In September 2015, when I was looking to move out of my parents’ house, a property agent took me to view a flat around Somolu. The roads weren’t bad, the street looked quiet and the flat was in good condition. I came out discussing payment with the agent, and then I saw a sight that made my blood freeze.
In the middle of the street, there was a woman using a rolled-up umbrella to whack the bejesus out of a little boy – presumably her son – as they walked together.
No older than three or four years old, and still walking with the awkward gait of a toddler, he was apparently tired and refusing to walk fast, and this lady with a baby on her back thought this would encourage him to pick up the pace. As his wails grew louder, she used the umbrella to hit him harder, at one point even knocking him over.
She forced him to his feet and continued beating him as they walked in full view of everyone watching. Apparently, she was well known in the area for this sort of display, and more than a few people made comments to the effect of “This woman again?” A few people threw sarcastic comments like “If you like, kill am o!” but nobody actually did anything about an adult committing a horrifying assault on a little child in broad daylight.
Children after all, are not recognised as people in Nigeria, and they have absolutely no agency or importance except to serve as extensions of their parents in this culture
It was her son after all. She could do with him as she saw fit, both inside the house and on the street in full view of the world. At worst, she might be described as “strict” or “wicked,” and at best some might even commend her for “instilling discipline.”
I was immediately transported back to my childhood where I experienced hundreds of such beatings and assaults from my mother, and everybody acted like they could not see what was going on. In particular, I remembered the day in 2003 when my 13-year-old self was caught watching a music video, which was deemed “immoral” according to my parents’ Jehovah Witness faith.
My mom snatched my Wilson tennis racket off my room wall and gave me a beating that left me with bruises all over my body, two swollen eyes, a split lip and a skull fracture. Nobody took me to the hospital, and the fracture healed by itself, albeit unevenly.
Till today, I always keep a full head of hair because if I shave it low, you can clearly see the point where a Wilson tennis racket created a permanent depression in the centre of my skull because my sister snitched on me for watching “I Need A Girl Part II” by Usher and P. Diddy on the computer.
I didn’t take the flat and I never called the agent back.
Preserving childbirth habits from a different century
My experience is not unique. The only thing that sets my story of child abuse apart from those of millions of Nigerians is that I recognise what I went through as child abuse, and I have the opportunity to tell my story. Many Nigerians, I am sure, can remember similar incidents in their childhoods, but was it abuse?
To a Nigerian audience, the answer is likely to be “no.” Nigeria is a country where abuse of full grown men and women is rationalised and concealed, so it is no surprise that child abuse is simply not recognised as a problem here.
Children, after all, are not recognised as people in Nigeria, and they have absolutely no agency or importance except to serve as extensions of their parents in this culture. This is directly born out of our pre-colonial societal structures where male wealth and status was generally measured by land holding and accumulation of wives and children.
In an agrarian culture focused on living off the earth and day-to-day survival, it was necessary to have as many children as possible to work the land and take on the family name, because it was taken for granted that many would not survive their childhood.
This was not a world where vaccines, antibiotics and reliable anti-malarial medication existed. Childhood death was such a fact of life that most cultures in what is now Nigeria had a word for it.
To get around the problem of “Ogbanje” and “Abiku,” our ancestors became prolific procreators, with the unintended consequence of commoditizing women and children. Unfortunately, despite the intervening centuries and immense social and economic change since the 19th Century, these attitudes have never really gone away.
In 2014, during my Youth Service at Ekiti State Television (EKTV), I remember hearing a senior female colleague in the news department blaming Patience Jonathan’s alleged childlessness for her perceived emotional distance from the Chibok Girls kidnap saga. In her words, “God forgive me, but maybe it’s only women that have children of their own that can understand how a parent feels.”
Having a baby – is it compulsory?
Patience Jonathan by the way, is not childless – she is the mother of at least three adopted children – but in Nigeria, a key measure for feminine value is whether or not a woman has successfully pushed a baby out of her lady parts.
Adoptive mothers, married women using contraception, spinsters and any other women without biological children receive a sympathetic tut-tut and a shake of the head because you know, “Poor them.”
Socially respectable, meat-eating, god-fearing, Jollof rice-cooking, church/mosque-attending Nigerian women who don’t want to be called “Ashawo!” by Uber drivers or denied accommodation by landlords, must marry and pop out children.
There is no discussion to be had about whether this is what every woman wants, or for that matter if it is what they “should” want.
Once one is female and (hopefully) above the age of 18, life in Nigeria becomes nothing more than a countdown till when one holds a “bundle of joy.” Said bundle will, of course, need a sibling, then another one later for insurance. Maybe one last one to be the baby of the house as well. All of this not necessarily because one wants to take care of the responsibility involved, but because it’s what one ought to do.
What nobody ever worries about is the impact that all of this has on the children, and the implications for our future as a society.
To be continued on Friday