Uploaded by Jibril Lawal on September 06, 2013
In 2004, in the only ventilated room in a crooked house built by the idiotic Nigerian Federal Housing Authority, on a white clone computer crawling on the scarce yet malevolent commodity we call “electricity”. In an upstairs room where the sounds of buses, cars and people wafted in and out from the Lekki Expressway like fragments of conversation in a dream. At 11:00am on the dot when the daily sluice opened in the sky, releasing a liqueur like breeze into the crooked house, a baby kicked in my stomach and I attempted again to end the article that I had been writing for a year and six months. One year and six months. This article was older than the baby in my stomach, and it was the final and incontrovertible evidence that I am the least bankable writer in Nigeria. Which publisher in their right mind would hope to make money from my work? Perhaps more significantly, how can I live on one article every two years? It is both my fault and it isn’t that I am still this kind of writer currently tiptoeing through the writing of my book of food stories, Longthroat Memoirs.
In the first instance and this is only the first instance, I am a woman, as is apparent from the reference to the child in my stomach. In the second instance, I am a Nigerian woman. This combination of Nigerian and Woman is already highly combustible without adding Writer. We have to talk about socialisation and the state of mind I associate with my writing: a crippling fear. I grew up in a house with four other siblings and a matriarchal figure that wrote the course of all our lives in terrazzo. Her voice was so loud...and this isn’t a literal description. If it were tangibly loud, then it would not be so much in the head, inscribed with the pounding of blood through my brain. My siblings will testify that I spent many months, perhaps years in childhood living in dark wardrobes and hiding in empty cardboard cartons and locking myself in the toilet in the middle of the day, not fully understanding why I needed to escape into bizarre spaces to rifle through my own head. And then in my early teens, I’d often send my spirit flying through classroom windows out to the sky, hearing nothing of the drone of Chemistry, Physics and Great Expectations. It was only in my twenties that I was able to write these feeble words for my mother:
“...She who begat a child with a prodigious head to match a prodigious burden...”
It was the strongest voice I had.
I’m not good at poetry. I was really talking about brain inflammation. There was absolutely no room for entertaining questions like “Who am I?” “What my purpose is” “Why I’m here?” All those kinds of oyinbo questions that ruin a good Nigerian girl and make her unsuitable for marriage. My mother’s voice was loud enough to drown out my own voice and to infiltrate the arena of dreams. It did for almost four decades, through childhood, adolescence, marriage and then three children of my own. That voice and the socialisation that permeated the days subtly but strongly instructed me that I had no permission to write, especially not to write for a living. Especially not to write the whole truth or the relevant truth, or the offensive one. I wore the cold cloak of fear every time I sat in front of a computer to write down words. I wear it still. A loud voice should be easily indictable, but I assure you, in Nigeria it isn’t. You can’t hold anyone to anything. Not really. No one really said anything. It is all in your head. "You can do anything you want now". “Who made you do anything against your will?" A few of my peers, women, talk of this near-lobotimised, flapping, rootless feeling that you cannot put a firm description to. It is a feeling that you’d better not own up to.
In London in 1999, I received a visit from an uncle. He had been sent by my parents to remind me of who I was. I had finished in the year before a highfalutin Masters degree with the title “Legal Aspects of Maritime Affairs and International Transport.” I was the only black graduating student. Three quarters of the class had failed, unheard of for a Masters degree. I was holed up in a friend’s apartment on Edgware road in London, drinking coffee until my nose bled, trying to explore all the forbidden questions. The uncle was in the apartment because the instructions had been clear – finish your Masters, come home, loosen that twisted thing you call hair on your head and go and spend two years at the Nigerian law school. Find a Nigerian husband. Marry and have children before your ovaries become defunct. For reasons unfathomable and alarming to my parents, I was acting outside the script. My disgusted parents had been compelled to lie to people whenever they were asked whether I was at law school in London. Their tactic was to cut off all financial support. Surely if I had no money, I would come back home and save them from the encroaching mortification. I in turn asked them for no help and stayed holed up in the flat.
I received the uncle in the foggy mental state of mainlined coffee running through my blood vessels and my abused brain. This is what happens when women step out of line: the whitewash comes off the milestones; the subtle language becomes brash epitome. Someone is employed to come throw the rule book at you. “Look here! You are breaking your parent’s hearts.” He said “You are a Nigerian woman. You have to understand that you can’t just go gallivanting all over the world.
“We don’t do that.”
I had heard right. The word was “gallivanting.” It wasn’t culturally appropriate that I respond to this Uncle even in the safety of cosmopolitan London 3,000 miles away from home, so I kept quiet even though I wanted to say that Wolverhampton, Cardiff, London, Edgware road and weekly strolls down to the Sainsbury’s twenty minutes away was hardly “gallivanting” around the world. It was perhaps a slim aperture to rehabilitation. I had to know very quickly who Yemisi was even if I never acted on it. Even if after a first degree in law and a second degree in law I decided to return to Nigeria and continue to do as I was told.
