For this piece, I interviewed Nigerian women from different generations. I attempt to examine how the Nigerian society has changed or not changed-especially for women. Among other things, we discussed love, war, and the parent-child dynamic.
My grandparents had an arranged marriage. When I asked my grandmother about it, and how it made her feel, she said, “That’s just how things were done in those days.” It seems a lot of things that happened in her youth are explained away this way. Like how women and girls were not allowed to eat eggs because it would “make them steal” or how women would not dare coming out when masquerades were passing. On the masquerade matter, she commented:
“In those days, society never valued women. Women were second-class citizens. Just to produce children. There were certain things that were just reserved for men.”
I asked her some more questions about how romance worked for teenagers/young people. Was it similar to the coffee date vs Radisson Blu spectacle we have today? Apparently, in those days romance consisted mostly of love letters; “I love you”, “I love you too” and love songs. But your parents better not catch you, or you would have the hell flogged out of you. This was another thing, children were really seen and not heard in this time.
My grandmother finished secondary school in 1966—at twenty-one. The education system was completely different. Other than the fact that she was taught almost entirely by white people who conveniently edited the curriculum, you didn’t start primary school until your hand could touch the ear on the other side of your head, and for her, this was at eight years old. 1966 was also the year of the first military coup d’état in Nigeria. Fortunately for her, my grandfather’s parents had their eyes set on her and as my grandfather was schooling in London at the time, they “bundled her” over there before the Igbo genocide began. On the importance of love in marriages in those days, she said, “There was nothing like love. Maybe after a year or two love starts to grow. If you’re lucky it works out fine. If not, it falls to pieces.” Parents played matchmaker, and that was that.
I wondered if she had any photos from when she was younger, and this led us to talking about her childhood, and her relationship with her father. When the Civil War started, her family ran away. Her house was turned into a Red Cross station but was eventually burned down by the Nigerian army. Thus, she doesn’t have many old photos. “But childhood was sweet. We were two girls in the family,” she said.
I was curious as to whether or not this posed any problems; The Nigerian society is not known for being kind to families without male heirs nor to the women birthing female children, again and again. She dismissed this saying, “My father loved me. He used to call me Ogwugwa, meaning ‘comforter’.” He even went against the wishes of the other members of the village and sent her and her younger sister to secondary school. However, he had a penchant for addressing her as “My son” in writing. Maybe this was because he did indeed desire a male child.
In her article “When Tradition Means Trauma: Discipline and Child Abuse in West African Immigrant Families” Ore Ogunbiyi quotes, “The idea of corporal punishment as an effective means of establishing authority was passed down from the colonizers to the colonized, then from the colonized down to the military institutions it created, and finally, straight into the psyches of the parents who lived through that generation in the 1980s and 90s.” My grandmother confirmed that this may be behind the physical abuse some parents inflict on their children. For instance, during current President Buhari’s military regime, he introduced a firing squad for drug pushers. He tied them to drums in Bar Beach, Lagos; shot them, and civilians watched. People would get beaten for littering. Life during the military time she says, “was rough”.
The two generations of women in my family, in between my grandmother and I, seem not to remember too much of life during military rule. They do remember however that it was still very much taboo for boys and girls to be seen gisting openly, some cultures did not allow children to eat meat (My mother recalls being told “You’ll eat meat when you get older.” If there’s one thing that has been passed down, it’s the superstition. Re: the left-hand saga.) and their era also seems to sort of be the genesis of the horrific bullying culture Nigerian boarding schools are notorious for and many in my generation have been traumatized by.
For me, being a Nigerian child consists largely of being cognizant of the struggles I have been spared. I am outraged at colonialism, war, military rule and all of the atrocities my parents and grandparents faced, and I have been fortunate enough to grow up in a version of our society that is more exposed to different cultures and ideas than the last. I would love to follow this up by saying that the Nigerian society as a whole feels less aggressively towards the fact that there are girls that like girls and that children are individual people and not do-overs for their parents, but how can I when some parents are still attempting to beat the gay out of their children? When kids are still being manipulated with “Do what I want, or I won’t pay your school fees”? Exposure, unfortunately, does not mean acceptance and my generation feels extremely boxed in.
Some Nigerians I know abroad offer important perspectives. One of my friend’s first introduction to what it means to be Nigerian was physical abuse in the name of discipline (“spare the rod and spoil the child”), haunting stories of a country where her parents suffered, and grinning and bearing it when the electricity was cut off or when there were holes in her clothes. To her, being a Nigerian child felt like little more than an unfair cross to carry.
“Whenever I wanted to experience something, my mother would tell me it was ‘only for white children’. So growing up I had this huge complex of wanting to be white. White girls didn’t get beat by their parents, white girls had light in their houses.”
Her mum views the fact that she brought her children to America as the peak of her motherhood. “I gave you American citizenship, what more could you possibly want?” For her, and many of us, being a Nigerian (African, at large) child is not being allowed to get upset, not being allowed to express ourselves, and constantly having to apologize for not suffering in the way those before us did.
Another of my friends had a slightly more positive experience. She wasn’t exposed to the misogynistic fantasy of what it allegedly means to be a proper Nigerian woman until she got a bit older. By now her determined personality and a lot of her opinions were already fully formed. She was also fortunate enough to grow up surrounded by a lot of millennial Nigerian women who were not living out the submissive, androcentric tale older women were attempting to feed her.
I feel very connected to a lot of Nigerians in my generation, and I am grateful to social media for making this possible. We are creative beings, challengers of the status-quo, embracers of our culture; for instance, Ada Akashia (Akashia’s first daughter), how I’m often addressed in my village, is a name I take immense pride in.
However, I get sad sometimes when discussing the matter of Nigerian households. I used to (and sometimes still do) laugh at Nigerian Instagram comedy videos when the mother would ask the child to pick out the koboko for their flogging, or when they would play horror movie sounds because the actor in the video has broken a glass cup. But I hope that as we laugh at these videos, we also deep them. Psychotherapist Amanda Iheme in the video “Is Trauma the African Family Generational Curse?” talked about how having our parents react violently to our shortcomings and other apparent transgressions has played a role in the various negative patterns of behavior we experience—irrational fear, overreaction, excessive self-blame, the inability to speak up, etc.
I wonder a lot about what the next generation of Nigerians will say. How does the story progress? In exploring these personal histories, I hope to stir some empathy in myself and in whoever reads this. We have so much trauma to unpack, so much unlearning to do.