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 this week’s What She Said is a 61-year-old woman who left her family behind a few years ago to start a new life in Europe. She talks about why she left, the backlash she received and why she doesn’t regret it.
When did you know that you absolutely had to leave Nigeria?
After I missed my first opportunity to leave. Before I got married, I had planned to marry someone else whom I went to school with. Even though we had not seen each other in years, we kept in touch through letters. He was in America in university, while I was in Nigeria working as a clerk in a bank. This was the 80s; things were not working with the coups and unrest in parts of the country. I was still managing myself. I was alright. Then he asked me if I wanted to get married and move to America with him.
Just like that?
I was very excited. I wanted to do it. I was almost 30. I was worried about not getting married. Most of my friends at the time were getting married. So I agreed. Then I told my parents. They also agreed after much convincing and pressure. However, just before he was to fly in for the ceremony — we had prepared very well — a religious leader, a prophetess, that was my mother’s friend said I couldn’t marry him, that she saw something bad waiting for me. What it was, she didn’t say. My mother refused to give me consent to marry him. She just cancelled all the plans. My father was not on her side, but he couldn’t help her change her mind. I cried.
That’s very sad. Did this change your relationship with your parents?
No. I was very angry inside, but outside I still had to respect my mother. It’s not like now where you can do anything you want and get away with it. I couldn’t just do anyhow to her. I continued to respect her. My mother kept convincing me that someone was coming.
So when I lost the opportunity to leave Nigeria at that time, I realised I really wanted to go away from home and start afresh somewhere else. I started working towards it and saved a lot of money. However, my dad fell sick, and we had to pay plenty of medical bills. My small savings went dry.
My mother introduced me to someone and we started courting, then we got married soon after because I got pregnant. I wasn’t yet sure if I wanted to marry him, but I was not very interested in having a baby outside wedlock. In fact, I didn’t want to marry him. But there was pressure. I decided to marry him and close that chapter.
Did you like anything about him?
Like? It was money I was looking at and social standing. Can he hold his own in public? Can he have conversations? Is he respectable? He was okay.
How was the marriage?
It was fine. I was satisfied most of the time. We had children quickly. Four girls. This childbirth didn’t let me advance in my career as I would have liked. I wanted to go back to school and get a proper role in the bank. So it was as if I was stuck in one place for a long time. Meanwhile, my husband was doing very well in his own career. I was envious.
Were you two in the same career paths?
No. But he was very selfish. He didn’t help around the house, he didn’t take care of the children. So he was progressing and I was just going backwards. It took me long to bring it up with him and when I did, he said he was doing what was best for the family, but it wasn’t best for me.
What did you do?
I continued managing myself. At some point, I quit working because it didn’t seem like it was working out. I even tried other things on the side, but they never really went off the ground because you just had to be present for the children.
I don’t blame anyone for what happened. I was the one who was having children like it was nothing. Maybe if I planned my career properly or planned child birth properly, it would have been better. Also, support would have been good, and I didn’t have a lot of that. The worst part for me was seeing all my friends leave Nigeria.
Why were they leaving?
Nigeria has never worked and people have always been leaving. In the 90s, a lot of my friends and even family members left. I wanted to leave, but it’s not easy when you have four children and a husband that doesn’t even want to leave. My brother’s wife and children were kidnapped once, and we found out that the police were working with the kidnappers. That was one event that drove me mad and angry with Nigeria.
I remember one night I had a conversation with my husband about it. I suggested that we come up with a plan to leave, it wasn’t like we didn’t have the money. He said, “It won’t be possible right now.” He gave a few reasons which seemed reasonable to him. He said we can’t just uproot the children’s lives. He said we had property in Nigeria. That we had family members who depended on us. These were just excuses. If only I had suspected that he was hiding something.
He was hiding something?
He was hiding another family.
Like wife and children?
Yes, like wife and children. I didn’t find out at the time. We just moved on after he said it won’t be possible. Luckily for me, once the last born was in primary school, more opportunities started to come, and I started working again. This time I separated my savings into an emergency fund and travelling fund. The money inside the emergency fund was for anybody that wanted to die. That was all they would get. Travelling fund was for me to leave.
What was your target for the travelling fund?
Can I even remember right now? I just knew that before year 2000, I had to have left with the last two children, and then I’d start making plans to bring the others. Of course, something came up and my travel fund finished.
My husband wanted to start a business, and he begged for my support financially. This one too is my fault. So they won’t say that I’m a bad wife, I supported him. So things started to look okay: his business was doing well, we had built our own home, I had a good job and our children were doing fine. I abandoned my dream of leaving at that point.
How did you find out about the other family?
The business he started was an import business. So he used to travel a lot. Once when he travelled, I called the friend he would normally stay with, but it was his wife that picked. It was his wife, who was also like a friend to me, that told me that she was suspecting something because my husband hadn’t shown up in their house since he arrived in the country.
She was the one who discovered the family. Before she even told me, she and her husband confronted him, and he said I wouldn’t believe them.
Wow, how did you feel?
I take everything in stride. I don’t like stress. But at that point, I was tired. I just wanted to leave. I called my children before my husband returned and I told them, look, this is what is happening, this is what I know. After that, I just went to sleep. Should I have told them at that point? I don’t know, but it was a lot for me to grapple with. The first child of the other wife, according to my friend, was a 10-year-old boy. This was in 2005. My husband confessed by himself eventually. He said I had four girls for him, of course he went outside. What was I expecting?
At that point, I didn’t even say, let me save any money. I just started borrowing money here and there, sold my gold, sold my parent’s land, got a visa, packed my things and left. I didn’t tell him I was going anywhere. Just my children.
I had a lot of help from family members and friends. That was how I started putting my life together again. It’s not like things are perfect now. But I’m less stressed. I don’t look like I did when I was in Nigeria.
How did your family and friends take it when you left?
My children are grown up, so they’re fine. We are even planning for the younger ones to join me after their university education. It was people like church members and extended family who condemned me. This was funny because it was in that same church that a visiting pastor told me that he could see my husband with another woman in a “vision”, and then he prayed for the woman to disappear. This was shortly after I found out about my husband’s other family. Word must have spread.
You’re still married. What about a divorce?
I don’t even have strength. As far as I’m concerned, I’m free.
What about your husband?
He’s still well off and living his life. He wanted us to talk about it in the beginning. He wanted me to come back. I told him I’m not a dog, I don’t eat my vomit.