Gwamma Malama is one of the most famous women in Hausaland. She was not famous by her profession but by the heart she shared with the most renowned singer yet in Hausaland – Alhaji Mamman Shata. That was over 50 years ago. But she is still kicking. He in turn composed for her a love song unrivalled by any – in my opinion – among the dozens he made for various women he came across in his life.
At the age of 86, I met Gwamma still strong yesterday in her native town, Kankia, Katsina State, on my return journey from Maradi. She is a jovial lady who must have captivated many during her youth, as Shata acknowledged in his song.
She was picked as a young girl by Native Authority officials and taught specifically how to administer injections to patients and during vaccinations exercises. Recruited in Kankia, she was transferred to Katsina, Kaduna, Malumfashi, and many other places. It was while she was in Malumfashi that she first caught the attention of Shata, then also a slim, handsome boy with long “Afro” hair, marauding from one playing ground to another across Hausaland, but particularly in the old Katsina Province (now Katsina State).
When I mentioned her love affair with Shata, she felt shy, covered her face and laughed until her forehead almost touched the ground. She pleaded, saying, “Please leave that matter, for among us are my children.” But when after she normalized her position, I told her that Shata did love her, she readily replied, smiling: “And I loved him too.” Then came another prolonged laughter before I said, “That made the two of you Romeo and Juliet!”
I think Shata was captivated not by her beauty alone. Gwamma said she used to wear the most expensive dress and bracelet of her time. Combine this with her status as a female health worker – when you hardly meet female public officials in Northern Nigeria – you have a girl that everyone would love, particularly the artist. So if her dress had brought her out among other girls – and you know she had the money to outwit them, being a health worker – her status must have played a subtle role in pulling Shata towards her. When it comes to association with women, man differs from other animals, said Charles Darwin: He often goes for status, not simply biological features.
The affinity between Shata and Gwamma was instantaneous. He must have noticed her during her posting in Malumfashi such that immediately she appeared at the playing ground for the first time they were to meet, the Gwamma pulled his heart like how a magnate would pull iron filings. Shata instantly improvised one of his most memorable songs – Gwamma Malama. When I asked her where she met Shata and how their legendary love started, she answered, saying, “It was right there and then.”
Shata would continue to sing his Gwamma song wherever he went. I watched him repeating it on TV in far away Sokoto in the early 1980s, over thirty years after he invented it. The most comprehensive version of the song was recorded by EMI in Lagos, obviously after Gwamma was transferred to her hometown, Kankia. That transfer pained him, but he assured Gwamma, in a metaphor, that it is the nature of public service – difficult but sweet:
The rodent of the anthill is difficult to dig (and catch)…
But its meat is sweet.
The rodent of the waste heap is easy to dig
Throw it away; its meat is bitter(in taste).
Likewise, public service is sweet but difficult:
Gwamma! I was told that you have been transferred to Kankia.
Yet, distance did not extinguish the fire of their love. Shata continued to visit her in Kankia and later Katsina. She recalled that when he later sustained a fracture, he was treated by one Danazumi there in Kankia. I can easily imagine Gwamma cooking for him throughout those sorrowful days. Her Shata was sick!
Two stanzas that make the song a bit wild to the pious ear except if it listens to them from the perspective of a literati as it does to those of Imru’ul Qais, Abu Nuwwas or Qais Majnun – was where Shata invented a wound and pleaded with his Gwamma to violate her professional ethics and treat him. Listen to him, luring her to his nest:
I have sustained a wound on my body
Come and examine it for me
Oh Gwamma! Come and examine it for me, in camera.
Then give me an injection of aphrodisiac
The relevance of such old songs is how they graphically portray the social condition of Hausaland before leisure was completely divorced from our lives. To me they do not only teach and entertain; they are historical records too.
Having seen Gwamma “live” in Kankia, I asked Sada, my guide, to escort me quickly to a shop. We returned with a small gift, which I presented her with at the end of the brief interview. My remarks then:
“Hajiya Gwamma! Here are two wrappers: This is in recognition of the service you rendered to our people in those days when there were so many diseases but few health workers around. This other one is given in memory of your Shata, who stuck your name on our lips, painted your portrait as a beautiful and expensive girl in our memory, and made you a Mecca for us his fans and students of Hausa literature alike. And this N2,000.00 is for tailoring. Thank you so much.”
