What do you like to listen to on the radio?” This is a question I pose to women wherever I travel in rural Africa. When I asked six women in the once great Saharan trading city of Agadez, I heard the same answer that almost all women tell me – news, information about health, child care, nutrition and AIDS. What makes these responses remarkable is that the women answering had not set foot outside the modest 15th century mud palace complex since their marriage day. They were the wives of the Sultan of Aïr, who is the traditional leader of Tuareg. His Sultanate covers a vast desert territory of northern Niger and includes various Tuareg clans and other nomadic peoples.

For the senior wife, this was more than 40 years. Even more astounding, is that I was the first Westerner they had ever met.  I visited the wives of the Sultan on two occasions for more than two hours.

The first meeting took place inside an oval-shaped reception room. Thin cotton fabric hung loosely over the mud walls; straw and plastic mats covered the ground. A cloth-covered doorway blocked the view to their private rooms. A solitary light bulb hung from the ceiling. The wives sat on cushioned metal chairs while Mari, my interpreter, and I were seated on thin foam mattresses. Only when the senior wife, Asmaou, the last to arrive, took her seat, were the introductions made, hands shaken and sugary drinks served, with ice. At the time I wasn’t concerned over the purity of the ice since I was told it was pumped from well water deep under the Sahara. (Although I did develop Hepatitis A from my 12 days in Agadez.)

Mari communicated in Hausa (the lingua franca of much of West Africa) with their envoy, Saade, an elegant woman in her 30s and a niece of the Sultan. Saade then translated into Tamascheq, the language of the Tuareg. The two youngest wives had attended primary school and understood Hausa. The youngest, Mariama, was also literate in French, as I would learn later from a letter she sent me.

Initially the conversation was awkward as they were clearly uneasy, at times shyly hiding behind their head coverings. At this point, I had no idea that they had never met an outsider. Protocol dictated that only after the senior wife had spoken or passed on the question, would the others answer.

During our second meeting the following afternoon we met outside in a barren courtyard. They were animated and relaxed. I learned a seventh wife had died in the 60s, along with her three children. They told me that each woman had married the sultan around the age of 14. All practice Islam and come from different Tuareg clans.

Asmaou, has been married for 40 years; Mariama, the newest wife married 20 years ago and four others are in between for an accumulated total of 192 years of matrimony. It appears that the sultan selected his brides after seeing them as young girls around Agadez, which has a population of 70,000. Being chosen by the sultan brings great honour to a girl’s family.

The selection of a wife is a collective undertaking. The sultan’s brothers and sisters discuss the merits of the potential wife and must agree on her suitability. Wives generally have a voice in the selection of a new wife. Given their tightly cloistered lives, this method seems sensible, if not essential.

Multiple wives are costly and he must provide for their every need. In centuries past West African sultans were wealthy merchants who traded in gold, silver, salt and even slaves. It was not obvious how the current Sultan supports his wives and immense staff that include many advisors, liaisons to various clans and brightly dressed guards. My guess is  that it is through tax collection, donations and the receipt of some government support I was told.

The sultanas wore beautifully embroidered clothing and gold jewellery, which I thought to be their very best dresses and head coverings. When I commented on the beauty of their delicately carved jewellery, they giggled, smiled widely and said they were gifts from the sultan.

I asked if they live in a harem and they did not recognise the word. They told me they live in a zaoura, which I believe means collective living. The women co-habit with their 21 children in the brown one story palace. It’s diesel electrified, has an old black dial telephone and running water.  The furniture was basic. There were no gardens like you would expect to see in a palace I saw only a few trees and some yellow flowers. Temperatures can reach 50C in the summer months.

The women live collectively during the day in one large reception area, which I was not permitted to see. In addition, each wife has her own sleeping chamber and the sultan keeps a series of personal rooms, strictly off-limits to outsiders. Each wife visits the sultan in his sleeping chamber for one night a week. This was not a polite subject to pursue any further.

The children call each co-wife as “mama” and the other wives respectfully address Asmaou as “mama”. Every child is the responsibility of all wives equally and they said they collectively agree on the disciplinary action should a child misbehave. The children freely leave the compound to go to school and could even attend university overseas. I had not expected such “modernism”. The women were confident that their daughters received the same education as their sons. The small children I saw were laughing running about in t-shirts and skirts or shorts and were barefoot.

I asked what they did behind the walls, day in and day out, year in and year out. They said that they had people to help with household work, including sewing and embroidery. Their attendants are their own family members. Each of the wives’ immediate family works in the palace and either lives in the compound or in a warren of houses adjoining the palace. Their privacy and safety are assured.

They pass time by watching black and white TV. Television in Niger is fairly limited and they weren’t connected to a satellite dish. Like most people in Africa, their primary source of information is radio. They smiled and teased “mama” saying that she had a radio growing out of her ear, as she listened to her transistor all day long.

What women listen to and want they hope to listen to are questions I pose wherever I travel in Africa – an occupational hazard. Each woman told her responses one by one. The youngest wanted to know more about pregnancy, what happens inside a woman’s body when she is with child, during birth and to know more about baby and child care. They were unanimous in wanting more information about health, staying healthy, and diseases – specifically AIDS. I was surprised how much they knew about HIV/AIDS. Some said that more local and countrywide news was important, as they wanted to keep up with developments and events, including political happenings. One was concerned about income generating work, such as handicrafts, saying that women needed more information about prices and costs so others won’t take advantage of them. Another said she wanted more radio discussions about young girls being forced into early marriage by old men and girls being either sold to or given in marriage by their families against their will.

I hadn’t expected them to be so well informed and engaged with an outside world from which they’d been excluded since their early teens. Their biggest adventure was to look out into Agadez from the palace rooftop onto the monotone brown and dusty city center, where camels compete with cars and motorbikes. They have never eaten at a restaurant, visited a friend for tea, bought a dress in a shop or attended local festivals.

Except when one of their immediate family members dies, they are strictly forbidden to leave the zaoura. Even then, they can only exit in their own compound accompanied by all the other wives, provided her family lives attached to the palace complex and they venture no further. Otherwise, a sister or brother attends a birth, wedding or funeral as her representative.

I asked many people in Agadez and Niamey, the capital, about the sultan’s wives and no one had met them or even knew how many wives or children he had. Most just guessed at four wives. A waiter at the pension in Agadez said his friend was the sultan’s son, but he, too, had no knowledge of palace family life.

We outsiders would consider them concubines imprisoned without options. However, when I asked the question, “what if you could go outside the palace,” this seemed beyond their comprehension and something they had no interest in or desire for whatsoever. And I said what if it was fine for you to walk freely around Agadez, even escorted, their eyes grew wide and they shook their heads as if I had suggested that they fly to the moon.

They readily agreed to pose for photos. When I showed them their images on my digital camera and video cameras, they were delighted. They had never seen pictures of themselves before, so I promised to send copies, which I have done.

I left the zauora with a profound feeling of honour, which I suppose is odd coming from a long committed feminist. It is not for me to pass judgement of their lives, their choices or on the feudal system that governs them. It is my hope, rather, that they will consider me to be their friend and that they will want to see me again when I return to Niger.

The next day, a messenger arrived with a note from the youngest wife, Mariama, who had written to me in French. The note included their phone number and the address where I could send the photos. In addition, as I promised to bring a new wind-up radio with me the next time I saw them, she respectfully asked for six – “one for each wife.”

by Kristine Pearson