The Birth of Hausa Blues


The shortest distance between two people is a story.-Patti Digh

Zenab and Shelah met while working in a classroom for medically fragile preschoolers with multiple disabilities. Shelah, at the time, was the Speech/Language Pathologist assigned to the classroom, and Zenab was a home health aide, tasked with administering medications and meals via g-tube to a medically fragile student.

One afternoon, as the women sat around a kidney-shaped table to eat lunch with the classroom teacher, two paraeducators, and their seven students, Zenab took a bite of a big mango. Right through the skin! Shelah offered to get Zenab a knife, while Zenab was mortified for being seen as a bad example to the students.

“No! You’re not a bad example,” Shelah said, laughing. “I’ve just never seen anyone eat the skin of a mango like that.”

mango-tree-239x300Zenab then shared how in Africa she used to climb trees with her brother and sometimes sit there on a branch eating six or seven at once. Shelah was intrigued. As a child she herself loved climbing an apple tree in her back-yard, even though the apples were small, sour, and mostly inedible.

“When did you live in Africa?” Shelah asked.

“My whole life—well, until about five years ago.”

That was the beginning of their partnership, born of Zenab’s open desire to share and Shelah’s curious desire to hear more stories about this fascinating life she once lived. Zenab’s experiences as a Muslim woman born to a wealthy, polygamist family in Cameroon, Africa were entirely foreign to Shelah. But what was most intriguing was how strongly she identified with her, even though they didn’t share much in common on the surface level. Both women were still sorting out their identities, overcoming the incessant drive to earn love and approval, coupled with a general despondency that no matter what they were never good enough. They knew they were meant to walk the road together for a while.

In the summer of 2012, Zenab and Shelah began an “official” journey of exploration together. One in which Shelah had agreed to write a book about Zenab’s story and she eagerly told her everything. At first they met every Monday, talking for 3-4 hours at a time, recording their conversations. Shelah spent the week between visits listening to the recordings over again, transcribing Zenab’s words, and immersing herself completely in her experience. At the end of that summer, Shelah wrote the first few chapters of what is now Hausa Blues. 

When they first embarked on a partnership together, Zenab and Shelah were barely acquainted. Shelah didn’t know all the details of Zenab’s story, whether they would work well together, or even how to go about writing someone else’s story. Still, she heard an invitation to commune with her love of words, so she embraced the process. As their partnership developed, they discovered a very intuitive compatibility. The friendship Zenab and Shelah now enjoy unites them in a desire to share Zenab’s story with the world, as they watch like hovering parents the path it finds for itself.


PUBLICATION UPDATE: After much deliberation, the original plan to self-publish in November of 2014 was suspended when a prominent literary agency expressed interest in the possibility of representing Hausa Blues to traditional publishing houses. Zenab and Shelah felt it was an avenue they needed to explore. Just a month after withholding its release date, Hausa Blues received an award from Shelf Unbound Magazine as a Notable Book of 2014 in their 2014 Indie Best Contest. Hausa Blues is currently represented by Laura Yorke at the Carol Mann Agency.


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(image: flickr creative commons Churl)

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