She accepted the little gift with all pleasure.
Me: We are here today in the company of a famous woman in Northern Nigeria. She is among the health workers during the First Republic and with whom Shata acquainted the acquainted the world for over 50 years now. Her name is Hajiya Gwamma Malama. We will discuss briefly with her. Hajiya! You are welcome.
Gwamma: You are welcome too.
Me: I will ask you some few questions without wasting much of your time. First of all, were you a health worker?
Me: How did it start?
Gwamma: When I was employed, I was asked what work I would like to do. I replied, “Whatever you my employers wish.” They then said, “Okay. Can you administer injections?” I replied, “No one is born skilled. If I will be trained, I can do it.”
Me: Where were you first posted to?
Gwamma: Here, Kankia.
Me: Then to where?
Gwamma: Katsina, then Kaduna…I know everywhere in Kaduna (laughter).
Me: Good. In your work, did you serve under Europeans?
Gwamma: Yes. We worked with Sister… … …
Me: No. No. You don’t have to remember their names. That was up to the First Republic. Right?
Me: And you continued beyond the coup and the civil war…
Gwamma: Yes… even after the civil war.
Me: So you used to administer injections in hospitals and during vaccination exercises, when there were many diseases like meningitis, small pox, wounds, etc.?
Gwamma: Yes. Both…
Me: Let me tell you. We were your patients then… (laughter). If I were to show you my legs, you would count over seven large wounds of all kinds… (laughter) but due to your effort all such diseases are now absent…
Gwamma: Yes. They are absent.
Me: May God reward you abundantly. Does the government pay you any pension?
Gwamma: Yes. I receive pension.
Me: How much?
Gwamma: It is not much, just N6,000.00, monthly.
Me. That is good. I will now ask you about something. You are not famous because of your public service. (Gwamma started laughing) You are famous because of the song that Mamman Shata did for you. What was actually your relationship with Shata, if I may ask?
Gwamma: Laughter….Laughter… (After a while she spoke, but still laughing). My children are around. Please don’t ask about that here. (I visited her with some two elderly looking people, Sada and Musa, who are in their 60s, perhaps, and two of my sons – Omar and Omer – were managing the cameras).
Me: But he really loved you…
Gwamma: And I loved him too… (Laughter)
Me: That made you Romeo and Juliet… (Laughter).
Gwamma: (Again she became consumed by laughter)
Me: At what time of your life did he compose the song for you?
Gwamma: I was fairly grown up then.
Me: So did you just hear the song first on radio or…
Gwamma: No. Everything started at the theatre, there and then.
Me: In Malumfashi…
Gwamma: Yes. In Malumfashi. Later, he used to visit me here (in Kankia), then in Katsina…
Me: Now that so many years have passed because as you told me some moments ago you are 86…
Gwamma: Yes, I am 86.
Me: What would you tell the younger generations?
Gwamma: You see I sometimes say there was no war like Hitler’s. Even those of Saddam Huseyn or Ojukwu were not as bad. You know the final moment of Hitler is unknown. Did he commit suicide? No one knows. His body is not found to date.
Me: Finally, what would you like to tell your numerous fans that listen to your song and would love to meet you, one to one?
Gwamma: (laughter). Then, we used to adorn ourselves with cinkuna (?). Do you know them? (laughter)
Me: No. I don’t.
Gwamma: We used to wear them from neck to knee. They are like the gold jewellery of today. If a young man would meet his friend who did not go to the market that day, he would ask the friend: “Did you go to market today?” The friend would say, “No.” Then he will say, “I did. Gwamma was terrific.” (laughter and clapping)
Me: So you were really into fashion then? Wao! You were spending your salary on dresses? That must have endeared you to Shata. You must have stood out amongst your peers so much so that once Shata saw you from afar, he had to enquire about you. (laughter)
Gwamma: Actually, when he sustained a fracture, he was treated here at Danazumi’s house.
Me: Oh sorry! Finally, what advice would you give to younger generations?
Gwamma: Well, they should try to tread the world cautiously, with the fear of God in their mind. For us, our time has passed; only repentance is left. It is now theirs.
Me: Oh. Oh. Thank you. Thank you. Viewers, this is the end of our chat with Gwamma Malama. As you can see she is still strong. She can get up quickly and walk about without any difficulty. Thank you.
Gwamma: Thank you.
Tuesday, 29 May 2012
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