Hajia Ameena Hassana Sani and Hajia Hadiza Hussaina Sani are identical twins who might just have identical fingerprints. Inseparable since birth, the two women have been tied to each other in sometimes magical, sometimes weird ways that have baffled people and have made life choices, such as parting with their husband’s so as to continue living together, based on this.
Sometime in 1984, two young women, Hajia Ameena Hassana and Hajia Hadiza Hussaina went to see a dentist at the General Hospital in Ilorin, capital of Kwara State. The Indian dentist was astounded by how much the two women looked almost exactly the same as far as her eyes could tell. In the course of that encounter, the poor dentist would experience shock in various installments as the twins, narrate.
When the doctor examined her two patients, she discovered that their complaint where the same-a cavity in their teeth. The affected teeth were exactly in the same position, either a molar or a premolar, the twins could not remember exactly which it was. Eventually, the doctor and her husband, also a dentist, pulled out the two affected teeth, and were stunned to discover that the two teeth, from the two women were not only identical but that the cavity were in identical positions on both teeth and measured exactly the same in diameter and depth.
“They were so shocked they couldn’t stop looking at the teeth and comparing them,” one of the twin said, sitting across from me. The other one laughed, rocking her shoulders as she recalled the expression on the doctors’ faces.
It was remarkable how, 35 years after that incident, they could still mimic the shocked expressions of the doctors and how funny they still found it.
“The woman nearly passed out,” Ameena Hassana said.
“We eventually had to leave them with the teeth because they couldn’t stop looking at them and marveling that they came from two people,” her sister echoed.
Sitting with a desk between them, inside an office of the News Agency of Nigeria, where Hajia Ameena works, the two women were dressed in Ankara fabrics, their slim bodies wrapped in veils, Ameena Hassana in corn yellow and her sister in salmon pink.
‘Over fifty years’ ago, in Sokoto, the twins delivered the first shock when they were born. All through the pregnancy, their mother Hajia Maryam Sani had refuted suggestions by her own mother that she might be pregnant with twins and after birthing Ameena Hassana, she thought her business was done.
“When the nurse asked her to lay down another baby was coming, she protested that she had had her baby and was not expecting another. She wasn’t looking forward to having twins,” Hadiza Hussaina said.
Hajia Maryam’s cold feet about twins was not unconnected to the fact that the birth of twins was a fairly regular occurrence in her own family. The problem was that not all the twin births had been happy ones. Both or one of the pair ended up dying.
“We were the first pair to survive,” Ameena Hassana said.
“Everyone calls us the twins,” she said, her voice somehow conveying both pride and exasperation, in a way that reminds one of the famous twins in Stephen King’s The Shining.
“I remember how they said they had to tag us with different colours just to tell us apart,” she said.
But even before they left the hospital, it was clear the bond between the two was strong-so strong that years later, the two would prefer to give up their marriage lives so they could live together.
“If one started crying, the other too would start. Sometimes we would start crying at exactly the same time,” they chorused and laughed, at exactly the same time, two identical voices using the same words to convey the same thoughts.
It was beautiful to watch and a bit eerie as well. One can only imagine how wondrous and weird this would be for people who have had to deal with them on a daily basis.
“Our father would only just call out, Hajia! And anyone of the two who answers is fine with him, but our mother would look at one and ask, why do you look like the other today or why does she look like you today,” Hadiza Hussaina said. “Even our mother who said she could tell us apart, there are times when we are backing her or when we call her on the phone and she has to ask which one of us is speaking.”
She sighs. “It has been one heck of a roller coaster trying to explain that you are not this person all the time,” she said.
It was a roller coaster they rode through nursery and primary schools. It was one that crescendoed at university when they arrived the then mini campus of the University of Ilorin, determined to study performing arts. The problem was that they had arrived just as registrations were about to close.
When they went to the office of the then head of department to ask for an extension of the deadline, their looks managed to take the words out of her mouths. And this was no other person than the famous playwright and academic Zulu Sofola (then a PhD).
“Oh my God!” The twins both echoed the words Sofola had uttered when she first saw them. They laughed. An intimate laughter that felt like the two women reaching out and high fiving across the table.
They stated their case to Sofola. They had turned down an offer of admission at the University of Jos because they only wanted to study performing arts, not theatre arts.
Fortuitously, the department was preparing to stage a play featuring twins, except that in the original script, one of the twins died at the beginning of the play while the other features at the end.
Dr Sofola saw that play as an entry point for the twins. She ordered the script to be re-written to keep both twins in the play. Then she went to the university senate and tabled her argument. The department needed the twins for the play so the university had to extend the registration period to accommodate them. She won.
“At that moment, it was wonderful to be an identical twin,” Ameena Hassana said.
