It’s our girl’s day out and we are at the beach. It’s one of those days that dreams are made of. The sky is blue with big white cotton candy floating in it, the waves are lapping as though the ocean is making merry, the leaves of the palm trees are all bowed in one direction and there’s a faint breeze mixed with salt water that we can taste on our lips. Benazir had just finished telling her story and Jamila had something she wanted to share. At this point we are sitting, hands interlocked, Jamila’s hand in mine, Doyin held Jemima’s hand while Benazir rested her head on her shoulders. Jamila, by the way is very beautiful, she is about 6 foot tall, very dark skin, high cheek bones and a little pointed nose that looks like she picked it out herself. Her eyes slant slightly upwards (as though her cheek bones pushed them up), she is striking; still there is somehow nothing soft about her. Her eyes betray no warmth, like somebody switched them off. She looks like she belongs on the catwalks of Milan but she is easily one of the best criminal lawyers in town. ‘I remember it all as though it was yesterday’ she starts, ‘I was 8 years old and attended a school close to my house. I closed from school that day and like every other day, I skipped/ ran and sang all the way home, but as I approached I heard voices, raised voices that seemed to be coming from my house. I ran faster, I heard my mother’s voice and then my father’s, I did not go in, instead I went close to the window that the voices came from and my parents seemed to be having a quarrel. I do not know how it started but I heard my mum saying “… but you are hardly a man. I have always provided for this family, while you sit around gambling. Even that, you are not good at! You owe everyone in this village something, if not for my brothers, our children will be out hawking on the streets instead of going to school like the other children.”
‘I could not bear it, you see my dad and I had always been especially close and while it was true that he sat around playing cards, he had to be the best man and father in the world. He always had a story to tell, he was never at work like other fathers, he played with us, did our home work with us and attended to every scrapped knee, he was a good father. So I started to sing very loud and to run towards the front door, like I had just arrived home.’
‘My mother heard my voice and came to the door. The sweet aroma of yam porridge filled the air as I walked through the door, mama made sure that food was cooked and at the table every time we got in from school. She hugged me. “How was your day mama na?” That’s Hausa for my mother. You see my mother had never called me Jamila in all my life, as it was also her mother’s name and she considered it a sign of disrespect to call that name. I smiled and said it was good. I asked after my dad and she said he was in the room and asked me to wash my hands and come to lunch. I went to my father’s room instead. Daddy was nothing like his usual self on this afternoon. He looked drawn and tired and had no stories to share. I asked if I could have my lunch in his room, and he let me. It was a quiet lunch. Mama called out that she was on her way back to work, she worked both the morning and afternoon shifts at the only hospital we had in the village, in addition to having a table outside the house from which she sold sweets, kola and the like.’
‘I found this incident very jarring. If you had asked me before this I would have said my family was perfect. Our parents were friends, they were good to us and we always had food and fire at home. I did not know that anything was wrong. But not long after, we were home on a Friday afternoon, having just returned from the weekly congregational prayer at the mosque when we heard voices at the door. Daddy asked us to be quiet. Someone knocked, my dad held a finger to his lips, they knocked and knocked louder and a voice said “Danlami, Danlami, pay my money by this time next Friday or else…” My father tried to tell us a story after wards, but it wasn’t fun, like it usually is.
This was the beginning of the worst part of my life but it was perhaps the easiest part of that time. I just didn’t know it then. My mother worked really hard and was always paying my father’s debts, there will be threats to cause him harm and she will take all 2 of us in tow, beg and then promise to pay. She worked, she sold her jewellery, she even sold her wrappers from her wedding box, but Baba did not stop gambling and the threats did not stop coming. One day we got home and found our house totally thrashed, that same day, mama came home and told us that 2 nurses had joined the hospital on the National Youth Service Programme (NYSC) and they were real nurses, with certificates!!!!!!!!!!!!!! She had no formal training, you see.’
As you can guess, mama was soon rendered redundant. My father just gambled some more, it was like a drug, as though the more he suffered, the more drawn to it he was, and the more drawn to it he was, the more drawn to him his creditors were.
School seemed to be our only escape from the chaos but even that was soon pierced. Faisal (my older brother) and I were playing in the school yard one day, when we noticed the other children sniggering at us. I did not know what we had done wrong so we just ignored them. Then a cousin of ours who also attended our school, but who would not deign to talk to us strolls over and asks if our father has recovered from being beaten by the money lenders boys, then runs away laughing.
I go into a panic. I realise that this is why daddy was ill and in bed yesterday. Mama kept us away from him through out. She said he needed rest. For Faisal and I, school was over for the day, all the children in the play ground had heard my cousin and they laughed at us openly.
