The Nigerian experience is physical, emotional and sometimes international. No one knows it better than our features on #TheAbroadLife, a series where we detail and explore Nigerian experiences while living abroad.
The subject of this week’s Abroad Life left Nigeria to live with her grandma at age 3. Two years later, she moved in with her aunt, and that was the beginning of the worst period of her life. She talks about the abuse she went through and how she was finally able to return to Nigeria.
When did you first move to Cameroon?
1999. My grandma visited us and I got attached to her, so I did that thing that children do when someone they like is leaving. I cried till I was allowed to follow her back to Cameroon. I was three years old.
Was it meant to be a temporary visit?
The trip was not defined. It was just me following my grandma to her place. I also had about three aunts in Cameroon, so I was going to be around family anyways.
What was living with your grandma like?
It was nice. People always said that she spoilt me because she treated me very specially. I think it’s because I was named after her. She really liked me.
I didn’t stay with her for long though. I left in 2001.
Where did you go?
I moved in with one of my aunts in Cameroon who had just gotten married. She didn’t live so close to my grandma, so it was like I’d totally switched places.
Do you remember why you moved?
One thing I’ve constantly liked since I was a child is television. I love seeing people move on a screen. Even till now, I watch every movie that comes my way. My grandma did not have a television, but my aunt did. Her husband also liked TV and had movies, so once again, I cried and said I wanted to live with them and that’s how that move happened.
How did the move go?
It was normal at first. I wasn’t the only person living with them. There was another girl that was a bit older than me that I met there. She’d lost both her parents, so she had become their responsibility. I think she was related to one of them.
My aunt’s husband’s brother and sister also lived in the same house. They left not too long after I got there though. I noticed a few disagreements and arguments before they left, but I didn’t really understand what was going on.
What happened next?
My aunt had a baby and things changed. First of all, every form of pampering or care stopped. I was attending public school, so I was technically getting free education, but one day my uniform tore, and I was told to wear it like that. Shortly after, my sandals cut irreparably, and I was made to walk with my bare feet to school everyday for over a month. And then I was made to start hawking food. I was 5.
It all happened so fast, but there was nothing I could do about it. At this point, I was constantly severely beaten for the littlest things like not being able to completely sell everything I was meant to, and not having all the complete money of sales.
I started going to school on an empty stomach because I was not given any food, and then when I got to school I would be chased home for not paying the 500 CFA that every student was meant to pay in a term. 500 CFA was less than ₦100 in 2001. Whenever I got home from such a situation, I would be given garri to soak and then sent out immediately to continue my hawking.
I learnt to survive by staying away. Whenever I went out to hawk, I would stay out till about 11 p.m., so I knew that all I had to do was get in, wash my dress and sleep. I had only one dress that I washed every night. In the mornings, I would remit the sales money from the previous day and leave for school again. Sometimes, school let me stay.
The girl you met there, was she treated the same way?
Absolutely. Everything I suffered, she suffered. We went through everything together.
Did anyone else know about this?
There was no way I could tell any other person. I was young. I couldn’t reach any other person. The next time I saw my family was in 2003 when my aunt took us all to NIgeria for Christmas. I was 7 years old. By this time, my aunt already had two children. It gets really cold in eastern Nigeria in December, so when my mum noticed that my aunt packed a sweater for both her children and not for me, she suspected that something was wrong.
At this point, I told her and my grandma everything. My mum was angry. She wanted to keep me back in Nigeria, but I told her I wanted to go back to Cameroon on the condition that I lived with my grandma and not my aunt. She agreed.
She also told my aunt that she’d made a promise to herself that she’d never let any of her children hawk in the streets, and that she should never make me hawk again. So, I went back to Cameroon.
To stay with your grandma again…
Yes, but very shortly after, my grandma said she was too old to take care of me, so I needed to start staying with my aunt. She told me to tell her if my aunt ever abused me again.
So, what happened next?
It got worse. Well, maybe the treatment didn’t get worse, but because I was older, I could see things more clearly. She spent so much money on her children. I wasn’t even looking for any special treatment. I just wanted to be treated like a human. They wore all the best clothes, attended really expensive schools and ate good food while I hawked everyday and still got chased out of classes because of 500 CFA.
Did you report to your grandma?
My grandma was getting old and using that time to visit all her other children, so she was hardly ever around. In 2006, she moved to Nigeria, so there was no way I could tell her. I started looking for ways to contact my mum by myself. I needed a number or something that I could reach my mum on. I also needed money to go to a call center. I didn’t get anything.
My aunt knew I was smart, and she knew I was trying to reach my mum so she made things a bit tighter around the house.
In 2008, when I was 12, I told her that I didn’t like the way she treated me. She gaslit me and said I was only saying that because I was not her child. I threatened to kill myself. She didn’t take me seriously. Even I didn’t take myself seriously.
That same year, she left me alone in their four bedroom home in Cameroon and went to Nigeria on holiday with her three children and the girl that stayed with them.
Alone? At age 12?
Completely alone. She told me that if I ran out of food, I should go to a church member’s house, and they would feed me.
Did anyone in your family know she left you alone?
My parents knew and they didn’t like it. I heard they complained bitterly. My aunt and her family were in Nigeria for about four weeks. When they got back, I began to rebel. I got in a lot of trouble and got beaten a lot, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to go back home. I had reached my breaking point.
After some time, we came to an agreement. She said that if I passed my exams in school and got a scholarship, she would allow me to go back home. So everyday when I was done hawking, I would stay out and cram all my notes for the exams. Sometimes, I even got home after midnight. Nobody cared.
In 2010, I passed the exams, got the scholarship, and she kept her promise. Before we went back home, she bought a new dress and new shoes for me. The clothes weren’t my size. I had to give my mum.
Did you tell your family about your ordeal?
My dad noticed all the scars on my body and asked me how I got them. When I told him, he was super angry. He told my mum, but my mum told him to drop the matter because it was her younger sister. So they forgave her.
So nobody challenged her?
A few years after I got back to Nigeria, my older sisters told me that they actually challenged my aunt about the way she treated me, but she told them she was only training me.
Where was your aunt’s husband in all of this?
He was hardly ever around. He was first in business school, and then when he was done with that, he went to a seminary — he was a pastor. I don’t think he was ever around for up to one week at a stretch throughout my stay in Cameroon.
Have you seen your aunt ever since?
I’ve seen her three times. Whenever I see her or hear her voice, or even a voice that sounds like hers, I begin to panic.
Have you been to Cameroon since you left?
No. I have stayed in Nigeria.
What do you do right now?
I just finished university. I’m currently serving.
Do you plan on going back to Cameroon anytime?
Nope. Not at all.
Hey there! My name is Sheriff and I’m the writer of Abroad Life. If you’re a Nigerian and you live or have lived abroad, I would love to talk to you about what that experience feels like and feature you on Abroad Life. All you need to do is fill out this short form, and I’ll be in contact.
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