In September 2015 when I was looking to move out of my parents’ house, a property agent took me to view a flat around Somolu. The roads weren’t bad, the street looked quiet and the flat was in good condition. I came out discussing payment with the agent, and then I saw a sight that made my blood freeze. In the middle of the street, there was a woman using a rolled-up umbrella to whack the bejesus out of a little boy – presumably her son – as they walked together.
No older than three or four years old, and still walking with the awkward gait of a toddler, he was apparently tired and refusing to walk fast, and this lady with a baby on her back thought this would encourage him to pick up the pace. As his wails grew louder, she used the umbrella to hit him harder, at one point even knocking him over.
She forced him to his feet and continued beating him as they walked in full view of everyone watching. Apparently, she was well known in the area for this sort of display, and more than a few people made comments to the effect of “This woman again?” A few people threw sarcastic comments like “If you like, kill am o!” but nobody actually did anything about an adult committing a horrifying assault on a little child in broad daylight. It was her son after all. She could do with him as she saw fit, both inside the house and on the street in full view of the world. At worst, she might be described as “strict” or “wicked,” and at best some might even commend her for “instilling discipline”
I was immediately transported back to my childhood where I experienced hundreds of such beatings and assaults from my mother, and everybody acted like they could not see what was going on. In particular, I remembered the day in 2003 when my 13 year-old self was caught watching a music video which was deemed “immoral” according my parents’ Jehovah Witness faith. My mom snatched my Wilson tennis racket off my room wall and gave me a beating that left me with bruises all over my body, two swollen eyes, a split lip and a skull fracture. Nobody took me to the hospital, and the fracture healed by itself, albeit unevenly.
Till today, I always keep a full head of hair because if I shave it low, you can clearly see the point where a Wilson tennis racket created a permanent depression in the centre of my skull because my sister snitched on me for watching “I Need A Girl Part II” by Usher and P. Diddy on the computer.
I didn’t take the flat and I never called the agent back.
Preserving Childbirth Habits from a Different Century
My experience is not unique. The only thing that sets my story of child abuse apart from those of millions of Nigerians is that I recognise what I went through as child abuse, and I have the opportunity to tell my story. Many Nigerians, I am sure, can remember similar incidents in their childhoods, but was it abuse? To a Nigerian audience, the answer is likely to be “no.” Nigeria is a country where abuse of full grown men and women is rationalized and concealed, so it is no surprise that child abuse is simply not recognised as a problem here.
Children after all, are not recognised as people in Nigeria, and they have absolutely no agency or importance except to serve as extensions of their parents in this culture. This is directly born out of our pre-colonial societal structures where male wealth and status was generally measured by land holding and accumulation of wives and children. In an agrarian culture focused on living off the earth and day-to-day survival, it was necessary to have as many children as possible to work the land and take on the family name, because it was taken for granted that many would not survive their childhood. This was not a world where vaccines, antibiotics and reliable anti-malarial medication existed. Childhood death was such a fact of life that most cultures in what is now Nigeria had a word for it.
To get around the problem of “Ogbanje” and “Abiku,” our ancestors became prolific procreators, with the unintended consequence of commoditizing women and children. One particularly horrible story from my hometown illustrates the extent this got to. According to the oral history, during the era where Badagry had the third busiest slave port in West Africa, a man once agreed to sell off one of his wives and her young daughter in exchange for a single bottle of gin.
During this time, the primary purpose of women and children in a horrendously male-centric world was to serve as economic assets and extensions of the family patriarch’s ego. Since a woman’s only purpose in that world was to bear children, children became viewed as signs of female value and virtuosity.
Unfortunately, despite the intervening centuries and immense social and economic change since the 19th century, these attitudes have never really gone away.
In 2014, during my Youth Service at Ekiti State Television (EKTV), I remember hearing a senior female colleague in the news department blaming Patience Jonathan’s alleged childlessness for her perceived emotional distance from the Chibok Girls kidnap saga. In her words, “God forgive me, but maybe it’s only women that have children of their own that can understand how a parent feels.”
Patience Jonathan by the way, is not childless – she is the mother of at least three adopted children – but in Nigeria, a key measure for feminine value is whether or not a woman has successfully pushed a baby out of her vagina. Adoptive mothers, married women using contraception, spinsters and any other women without biological children receive a sympathetic tut-tut and a shake of the head.