I remember holding Faisal’s hand and both of us running all the way home-in tears. We ran, cried, stumbled, but kept running. We got home burst into the house and headed straight for our dad. Faisal ran in ahead of me but ran back out, Baba is not in he said, we looked around the house, in the compound, and I thought ‘surely he cannot be out gambling again’. We decided to go where we knew he sat to play cards but did not find him there, exhausted we went back home. Mama was home making lunch by then and she looked up at us, “where have you both been and why are you out of breath?” she asked and we said we’d gone to look for Baba. “You know your father; he’ll be back in his own time, now come and eat”. We sat down to eat that afternoon but it was a very quiet lunch. Baba had not returned when we went to bed that night and he was not there the next night either, nor the night after that nor the night after that’…
Barely a year after this incident and several attempts to find my father, mama started getting pressured to marry again, after all she was young, she was beautiful and most importantly had two children to raise without a strong enough source of income to do so. She resisted the pressure at first and said though she no longer worked at the hospital, she still got called upon by most of the local women who could not afford to give birth there and got paid for it. She also had her table from which she sold petty things and could get by just fine.
Not long after though, there was a different kind of pressure, her brothers started to insist that she would be defiling the family name by deciding to remain single, that a woman without a husband was a magnet for promiscuity and they could not have that. Mama insisted that she had a husband and they said they’ll ask his creditors whom they had been paying off (so that our house will not be re-possessed) to come to her instead, since she still had a husband. Before we knew it, a marriage was arranged, mama explained to us that she had to re-marry; raising us was increasingly difficult but promised that everything will be the same, that we will be taken care of and her new husband will be just like Baba, expect that he would not gamble.
‘It was all a lie. I was only ten years old the first time he raped me”. Gasp from all of us. ‘The fact of the rape was not as painful as what happened afterwards. I ran-more like hobbled-to meet mama outside when she came from her kiosk (not a table any more) with tears streaming down my face, she stooped to hug me and asked what was wrong. I told her what had happened and was stunned by her reaction. It was a slap, which rings in my ears even as I speak, she cursed at me, she said I was bad and wanted to spoil her chances of a good marriage, that we finally had good food on the table, she finally had a thriving business, we had changed schools and moved to a better home and I wanted to spoil all that with my lies! She spanked me some more and told me to go to my room. She said she did not want to hear one more word from me on the matter.
I cried myself to sleep that night and was in so much pain that I could not make it to school the next day. Mama looked into my room in the morning, she looked like she did not sleep at all that night, she hugged me and asked me not to act so spoiled, that I know nothing happened. She still gave me pain relievers though and said I could sleep in. The fear of my step father sent me out. I went and stayed in the neighbour’s house till I heard mama come in.
The abuse continued intermittently till I was 12 and one day on our way to school, Faisal gave me a lot of money (he stole it from mama’s shop). He then asked that we go in another direction (I had never mentioned the incidents to him, I knew it would kill him, he had taken on Baba’s role in my life-at least to the extent that a 14-year-old boy could), we turned off and headed towards the motor park and he gave me an address, he said baba had a sister in Suleja that I could go to, he had some kosei (bean cakes) in a newspaper that he gave to me and then he put me in cab and turned away.
There I was, in public transport for the first time, leaving Zaria for the first time and truly alone for the first time, relieved and fearful at the same time. I would miss my brother, he was my last line of defence and to protect me, he had to send me away from the only love I still had-his.
My aunt in Suleja was really sweet. She took care of me and told me only good things about my father, she wondered why I ran away and I told her I had been treated badly but I did not share the details. She told my mother I was with her and told me one or two occasions that mama was coming to see me but I made sure that I was out from sun up to sun down on those days. I went to secondary school in Suleja and to the University of Abuja and moved to Lagos for my NYSC as you all know… the rest is shared history. But that is the story of my life that is why I am me, the way I am, difficult to love, difficult to accept love, nothing surprises me because I expect the worse from people. I have been let down by everybody that matters, except Faisal, and somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, his will still come. You all think I’m patient and forgiving but it’s not so, it’s just that when someone does an otherwise hurtful thing, I think ‘why did it take you so long’.
We are all holding hands, Jamila’s head is cradled on Jemima’s shoulder, she is stroking her hair, we are all weeping, feeling the pain like it happened to us, like the little girls in us had been robbed and violated. I’m staring, lost in the recesses of my own mind, it’s as though no one wants to look at the other and I’m thinking, this is heavy stuff, this is really heavy stuff…