Our mothers wanted to protect us. So they hid us, beat us for having opinions, for being too inquisitive in a world that doesn’t permit girls to be curious about things.
Whoever was tortured, stays tortured. —Jean Amery
We fought over everything. By the time I was fourteen, my relationship with my mother had deteriorated into ‘migwo-vrendo.’ We had nothing else to talk about. The vacuum over the years had widened and damaged any form of mother-daughter relationship we could have had. She didn’t try to make amends; I didn’t see any reason for us to be friends.
My friends were like me. We were teenagers, strange creatures. The only way our mothers believed they could ensure we had a good future was not only to beat us with sticks and leather belts, but to rant and complain and always remind us that if we let any man impregnate us we’d have the child and that would be the end of our education.
We knew girls like that. There was a twelve-year-old girl in our estate that was raped by a man who was her former school teacher, her neighbor, and a pastor. She got pregnant. Her parents made sure she had the child, because she opened her legs for him.
Once, I was having a shouting match with my mother. I cannot recall what we were arguing about. Those days, I talked back.
She was in the kitchen, peeling yams for our breakfast. I was pressing some clothes in the sitting room on the ironing board. The kitchen door was wide open so that we faced each other, separated only by the long dining table standing between us. I must have said something that hit a nerve in her, because she suddenly flung the knife at me. I had only a split-second to move and the knife missed my face by a fraction.
I stared at the knife, the blade covered in yam sap, lying on the red velvety ironing board. I lifted my eyes and stared at her. We held each other gazes, hers blazing with anger, mine stood still, in shock. I abandoned the clothes on the board and went to the bedroom, my mind reeling.
Later, I told my friends at school about how surprised I had been. But it was just a laugh. A girl had arrived at school with a badly shaved head. Men’s eyes were beginning to linger on her, so her mother cut her very long hair and shaved off the short curls with a razor blade. She told us she hated her mother.
Before then, it never occurred to me that one could feel a burning hatred towards their mother. The thought that I might hate my mum sat heavy, like steel in my heart. How do you hate your mum? How do you hate the person that gave you life and nurtured you? I worried and panicked, a frown sat permanently on my forehead. A single event cleared my doubts. I stopped pondering about it and just accepted that our hatred for each other was mutual.
I had been home alone one Friday afternoon, studying for a continuous assessment test slated for the next week. The sun had been at its peak, blazing down so that even the steady twirl of our ceiling fan couldn’t keep the heat away. In the midst of it, the sound of my dad’s Volvo pierced through. I groaned. I had since overgrown my Daddy’s Girl suit.
He was never home in the afternoon. I knew he only came to pick up something and would be gone in a few minutes. Maybe it was lethargy, because I heard his car drive into our close, I heard him park by the house, I heard him get out of the car, and the click that locked it, but I lay still, unwilling, too lazy to get up. Not even the loud shrilling of the bell could get me up, after three rings he went behind the house to knock on the other door, this time, I stood up.
When I opened the door, I didn’t greet him I just walked back to the bedroom and flopped on the bed besides my school books.
“Who were those boys behind the house?” my dad asked me.
“What boys?” I replied.
He pointed out, saying that some boys from my school (they wore our school uniform) passed behind the house as he was coming in.
“Was that why you didn’t open the door earlier? Who were they?” he asked again.
I shrugged. I don’t know them, I mumbled.
He said okay. I thought nothing of it, but the next morning, after our daily morning prayers, Mum would bring up that topic.
“Who were those boys?”
Again, I raised my shoulders up, towards my head, spreading my palms apart. I don’t know and I walked away. That single gesture threw her into the rage that buried any chance of a cordial relationship we could have had.
She began to shout at me, about me wanting to ruin my life. She yelled, asking why hadn’t I been in school yesterday. We had sports, since I wasn’t participating in any game I decided to study for my tests. I didn’t tell her. I remained silent.
Maybe it was my silence, or it was that she thought I was being insolent. She went into our bedroom, brought out my clothes and burnt everything I owned. I watched the fire roar to life behind our house when she lit a match and threw it into my kerosene-doused clothes. I didn’t try to stop her. I didn’t protest, I just watched, unable to cry, as the fire reduced every clothing item I had to ashes. For a long time afterward, I wouldn’t talk to her.
In Primary 4, we were mostly eight going on nine. Our breasts were like swollen seeds. We were ashamed and in awe of it. We talked about it in whispers. We talked about the pain of growing breasts, but it was nothing a tablet of Panadol wouldn’t cure. We couldn’t understand why Kiyoshi, whose chest was still very flat, was always crying about her breasts.
One day she told us. She showed us her chest, where her breasts should have been, in the bathroom. It was tied with a cloth so tight, it was a miracle she could breathe. She told us how her mum used a grinding stone to press down the budding seeds every night, and then she tied it.
“She said it is for my own good,” Kiyoshi told us.
We nodded, even though we did not understand. We told her sorry and helped her loosened the cloth a little bit. Then she asked us if Uncle Ahmed, our class teacher often rubbed our buttocks or sticks his finger into our vaginas when we go to submit our exercise books on his table.
We nodded our yeses. We hated it. We hated him. We shared ways we could avoid his hands. We agreed not to tell our mothers about it, because they would flog us. And then we went out to play ten-ten.
We lived in a neighborhood where it was normal for little girls to be mothers of children fathered by men old enough to be their grandfathers who were usually let off without any serious consequences. Our mothers wanted to protect us. They wanted a better life for us. They wanted us to have the education they were denied. So they hid us, tried to delay puberty, beat us for having opinions, for being too inquisitive in a world that doesn’t permit girls to be curious about things. They upheld and enforced the dos and don’ts of the patriarchy.
Some of us survived with physical scars. Some have recurring nightmares.
Our mothers wanted to protect us. So they hid us.
I was twenty. It was my third year in the university. I lived alone in a hostel off campus. A seventeen-year-old girl, Laura, lived in the room across mine. We called her Leke-Leke, after the cattle egret, because she was so tall and skinny and beautiful. She was a fresher. The day her parents brought her to school, I helped them carry her bags inside. Her mother then begged me to look after her, as though I had powers to protect her from older boys and preying lecturers. The girl was always in my room, sleeping over sometimes.
One night, her call woke me up by two in the morning. “Please come, please come,” was all she said when I picked up her call. I went to her room. I met her in the bathroom. She was bleeding like a broken tap. I went out to wake two other girls in the hostel. Among the three of us, we knew, without saying any word what had happened.
We peeled the rubber off three pads, and placed them on her panties. In a few minutes, blood was dripping off the pads. We decided to take her to a hospital. It was now three o’clock.
Our gateman, who had dealt with more issues like that than us, got us a cab. The cabman, when he saw her, pale, almost fainting, charged us three times the normal fare. Leke-Leke stayed in the hospital for three days. We pulled our resources together and, when it was not enough, we asked other discreet girls in the hostel for help.
We paid her hospital bill and nursed her back to health. She swore she would never have sex again. One of us suggested we pay some boys to roughen up the medical student who Leke-Leke said was responsible. We debated, but could not reach a final decision. The agreement we reached was a silent one.
When Leke-Leke’s mother came visiting two weeks later, we chorused, “We are fine, Ma.” I told her, “Laura has been settling into campus life and attending classes.” Her mother beamed. She left us with a flask filled with jollof rice and cold malt drinks.
Lucia Edafioka is a writer who lives in Lagos, Nigeria. An alumna of the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop, she is interested in history and stories about families as the effects of their actions filter down through successive generations. Her work has been published in Ake Review, This is Africa, Music in Africa and the Lagos-Limbe Non-fiction anthology. She is working on her first novel.