Down the Rabbithole

“You must never behave as if your life belongs to a man. Do you hear me?” Aunty Ifeka said. “Your life belongs to you and you alone.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun

” A woman’s polite devotion is her greatest beauty.” Unknown

About one and a half years ago I read a post on a popular Nigerian facebook group. This post detailed the gruesome murder of some Nigerian female nurses in America at the hands of their husbands. These women left their husbands and tried to forge a new life for themselves away from controlling and jealous husbands. Their reward was death. The debate as to whether this stories were real or manufactured is open to debate. what is not however was the response to the story, especially by the men.

Snapshot of typical comments on the post

Snapshot of typical comments on the post

Enraged at this blatant injustice I had to comment. Now I will be the first to acknowledge that my comment was incendiary, adding fuel to the fire,

My reply and the shitstorm it generated on the page

My reply and the shitstorm it generated on the page

Shortly after commenting on this, I stopped following the page. One of the reasons for unfollowing was the sheer amount of misogyny the men openly displayed. I was told that red lipstick denoted a prostitute (Now I don’t know about you, but red is my signature lipstick. Dior 5th Avenue specifically, I like the good stuff in life), trousers were a sign of loose morals, a woman had no say in politics, amongst other comments. I forgot about this comment and the page itself as a whole until June this year when my brother brought my attention to a video posted on the page of a woman in the commercial capital of Nigeria (Lagos) stripped half naked and in the process of being tortured by a group of men. The video is too horrific to post the link here and I was shaking with rage and frustration after watching it; This woman along with two others were accused of stealing peppers, which they denied. The men proceeded to torture a confession out of them by pouring scotch bonnet powder (very hot chilli powder) into their eyes and then vaginas. The fact that these ‘normal men’, not police officers, not community officers, not law enforcement in any way, thought it was alright to torture a human being is not the disturbing part of this tale. No, the truly disturbing part was them adding scotch bonnet powder into their vaginas, they targeted them as woman, trying to inflict the maximum amount of pain on them, did not care about the fact that this could potentially kill them, they did not care about the psychological trauma these woman would go through and the agonizing physical trauma they must have suffered. One of the poor women later died as a result. This video as gruesome and as heartbreaking as it is, restarted my interest in women’s rights in Nigeria.

I have been pondering the significance of this event for many weeks now and I have spoken with as many nigerian men as I could (mainly dad, grandfather, family friends and brother) about this issue and women’s rights as a whole. Although my family is progressive by Nigerian standards, their views of women are still somewhat archaic, not quite modern enough for my tastes. What I have gleaned from the many talks and arguments is that a lot of Nigerian men are happy for their wives and daughters and women to shatter glass ceilings. However when they come back home, they gotta leave the power woman and the strong woman at the doormat. Once they step into the home, they have to revert back to being subservient. the men’s egos are simply too fragile to tolerate their partners being successful.

Now of course, Nigeria is a “deeply religious” country (the degree of religiousness in a country where corruption comes second nature to breathing is debatable). Some might say, more religious than the vatican judging by the amount of global churches that have roots in the nation. And unfortunately a LOT of the misogyny displayed in the country is down to the interpretations taken from the scriptures about a woman’s role in society.

A woman, in Nigeria has to be a good cook, patient, loving, virtuous, silent, etc. And the most important trait in a woman according to Nigerian society is the desire to get married. A woman in Nigeria cannot aspire to be a CEO or a highflier without first marrying. Similarly, a woman is not considered successful until she is married with a good dozen children in the nursery, regardless of the degrees or fortune she has amassed. A good woman does not intimidate (note the fragile egos of the males) her partner with her success, and a woman who is too successful runs the great risk of not finding a man to marry her.

This idea of marriage being the ultimate goal of a woman is so prevalent in Nigeria that you would often find mothers telling their daughters off for bad behaviour by threatening them that they will never find a man to marry them. Women that are not maternal, not loving in a traditional sense, who are ambitious high-fliers and/or just don’t conform to these societal identity of femininity are discarded on the rubbish heap, most often labelled as unnatural, or my personal favourite; witches.

There are more female “witches” in nigeria than corrupt politicians if these claims of witchcraft are to be believed.

This idea that a woman’s main purpose in life is to be effectively a brood mare and a slave to her husband is like a rot in the fabric of Nigerian society. There is nothing traditional about it and there is nothing religious about it. If indeed it is a sacre held tradition, then traditions are meant to be broken. Not so long ago, the Igbos traditionally sacrificed twins at the altar of the oracles as they perceived them as unnatural.

The hashtags #BeingAWomanInNigeria and #BeingFemaleInNigeria started to trend on twitter earlier this month and it could not have come at a more perfect time for this article. I encourage readers to search for these hashtags on twitter and read the hilarious yet painfully accurate descriptions of the struggles of being a woman in Nigeria.