My Masters programme had been paid for by my paternal grandfather, but my mother monitored the process closely because I could not be trusted. Halfway through my first degree, I decided I didn’t want to study law. My mother convinced me to continue. She said I could decide whatever Masters I wanted as long as I finished the law degree. When I was done with the first law degree and was asked what my Masters degree would be I responded, “The Classics, English... Languages...” My mother kissed her teeth and said “No one’s going to pay for that.” In essence, it had been presumed in the “agreement” that as I grew older by one or two years, my acceptance of the cultural restraints would right itself. I would grow up and discard the fantasies in my head, accept that a Nigerian does not study Classics and the English Language as a Masters Degree. The promise of allowance of my choice of Masters Degree was never more than a means of getting me to finish the first law degree. I was being idiotic in the first instance attempting to stop a degree that I had endured for two years, so a lie was entirely justifiable as a means to the desired end. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t my mother’s money. And now that I had once again agreed to do the right thing; owning a glorious sounding Masters degree, all I had to manage next was two years in law school. I told my parents that on no uncertain terms was I going to law school. It was a matter so serious, it became the subject of special prayers at my mother’s church. The worst part of it all was that in Wales, I had dated a white boy with one pair of shoes and a bicycle. And there had been vague rumours of marriage or something unthinkable like that.
And so to 2004 and that crooked house of obedience. Married with one child, pregnant with another: Not quite living the script as I never went to law school and I never got rid of the twisted hair, and I am running a small business, working for a magazine, but at least I married a Nigerian and I was close enough to be monitored daily; to keep the chance of still disgracing my family at safe distance. The problem was the mental cold. The deep imprints of fear. That look that people give you when you say you write that ensures you never say anything so inappropriate, so foolish again. It’s an immediate projection back to the childhood darkness of the wardrobe, the urgent privacy of the toilet that must be given up for the next user. It isn’t a thinking room afterall. It is a toilet. It is that fear that fragments everything and slows everything down to painstaking moments. Prison time. There is the job that you do that meets the approval of the inner caucus. The hairstyle that keeps the motion of eyes moving, over and past you in unruffled endorsement. There is the Sunday church visits and Wednesday mid-week services that keep the social cloth beautifully ironed. No crease in sight. There is the aso-ebi and tall gele that signifies allegiance and loyalty to collective bondage sailing calm waters. There are the children, dancing embroidery on the strait-jacket. They promise you that if you keep your eyes on the pretty pattern, you’ll be fine. In my opinion, the entire rule book for the Nigerian woman is about the insidious clipping of wings. It is the daily removal feather by feather. Only the truly inventive, the wildly demented, the brash slut or the sword swallower in the end survives.
The article I wrote in the crooked house was no ordinary article. It was a ship that was built slowly because it must never spring a leak. It is called Men of God as Superstars. When you are told that writing cannot be your profession and it is hammered in, if the hammering breaks a limb, then your means of escape must be sure... that is if you want to escape. If you are caught running, and brought back, this time, you will never ever have the chance to fly again.
On the back of that article, its publication, the trauma it caused, the stunned disbelieving hatred that became my reward for daring to do such a thing, I earned many accolades: Jezebel; Seducer; Cursed; Wolf in Sheep’s clothing; a psychologically damaged female who has a problem with male authority; a Source of Shame; Rebel; Marriage Saboteur; Witch; Spiritually Unclean Cultural Outcast; Divider of the Flock of God. Husbands of friends insisted that they must no longer keep company with me for the obvious reason that “rebellion is contagious”. The surest proof that the ship had sailed and was seaworthy was our exclusion from the church. We were asked to leave and never come back. The Nigerian church is the ceremonial custodian of the impenetrable vault of all things patriarchal. If you are excluded from it, then your damnation is sure and true. The trauma that I caused was so significant and so unexpected, that my husband was accused of writing the article and using my name to publish it. A woman really dared not do such a thing. It was a man’s article, “a man’s words” someone insisted to me.
I wrote the article because it was true, it was urgent, and there was a need to say that God is not the asset of manipulative men who use him to threaten and rob others. When I was asked by my deeply traumatised family and friends to take back the words, I understood the blessing intrinsic in the writing of an article for one year and six months; going over every word a thousand times. I refused to apologise. I owned every fearful word. I clutched them to my person and stood up for them with the most violent confidence of my life. It was almost easy at that point. I realised that people had no inkling how afraid I was. How afraid I am. The paradox of the whole thing; that people ascribe strength and command to every word that I write, when their origin is fear. The fear has by some miraculous misunderstanding produced the opposite impression. It created an image of damage and disposal where it concerned my person. I had done one of the worst possible things a Nigerian woman could do. I had betrayed the ideals that many women held as worthy and sacred. I had trampled on the things they had given their own lives for. I had trivialised their strivings. I had thought that I could escape the life, and in that way had presumed myself better than them. I was unworthy of any real regard. What need was there to fashion any more social expectations for me. I didn’t even understand the very basic things. I was a delusional outcast, a mental case being daily and inefficiently managed by my family and poor put-upon husband.
It was an environment that turned out in the end to be a wonderful cocoon, a room in which to write. If you didn’t really count, then it didn’t really count what you did. The worst had happened and passed. I had bought myself the identity, the denied allowance, the bragging rights. I could write. I can write... even if the cold fear remains. And it does.
Yemisi Ogbe's culinary masterpiece Longthroat Memoirs is slowly being published by Cassava Republic Press.