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Zaynab Alkali is famous for being Northern Nigeria’s first female author. Up until she published her first novel, Still Born, in 1984, writers from Northern Nigeria were only men.
She was born in Tura-Wazila in Borno State in 1950. She attended Queen Elizabeth secondary school, Ilorin. She graduated from Bayero University Kano with a BA in 1973. She later obtained a doctorate in African Studies in the same university and became the principal of Shekara Girls’ Boarding School.
She worked in the University of Maiduguri as a senior lecturer in the English department where she worked for twenty years. Later on, she left the University of Maiduguri for the National Primary Health Care Development Agency in Abuja, where she worked for three years until she left to work at Nasarawa State University.
The Stillborn, perhaps Zaynab Alkali’s best-known work was published to critical acclaim in 1984. This coming-of-age novel depicts the physical and spiritual journey of a Nigerian woman who learns to survive, in the face of harsh traditions. The novel was quickly followed by The Virtuous Woman which was published by Longman, Nigeria in 1987.
Like many talented writers of prose, Zaynab Alkali decided to try her hands on short prose form. Cobwebs & Other Stories was published by the famous Malthouse Press in Lagos in 1997. The Descendants was published by Spectrum Lagos in 2007 and followed by The Initiates in 2007, and Invisible Borders in 2016, Zaynab Alkali’s books have been translated into many languages such as German, French, Arabic and Spanish. To date, Zaynab Alkali has won over 40 awards.
Her choice of characters is a result of her social background. She mentioned this at the 2018 Kaduna books and arts festival, Explaining that the choice was due to her social background, she said, “My father, who was a Muslim, moved to a Christian settlement in Adamawa State. Somehow he ended up being converted to Christianity. I attended a Christian mission school myself, but other members of the larger family remained Muslims. To cut a long story short, there were six children in my family.
“Three of us ended up being Christians and the others remained Muslims. As a result of that, I have been versed in both relations. And it would be unrealistic if all the characters in my books were Muslims. I try to write for humanity because our challenges are the same. I have no conflict whatsoever, as far as religion is concerned.”
With literary success came professional development. Zaynab Alkali took up an appointment at the University of Maiduguri which she held for twenty-two years before joining the Civil Service as a deputy director at NPHCDA, Abuja in 2000. Four years later, she moved to Nasarawa State University, Keffi, as a full professor of English. She would later become dean of the faculty of arts and dean of the School of Postgraduate Studies. Between 2005 and 2009 Zaynab Alkali served as deputy vice-chancellor (Admin), briefly acting as vice-chancellor in 2006. Between 2015 and 2016, she occupied the post of director, gender studies.
Zaynab Alkali was honoured with the title of Icon of Hope (2000) by His Excellency, President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government. She received the Nigerian Woman of Distinction Award ( 29 September 2010) on the occasion of Nigeria’s Golden Jubilee, presented by His Excellency, President Goodluck Jonathan. The Adamawa State Governor, His Excellency Murtala Nyako, bestowed on her the Woman of Substance Merit Award,( 2 October 2011). Most recently, she received A Lifetime Achievement Award for her outstanding contributions to the Nigeria Literary Canon by His Excellency Nasir El-Rufai at the Kaduna Book and Arts Festival (KABAFEST) on September 5, 2018, a proud Fellow of the British Council, UK, and Stiftung Kulfursfond, Germany, (1998).
Zaynab Alkali serves as the board chairman of the following; Zayba Educational Resources Development, Keffi, Capital Science Academy, Kuje- Abuja and the National Library of Nigeria (NLN) Abuja. She also serves as vice-chairman of, Planning and Implementation Committee of Midlands University. Chairman board of trustees, (NADI) NURALKALI Development Initiative. Grand matron – Halimafactor Community Initiative – 20 November 2019 and most recently, Grand matron of the Effective Reading Campaign in Nigeria- November 2019.
Ever the Educator, Zaynab is the proprietress of Zyba Model Nursery and Primary School, Keffi. When she is not busy with public commitments, she can be found supervising the affairs of her school and managing Zyba farms. Zaynab Alkali is a shining example of what can be achieved with dedication and hard worry, She has not only honed her talent, she continues to give the world excellent works that capture the complexities of ordinary human beings.
Zaynab Alkali’s work can be termed feminist, but she mentions that this is not intentional.
She mentioned on a panel in the 2018 edition of the Kaduna books and arts festival that she got into writing because she was a bad speaker and had a phobia for public appearance. She said that writing to empower women economically, politically and psychologically came much later.
According to her she began writing to express herself and revealed that she published her work by accident At the Bayero University College, Kano, an expatriate lecturer called for the submission of short stories for a journal and she gave him some of her works.
Although she begged the lecturer not to expose the manuscripts to anybody else, the next thing she knew was that he went on vacation abroad and got one of the stories to read on the British Broadcasting Corporation.
Zainab Alkali’s life is an inspiration to many female northern Nigerian writers. Her literary and professional success shows that the brave act of expressing one’s self can result in great accomplishment and fulfilment.