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The Nigeria I grew up in is one where a woman is sent off to live with whoever they can when they have failed to enter some marriage. It’s abominable not to have a man under whose roof she learns to be a woman. If she rents her own apartment, she must be a whore or a witch. Men would catcall her because she must be loose or she would be married by now. Once they cross a certain age, they are free to roam. The family will stop having meetings about them. The spinster whose family has given up on is to be pitied and forgotten or sent off to learn how to be wife material.
At 35, no one really cares if you are a spinster because eligible bachelors are looking at the younger ones now. At that point, probably the dowry won’t mean much anymore. It’s also applicable if you have dropped out of the marriage train.
We had a lot of aunties live with us when I was a child. I never knew why it was like that. For some it was because my parents were their spiritual “parents”. For the most, now I know it was somehow a training school, a healing school of sort. Our house was a place to remedy whatever was missing in these ladies. This, a lot of people would deny. However, by the nature of the things they did, you might figure the truth in this. They were “nannies” to me and my siblings. They cooked for us, made sure we washed our clothes or washed them for us. They laid our beds and put us in them or showed us how to. Aunties scolded us, probably more harshly than our mother would. They were not at our house to learn anything that would get them out of our house and into the world on their own. It’s not like my father or mother was in HR or were going to give advice on how to write a good resume.
Aunty Sade is a peculiar case I remember. I can’t recall every detail but it was a dark year for her when she started to live with us. She had been dumped and left to dry by her fiance. For reasons unknown to me, someone had been in her cross-hairs for marriage but they escaped. Aunty Sade lost her mind and intermittently would be crazy for real. Why she wasn’t taken to the mental care institution as a first resort still baffles me now when I recall this experience.
One day, I woke up butt naked; wondering where I was. I still cannot remember how things had played out that day but there in my room, Dad was sitting and counselling Aunty Sade about something. The yellow bulb was dim from the low current. It felt stuffy in the room but for some reason I pretended to still be asleep. I think now that I was ashamed that at my age, I was probably seven or eight, that my Dad and some Aunty had been having counselling while I was stark naked on the mat. Things took an ugly turn and something triggered Aunty’s psychosis. Suddenly we were being chased round the living room in our small family apartment.
That year was the year of cats and dogs. It was not long after these encounters, that my parents travelled for a few years and I was to deal with these memories whichever way I could. Well, this was not after Aunty Sade had managed to spank my young almost unclad butt with the bamboo cane she was chasing us with that night. While scampering out of the room, I had taken a bed sheet along and was now running for dear life like everyone in the house. We were on this chase for a few minutes before Dad managed to lock me and my siblings away in the parent’s room. Some of the neigbours came to help subdue Aunty Sade. In the morning, I could see her doing some sort of gyration around a fireplace where she had been restrained by the young men that lived with our landlord.
Aunty Sade was temperamental otherwise. Even when she was not being crazy, she had a set jaw line that could make you think twice about being naughty. She would force-feed you the drugs you hated without so much as a flinch. I only have memories of her being bitter and angry all the time she spent in our home. If she had become a feminist at this point, she would have qualified the popular “bitter Nigerian feminist” expression. Sometimes, I suspect she was not particularly a bitter person, she just never got the right attention. A few years later, I would see Aunty Sade; a much older version and gentler.
What if she had married that man who left. What if she had her own babies? would she not have had a mental breakdown? I like to think she would have been just as psychotic as she was at our house. In the real sense, she was not just in training, she was in a test environment and like her, we were lab rats. If she somehow managed and did right, maybe someone at church or fellowship would hear the lord speak to him. Maybe she would finally move to her final destination; the place they thought she always wanted to be. The snatches of memories I have about people telling her story is that she was so heartbroken by her failed walk to the altar that she lost her mind. Maybe the war was already heavy at the door, and she just needed to be tipped over the edge. I think she already lost her mind a long time before she was anywhere close to an altar. She was asked to do what a woman should do but there was her mental health, there was her bitterness and no one was much worried.
I also think now, what if my father had refused to take her in? What if he had chosen his family over these experiences? Would he have truly been considered a man of God? Would people have believed that he had a ministry to help the needy? What if he had not chosen this social experiment that women are subjected to and had recommended a mental hospital? There are a lot of questions and few answers.
Note: Names of characters in this essay are fictional. However, this story happened.
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