Navigating life as a woman in the world today is interesting. From Nigeria to Timbuktu, it’ll amaze you how similar all our experiences are. Every Wednesday, women the world over will share their experiences on everything from sex to politics right here. This is Zikoko’s What She Said.
The subject of today’s What She Said is a Nigerian woman in her 50s. She talks about her difficult experience living with extended family, her relationship with her father and managing her mother’s mental health until she died.
What’s the earliest memory of your childhood?
It’s of my father. He had me on his lap in a gathering. I don’t know if it’s a real memory or it’s based on a photo I used to have. I’ve lost it now. I was maybe three or four, and I had the look of shock on my face. Someone joked that I was supposed to be a boy, the way I was glued to my dad. That’s all I remember.
What was it like growing up?
There were good days and bad days. I grew up in Lagos. Both my parents were tailors, so they made me lots of nice clothes. That was one thing I was very proud of as a child. I had a lot of fashionable clothes, and it went on to inform my fashion sense.
I was an only child for the longest time. My mother tried to have more children and that didn’t happen. Before she gave birth to me, she had a son, but he died after a few months when they made a trip to our village. The narrative I heard was that evil people on my father’s side of the family killed him.
My father, after being pressured, slept with two other people at different times and they had a boy and a girl, respectively.
He didn’t marry them?
No. He was very much in love with my mother. At least, that’s the reason I think he didn’t marry them. For him, it was just to have more children. My mother was very accommodating with them. In fact, my sister and I are close till today and it’s mostly because my mother made us see each other not as step sisters, but as sisters.
What about your brother?
We didn’t grow up together, and I haven’t heard anything about him till date. I just know I have a brother. Whether he’s alive or not, I don’t know. My sister and I have tried to find him on Facebook, but that didn’t work out.
Do you know why you didn’t grow up together?
It was my extended family’s fault — my father’s siblings. My father was a bit well-off. He had lands and buildings around Lagos. His siblings were not that well-off. They lived with us — with their families o. For some reason, we lived in the boy’s quarters, while they lived in the main building. They were wicked to my mother and made all kinds of demands from my father. My father was a kind man — too kind, maybe. So he often bent under their whims, although he did try his best to stand up for us. It was because of his siblings, my uncle and aunt, that he had two children out of wedlock.
They believed it wasn’t right to have just one child. They said that my mother’s womb had spoiled because she could only have one child for him. When when my step brother was born, they had issues with his mother and so didn’t accept him. That’s why I think we never grew up together.
Wow. I guess what they say about your father’s side is true.
Hmm. Well, in my case, it was. I do have family members on my father’s side who I’m very close with. Like my father’s cousin’s children. But his siblings and their children were terrible. They tried to sow discord between my sister and I, saying we weren’t really sisters because we didn’t share the same mother.
How did your mother cope with all of these?
It was a lot for her and she eventually became mentally ill. Back then, we all believed that my father’s siblings had done something to twist her mind. This was the 80s. A lot of people recommended churches to go to for deliverance — pentecostal churches were becoming popular then. Now, I believe that it was psychological. The stigma associated with mental health issues didn’t allow us to seek the help she needed, although a few doctors suggested this. It wasn’t like she was parading the street naked. That was what a lot of us believed was mental illness.
I can’t really describe the kind of behavior she exhibited, but one thing I’m sure of is that she started believing everybody was against her, even me. She would talk endlessly to herself, often in a loud voice, about how bad everyone was. This affected my relationship with her.
Wow. What was your relationship with her before this?
We were not very close. She was always very reserved and quiet. I was closer to my father. He was the one who taught me to drive, taught me to fix my car, made all my clothes. In primary school, he was the one who picked me and dropped me off. When it was time to decide what next to do with my life after secondary school, he was there to help me out. When I started work, he drove me to work and advised me. We were that close. Then a few months after I started work, he fell sick. No one knows what illness it was. After a few weeks, he died. I was devastated.
I’m so sorry
Thank you. When he died, after the burial and everything, my first instinct was: leave home. But I couldn’t leave my mother with those people. I got an apartment on Lagos Island, but my mother wouldn’t come live with me. She insisted her husband’s house was her house and she had no reason to leave. My sister was still living there, so my mind was at peace, a bit. But that’s when properly wahala came up. My father’s siblings were claiming rights to his properties. I didn’t really care about any of it, but another faction of my family wanted me to fight for the building where my mother and my father’s siblings lived. That went on for years. Even when I went back to celebrate my 25th birthday, they were still fighting for it. When I got married, I just told myself I was done. Lucky for me, I started having children almost immediately after I got married, so my mother came to live with me.
It was good. But, my mother didn’t accept my husband. She thought he was evil. My husband was very understanding. He understood what my mother was going through and didn’t let anything she said affect him. She lived with me until she died. She died in my house. It was very challenging to take care of her, especially since I didn’t exactly know what was wrong. There were moments where she was great, but there were other times where it was bad. Luckily my mother had sisters who were great women. They loved each other and took care of each other. I remember once, her sisters came to my house to see her and they all slept on the same bed and gisted about everything. Even though I was close to my sister, I didn’t really have that with anyone until I got married and had children.
When my mother died, I was sad for many reasons. I felt she had gone to rest but was sad because it felt like I hadn’t taken care of her to the best of my capacity. I couldn’t take her on trips because she was suspicious of them. I couldn’t buy her things for the same reason. In fact, she continued to make her own clothes and cook her own food into her late 70s because she was so antsy about everything and everyone.
She loved my children and was there for them even when I couldn’t be.
Nice. Now that you have your own family, what’s that like?
It’s great, thank God. I should add that the relationship with members of my dad’s family affected me too because I’m very wary about family members. I protect my children, maybe a bit too much. I often say that they’re my siblings, my friends and it’s true. While I had friends that were helpful during the bad periods in my life, friends that have become family, I’m also very happy about my own children.
What are some things that helped you cope?
Food. When I eat, I’m happy, I temporarily forget everything. This started back when I was younger and lived in my father’s house. There was a bakery just by the house. They sold all kinds of bread. I went there nearly every day to get bread and peanut butter. Place a bowl of ikokore in front of me and I’m fine for like an hour.
God also helped. I grew Anglican. In my 20s when it felt like the world was collapsing on my head — the period when I was supposed to be enjoying life — I wasn’t a Christian in the born again sense. I was going to church seriously then and cramming the bible but had no real understanding of it. God was always good to me. Till today, he helps me cope. He’s my peace. After going through all that, I know there’s nothing life throws at me that I can’t handle with the help of God.