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.
Today’s subject for #ZikokoWhatSheSaid is Topher, a 27-year-old Nigerian woman. She talks about sharing her love for football with her twin brother, losing a piece of herself when he died and holding on to the sport as she navigates life without her favourite sibling.
What’s your favourite football club?
Chelsea. Even before I became a fan in 2008, Chelsea was a team I liked because they wear my favourite colour, blue.
How did you become a fan?
Before Chelsea, I watched football for the thrill, and finally picking a team to support was random.
I was at a neighbour’s house watching the Champions League finals where Chelsea played against Manchester United. It was the first time ever they made it to the finals, and I could feel the excitement of the players. 90 minutes went by and Chelsea lost the game. I was expecting some level of frustration from the guys, but they seemed happy. Even with the loss, they cheered. These guys reminded me of the reason I loved football in the first place: that ability to bounce back after a loss or enjoy the little wins.
After that, I became a Chelsea stan. Up blues!!
LOL. How did you get into football?
My twin brother — Chima — taught me to play. When I was 5, we’d go to Ile Ewe field to play what we called kpako football. That’s the kind of match that always ends with some kind of scratch or bruise. I played with my brother’s team. I was the only girl, but I didn’t mind.
Between our four older siblings and parents, my brother and I were the closest. We did practically everything together, but sports was our main thing. He showed me how to play tennis, and we’d stay up watching basketball on TV. I used to pull off the buttons on my shirt and we’d use biro covers to push it around like a ball. Football was the only thing we didn’t do together, so I begged him to teach me.
What was it like playing football with guys?
Rough at first, then we became best guys. The first time I played, one of the guys set leg for me. Instead of saying sorry, he laughed. Of course, my brother slapped him. He was always so protective.
After that, everyone got the memo and treated me nicely. We became a team. They also started calling me the “Queen of football.”
Was your team good or trash?
With each win against an opposing team, we went ballistic with excitement. Even when we took an L, we cheered each other on. That love in the face of anything made me love the game. Football became my passion.
My brother and I shared seven years of that passion together. I was 12 when he died. After that, loving the game wasn’t the same.
I’m so sorry.
Thank you. Not only did I lose my best friend and backbone, I was also fighting for my life.
I fell sick hours after hearing the news. My appendix burst. There was no time to process that he was gone. I went in for the surgery and dealt with a dry cough and pneumonia while recovering. It was hard.
How did you cope?
I became a tomboy. LOL.
For a long time, I felt empty without him. He died in January and by March, my mum moved only me to Abuja because she got a new job. She wanted to keep a close eye on me while I recovered, but I hated it. Without my brother, I felt alone. So I started wearing his clothes to feel close to him and also prove to him I could be strong.
That’s how my tomboy era started, which my mum hated. I didn’t care though. It was the only thing that kept me sane until 2009.
What happened in 2009?
At that point, home was more frustrating.
My siblings and dad had joined us in Abuja. And my mum couldn’t hold back her hatred for my clothes anymore. Maybe it made her think of Chima, but we weren’t close enough to open up to each other. When I was 14, my mum yelled at me for my new style and my siblings beat me for being heady about it. I didn’t have anyone in my corner.
My dad tried to be there for me, but nothing compensated for my brother. In 2009, I wanted to end it. I took some of my mum’s diabetic pills and locked myself in the room. But I couldn’t do it.
I made a promise to Chima, and I wanted to keep it. I was going to get as rich as we planned to and name my son after him. I couldn’t do that if I was dead.
I’m so sorry you went through that alone.
It’s okay. I didn’t feel alone — I felt he was with me. I probably had on one of his shirts.
And football? Did you think of going pro?
Never. Playing the game was purely for fun. I never stopped loving football; it was my strongest connection to him. I just didn’t watch it as much.
Before I left for Abuja in March 2007, I wanted to try playing football again. It had been almost two months since the surgery, and I was bored of sitting at home. I missed the guys at the pitch, but I couldn’t play without Chima. There were too many memories.
I still wanted to play though. So for the first time, I played football with girls.
Yeah. When I was younger, the girls on my street liked to play ten-ten or suwe. I found jumping, clapping and singing quite annoying. The only game I could manage was seven stone.
But you liked chasing a ball for 90 minutes and shouting “it’s a goal?” Gotcha.
LMAO. Yes! It’s better than shouting “ten ten”.
LOL. How did playing with the girls go?
I can’t even call what we played football. No offence to my friends that might read this, but they were playing rubbish. It was like they had never played football. Their penalty and corner kicks were so weak. It felt like we were running around the field playing suwe. Gosh! I wanted some kpako football. After a few games, I just stopped playing.
LOL. I’m assuming you picked up something else?
Yes. Writing became the easiest thing I could do. I penned down my thoughts and wrote about fictional characters. When I wasn’t doing that, I read books for an escape. If I wasn’t doing that, then there was a bit of dancing. It lifted my mood.
In between, there was cooking. Actually, cooking was the only connection I had with any other sibling — my older sister. When I wasn’t at the pitch as a kid, she was teaching me how to cook.
In 2011, I started saving up for culinary school. I wanted any excuse to leave my house. Whenever my siblings sent me on errands, I’d add an extra ₦1k or ₦2k to their bill. At least all the waka waka had to pay. By 2013, I had enough for a six-month culinary course. I knew the basics, so the chefs taught me to cook continental dishes like onion soup and Chinese noodles. No one in my family knows I took that course.
At this point, how were you feeling?
I was attempting to live my life. I got into uni a few months after the course. Pursuing a chef career wasn’t something my parents would’ve accepted. I ended up studying English. When I graduated in 2017, acting became the next phase of my life.
In 22 years you went from writing to cooking to acting. Why?
Call it exploring. I was trying to find something that was as good as sitting to watch a game and made me good money. Acting only lasted for two years. Within that time, I starred in about eight to nine movies. My career was growing, but I wanted a break from it. I was tired of the rush of call time, rehearsals and late nights.
I sat down one day and decided to pursue my cooking career.
I’m curious: in all the things you’ve tried, what has been the closest to making you feel how football did?
I’d say cooking, maybe because it’s the most recent development. Watching people eat and love my food gives me joy.
But football will always be my number one love. Every time I sit and watch a game, I feel connected to my brother. I still miss him, but I have fewer moments of feeling so empty without him. As I’ve moved around, I’ve lost most of Chima’s things. I outgrew the rest. My mum and I have never talked about what losing Chima meant to either of us. Maybe one day.
As your life continues to evolve, what’s one thing you wish you could share with him as an adult?
When we were younger, he dreamt of being a Catholic priest. I always wanted him to ordain my marriage. Now, I have to live with that dream as only a memory.