I am famous- and notorious- in a few small circles for publicly sharing parts of my life that others would not even dare whisper to their families. I have gone on television shows to speak about being diagnosed and living with HIV. I have written about and discussed the childhood sexual abuse that derailed me for many decades, about my financial struggles and about depression. However, there is one thing I have never shared; something that threatened to decimate all the strength and courage that I had garnered sharing my life story. It did not happen many years ago, it occurred very recently.
In March of 2017, two months after returning from my one-year hiatus in India I was still trying to rebuild my life. I would shuttle between two cities. The one where I intended to settle down - Lagos- and another where my parents and my daughter lived. At my parents’, I spent all of my time working on my computer, creating the social venture for which I had spent almost a year in India. It was on one of such days that the incident happened. It is difficult even now to write about it.
For some reason my younger brother had also moved in with my parents and was making a huge nuisance of himself. Anyway, on this day, my father had told him to turn on the generator as there was an electricity power outage. To everyone’s surprise he refused asking why he should be the one to put it on when ‘this one was sitting down punching her computer’. He was referring to me, and very rudely too. I was upset. “What is my business with you?”, I asked. I had not spoken to him. I never spoke to him because he was rude, irrational and unpredictable. So, what was this? He then came up to me and poured water on my face, my body and my laptop. I stood up to confront him and he began to beat me. He hit me with his fists on every part of my body, tore my dress, hit my head against the floor, the wall, etc. Even at some point trying to choke me to death. But that was not what hurt me. I was hurt by two things. The first was my mother’s reaction to the incident: she came out of the kitchen SINGING. At some point, she even laughed. The second thing was that my daughter stood watching the whole thing in shock and fright.
When it was all over, I remember distinctly feeling alone and outnumbered. I grabbed my daughter and left. I intended just to cool off for a few hours, but I could not bear the thought of going back to stay in that house, so I went to a hotel. I stayed there with my daughter for 12 days until I ran out of money.
Growing up, the people that I could never reveal myself to were my family. I never felt safe or comfortable sharing my feelings around them because that was just not how we were raised. My family was just a fragmented unit of people conjoined by heritage. I did not feel they were my friends. As a result, I did not tell anyone in my home when I had been sexually abused by my uncle. I did not talk about the upbringing that saw the boys pampered and I, the only girl, being judged much harder and treated more sternly, especially by my mother. The only feeling I felt comfortable sharing was anger. Lots and lots of it.
In retrospect it was also difficult for my mum to share as well. She bottled up the hurt and betrayal she felt over her husband, my father, a serial philanderer who had a child outside of his marriage. She bottled up the pain she felt from the customary aggression and misbehaviour of her in-laws. Instead she lashed out in fear at her children, me especially, probably so I would not end up like her. She was more judgmental of me, more spiteful to me, even when I tried to please her. She favoured the boys more, especially her first son who, it turned out, let it all act as a crutch that never enabled him walk into his own. I do not pretend to understand what battles she was fighting but I know that introspection did not seem to be in her vocabulary…
After I came back from India, I had had enough with what I saw as the hypocrisy. Her worship of my elder brother to the point of serving him choice parts of the meal even when he contributed nothing to the table. Her excusing everything the boys did. And I was ready to stand in the gap and ensure the emotional recklessness did not continue with y daughter. And this was the problem.
MIND OVER MATTER
Staying in the hotel gave me a window to parse the emotions I was experiencing and more importantly, to make a plan. I experienced a range of feelings; I was terribly hurt -physically and emotionally – and I was also angry, and disappointed. But one strong emotion I could not shake off was shame. I was ashamed for all the reasons that I should not have been. I was ashamed that I had been beaten up at my age, that I was disrespected, that people saw it happen. I was so ashamed I could not talk about the incident. This feeling of shame was further compounded by the reaction of people. Another brother of mine called me selfish and inconsiderate because I left the house with my child, one friend asked me what I had done that made my brother beat me, while another friend told me I had to learn to forgive. It did not matter that this was not the first time I was being beaten up by a brother, or that the last time I had to have stitches on my shaved head, and my nose. I finally understood why it was so difficult for victims of domestic violence to leave the situation and/or find support.
Happily Ever After
The money I had been spending at the hotel was funds I had gathered for setting up my social venture, and, as it began to run out I realised that I was losing in more than one way. I may have been running away from a dangerous situation, but I was also seeing any hopes of setting up my dream venture slowly filtering away, one hotel room deposit after the other. I developed a plan to come to Lagos, to work hard at making things ready, and then bring my daughter over within 3 months. A friend agreed to allow me stay in a room in her place in Lagos, and so I left to a very uncertain future.
I describe the three-and-a-half months that followed as the most difficult time in my life. I scrimped and scrounged to survive, going some days without food, I was made to feel unwelcome in the small space I occupied in that house, and, because of the rancour in my home, I was unable to keep in touch with my daughter. So many nights I would cry myself to sleep and continue when I woke up. Yet these challenges -and two of my cousins who stood by me -gave me the fuel I needed to soldier on.
Five months after I moved to Lagos, I had secured a very high-paying contract job, moved into a home in a neighbourhood I always wanted to live in, and relocated my daughter.
I am a person who does not believe in coincidences; I believe we can forge meaning from everything that happens to us, no matter how grave. For me, the violence I suffered gave me the necessary push I needed to take control of my life. After I fell on hard times several years ago, I made the decision to leave my daughter in my parents’ care for a short while until I got myself together. She stayed there for 7 years. After the violence however, it took only 4 months for me to relocate her. Also, it gave me a different perspective on domestic violence survivors; an insight that was very essential in running my social venture.
Sometimes, as women, we conflate the idea of being strong with being long-suffering. We may think it is a sign of strength to bear pain that has been inflicted on us, or we may be encouraged to be quiet about it because it is more respectable not to speak. These conspiratorial shrouds of silence that we cultivate and promote in our communities can entrap everyone. Even those whom we consider ‘strong’ and ‘brave’. It is our duty to do our part in breaking that unhealthy culture and release ourselves - and each other- from a cycle of pain. That is the real strength.