retreated to our rooms and waited for him to summon whichever one of us was lucky for the night. We were not allowed to watch any other television channel apart from the Arab ones; which was pointless because my little knowledge of Arabic could not keep up with the rapid-fire Arabic that the people on TV spoke. Alhaji had a very volatile temper and he had a quick hand, he did not take kindly to mistakes so every mistake was punished. If any of the domestic staff reported us breaking his rules they would be rewarded and we would be punished. We were not allowed visitors and we only went out to funerals and naming ceremonies. Alhaji did not like wedding ceremonies so we never attended any. When we fell sick, Dr. Halima from the General hospital would come and treat us. The only visitor we were allowed was our Malam. Malam Abu was our Islamic teacher and he came to teach us every day, starting from dawn, then until after zuhr prayer. He taught us the Quran and how to memorize its verses. He also taught us about the importance of being pious women. My co-wives told me they had been learning fiqh and hadith before I arrived but Alhaji had become furious when they started asking Malam Abu why their husband did not treat them like the Prophet SAW treated his wives. We all liked Malam. He was patient with us when we mispronounced the Arabic verses and he was kind to us when we did well. He never spoke badly about anyone and nothing seemed to irritate him. Whenever we lamented our situation, Malam Abu had a way of telling us about the virtues of women in the Quran and how they were in paradise because they persevered. His words always felt like a soothing balm to my sadness. I likened myself to Asiya the wife of the Pharaoh and her story gave me hope that I would be happy one day. Jamila was especially close to Malam because she was very bright. She hardly made mistakes with her verses or memorization. When he started a verse, Jamila was sure to complete it. I was jealous of her apparent determination to focus on our Islamic studies and not the prison we were in.

The more I observed Malam when Jamila was reciting her verses, the more obvious it became that he had feelings for her. He looked at her differently, like he was gazing at an expensive jewel he could not afford. I kept this to myself and watched in wonder how close the two became. Whenever we finished our classes with Malam, Jamila would stay behind to discuss the day’s lesson. She made us wait for long before we could eat lunch together. I did not like this as I was usually hungry by the time we finished our classes and I dared not break Alhaji’s rule of eating alone without my co-wives.

One day after waiting for hours and hours, I decided to go and call Jamila. I went to the little classroom calling out ‘Jamila Jamila!’ but there was no answer. So I decided to look behind the classroom thinking she had escorted Malam out. I walked in on Jamila sitting astride Malam with her hijab removed and her wrapper untied. Malam’s trousers were on the floor. He had his hands on her neck as if he was choking her but she seemed to be enjoying it. I did not immediately understand what was going on so I continued calling her name: ‘Jamila Jamila!’ She turned to look at me and quickly got off saying Inna Lillahi Wa Inna Ilaihi Rajiun repeatedly. That was when I understood what I saw. They were lovers! Malam was having adultery with Jamila – a married woman! I felt my stomach turn and an urge to rush to the toilet gripped me. I wanted to chastise them. I wanted to report them but I ended up rushing to the toilet.

The next day Alhaji came to our quarters to whip Hannatu and Jamila for eating lunch and dinner without me. One of the domestic staff had reported them. I heard their screams begging him and I came out of my room to explain.

‘Alhaji, please dan Allah it is not their fault, please whip me instead. I was the one who…’ Jamila looked at me with desperation in her eyes. I wanted to tell him but at that moment my heart went out to her. My father always said a believer must make excuses for another believer. So I told Alhaji that I had runny stomach and that was why I could not eat with them.

He stopped and wiped the sweat from his brow. I rushed to Hannatu’s side. She was elderly and still, he did not stop whipping her. ‘You should be ready to receive Dr. Halima in the evening; she will bring treatment for you.’

For Hannatu’s sake, I had to continue living life as normally as I could. I did not want her to suffer any more whippings on my account. So for weeks after that, I tried to pretend I did not see what I saw,
and life continued.

Jamila and Malam seemed to keep their distance from each other in those weeks. Everything changed. Malam stopped telling us stories of the virtuous women of the Quran. Instead, he started preaching to us about fighting oppression. He started telling us about Jihad and how the infidels were enemies of Islam. He said all Muslims must join in the fight against the infidels. He became aggressive about everything. The kind soft-spoken Malam was gone and in his place, an angry fire breathing one was revealed.

Around this time, Alhaji began falling ill and would not go out for days at a time. Though he was seriously ill, we were still not allowed to visit his quarters without his invitation so the only information we had regarding his illness was through Dr. Halima. I was confused about this too! We were his wives, it was our duty to take care of him and it was our right to know the true state of his health. Two weeks later, Hannatu fell ill too! I did all I could to take care of her, but nothing seemed to be working as she passed away in my arms.

