Thursday 24th September, the equivalent to the 10th day of Dhu al-Hijja in the Muslim lunar calendar, which started as a most promising day was the day we lost Hajiya Bilkisu a kind, noble mother and lover of humanity and peace, to a courageous death in Saudi Arabia during the 1436 Hajj rites.
As some of us sisters gathered during the condolence visit at her Yahaya Road residence in Kaduna, we expressed our pain, awe and shock even as we admired the way she had died serving Allah and we thought about our own end. We cried, we prayed for her soul and we reminisced about who she was. Aunty Oby (Ezekwesili) described her as ‘accomplished’. Hajiya Saudatu Mahdi called her ‘selfless’, I heard another sister call her ‘different’. I watched Mairo Mandara her good friend remain stoically silent through it all- that communicated the weight of the loss more than even words could. Charmaine Pereira was calm but I wondered what raged on the inside. Titi Fakoya said to me later she was ‘pious and devoted’.
All these and more describe Hajiya Bilkisu accurately. A networker per excellence and conversationalist, Hajiya could join in any discourse and express her thoughts on any subject. A professional and prolific writer, she was sought after by development partner programmes and governments respectful of her knowledge of the Nigerian socio - political environment and her pedigree as a forward thinking Muslim learned woman. She kept good old values and was focused on what was most essential.
As someone who has had the honour of working with her on many projects, laughed with her and been taught many things about life by her, for me, Hajiya Bilkisu’s greatest asset is taking life’s most profound lessons and teaching them in ways that are simple and which stay with you for life. She did that through her writings, teachings, facilitation or just sitting and talking with you.
The most enduring lesson which she taught me was; guard your word. Some years back, I visited the house and we got talking about some commitments made and the need to always remember and follow through. She paused and reached out for a slim book. She said this contains all my amanah (pledges and debts held in trust) should anything happen to me the children know where to look. I was awed and she said to me but you know the longest verse in the Qur’an is about documenting your contractual agreements. I didn’t know then, but really Surah Baqarah 2: 282 indeed is. I have since kept what I call my own black book detailing my debts and financial obligations which is updated every month by the children themselves, as my witnesses.
Hajiya Bilkisu taught me simplicity and honesty through the hijab lesson: Once she came into one of the meeting rooms where I was facilitating a dialogue. She asked me where we said our salat and I showed her. Then I offered to give her my full length hijab a piece of sewn cloth with a neck opening so you wear it over your head and it covers your arms to your hand and flows to below the ankles covering the toes. She said, uhn-uhn Amina it makes me hot. She then took her headscarf and showed me it was two yards of material folded into a head tie! She unfolded the wrapper and used it as her veil over her long gown- it served the same purpose and I remembered this was how our mothers used to pray. She smiled in her endearing way and said, of course. I fell in love then with her retro sense. No pretentions. Hajiya practiced belief in a way that made worship easy and made you want to be a better you. Here was someone who knew her religion in and out but she kept it simple, honest and real. I saw her daughter Nana use the two wrapper body cover during the condolence and I remembered our conversation with her mum.
Appreciative enquiry: She showed that one could be accomplished yes, but what truly counts is what you give to others. This began with respect. In the late 1990s, Hajiya Bilkisu was part of a team that established Abantu for Development in Nigeria; a Pan African international NGO for girls and women. Everyone who knew her knows about her passion for the rights of girls and women. She committed time, energy and resources to the take off of Abantu. By far what awed me and has stayed with me since on that project is her lesson on appreciative enquiry. Simply put, you cannot assume the community does not know the issues just because they cannot speak Queen’s English. If we are to change the reality for the better for girls and women we must understand their point of view, uphold the good and find mutual ways of helping them unlearn the harmful. How do you communicate an issue whose meaning in the local languages you do not know, she asked us then. Appreciative enquiry demanded that we respected indigenous knowledge. She helped unravel our core word then which was ‘gender’. We learnt it was called ‘jinsi’ in the Hausa language.
Hajiya Bilkisu never shook hands with the opposite sex. I don’t quite manage it but I became quite conscious of it when I saw her gently explain to a high ranking man, why she could not take his hand. Out of courtesy, I could not refuse older males who put out their hands, except those I thought should know better. She however had no scruples about it. Once I had to as part of protocol briefing to DfID ahead of their meeting with her on the Gender in Nigeria report, inform them that she does not shake hands with men!
The water lesson: Funny enough, I have always measured Hajiya Bilkisu’s sophistication by her love of amala. Though a northerner, her love of that south west staple meal should be the envy ýof any Yoruba person. It could be her one solid meal of the day and it was usually lunch. Once after a bowl of amala I offered her a drink of water. She said no, I would only drink water after two hours and room temperature water at that. I have since learnt that this was a healthier way to live. I have not always matched Hajiya Bilkisu’s record of two hours but years after that lesson, I have remained very health conscious.
Respect the rules whoever you may be. Recently, she was to facilitate an event - a key role by all standards. She got to the gate having forgotten her invitation card. The young members of the planning team, who didn’t know her, requested she showed her cardý. She indeed went back to fetch her invitation card and came back slightly behind schedule so I had to fill in for her, for a short while. Someone else would have thrown their weight around and said ‘don’t you know who I am’ it was the last time I saw her and the last lesson in humility she taught me.
A very cosmopolitan person and true citizen of the world, you could tell this by the diversity of people who came to condole the family; young, old, Muslim, Christian, men and women across different ethnic groups and nationalities. You know, when people pass and you say they were a rare gem out of politeness? In her case she absolutely was/ is an amazingly rare gem. The global civil society community is in mourning. We have lost an Icon.
Hajiya Bilkisu made life seem so simple. With her, everything appeared doable. She was quintessentially human. She lived in the best of ways and died in the best of ways. Every Muslim wants to die affirming the oneness of Allah and in the service of that Almighty. She got both wishes. May Allah accept her Shahadah and grant her Aljannatul Firdaus. May Allah light for her a light in her grave, as she has lit in many lives.
May Allah grant the souls of all those who passed in the 1436 Hajj incident, forgiveness and their families succor and patience, Amin.