Shaihu Umar

6 June 2016

Justifying the Inhumane

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Despite being brought up in a world we ourselves would consider inhuman, uncivil, and punishing, Shaihu Umar was a patient man that hundreds flocked to for wisdom and guidance. Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa’s Shaihu Umar: A Novel about Slavery in Africa follows the story of a boy that grows to be a highly respected Muslim man that endured through a whirling childhood. Beyond the capturing storyline, Balewa’s novel reveals much about the past world found in Africa that allows the reader to leave the novel more aware of the culture, dispositions, and history of the time. Balewa’s novel depicts a past world in which dehumanization of people is normalized through African life and custom. In my efforts to defend my argument, I refer to the dehumanization of people as the notion of slavery.

Slavery in the traditional sense as we know it but also in the general sense of one person belonging to another through hierarchies of social stratification. In the past African world discovered in Balewa’s writing, the African life and customs reveal a time when the dehumanization of peoples became justified through legislations and social norms. Corrupt court systems and the slavery institution created the legal system for slavery while the African lifestyle and Muslim religion created a blanket of tolerance and acceptability. Together these aspects fashioned the world Shaihu Umar faced and recalls.

The court systems created a world in which it was easy to be falsely convicted and difficult to prove anything otherwise. Multiple times in the storyline characters are wrongly convicted and face their word against another. In all situations, there is little done to search for the truth behind convictions or complaints. Each of the court related instances results in an unjust ruling that leads characters to ultimately accept the decision as fit. As seen early in the story, Makau is falsely convicted of hiding captured slaves and not reporting them to the court officials. As he is quickly outnumbered by many opinions against his own, and the judge declares he is guilty of an action he cannot prove himself innocent against. The chief of the court exclaims to Makau “this is the reward which you get from God for having betrayed my trust, after I had trusted you” (27).

Even in this situation when Makau was befriended by the chief, there was nothing Makau could do to prevent the ransacking of his compound and his eventual banishment. In another instance, Umar’s mother was captured into slavery. When she tried to assert her freedom in the courts, the courts ruled she was to be a slave. Although false and unfair, she is content with the decision at hand. The overall slavery institution does not upset her nor deter her from her task at hand. Umar’s mother “continued as usual, and did not show any sign that she was upset” (69) when she was ruled to go with her new owner. The instances of Makau, Umar’s mother, and the court related decisions reveal how it became acceptable to receive unjust and inhuman rulings. The decisions of the courts became something to accept and live with.

There was no overturning the decision that had been made. Therefore the inhuman treatment of people became that of something to be followed and was understood as fit and just. Hausa lifestyle and custom reveal how the notion of inhuman ownership can exist outside of slavery and in something simple like social hierarchical norms of status through society. Simply put, the marriage between Umar’s mother and Makau revealed a way in which someone belonged to another outside of slavery. When Umar’s mother and Makau became married, Umar’s mother became, in some ways, property of Makau. On the day of her wedding, “a day was appointed upon which she was to move into her husband’s compound” (21).

She was expected to do this and leave her old life behind. As a wife, she was also expected to be dedicated to her husband. These examples revolve around the idea that people could be entrapped to a form of slavery of ownership based on the understood norms of society. As a wife, Umar’s mother was expected to be a servant of her husband’s just like a slave would to their master. As we would see the inhuman treatment of a person to be a slaver to an owner, this parallel social construct was perfectly acceptable in the Hausa lifestyle. Another lifestyle adoption that contributed to the normalization of dehumanization and false treatment was the education one could receive.

To become educated in the time and place seen in this novel was to become religiously enriched. After becoming a son of Abdulkarim, Umar began his education and assimilation of the Muslim religion. Umar was a man known to have a gentle face, ever patient and tolerant. His studies allowed him to become rich with knowledge and, as a result, many travelled great distances to learn from him. Umar is an example of someone known in his time as having “the kind of character which the Arabs like” (56). Abdulkarim spoke these words regarding Umar’s character. Being of respected character, Umar was always gentle, he never interfered in what did not concern him and “he never wrangled with anyone” (18). These points revolve around the idea that the education of the time created for a more relaxed character and demeanor. As Umar began his life with Abdulkarim, it was aware to Abdulkarim that Umar was of a good character in that he kept to himself.

This characteristic made him liked by Arabs. Together, Umar’s initial and educated character are something that’s valued by normal lifestyle. Umar has the ability to be patient and avoid anger. His education and assimilation to Muslim life make him a more understanding person, and better able to turn away from the harsh realities of life. Similar to the notion of religious education making for a more patient and understanding person, the Muslim religion has a strong influence on the acceptance of characters in Balewa’s novel. Many times, characters accept large realities they faced with justifications of God, or as things God had brought them to. There was little anger or frustration with a situation at hand, knowing God’s hand is at work. Makau’s banishment does not cause him unrest and he even prays for his banishers that “God bring you safely out of the forest” (30). It is a true testament of faith to pray for one’s own enemies as Makau does here. Another instance later, Umar’s mother is grateful to have finally found her son.

She exclaims “for many years now I have been seeking you, and at last God has brought us together” (74). Despite the enslavement and other cruelties she suffered, Umar’s mother is eternally grateful to have found her son after the years God put her through to do so. In both these situations, dehumanizing actions were justified and normalized through the Muslim religion. The idea of God deeming them to happen gives Makau and Umar’s mother a peace of mind. It is because of all these varying aspects that something as dehumanizing and inhumane as human ownership. The world in which it becomes something of normal acceptance for a person to have unjust rulings held above them and eventually be owned or treated like property.

The social laws and norms of the Hausa and Muslim lifestyle water down the affects felt by something like this and create a norm of acceptability. Beyond the lifestyles and expected behavioral reactions, religion and education further develop a patient and accepting person. Umar was highly praised for his character in that he minded only himself and was patience toward all that happened. This one simple characteristic is highly regarded and looked well upon one whom may possess these characteristics. A person with these characteristics are apt to be accepting and cause little unrest over an unjust court ruling or the maltreatment of a person. Together these aspects create an acceptability for the most inhumane treatment of people.


Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Shaihu Umar: A Novel about Slavery in Africa. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1989

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