Kawajo: The immortal transwoman who changed Kano forever

It isn’t so bizarre – because the flow of energy goes whatever way it just does – that someone will say something that sets you off on a remembrance of something, someone, or someplace.

I’ve been thinking about Kawajo – a transwoman publicly humiliated as a man in a dress in Kano in 2004, since my sister casually mentioned her name as joke fodder the other day. I wonder where she is now. 

Whether she is at all, or if a person exists still that is a shell of the woman she once was, broken from that needlessly scandalised publicising of her existence like it is a novelty that must be pulled apart to be understood.

I was 11 years old when her story became public. Young enough to miss out on all the details of her ordeal, but not too young to be aware of it. The arrest and the stripping to reveal her best effort at creating who she knew herself to be where Gods just decided the labour of perfecting her is too much time away from their divine decadence.  

I do remember hearing a lot from people who marvelled at how she was able to “deceive” a whole town, particularly the women she was in closest proximity to. The women whose hairs she plaited, the women she bantered with about suitors, about marriage someday – which I conjecture she put off gracefully while keeping lovers who were in the know and loving of her unique being, but that’s the thing isn’t it? She was deceiving nobody she allowed into her space.

I think about the humiliation of standing trial for a non-crime. She was put on trial in a Sharia court on charges under Section 9 of the Prostitution and Immoral Acts Law, for which if she was found guilty she would get either one year in prison or be asked to pay a fine of 10, 000 naira.

I think about the humiliation of being paraded as a fraud. I think with great sadness her devastation at the horror of it all.

Her origin

Born Abubakar Hamza, and fondly called Kawajo by everyone who knew her – which is Fulani for ‘friend,’ she was 19 years old when she was outed at a naming ceremony where someone from her hometown recognised her for who she used to be.

She revealed when interviewed after her outing that she disguised as a girl and ran away from her home in a remote farming village of Ajingi aged only 12, after her parents divorced and she could no longer endure the cruelty of her stepmother.

She sought solace among the girls of her village when her step-mother’s cruelty became too much to bear.

”I began dressing like them and gradually moved to their homes to live with them, despite my father’s attempt to stop me,” she said in an interview from her jail cell.

”When my father’s disapproval of my dressing like a girl became unbearable I left home and lived with a family in a nomadic settlement, dressing and behaving like other girls in the family, an act I enjoy playing,” she added.

She was on the move a lot for the seven years she managed to live freely.

I scoured the internet to discover what the ruling on her case was at the time with little success. What I did manage to find, thanks to this Mail & Guardian article detailing her story and first appearance in court is her plea to the court for mercy.

”I pray the court to show mercy on me. I know what I did was not good but I was only trying to make a living. I promise I will change and never play a girl again,” he said.

I don’t know still what the judgment was. I do not doubt, however, she would likely have received the maximum sentence from some deeply disgusted judge who in truth is a little man trying for relevance in a town that had since drowned all dreams of greatness in him. Yet, I hope she didn’t.

Her cultural impact

Not long after her ordeal tapered out of public discourse, and her pictures – printed on posters like full-on calendars and local magazines and newspapers began a slow disappearance from the public, a Kannywood star now-long-dead, Rabilu Musa Ibro, made a movie about her.

It is a testament to what Kano – its proud conservatism notwithstanding – is open to allowing in its essence. Art, at a point, could be separated fully from whatever else – religion most especially. One may be frowned at for holding the hand of a lover in the red-soil streets of this ancient city, but Ali Nuhu could hold hands with Abida and prance to music in Kannywood movies and this art will be feasted on with glee by all but the worst of this town. The loud-mouthed Imams and their followers, who desperately want to feel important but have no claim to importance because they create little else but misery.

I think it is for this reason that Ibro – a most profoundly delightful entertainer of his time – was able to make a movie about Kawajo and distribute it, however briefly. He was sanctioned for it, the movie largely removed from circulation.

Above all, I wish to know where Kawajo is now. Is she long returned to the heavens whence she came with a bowl of blessing and a hefty dose of trial to boot, to play out an existence that though trying for her will sow the seed of some kind of awareness in millions of unaware minds? Is she somewhere, trying at being a man when she desperately wishes she could just be the woman that Gods have so blatantly botched the making of? It doesn’t matter one way or another. I will tell you what does matter.

That wherever she is at this moment – whether returned to the earth and the spirits of her ancestors, or shrunken shattered and clawing her way through a life that isn’t her own but one forced on her by the vile force of a communal ignorance that makes a people bay for the blood of all that appears to not fit into the neatly trimmed cocoon of their cherished community – her power remains.

It is in the art made eternal by a man who may or may not have known what power his documentation in crude film and mocking presentation of her essence had and continues to have. Ibro played Kawajo with exaggerated femininity the way most people think transwomen must be.

It is in the indelible mark left by that art to forever seal Kawajo into the essence of Kano – of Hausaland really – in the very language we speak every day. 

Is there a greater power than language? This means through which we communicate and exchange our understanding of a universe that revels in the conscience it manifested in fragile beings who could in time reveal what she seeks to grasp about her own self.

Kawajo was mortal – this everyone knew then – as I have no doubt she bled like everyone will when faced with a mob justice that seeks to induce pain and humiliation in equal measure.

Kawajo is immortal – and this many may not fully realise even when they continue to invoke her name as joke fodder long after she left them to their ignorance, she lives on.

And she will continue to live on.

On the tongues of the ignorant – even when they don’t stop to appreciate the immortality that could force the continuing flourishing of one’s name long after they depart a place.

In the hearts and mouths of trans children of Hausa extraction – maybe as a prayer against what could happen if they are unlucky to suffer her fate or as a prayer to summon the strength to live fully even if briefly like she did.

She lives in the hearts of knowing people, who recognise that this being was more than a mere mortal, and say a prayer of forgiveness to her in empathy, that she may heal wherever she is from the hurt of her betrayal and subsequent humiliation.

If she is alive somewhere, I hope she has attained some happiness. If she has passed, I hope she sits in a place of honour among the pantheon of Gods, sipping milk drenched in honey – partaking in the divine decadence that made her a half-formed thing with the power to make herself into who she was always meant to be – a woman.

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