A selection from channel 4 of the #BeingFemaleInNigeria hashtag

A selection from channel 4 of the #BeingFemaleInNigeria hashtag

Nigerians are big on religion, Nigerian men even more so when it comes to justifying their views. Some quote the bible like they were present when the original scrolls were being written. Favourite verse being;

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything

I do not take issue with households following a religious way of life, what I do take issue is with households using select bible verses to justify oppression towards the womenfolk in their homes. Twisted Interpretations of these verses result in men who associate red lipstick with prostitution, trousers with loose morals and intelligence with confrontation. If I had a penny for every time a Nigerian man tells me he could never marry a woman like me, I’d be richer than the country itself. So many of the men I clash with on a daily basis online use the bible as a resource to back up their points yet have no qualms declaring their use of the occultic against me for not being agreeable. One minute a christian, the next a “devil worshipper”. I’m sure I’m not the only one that finds this funny.

Like I mentioned earlier, a lot of these men’s egos are so fragile, they cannot bear to have a woman more successful than they are, more intelligent than they are and they absolutely hate a woman that has a mind of her own. When confronted with a woman with a mind, the default setting in the minds of these men is to insult, targeting the femininity of the woman first, hence the prevalence of the label witch to describe women.

I’ve had a few experiences of this peculiar male defence mechanism. One promised me that he would behead me and use my head for a money making blood ritual and the other assured the audience that I hate men because I was raped 70 times in my infancy by my father, brothers and uncles. This in his twisted mind explained why I was so vocal in my defence of the murdered victims of domestic violence. Seeing the response of Nigerian men to my post has helped me better understand the mindset of the average Nigerian man, it has also helped me to understand how the barbaric act filmed on camera could have happened. In a culture where women are treated as second class citizens, it seems a woman and her vagina are fair game to these individuals.

Ask most Nigerians if domestic violence is endemic in the country and I can guarantee that most respondents will say no. Nigerians living in the diaspora love to paint this rosy picture where men don’t kill their wives and domestic abuse does not happen when confronted with ugly stories of domestic violence in the British media. And for a while I used to believe this lie too. In fact I used to argue its merits with my colleagues. Now I know for a fact that nothing could be further from the truth. Domestic violence is endemic in Nigeria. it is regarded as dirty linen that no one talks about. the media in Nigeria does not cover stories about women being murdered by their partners. Listening on the grapevine however tends to paint a clearer image. Stories of wives disappearing, visiting the hospital with unexplained bruises or ending up dead in mysterious circumstances are not unheard of.  This hidden epidemic of domestic violence goes on in the society with impunity and the perpetrators almost always get away scot free, marrying another wife in many cases. In situations where the wife is not killed or harmed, she is often left by the husband literally holding the child as he abandons them. In a country where there is no social security net, no child benefit and a weak court system, getting the man to pay child support is impossible. This is another common occurrence in Nigeria with separated women (not quite divorced as divorce is still a societal taboo….a sure fire way to label the wife a witch for life) living away and eking out a living whilst supporting children.

Most Nigerian women are expected to submit to their husbands in everything from marital rape to family planning. The balance of power is so uneven that many men take mistresses and pay for sex with prostitutes, blatantly keeping other women whilst expecting their would be wives to be virtuous and virginal. In churches there is always messages devoted to women about keeping their virginity whilst the men are left to sow their wild oats. If religion was truly the reasoning behind such a demeaning view of women then surely the sermons and the preachings would equally target both sex and premarital sex would be frowned upon in both sexes. As we all know, a sin is a sin is a sin. No sin is bigger than the other under christianity, so why do our men hide behind religion as a reason to expect holiness and other angelic qualities from their partners whilst they themselves are involved in sinful acts, both before marriage AND after. Why do Nigerian men see it as their right to choose to give their partners’ freedom? This was a recurring theme in the facebook argument I had, A great deal of men thought it was their God given right to chose to give their partners their freedom. And I spent a great deal of time explaining to them that the freedom of their wives was not theirs’ to give, their wives already had their freedom and as they are not slaves in the marriage, why should their husband be able to choose whether to grant them their freedom?

As I round up this badly structured ‘essay’ about women’s living conditions which started out as an angry rant and has slowly developed into a slightly legible article, I have one more question. Why do our mothers raise us Nigerian women to always see ourselves as less than men? Nigerian men are complicit in their treatment of their partners. But I cannot absolve blame from the mothers. Why do they not encourage us to see ourselves as individuals in our own rights? Why do they encourage us to tie our worth as human beings to the men in our lives? Mothers have a responsibility to raise daughters that see their own self worth and are not dependent on the approval of a male gaze to get fulfillment in life.

