In a letter to her younger self, Marie Abanga details the hardship and triumphs of growing up.
“When I think of how far we have come, girl, I owe you a big one.”
Well, dear Ayo, I admit I owe you an apology. I should have written to you at least 7 years back—even if only to encourage you on the next leg of your journey, for it is our journey after all.
When I read about nurturing our inner child, I smile because it resonates with me so much. In this letter, I hope to nurture mine.
I was told ‘Ayo’ means soft in our dialect, and I used to wonder if we were ever to live up to that awesome nickname. When I reflect on all we went through in our girlhood, it was anything but soft. I am happy and grateful that despite that severe fracture brought about by all those adverse childhood experiences and our dramatic transition to motherhood of sorts at age 12—first to our siblings and then to our own baby at age 24—we made it and are living our own version of a soft life.
Ayo, no one needs to remind me how bouncy and full of life you were at birth. Mum says she left from school on Thursday the 18th of January 1979 at 5pm, went to the hospital, and had you by midnight. She then spent the next three days at home showing you your way around, and she was back to school on Monday, her friends wondering where the little bump on her belly had gone. Could that be the beginning of your independence, Ayo? How could everyone not love you?
You loved everyone back, too. You were always there for everyone to do what was needed. Your first seven years of life were enjoyed, until that great disastrous move.
Your entire family was uprooted to another city far away from all you knew. You had to try settling down in a new school and neighborhood. The new house was so big by your standards. There was a big fence and a scary gate. Neighbors barely spoke to one another. As if that were not enough, your mother and father’s marriage dissolved three years later, and mum left the four of you behind.
Your brother was fragile to say the least. He needed taking care of, for it wasn’t long after that that he was diagnosed with epilepsy. Remember, Ayo? It became a matter of survival, especially with the arrival of Stepmom with her own set of rules and regulations. “Don’t touch this, don’t touch that. Indeed, I don’t even want to see your faces around. Keep to your room or bear the consequences.”
We kept to our room or locked ourselves up in the loo for as long as we could, just for a break sometimes.
I wish I could say your baby brother got better, but you saw how the epilepsy and stigma, the marginalization and shame got the better part of him and his mental health took a big hit. The diagnosis of mental illness attracted all sorts of name calling, which left you scared.
The trauma of skipping over the high fence to go find food because you dared not touch Stepmom’s things; the pain of seeing your brother in pain and being so helpless; the fear of what tomorrow would bring—all of that took its own hit on you, too. Even when your brother started calling you ‘Mama Ayo’ when you were barely 14, that did nothing to make life seem any better.
You struggled to survive. Your grades dropped but you never failed an exam. You were both very intelligent, and you were determined to not let the two years of torture in your dad and stepmom’s home make you failures in life. How you wish he had lived to tell his own tale! I know this is about us, but can we ever talk about us without him?
Adolescence hit you hard, Ayo. All those hormones and no one to even talk to you about basic things like how to properly wear a pad, so of course there were some blunders. You were beautiful, even if you didn’t believe it then and even if you didn’t smiled at all. But, let me be candid that you are still beautiful, and I appreciate how we smile now.
The boys lured and promised what you craved most. They promised to hold you and love you for infinity. You may not have even known what that really meant, but you did give them some trial periods. The inevitable happened. That was exactly 15 years ago and you gave birth. Even though he was from a most forbidden love, you didn’t care.
You were almost homeless, and so unstable both in thoughts and actions. Marriage to you seemed the best way out. You even saw it as a refuge, remember? And you did it, girl. You met a guy in December and told him either marriage or nothing. By March you both exchanged vows in front of none other than your own father who was the lord mayor of your village at the time.
Ha, whatever we were expecting I still can’t tell to this day. But what we got... let me just say, we tried our best and took some real abuse. We tried to fight back and gave in, up, and out after 6 years. By then you had three boys. How many times have you gotten pregnant again? Four. There was the first pregnancy even before the vows were exchanged, that one you miscarried at 5 months. And there was the angel you had in 2008 and barely cradled in your arms before she developed the respiratory infection which took her back to her maker the very next day.
By then, pain was your companion.
But darling Ayo, the above reflections and recollections are not to open old wounds or throw any pity party. That’s not what soft girls turned women and mothers do. Our girlhood may have been fractured and interrupted; we may have had some real adverse childhood experiences, but our stubborn but passionate faith kept us going.
When I think of how far we have come, girl, I owe you a big one. We strive on for our own sake but also for his sake, gone so soon but will live in us forever. We strive on for the boys and all those young girls who look up to us for inspiration and motivation. We are so grateful we can mentor many, and we can equally give all those talks and write the books to share our story and tell people that it is possible: that girls, if given the chance, can become just about anything and can even run a home, why not a country.
We are forever grateful for all the love and lessons, all the accomplishments, and all the connections. Indeed, the fractured girlhood only made it tough getting here, but we are tougher.
Darling Ayo, I am honored and humbled to have finally written this long overdue letter to you. I conclude by telling you how joyful I was when a Nigerian friend told me ‘Ayo’ in their dialect means ‘Joy’. You see Ayo isn't only an exclamation like the native Dualas use. Ayo is soft. Ayo is joy.
This story was published as part of the World Pulse Story Awards program. We believe every woman has a story to share, and that the world will be a better place when women are heard. Share your story with us, and you could be our next Featured Storyteller! Learn more.