Navigating life as a woman in the world today is incredibly difficult. From Nigeria to Timbuktu, it’ll amaze you how similar all our experiences are. Every Wednesday, women the world over will share their takes on everything from sex to politics right here.
The subject of this week’s What She Said is a 32-year-old Nigerian woman who grew up resenting her mother for marrying and divorcing three times. Now that she’s older, a feminist and has been divorced once, she says she understands.
Let’s talk about growing up. What was that like?
We moved a lot. It was a bit adventurous, but it also didn’t feel good. I never felt rooted in something and I still don’t. Not friends, not places, not things. One minute we were in the North, the next, we were in Oyo, then we came to Lagos.
Why were you moving around a lot?
Hmm. We were moving for or because of men o.
Let me start from the beginning. My mother married early. I think she was 18. The man she married was twice her age. This was way before I was born. She was a Muslim then and lived in the North with her husband. She had two children for him. Then she converted to Christianity and the extended family said that she can’t be married to their son and be Christian.
The man too did not defend her. They divorced and she moved to another town. They didn’t let her take her first two children though and that really broke her. I was born about 8 months after she moved to the new town. Immediately after I was born, she moved to the South.
Now, here’s the thing, I don’t know if I was conceived before she left her first husband or if she was seeing someone after she left him. I don’t think that she herself, she knew. So, where did I come from?
You don’t know or you’re not sure who your father is.
My dear, I really don’t. Sometimes, I just tell myself that I fell from heaven. That one is sweeter to hear.
LMAO. Did you ever ask your mother about this?
A ton of times. She’d say I should leave her jare.
But that’s not even the problem. The problem was that she was always seeing or marrying someone new and each time, we’d have to move for them. I don’t remember much from before I was 5, so I can’t say if there were any male figures around and there are no pictures to prove this, but I know that she married again when I was five. I know because she did a church wedding and I was the flower girl or something.
That marriage didn’t last a year. They used to fight about money. My mother used to sell gold and at the same time teach in a school. By some standards, she was rich. He used to ask her for the money in order to help her save it. Savers club. My guy spent the money on drinks and women. Sharp guy.
It pained my mother and she didn’t hide her pain. She was very vocal — she’d say what was on her mind, so when she found out, she gave it to him rough.
My grandmother who lived with us didn’t want her to leave this marriage because she didn’t think that the problems they had were bad and because my mother was ‘getting older’ — she was in her late 20s at this time o. My mother in addition to being vocal has strong-head. So she did what she wanted and left the marriage. We didn’t even have anywhere to go. One day, she just packed our things and we hit the road.
You know the plot twist?
My grandmother left my grandfather for something similar. She told me this recently. They were never married, but they lived together, and he used to sell stuff from her farm for her. He was typically supposed to remit the full money to her, but would only remit some and pocket the rest. My grandmother was okay with this. She felt it was her contribution to the home. A few years later, she found out that he had another family elsewhere and that it was her money he was using to feed them.
That’s the only reaction I could think of when she told me about it.
Did she leave him?
Yeah. Not immediately. It was when my mother started having children that she left. She hasn’t turned back. She doesn’t even know where he is right now.
You come from a line of women who know their rights.
Back then, this was known as ‘waywardness’.
I can tell that my grandmother was trying to protect my mother from the public backlash that came with marrying, divorcing and remarrying.
And she did get a ton of backlash from the catholic church she attended because she was single. Then she moved to protestant and she got backlash there for remarrying. Do you know that this woman eventually just gave up on her religion. She still sent me to church, but I never saw her go to church except for weddings for the rest of her life.
That sounds reasonable. When did the third husband come in?
Ah before the third husband, there was a love interest. They fell in love in one day oh. My mother went to the market and came home to tell us that we were moving. We were still settling into life away from her ex when this guy came into the picture and carried us to Lagos. My mother was a beautiful woman, premium hotcake so I can see why these men didn’t leave her alone. He promised her the world. Gold oh, silver oh, diamond oh. When they got to Lagos, tell me where this man was living.
This was the 90s self. Those houses weren’t so bad back then. The worst part was that he had four children and expected that my mother would take care of the children in their one room and parlour.
This man did nothing but sit at home, watch TV and make demands of my mum. He was annoyed that my grandmother and I were in the picture, but he was generally nice to us. We didn’t have anywhere to go, so we stayed a few months before my mother uprooted our lives and took us away.
This move particularly pained me (as a child) because I was finally among children my age and it was fun. Uncomfortable, but fun. I used to pray for us to never move. My grandmother used to pray for us to leave. When we finally left him, my grandmother gave serious thanksgiving in church.
During this time, my mother had a good job working in a school. We were somehow able to get a space in the school to stay. That’s where we went until she found husband number three. I told her that if we left, I’d kill myself. We had a big fight.
Yikes. That must have caused a dent in your relationship?
If I’m being honest, we didn’t have a great relationship before or after then. So this one was just drama. On my end, it increased my resentment. It made me more inclined to believe what people said about my mother, that she was good for nothing.
Was that her last husband?
Yup. He was emotionally abusive and used to threaten her a lot. Of course, I didn’t know this at the time. I just felt that my mother was the problem. I believed anyone who has left two husbands and couldn’t maintain stable relationships needed to examine themselves. I was too young to really understand the peculiar relationship between womanhood and marriage.
What kind of things did he do?
He’d compare her to other women, laugh at her, call her names — things like that.
That sucks. How long was she with him?
Quite a long time. The longest she had been with any man. Maybe 5 years. I know that I was about entering university when she left him finally. And it was because he called her a prostitute. She just packed and left with us again. She was able to afford to leave because her previous marriages had taught her to save. She moved into her uncompleted building — a bungalow that she had been building for years — when we left. I’m not even sure if she ever got officially divorced from him. But they separated and a few years later, my mother died.
Now that you’re older and you have more context, what do you think of your mother’s life?
She lived. I still don’t think that I like that her life revolved more around her men than herself or her career. But for a woman who wasn’t all too educated or empowered, she seemed to be quite knowledgeable. She made mistakes, but she didn’t let that determine her outcome.
You know the most import thing I learned from my mother?
Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ or to gather yourself together and move on after you fail or make mistakes. Life is too short to be doing anyhow. This was her outlook towards her failed businesses, her failed marriages and relationships. It was her outlook towards religion too.
Solid. What about you, how’s your love life?
Nonexistent right now. But I used to be married.
We were in love — sometimes, I think I still love him self. One day though, we had an argument about something and he threatened to kill me. I realised, even though we forgave each other and move on from whatever caused the fight, that I became very scared of him and it affected my mental health.
When I had my daughter, I was diagnosed with postpartum depression and was suicidal. I woke up one day and decided I had to leave. Even my grandmother was supported me too. She thinks that my mother’s marriages and relationships with men killed her. She doesn’t want me to die young. Me self, I no wan die.
What would you have done differently if you were your mother?
I’m not sure if I would have done anything differently. I can only assume.
But one thing is, I wish I had a better relationship with her. I wish I was more empathetic. I wish we spoke more and I had more context. I’m still unearthing several things about her life from letters, other documents and through my grandmother.
Now I just do my best to be a good mother to my daughter. I’m not afraid to instill some of the lessons I learned from my mother’s life. Two major things I’m teaching her: it’s important to be a feminist. Secondly, you don’t have to get married or be into men.
Aww. How old is she?
Three. If you don’t get them started early, you’ll regret it.
If you’d like to share your experience as a Nigerian woman, send me an email.