The aim of this article was to try to highlight the issues facing women in Nigeria, however it has devolved into a pseudo-rant about the conditions of women. I apologise for the structure but not for the content. I hope it was legible and readable, because lord knows I vomited my thoughts onto a keyboard. This post won’t win journalistic awards, but I sincerely hope that many men, especially Nigerian men would read this and maybe reconsider their stance on gender equality in the country.

of-course-am-not-worried-about-chimamanda-ngozi-adichie

Global Well Being and The Media

An essay I wrote almost 5 years ago now about the role the media plays on how Africa is viewed. Still just as relevant now as it was then. I have had to convert it into wordpress form and as a result, the picture in it is very unclear, the references were also not added at the end of the essay. Enjoy!

New Orleans: a vibrant city, bursting to the seams with culture, the birthplace of jazz and legends like Louis Armstrong, and the gateway to the Mighty Mississippi River. No other city is quite like it, with its scintillating nightlife and burlesque shows, waterways that criss-cross the entire city, a mix of races and culture too numerous to quantify, all fused into one city. The temperature is just perfect. The most unique multicultural city in the US which has both sweeping plantation homes as old as the city on one part; and some slightly less grand city dwellings on the other.  A democratic political system where people can aspire to be presidents and marvel at the distinct French-creole architectural style. The name alone conjures up new beginnings and a bucketful of hope….

I’ve never been there though. How is it that I can describe the architecture, history and social life as a native inhabitant might? How did I know about the Mardi gras celebrations and the French-creole architectures? The more I thought about it the more I realised, I hadn’t set out to broaden my horizons, and neither did I find out about New Orleans to be able to participate in a discussion about American carnivals. In fact I hadn’t actively sought out information about it. I hadn’t ‘googled’ it and sat through page after page of interlinking Wikipedia articles. It was simply there. A huge database of information consisting of random snippets from various films, documentaries and cartoons condensed into a general knowledge of the city. I didn’t know about the Mardi Gras until I watched the Disney film: “The Princess and the Frog”. (Twins, 2010)  As a result I didn’t have to think to describe New Orleans, even though I’d never tasted the air or smelt the Mississippi’s unique scent.

Trying to visualise an African city however posed a different set of challenges. It wasn’t a lack of information or underexposure to stories from the continent. The crux of the problem was negativity.  I had to consciously sift through the countries to find the most positive. Every time I tried to think of a city in Africa my mind immediately started playing back documentaries about desertification, famine, civil war, genocide, even the Hollywood film: “Black Hawk Down”. (Pathay, 2001). I realised that my subconscious was selecting the country I knew most about. My mind was stuck on Somalia. I was halfway into my brainstorming before I realised my level of ignorance on the small matter of cities within Somalia.

It occurred to me that while the media brought stories about the country they never described the country farther than on an international level. Apart from Mogadishu I had no idea of the other cities. I was guilty of failing one of the fundamental judging points I used for strangers. On my first day of secondary school in the UK a well-meaning girl came up to me and gently asked where I came from. To which I replied Nigeria. After elaborating further, she was able to get a grip on the location. Puzzled, she asked me how a country could exist within another country. This was when I realised that she had a view of Africa as a country not a continent. I can’t blame her for it though as we were both young and naïve. However a similar occurrence happened in year 10 when a girl asked me which type of hut I used to live in as she had seen some on holiday to Tanzania. This question I found much more difficult to understand. A quick Google search reveals why she asked:

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The similar results section in Google asked me to specify my search result even farther to “Kenyan poor houses”. Whilst this was no fault of Google, it was simply displaying the most common search terms to do with Kenya. People do not generally expect much in the way of infrastructure from Africa, this stems from the images beamed to us through our news channels and television screens. Ultimately when they search for Kenyan houses on Google they specify the search to show what they perceive as a normal African house…or “poor house” My father once cried out in exasperation when a BBC correspondent was interviewed in the Nigerian capital of Abuja. He was moved to tears of frustration when the correspondent was interviewed in front of an open market in the rundown outskirts of the city. I was younger then and I did not realise his frustration. The BBC chose to show archive footage of a run-down area to support the correspondent’s report on the country’s politics. The city of Abuja is a mega-city custom built out of the lush savannah, a similar feat to the construction of Las-Vegas with stunning architectures and it is one of the most modernised in Africa. Whilst the BBC may have not acted deliberately, they inadvertently fed into the belief that Nigeria’s flagship city is nothing to write home about. It was then that I realised that our perceptions of the Third World, especially Africa are mostly shaped by what we see, hear and read in the media. The media does not deliberately go out of its way to portray Africa in a bad light; it reports on the latest famine in Somalia, the latest genocide in Rwanda and atrocities in Libya because it wants to inspire, it wants people to act and donate or buy fair-trade because it cares to make a difference. The problem however is that too much of the same kind of story is not good for a place. Just as my description of New-Orleans sounds too sweet and sickly, so does my description of Somalia sound too violent and harrowing. I don’t advocate that we simply bury our heads in the sand and pretend that people are not threading a fine line between life and death in Somalia. Neither am I suggesting that we go out of our way to portray Somalia as a Garden of Eden, like my idealised view on New-Orleans.  In reality New-Orleans is still recovering from the destruction caused by hurricane Katrina, race equality is one of the worst in America and many ethnic minorities live in places similar to a Third World city.

