University of Ibadan
Since this pandemic began, my grandmother has been my best friend because of all the stories she tells me. Although sensational sometimes, they are mostly true-life stories that happened to her or someone she knew. Of them all, there was one that bothered me.
It happened sometime in the 1980s when she lived in Orita-Merin, the epitome of Ibadan’s crime-ridden neighbourhoods of that time. The house was an eight-room family house shared with her husband, his mother, his other four wives and their own children. My grandmother’s daughter was one of the three teenage girls in the house then and of all of them, she was the only one that the men in the area had not forcefully had their way with. My grandmother said that she would often tell her daughter that the other two girls – Misi and Folami – were light-skinned and wayward which were what drew the boys to them. As long as she, the daughter, did not do anything to call the boys’ attention, they would not look her way.
Still, the boys looked and she blamed her daughter. The way she dressed, talked and carried herself showed she did not care very much for what she had told her so she had to do something. She told me (and laughing as she did) that she would often tell her daughter that she was ugly and no man could ever want her. She wanted her to believe those things and act accordingly. It worked because the daughter began to walk in a straight line and would ignore people when they told her how pretty her nose was.
When Misi died while trying to abort a pregnancy, my grandmother said that she used that as a teachable moment for her own daughter. ‘That is what becomes of girls who let boys see them. They die’. Her daughter did not want to die, so she did not walk among boys and she did not let boys see her.
The night the boys came, it was my grandmother who heard them first. They knocked on the front door and asked to be let in. The husband was not around so all the wives and their children gathered in the passageway while the boys continued to rap on the door more aggressively. A baby was crying and her mother was begging her to be quiet. Maybe if they were all silent, the boys would leave. But they were not silent – the baby would not stop crying; a mother had inhaled the kerosene fumes from her lamp and was coughing; a child was calling ‘maami’ – and the boys outside were already kicking down the door. My grandmother said she knew what she had to do.
She pulled her daughter into their room and sat her down for a last resort. She warned her not to scream lest the other wives would come in and interrupt them. She begged her to be still because what she was about to do was for her own good; otherwise, the boys would have their way with her. So, my grandmother reached into the tray under her bed and brought out a knife. With that knife, she cut off her daughter’s nose. I assume she thought ‘Why stop there?’ because she cut off her daughter’s lower lip too. She said that she believed that the boys would not want her with a face that ghastly.
She was wrong: the boys took one look at her face and decided it did not matter. After the boys had gone, she went back into the room and her daughter was unrecognizable and not just because she would never have a nose or lower lip again. She said she worried that that ordeal would break her daughter like it did some other girls – like it did Misi.
My grandmother said all of that happened because of the times they lived in. Her daughter, my mother, had moved past it all and was raising us, her children, as best as she could. She turned out alright even without her nose and her lip. My grandmother laughed.
This particular story bothered me because I could not agree that my mother turned out alright. Wasn’t she the same woman who burnt all of the clothes my sister bought herself because they were sending the wrong message? The same woman who called my sister a prostitute – a word she was able to get out clearly and perfectly, despite how she struggles to say most words? The same woman that, if the situation arose and she had the choice to be like her mother or act differently, would rather pick up a knife and slice off body parts too?
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