Socially respectable, meat-eating, god-fearing, Jollof rice-cooking, church/mosque-attending Nigerian women who want to escape Nigeria’s ubiquitous spectrum of misogyny – from being called “Ashawo!” by Uber drivers to being denied accommodation by landlords – must marry and pop out children. There is no discussion to be had about whether this is what every woman should want, or for that matter, about whether any of us has a say in the matter.
Once you are female and (hopefully) above the age of 18, life in Nigeria becomes nothing more than a countdown till when you hold your “bundle of joy.” Said bundle will of course need a sibling, then another one later for insurance. Maybe one last one to be the baby of the house, tee-hee. Not necessarily because one wants to take care of the responsibility involved, but because it’s what one ought to do.
What nobody ever worries about is the impact that all of this has on the children, and the implications for our future as a society.
Scarring Children For the Culture
I have written before about being cursed with a razor-sharp self-awareness from an age where I really had no business knowing so much. I knew for example, that the reason mom used to fly into semi-murderous fits of rage was that she was angry about something in her past. Of course I had no idea what the something was, and my concern was how to survive from day to day without getting beaten up, while maintaining my double life outside the house.
Occasionally, I would hear comments that hinted toward her grouse. Whenever myself or my older sister got in trouble, mom would always make the point that our pregnancies were not planned. We regularly used to hear her say “If your father and I were not servants of Jehovah, those pregnancies would have just disappeared.” Even as a kid I used to wonder, So are we supposed to say thank you or something?
As I grew older, I was able to connect more of the dots. In my early 20s when I had lost all physical fear of her, I tried to get into her head to find out what the problem was, and I found out two major things. First, mom came from an extremely dysfunctional family that found the Jehovah Witness church to be the perfect cover for terrible behaviour, and second, dad’s entry into her life as the Knight in Shining Armour ™ was not necessarily appreciated the way I always assumed it was.
According to the story I was told, mum was born in Itire as one of seven children of a gateman and a housewife. She was exceptionally brilliant at school, but her dad was a gambling addict and she was forced to drop out of secondary school at 14 when he gambled away her school fees. Three years later at 17, she met dad at the Kingdom Hall, with his government job, university degree, car and apartment, and Prince Charming offered to sponsor the rest of her education and make her live happily ever after.
Fast forward a little over three years later and she was 20 years old, married and a mother. By the time she was 25, she had three children. Then I came along six years later, then another child four years later, so that at the age of 35, she had five kids and apparently everything you could want in life. I always thought that this was a Cinderella story, but as I engaged with her a few years ago, I discovered that nobody ever bothered to ask her whether this was what she actually, you know, wanted.
In reality, the Cinderella story left out some major parts. For one thing, after completing secretarial school financed by my dad, mom was so good at what she did that she got a job at the U.S. Embassy. For a while, she even had a bigger monthly paycheck than my dad. Then she got pregnant and she had to leave the job and stay home to become a full-time housewife – all at the ripe old age of 20. She was actually still a child in many ways, with a desire to find herself and see the world, but through no fault of her own, her life was now restricted to looking after a man and children.
From the age of 17, she had also been effectively sentenced to have sex with one man for the rest of her life – a commitment that is frankly ridiculous for a 17 year-old to have to make. From her point of view, Prince Charming did not in fact come in to save the day, but rather to steal her youth and make her dependent on him.
The clincher was when for reasons best known to her, she revealed to me in 2014 that as a young teenager, she was sexually abused by a Jehovah Witness elder who used to take her out to preach. I finally put the picture together: here was an abuse victim raised in a religious cult by a dysfunctional family headed by a compulsive gambler, who was forced to drop out of school at 14 and get married at 19 in exchange for the chance of a better life.
Without any form of therapy or acknowledgment of her story, Nigerian cultural expectations forced her to birth three children before she turned 25, and another two over the next decade. If Nigeria was a place where mental health was taken seriously, it should have been obvious that such a person, tormented by so many demons of her own, had no business having children at an early age without dealing with her latent anger.
And there was only one group of people she could take out all that rage on – her children.
