Asma’u was five years old at the end of the eighteenth century, starting school, learning reading and writing through study of the Qur’an, in the Fulani compound headed by her father Usman dan Fodio. Her father (known as the Shehu) promoted a more orthodox form of Islam in contrast to the tribal practices in the surrounding areas. He was a scholarly man and a poet in his in own right, and the owner of a significant library of books.
He arranged Asma’u’s marriage when she was 12, selecting a friend of her brother as her husband. During Asma’u’s youth, her father waged a war which ended in the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate, a civilisation which was to last for almost a century. At its height, the Caliphate linked over 30 different governorships and over 10 million citizens.
Asma’u wrote a huge amount of poetry over her life, in Arabic, Fula and Hausa, some of which lives on in the oral traditions of Nigeria to this day. Asma’u saw her most important role as shaping and spreading the culture of the Caliphate, using her poetry as a source of education. The Islamic culture of the Caliphate competed with the traditional ‘Bori’ religion in the region. Asma’u developed a cadre of peripatetic female teachers (jajis), who went from house to house spreading Asma’u’s poetry, and the work of other Sufi thinkers. Each of these teachers trained a sisterhood of learned women who served as their surrogates. These systems built networks of information sharing between women across the Caliphate which long survived its demise. Asma’u designed a special costume for the jajis, mimicking the robes of Bori priestesses) to assure that they commanded respect in the community. These networks of female interaction and education provided both practical and spiritual connections, creating a communication network across the whole caliphate.
Even today, her name is recognised in Nigeria, showing how one of the great civilisations of the 19th century was built upon the wisdom and creativity of women.