How Naseeba Babale juggles a full-time medical career with a solid poetry portfolio

Naseeba Babale is a poet, literary administrator, and medical laboratory scientist with the Department of Chemical Pathology and Immunology at Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital. In early 2021, during the heat of conversations around the cold-blooded murder of 5-year-old Hanifa Abubakar, one of Naseeba’s poems, which she wrote in response to the situation, went viral. The poem, simply titled “How Did you Do It?”, is deeply empathetic and probing. It is immediately relatable and this explains the wide acceptance and distribution in solidarity.

Naseeba is a member of the Kano State branch of the Association of Nigerian Authors, the Secretary of Poetic Wednesdays Initiative, and a moderator for Glass Door Initiative’s Poetically Written Prose contest from 2019 to date. She was one of the judges of the Nigerian Student Prize 2020, organized by Poets In Nigeria. She was a co-organizer of TEDxAminuKanoWay. A graduate of Bayero University, Kano, Naseeba is a lover of arts and columnist for Konya Shams Rumi. She hails from the Kano State of Nigeria.

She started as a little girl who devoured every book that held stories and poems, becoming a glowing writer. In this new conversation, she takes us through her journey from when she was a child up to the present moment of being a reputable name in the Nigerian creative scene. Naseeba also shares what it is like to be both a poet and a medical professional in a country like Nigeria.

HANEEFAH ABDULRAHMAN: You’re welcome. We’re super excited to have you here. So before we delve into the chat, I’d like you to tell me about how you feel as a Black person, a Black woman, and a Black poet.

NASEEBA BABALE: Being black in a country where everyone else is black makes me feel normal. I am not being honest if I say it makes me feel special. I am Nigerian. I live in Nigeria, where almost everyone I know is black. Most of the people I interact with are black. The only times I tend to think about being black are when I look at, read, or watch what Black people in interracial countries go through, or when I read our history and remember stories of atrocities in the form of slavery and colonization. Then, I tend to feel angry. I often write about being black, but it is usually centred around skin colour, not race; this is my experience. But if I write about being Black as a race, it’s usually coming from trying to remember the history, you know, and the hurt inflicted by colonization and slavery. That makes me feel angry. Apart from that, I feel normal.

So how are you celebrating Black History Month right now?

I celebrated Black History Month by getting myself a book entitled “Black and African Writing: A First Time Anthology.” So I plan to read a lot of black writing and attend poetry events. Yeah, there will be a Made in Nigeria show in Kano, and as you know, Poetic Wednesdays are organizing a poetry session in Zaria. Then, of course, I plan to write about it for my column in Konya Shamsrumi.

So, you’re a Columnist, a Poet, and Medical personnel. What was it like to start as a creative person, and what was the journey like for you? What are the struggles?

I’ve always been naturally creative, and it isn’t easy to name a point when I was not. I’ve been reading since I learned to read and have not stopped. So, I think that is where I got the inspiration. We usually buy new books in primary school whenever a new session begins, especially English textbooks, and I usually read the comprehension passages before starting classes. I loved stories, and my English teachers were some of my favourite teachers. I was always friends with them.

I love to write compositions. I think that was how I started. In primary school, they usually tell us to write an essay titled “How I spent my last holiday,” or write a story that ends with “You can take a horse to the river, but you cannot force it to drink water.” You know, stuff like that. So I used to do that. In senior secondary school, I wrote stories, even when our teachers did not ask. And then I’ll take it to my English teacher, and he will work on it. I also remember my mom used to read these Hausa novels. I read all of those too.

My first attempt at writing poetry was in 2008. I was in SSS3 then. And I happened to read Animal Farm, where I came across the song “Beast of England, Beast of Ireland.” And then I was like, Oh, I think I can write something like this. So I tried and wrote a poem, and I could still remember that I named it “Home.” Sadly, I don’t have a copy of the poem anymore. I showed my English teacher, and he was very encouraging.