For the first time, people visited to offer condolence. I was surprised that people had not forgotten we existed. I met her daughters for the first time and my heart went out to them. I heard my father was around too but I was not able to see him. I longed for home.

After the seventh day prayer, everyone left. I was sad to see Hannatu’s daughters leave but I was even more saddened by the return to our normal routine. That night I could not sleep. I kept thinking about my life. I did not want to live like this but then I could not bring disgrace to my father.

I got up and prayed to Allah to grant me relief and soon after I fell asleep. I was startled by Jamila who came and sat next to me. I noticed she was crying. Had Alhaji died too?

‘Amarya, I came to say goodbye.’

‘Goodbye, kuma ya Jamila? What are you saying? Is it Alhaji? Is he dead?’

‘No Amarya calm down, I mean I am going to run away tonight. I am going with Malam Abu to join the fight for Islam. It is the right thing to do. Thank you for everything’

My stomach turned again.

‘Ya Jamila you are a married woman. Please don’t do this. I beg you in the name of God and His Prophet please do not do this!’

‘Amarya, do you know that Alhaji has HIV?’

‘What is HIV?’

‘Amarya it is a disease!! they say he got it from visiting prostitutes and there is no cure. It is what killed our Uwargida and it will soon kill all of us’

I was confused. Does Alhaji go to visit prostitutes? How?

‘Look Amarya want to use the remainder of my life doing God’s work. They say there is no cure once you sleep with someone who has it. I am sure I have it. I am sure you have it too’

‘How do you know all this? Is it Malam that told you? He just wants to deceive you please do not do this’

‘Dr. Halima told me.’

She hugged me and left my room leaving me confused.
My stomach turned again. So it had to be true! She was his doctor after all. While in the toilet it occurred to me that at school there had been a lecture about HIV/AIDS. It all came flooding back.
The teacher told us that a lot of people got it through unsafe intercourse. Our husband had been playing the pious man at home while he kept prostitutes outside. Nothing made sense to me anymore.

At dawn, there was no Malam. There was no Jamila. I was so scared what Alhaji would do to me if he found out. I sat in my room waiting for Judgement Day with my prayer beads in hand. Dauda, Alhaji’s driver came to inform me that Alhaji wanted me to come and see him.

When I walked into his living room, I almost collapsed out of shock. Alhaji looked like a skeleton with skin on; his skin looked like it had been draped over his bones.

‘Sannu Alhaji. Yaya jikin, how are you feeling?’
‘Amarya as you can see, I am dying. Allah is punishing me for my errors. Zan mutu.’

I did not know what to say so I looked away from him. I was not sure how to engage in conversation with him. I felt sorry for him to say the least. I wondered what he summoned me for.

‘You are a true daughter of your father! Allah miki albarka.’
I said, ‘Ameen.’

‘They told me your sister has run away with her lover! That treacherous Malam. I hired him to teach my wives and he stole one of them Daniskan!! Tell me Amarya; did you know about this? DO NOT LIE TO ME!’

‘No Alhaji wallahi ban sani ba’

My stomach turned again. I knew he could not whip me but I feared he would ask Dauda to do it. An eternity of silence seemed to pass then he said to me: ‘Go home Amarya, Go to your father. I have released you from the ties of my marriage. You are still beautiful I am sure you will have another husband in no time.’
‘Alhaji I do not understand’
‘Dauda will take you home and explain things to your father.’
That was it. Dauda motioned for me to move. I was too stunned and confused to pack anything. On the way home I realized how much had changed. When I arrived home, my confusion was replaced with the joy of seeing my family again after long years.

Alhaji passed away soon after I completed my three month Idda Period.
It took a while for my father to admit he made a mistake by marrying me off to someone like Alhaji without any investigation or conditions. And until he died he never apologized for it. I still hate my father for sending me into the home of a beast, as if I was some burden he had to get rid of. I did go to the hospital and it was confirmed that I was HIV Positive. I am so angry but at the same time, I accept it as my destiny.

I have been on Anti Retroviral drugs. I have not heard anything about Jamila or Malam. Every time I hear of ISIS I think about them; if they are dead or alive, if Malam is HIV Positive too; if Jamila ever told him. I guess I will never find out.

As for me, I am now a trained counselor for people like me. Living with HIV is not so bad though it is lonely.

I hope you will learn from it.

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