But within that first year, that roller coaster that threw them over the closing university gate would turn round again.
Students and faculty couldn’t tell them apart and the novelty of that experience soon turned to tedium for all parties. And once again they found themselves in front of Dr. Sofola, Africa’s first female professor of theatre arts, who had news for them.
“You can’t go through life confusing everyone,” she said. “So I am going to split you. One of you is going to remain in drama while the other is going to go to music.”
“She has always liked music,” Hadiza Hussaina said, gesturing at her sister, who smiled. So it wasn’t a difficult decision for them to make.
But despite the split and since it was still under the same department, the twins, who had never been separated, attended classes together. As Hadiza Hussaina narrated the story, her hand reached across the table, as if to grasp her sister’s.
It was hard imagining them apart. It must have been harder for their parents who once had to attempt splitting them.
The myths around twins are ancient and many. They are magical beings. They have supernatural powers. They are from the spirit world. Ameena Hassana and Hadiza Hussaina did not escape these myths. And when the illness of one of them projected itself on the other, concerns increased.
Once one of them suffered a tooth ache. Their grandmother advised they both be taken to the dentist but their mother insisted on taking only the affected twin. When she returned, she discovered, the very next day, that the other twin had developed the same symptoms. Sometimes once an ailment is cured in one, it manifests in the other twin. Their parents believed that if they split them in childhood, all of that could stop.
“We were sent to live with different relatives. What they discovered was that we would both be running temperatures and be bedridden. But once they bring us back together and check the temperature after ten minutes, it would be normal,” Hadiza Hussaina said while her sister nodded.
This scenario would play out again when their national youth service postings sent them to different states. Ameena Hassana to Imo while her sister was posted to Lagos.
Again both took ill and Ameena Hassana was admitted at a hospital in Nekede and Hadiza Hussaina was hospitalized in Lagos. Their mother was beside herself.
“We tried this when they were children and it never worked,” she lamented.
An uncle made an appeal to NYSC to have both twins reunited.
Apart from being inseparable, what that experience revealed was that the twins had different genotypes. Ameena was AS and Hadiza was AS but both had the same blood group. That was one of many discoveries about themselves that would stun them over the years.
After their service year with the Nigerian Television Authority, the twins found themselves in the spotlight having taken to acting and became recognized faces.
“Yay! The Twins!” the cries went up every time they were spotted on the street.
Hajia Hadiza admits this was jarring and both agreed that wasn’t the life they wanted, even though they were keen to remain in the media, they preferred roles behind the scenes.
So when they heard that the former NTA director of news Yaya Abubakar was in charge of Voice of Nigeria, they went to his office to ask for a job. Though they had coincided with him at the NTA for their year of national service, he had only seen one of them at a time and was blissfully unaware they were twins.
“You mean you are two people?” Abubakar had exclaimed when he saw them. The twins had a good laugh retelling the story.
A colleague, Lawal Yusuf Saulawa had to confirm to Abubakar that he had been seeing both, just not at the same time.
The management decided not to put them in the same department so Hadiza Hussaina was sent to News while Ameena Hassana was sent to programmes.
That still did not help.
“Someone would see her upstairs, come down the stairs and see me and shout, Jesus!” Hadiza said.
“Sometimes they would see me and say, I asked you to do this yesterday and you didn’t and I would have to explain to them that it wasn’t me but my sister and they would say, how can you be doing this to us?”
“She would be handed a script to proof and she knew it wasn’t meant for her, so she would bring it over to me and say someone in your department wanted you to proof this,” Ameena said.
Afrer a year and a half, they couldn’t bear the mix ups anymore so one of them had to leave. Ameena did, leaving for the banking sector.
But again the same scenario would play out when they went to study for their master’s at University of Ilorin.
Because of her love of calculation, Ameena chose to do a Master’s in Business Administration while Hadiza chose Public Administration. They started six months apart, Ameena was delayed because the bank where she worked had a far more stringent procedure to follow before releasing her to study.
But the moment Ameena showed up for her programme, the issues resurfaced. Lecturers who had taught her sister six months earlier thought she was running two courses at once. The head of the programme had to visit them at home with her husband to confirm that they were indeed two different individuals.
What God has joined, let no marriage put asunder
Even though both of them now work with the media, they thought it was smarter to work with different organisations to avoid the confusions. Ameena with News Agency of Nigeria and Hadiza never left VON. Their work is very important to them.
“Everything about us has to be about our schedule and most times men couldn’t understand us because it was hard for them to understand that a woman is closing from work and is in a hurry to go home and gist her sister about what happened at work.”
In retrospect, listening to the recording of our interview, I can’t say which of them started the sentence. Both of them finished it.
“We realized early it wasn’t going to work with especially northern Nigerian men who are very possessive and so we settled at drawing the line and just staying together.”