Apart from that, I happened to be a radio person then. I was an ardent listener of a creative writing program on Freedom Radio here in Kano. They have been running that program since Freedom Radio opened somewhere around 2003. The anchor of the program, Kabiru Musa, invited Creative Writers, Professors, and all sorts of art people. They had an association called the Optimum Writers Association before changing it to the Association of Fiction and Nonfiction Writers. So I used to listen to that program every Sunday morning from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. It was a fun program. When they hosted Professor Aliyu Kamal, I called in to ask him if I wanted to be medical personnel, but I am interested in creative writing. Must someone study English at university before venturing into Creative writing? And he told me no. He gave me an example of Abubakar Gimba, who said that creative writing is for everyone. So I said, “I’ll give it a try.” They used to hold monthly sessions in Kano where people would present poems and short stories, and I think that was the first place I came into contact with the Creative World in Kano. Then I kept on writing, getting better, meeting new people, and then, Alhamdulillah, we are where we are today.

If you were to choose between your art world and your science world, which one would you choose?

Of course, I’ll choose my art! I will choose my art! I mean, art is beautiful. Art is lovely, art is inspirational, and art is life. What is life without art? I will choose my art over and over and over again. It doesn’t mean I don’t like my Medicine. It puts food on my table. My art hardly does that. But I love this art. I love the feeling I get from reading books and poems, going through reading sessions, Poetry events, Book and Art Festivals, and interacting with people. This intangible feeling comes when you are inspired and have your muse; the mood you get into is borderline spiritual. I wouldn’t want to miss that, so I chose my art.

How much has art healed you? How much have you healed people with art? What impact has art had on you? What impact have you had on people with your art?

Oh, well, I think art has healed me or helped me feel. I know, for instance, that art has been a channel through which I express my grief. Whenever I’m grieving about anything, I tend to write. Since I came across poetry, I don’t think I’ve had grief that has not been written, so I write away my grief. Art has done that for me, and it has helped me heal. Whenever I’m sad about something, I write it out. I’m angry. I write it out. Unfortunately, I hardly ever write it out when I’m happy.

Many people have told me that they’ve read one or two of my works, and they’ve either inspired them, made them think about something, or made them feel beautiful. And the most important thing is the people who tell me, “I became a poet from reading you.” When anybody says that I am the reason they started writing poetry, I’ll be like, “Wow, mama, I’ve made it in life.”

Art has linked me with people that have become more than friends. It has opened many doors for me to network, and most importantly, it has shaped my thinking in many ways. It has made me more open-minded, more receptive, more understanding, and less judgmental. It makes me tolerate people more, with all their madness and nonsense, and then it provides a haven. You know, the world is cruel, life in Nigeria is cruel, but once you hold a book or get hold of a poem, you tend to escape that, at least for a while. It has given me an avenue where I can disconnect from all the wahala that is happening around me, so in that way, art has done quite a lot for me.

How much do you think writers have helped solve issues in the world? How much do you think they have written to right the wrongs?

Well, I don’t think I would be able to solve any wrongdoing in the world with just my writing. I don’t think any writer can right a wrong. We writers strive to tell the stories as they happen to bring them out to the people. So that even if they do not notice, we make them feel, hear, touch, and smell what is happening in the world. When we expect writers to solve every problem with the tip of their pens, magically, I think we are not being realistic, and we are asking too much of them. I think writers see and try to make people see because they have the freedom of expression and the gift of words. They talk about contemporary issues and the wrongs that are being done. For example, I’ve written quite a bit about insecurity. I’ve written some political poems, but have they solved any problems? I don’t think they have, and that is the truth. I’m just being truthful here. But have they made people understand and feel what is happening? I think they have. And I think what writers need to do is continue to write to get people angry enough to act. A single writer cannot do anything and cannot solve any problem. But when the collective of writers keeps telling the people and making them come into contact with reality, maybe one day we will get them angry enough to wake up, and then we can collectively solve the problem. But as it is, if I’m being realistic, we do not hold the manual that has the solutions to the problems that hold the world at ransom.

So the death of Hanifa Abubakar has been a challenging issue in kidnapping and ritualism. And then you wrote a poem about her death, the little girl who was kidnapped and eventually killed, and that poem of yours went viral. How do you feel about it going viral?

Well, I was surprised. I was surprised when people told me that the poem had gone viral because when I wrote it, the first platform I shared it with was Facebook. I wrote it directly on my Facebook wall. When I woke up that morning, I was very emotional about the whole thing. I only intended to make a Facebook post about it, but then these questions started nagging, and they have been going on in my head. So instead of making a post, I ended up writing a poem. And I noticed that people kept sharing the poem, so I made an image version of it and shared it on my WhatsApp story. Then, a few moments later, I started seeing it on people’s statuses. And then people kept telling me that they’ve seen it on other people’s statuses, even people they’ve never thought had any interest in poetry. And to be honest, I felt happy. A friend told me that she believed the poem trended because I asked relatable questions. That was the first time in all the time that I’ve been writing that a piece of mine got so much attention. Below is the Poem,

How Did You Do It?