“On September 22 the Census Bureau released information from their 2010 annual American Community Survey based on a poll of 2,500 people in New Orleans. Not surprisingly, the report was ignored by the local mainstream media since it speaks volumes about the inequality of the Katrina recovery. The survey revealed that 27% of New Orleans adults now live in poverty and 42% of children… The new spike in poverty signal that blacks are not sharing equally in the employment benefits of recovery dollars. Indeed, the city may be creating a new generation of chronically unemployed poor who were previously part of the low-wage working poor.” (Hill, 2011)

For a MEDC the figures above are unacceptable and it shows the gap between minorities. As stated The media largely ignored this as it portrayed the city in a bad light. Without doing any independent research of my own I would not have known that such levels of inequality exist in the United States. Yet I know that thousands of people have fled Somalia due to conflict and even more have died from famine and related causes. I know that as recently as a few weeks ago, hundreds of people died and thousands were displaced when a ‘tribe’ went to war with a neighbouring tribe over stolen cattle (ABC, 2012). I didn’t research it but the news media chose to broadcast it. The danger in press practices like this is that people fall into the trap of a ‘single story’. According to a prominent Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; a single story is dangerous as it only shows one perspective and the audience have to form their own perceptions from a narrow point of view. (Tunca, 2009)  She goes further to say that most people in the developed world have a single story of Africa.

My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals. (Adichie, 2009)

In the speech she implies that the media is guilty of perpetuating a single story of less developed countries. They might be well meaning but ultimately through the use of terms like ‘tribal’ which depict a backward race they are helping to form stereotypes about Africa.

Ultimately we need to ask ourselves what part the media plays in forming our ideas and stereotypes about wellbeing in LEDCs. Are we guilty of fostering our perceived notions about wellbeing and wealth on a different culture? In the UK, to marry a woman a man might have to produce an engagement ring and the bigger the stone, the better according to conventions. This society puts value on precious stones, jewellery, houses’ the ultimate holiday to the Bahamas etc. It is a product of the country’s history and geography. In the UK water is seen as a common commodity as we have rivers of it. In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, to marry a woman you need to provide the family with a certain number of livestock, tubers etc. In countries like that holidays, diamonds, big houses with the latest gadgets and fashionable clothes are not valued as they are not of top priority. This is not because some cannot afford it. But it is because by its very nature a society values what it does not have an abundance of. For example in the UK precious stones and gold are status symbols because they have to be imported making them expensive. In Somalia land is not valuable but water is, if a rural living Somali man was given diamonds it would be more worthless than water, it does not feed his prized cattle or make the rains fall. We cannot judge a country’s level of wellbeing by comparing what they have with what we have, as cultures are the product of environment.

“In developed economies virtually every activity has been commercialised…national accounts of any western nation include payments for personal beauty care, which for the US is around $60 billion a year. Such an item would hardly feature in the accounts of African nations. However, this does not mean that African men and women living in villages do not enjoy ‘beauty’ treatments – activities are not commercialised. In 1996 Britain spent some $33 billion on beer, wine and spirits…the consumption of palm wine, local spirits and other indigenous alcoholic brews in African villages is not incorporated in national accounts…in capitalist societies, virtually all aspects of culture is monetized and incorporated in the national accounts…total annual expenditure on marriages and funerals in the US runs into several billions of dollars a year…people marry in African societies in elaborate and joyful ceremonies and the dead are buried with appropriate ritual, little of these activities get into the national accounts… Leisure and entertainment sectors account for a large proportion of the GDP of western nations, but in the GDP of poor countries these universal components of life hardly figure…When considering the material conditions of people in Africa, a distinction should be made between absolute poverty and relative poverty…” (Obadina, 2008) 

There is no denying the levels of absolute poverty in Africa but is the media guilty of perpetuating a single story to us in the information they choose to show. Are we guilty of succumbing to the single story? Maybe we should ask ourselves, how many times we have seen pictures of Africans living in poverty and assumed the continent is a single story of catastrophe. Although well-meaning, how many of us have fallen into the trap of the single-story portrayed by the media and changed our default position to one of pity? In this are we guilty of robbing a continent of its dignity?  Our generation and the generations before got it wrong, however we can still try to rewrite history. By re-educating the new generation of children and teaching them the dangers of single stories, it might be too late for our generation but we have the opportunity to mould the future of our children. As countries become more diverse we need to teach our children the dangers of a single story so they do not get left behind in the ever evolving politics of the dynamic modern world we live in.