The line she referred to was that of splitting from the men they eventually married so they could be together.
For two northern women, the idea of giving up their marriages must have been a tough one but the twins waved away this concern. It was inevitable. They wanted to be together.
“What’s the point of running two houses when you could use one? And not every man wants to share the same house with another man, or woman. So we said, what’s the point? The kids are grown, what are we doing?”
Ameena explained her thinking. “Islam did not make it compulsory as long as you can follow the rules, stay chaste and not do anything untoward.”
“There was no wahala. We allowed them to travel, packed our kids, kpam! No drama. The next thing, we told them [the kids] go to school. That was it?” Hadza said. “And naturally, you know men and their deadlines. They said, if you are not back in three months, you are out and we said, fine, alhamdullillah.”
How long were they married for?
“Not long,” they chorused. It didn’t even register to them that they had been echoing each other’s words.
“Life is a lot more complex for twins than people realize because this is one egg split in two so in reality, half of one person’s brain is in the other,” Hadiza Hussaina said.
Beyond the desire to be together, to return home and share stories of their work day, underneath that unbreakable bond, is the desire to give their children a better life. Ameena Hassana has three, her sister has two. Between them they have six grandchildren. All this factored heavily in making the decisions they did. They wanted their children to have a better life and be able to make their own living.
Incidentally, the fathers’ of their children are now deceased. Both died not too long after the twins left them, not too far apart, they said.
Their children have very little problem telling their mothers apart but their most special relationship are with their grandsons, Hassan and Hussaini, another set of twins. At their births, the new grandmothers arrived the hospital and without realizing it, each reached for the twin that corresponds to her. Ameena Hasssana picked up Hassan while Hadiza Hussaina picked up Hussain. In the months and years that followed, the fondness between the pair of twins would grow.
“Even when they were crawling, Hassan would never make the mistake of crawling into Hussaina’s room, nor would Hussain make the mistake of crawling into mine,” Ameena Hassana explained.
In the evenings, one of the twin grandchildren would start chanting a welcome song for his favourite gran, even before he had seen any sign of her and sure enough, within minutes, his corresponding grandma twin would knock on the door.
“Our kids would use that as a barometer to tell which one of us was on the way,” Hadiza said.
Over the years, fingerprints have become the reliable way of telling one person apart from the other, but in the case of the Sani twins, the case is far from being clear cut.
“We have some fingers that have the same prints and others that are similar. We found this out in 2011 when we went for biometric capturing for voter registration,” Hadiza Hussaina said.
In reality the chance of that happening, experts say, is one in 64 billion and since there are only about 7 billion people in the world, that makes those odds really, really slim. The twins are not unaware of this.
“Up unto now we believed no two humans can have the same or similar finger prints,” she said. But during the registration exercise, the twins sat next to each other.
“I started the capturing first. My fingerprints were scanned and after they had finished capturing one hand and were about to move on to the next, my sister started hers and I could see that the computer was having troubles capturing hers,” Hadiza Hassana said.
“They started asking for duster so I could wipe my fingers,” Ameena chipped in and they both laughed.
“It took them a while to capture hers,” she said. “The system kept rejecting her data and they kept stopping and wiping her fingers. At that point we didn’t think anything of it,” she said. “Eventually, they managed to capture her.”
But when the time came to get their voters’ card, only Hadiza Hussaina’s name appeared on the list, without the card.
“My name came out, hers didn’t. We said how come?” she said “Even up to that time, we didn’t suspect anything.”
They could not find a satisfactory explanation as to what happened until years later, when they met the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission at a conference and asked him. They showed him evidence of their registration, their temporary voters’ cards. The INEC boss was convinced their cards must be at the point of registeration but a comprehensive search would reveal that the computer had rejected Ameena’s registration because it suspected her fingerprints of being the same or too similar to her sister’s.
They had the same experience registering for their national ID cards. Again Hajia Hadiza’s data was captured first and the machines kept rejecting Hajia Ameena’s.
Eventually, they followed up on the voters’ card and now the two women, armed with their voters’ cards, are ready to thumb their identical or similar prints in the next elections but as for their ID card, the wait is still on.
In their fifty years on earth, the twins have managed to confuse just about everyone, from their parents, their friends and colleagues and even the data capturing machines. They have even managed to confuse themselves.
“Sometimes when we saw pictures of ourselves as kids, we use to argue about which one of us was which, and there are times when she looks exactly like me, or I look exactly like her and when we notice, we ask, why are you looking like me?”
They still find it odd that sometimes they would cough or sneeze at the same time or how their fingers, on their own volition, seemed to interlock when they are walking.
“Some of our friends call us weirdoes,” they laugh and you get the sense that they are happy being these weirdoes, together, for a long time to come.