How did you look past her smile

And the love in her eyes

And the innocence of her face

And the fragility of her voice

To poison her to death

How did you do it

How did you turn your heart to stone

To a hard mass of callousness resting in your chest

How did you ignore her pleas

And her cries for help

How did you look away when she begged you

Uncle please I want to go home

How did you do it

How did you watch her die

Watch her cling desperately to the hems of life

Tossing and turning in pain

Her cries muffled by the anguish in her

As tears rolled down her beautiful face

How did you watch her lose her soul

Watch life slowly escape her small form

How did you chop her, a human

Into pieces without flinching

Without crying or fainting or dying

How did you put her in a sack

Like some remnants of a useless garbage

How did you sit and dig a grave for her

And after all these

Tell me please

How do you sleep at night?

The poem is indeed emotional. It deserved all the attention it got. I mean, for somebody to have the mind to kill a little girl without conscience is unthinkable. This poem speaks, and I love it. How satisfied are you with how far you have gone in your creative career? And are there things you want to achieve that you’ve not achieved yet?

I can say that I am somewhat satisfied. And my satisfaction comes from the fact that I did not start this to gain anything. As I said, it was something that came naturally to me. I have always been attracted to writing. I didn’t mind spending the little money I had on registering for literary events. This way, I’ve improved my writing skills, and I’ve been able to make my voice known. At least I’m relatively well known among poets in Northern Nigeria. Also, whenever I remember that I have been part of Poetic Wednesdays from day one, it gives me a lot of joy.

However, there are still many things I want to do. For example, when you take Poetic Wednesdays, I want to see it grow beyond its current state and transform into, maybe, a publishing house. Let it be a voice that is well known in Nigeria or even in Africa in general. Oh, and I would love to win the Bruner Prize for African Writers. Whoever knows me knows that I love the Bruner prize. Even if I don’t win the prize, I want to get at least shortlisted before I turn thirty-five. I want to have a library or some lounge where people can sit down and read books, have coffee, and discuss and talk about ideas.

I also want to be a better columnist. This morning, on my way to work, I read Abubakar Adam’s Line of Sight, and I was like, “God Almighty, I want to write columns like Abubakar.” And I would love to see myself writing prose someday, and I want to publish a book sometime in the future. I still feel like I’m not mature enough for a book.

Finally, what words of encouragement do you want to give Black creatives, the Black community, and the human species?

Well, to the creatives, what I’ll say is to write. Keep writing and never stop. Write profusely, unapologetically, and unrepentantly. Do not relent. Do not despair. Do not feel afraid. Beware of thoughts like “What people will say when you write,” “Maybe this is not good enough,” or “Maybe this may be that.” You will never know if it is good enough until you send it out into the world and people read it. So write. While you do that, do not forget to read. There are no good writers, and there are no good readers. People tend to think that there is this hidden concept about being a good writer, but the reality is that, as a writer, you are only as good as what you read.

So read, write, and do not get carried away by the accolades or social media. I know our generation is a generation of social media. And we tend to focus more on the accolades and forget the criticism. So don’t let the accolades carry you away. It would help if you also looked at the people trying to give you constructive criticism; you need them. Get yourself a mentor, a guardian, or someone who will guide you through your writing journey, and build a network of people with whom you share similar interests. Try publishing in journals and sending your work to magazines. There are a lot of online platforms now on which you can try to get your work published. When you do that, you tend to showcase your talent to the world.

To the Black community, I would love to say, “remember our history, and let us remember from where we came.” If we do not remember our history, there will be no future. We should remember that we are humans, too. And just because we have more melanin deposits than other people doesn’t make us in any way inferior. So rise and shine and do what you want to do. Do what you’re supposed to do. Be good. Live, laugh, and love.

And then, to the human species in general, I will say that we all owe it to humanity to be good people. There is so much going on in the world, so many atrocities. So many bad things, so many calamities up and down. We owe it to our fellow human beings, at least to be good people. So let us try to be good people. Thank you.

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