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20 April 2010, JellyBean @ 6:00 am

The palace, under a rusted, corrugated roof, looks mostly like a shed. Only one pair of feet in its single room is shod, and they are in rubber flip-flops.

This is the genteel court of Queen Hajiya Haidzatu Ahmed.

The queen’s henna-dyed fingers are childlike and slender, her smile girlish and her voice soft. When she speaks, the men who are her courtiers listen, enraptured. When she giggles, they laugh loudly. When she explains a point, they nod solemnly.

In Nigeria’s conservative Islamic north, women are barred from ruling, except in the kingdom of Kumbwada. Here, an ancient curse keeps males off the throne, according to locals. Male pretenders who dare to try will be buried within a week.

The last man who wanted to overturn the tradition of female rulers was the queen’s father, Prince Amadu Kumbwada, 58 years ago. All he did was say he wanted to succeed his mother, then still alive. He was immediately taken ill.

The prince was rushed to a distant kingdom, where he eventually recovered. He never returned.

“There has never been a male ruler,” the queen says. “Even my father just voiced his desire to be chief, but it almost killed him.”

Her grandmother, on the throne for 73 years, died when she was 113.

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