Wanton Procreation is not a Victimless Crime
By the time I got married in 2015, I knew that I did not want to rush into having children. Apart from the emotional aspect of things, there was also the economic commitment of having children that I knew I was unprepared for. I lost count of the number of people who dropped gems like “Don’t plan for God! Na God dey give pikin” and other such unwanted nuggets of Nigerian cultural “wisdom.”
One such person even told me at work one day in 2016, “Omo a mu ore lati odo olorun. Te ba ti bi’mo, e ma ri pe ise e ma blossom.” (Children bring blessings from God. When you have a child, you’ll see that your career will blossom). I knew however, that as a mid-level Marketing professional earning just over N150,000 a month at the time, bringing a child into the world as a sort of high-stakes bet with the supernatural, would be the same thing as taking over the cockpit of an aircraft mid-flight, knowing full well that I couldn’t fly the damn thing.
Why take that kind of risk with an entire human life?
Clearly, not many of us see things this way. Nigeria’s population statistics show that not only is Nigeria a very young population, but a shockingly disproportionate percentage of Nigeria’s population are minors (a hefty 42% of Nigeria’s population is 0-14 years old). Placed alongside Nigeria’s fertility rate of over five children per woman, this means that Nigerians already have far more kids than the economy can currently support, and the trend is accelerating instead of slowing.
This has two main implications for us. First of all it means that there is a lot of avoidable suffering right now for children born to people who cannot take proper care of them. More ominously, it means that as Nigeria’s ‘population bulge’ matures during the ongoing fourth industrial revolution, this country will somehow have to create new jobs, housing, infrastructure, school places and healthcare facilities in a few short years at a quicker rate than it has done in its entire existence.
If you want to have a vision of a future where kids born for no reason in industrial quantities are left to die or find a way to survive, you need to look no further than Northern Nigeria, which is now one of the most unsafe places in the whole world. Children cannot socialize themselves into being useful members of society – they need their parents for that. When their parents are overwhelmed because of the sheer number they choose to birth, the kids who don’t die then become feral and a danger to everyone. Our takeaway from the Boko Haram saga should not be the threat of religious extremism alone, but the fact that having a large, unplanned and idle population is the fuel that the extremist fire feeds on.
One story that stands out for me is that of a friend who worked with an NGO involved in relief efforts at an IDP camp in Borno sometime in 2016. According to him, it was highly unusual to see any children older than a few months and younger than 10 at the camp. He claimed it was because a chunk of the demographic of children aged 1 – 9 had literally died of malnutrition. The IDPs continued to have more babies, he said, despite having absolutely no plan for how to preserve them beyond the first few months of life. Contraception was freely available, but the people insisted on bearing children, only to watch them die, mourn them and then do it all over again.
I can think of no better metaphor for Nigerian childbearing habits and our thinking patterns in general – a pattern of self harming behaviour carried out because of a misguided sense of cultural purpose in the face of all economic and scientific evidence.
As it turned out, my decision not to have kids early was an inspired one. The marriage did not last, and we were both able to shake hands and walk away without any lasting damage. If kids were involved, we might have stayed together for their sake and transferred the trauma of living under an unhappy marriage (as we did with our parents) down to yet another unfortunate generation. Alternatively, we would have split and been confronted with the reality of co-parenting an emotionally damaged “suitcase child.”
At the end of the day, all of us who are adults of childbearing age in Nigeria must accept that taking charge of our reproductive decisions is the first step toward fixing our fundamentally broken social fabric. The easiest way to stop transmitting generational trauma from our parents and forebears is to be strategic about having kids. If you know you have no business having kids, or you are not yet ready for the immense commitment and responsibility involved, then for the love of God, do not have kids. A child is an entire human being, not a collectible item or a rite of passage. We do not need more damaged Nigerians to add to the hundreds of millions already in existence.
If you do have kids, also bear in mind that the number of kids you have is often inversely proportional to the quality of adults they will become, for obvious economic reasons. This makes it an issue of national security that affects all of us – Boko Haram as we know it would not exist if smallholders in Borno and Yobe did not give birth to children in humongous numbers, with no real purpose for their existence. It is time to stop hiding behind religious beliefs and superstition while we make the procreative choices of 18th century subsistence farmers in a 21st century economy. “Na God dey give pikin” is a cop out and an excuse for irresponsible behaviour.
It’s not ‘God.’ It’s really just you.