Tag Archives: single mother

Neglect Has A Lasting Legacy

I was 5 years old when my sister and I went on a road trip with Baba, our Grandad, up North in Nigeria. It was not normal for just the two of us to go with him. There was usually my grandma too or maybe my mama. However, this time we got to go solo with him. I suspect it is because we begged and it was the holidays and my mother was busy at work with no better plans to entertain us. Whatever the case, we got to go and I remember my sister and I getting bored quite quickly (probably an hour into the 6.5 hour journey). Plus my grandad had taken to listening to boring traditional Hausa music (Mamman Shata and the like). So we sang every nursery rhyme and Disney song we knew. We sang for hours until our throats were sore. Must have driven my grandad and the driver mad but they bore with us.

When we got to the town we were staying the night in, my grandad took us straight to my ‘aunt’s’ home. I say ‘aunt’ because this is not my mother’s sister, my favourite aunty in the whole world aunty Bilky. No, this is someone who grew up with my mum and her siblings and is therefore considered a ‘sister’. I will call this aunty ‘Auntie’ henceforth for easy reference. Now, we had spent quite a few holidays with Auntie and her many daughters in the past so we knew them well enough and were quite happy to be taken to hers. One of her daughters is very close in age to my sister and the youngest was a year older than I was but we usually got on pretty well. I couldn’t tell you if there were any special circumstances at the time we visited but I think not because we would have known. My mama was always upfront if anything major was going on especially if she was going to let us visit. Anyway, out of the car we tumbled, tired and excited. It was well after lunch but not dinner time yet but we were already feeling the first pangs of hunger having had a late breakfast on the road but not stopped for lunch. We were all shown into a living room in their sprawling home and someone showed us to the ‘bedroom’. I use the term ‘bedroom’ loosely because although the large room had beds (I think it was 3 single beds), most of it was clearly a dumping ground for dirty laundry and other clutter and it looked like no one had slept in there for a long time. My grandad left whilst we checked out our lodgings.

My sister and I waited for what seemed like ages for someone to come and tell us what to do with all the mess if we were actually going to be staying in that room. We also waited in vain for someone to offer us a drink or give us a snack. Nothing happened so we eventually picked one bed and cleared it and the area around it. We lay on the bed listening to the noises of muted conversation until all we could hear was our tummies rumbling. The sun began to set and we were soon left in darkness. One of us hunted for the light switch and we resumed our waiting game. We might have dozed off or maybe just lay around in a hungry tired trance but eventually I remember saying to my sister that I needed something to drink. That spurred her into action and she led me hesitantly out of the room and we wandered down the corridors of the seemingly empty house, most of the lights off. We found a kitchen but our hunt turned up nothing to eat. We had some water and sadly found our way back to the bedroom and eventually slept on empty stomachs.

We awoke to the sound of voices outside, going about their morning chores. We could smell breakfast frying…I am not sure now what it was (because we didn’t get any) whether it was fried yam, potatoes or bean cakes (kosei) but the smell was right under our noses and we were so famished we looked at each other in hope. No one came to get us and being nice Fulani girls, we stayed put. I remember asking my sister if she thought they had forgotten we were there. ‘How is that possible?’ She replied so we waited and waited. We waited some more as all the noise died down and the house fell silent again. Had they all gone out without so much as a word to us? Were we home alone in this house we didn’t know, in a town we had maybe visited a couple of times before? We finally ventured out and explored the section of the house we were in. No one was there. We returned to the kitchen, probably assuming that they might have saved us some breakfast. We found evidence of breakfast in the dirty dishes in the sink but not a bite left for us.

At this stage, I thought I was going to die of hunger. It was getting close to 24 hours since we had breakfast on the road with Baba and there was no adult to be seen. We went back to the room and my sister rummaged desperately in the backpack we had brought with us. ‘Look’ she cried excitedly after searching for a while. She brandished a N5 note. N5 (five naira) in those days (around 1990) was actually worth something. We could certainly have breakfast on the street with that. Remember this was a town we were not very familiar with so it was with trepidation that we ventured out of Auntie’s house and into the busy street. Thankfully there was no one out to cause mischief and we were left alone. We followed the smell of kosei to a street corner nearby and found a lady frying the delicious bean cakes seated on a stool by the fire over which she was frying. We gave her the N5 and asked for kosei. ‘All of it?’ she asked and we nodded hungrily. She scooped the freshly fried kosei out into the traditional newspaper wrap, sprinkled on a generous helping of the chilli powder that comes with it and handed it to us. We walked a few metres away before we gave in to the hunger in our bellies and we tucked in. After a few mouthfuls, we felt good enough to continue walking and we ate as we walked back to the house. The portion was decent and we gobbled it all up within minutes. Finally satiated, we chucked the paper in the bin and went in to have a quick wash and get dressed.

When my grandad came for us around lunchtime, we were happy again. Still left to our own devices but happy because my sister had fed us. We looked clean and my grandad was none the wiser. Lunch was served with my grandad so of course we got fed. I remember picking at the food because I was still stuffed from our late breakfast and also because I was so disappointed my Auntie had been so mean. But we said nothing. Just very happily jumped back into the car for the 3 hour trip to Kaduna where we knew we would be treated by my aunty Nafisa like princesses. I was not disappointed!

For many years after that, I did not forget or forgive that episode. The daughters I didn’t blame so much because half of them were young like us. But the 2 older girls were certainly old enough to know that young children visiting should at the very least be given a drink and food. Auntie should certainly have known better. I made up my mind that she was no longer my auntie but only my sister knew this for the next decade or so. I found every excuse not to go back there and mostly, I didn’t.

The next time I went was unavoidable. My mama and I were on the way to Kaduna and from there were to catch a flight back to Lagos where I went to boarding school. I wasn’t really given a choice of itinerary because she wanted to say hi to her ‘sister’. I knew anyway that I would be treated well because my mama was there but the hypocrisy grated. I clenched my teeth and said not a word. The visit was ok-ish. It turned out her daughter was getting married and we had been invited but my mother neglected to mention it. I had nothing to wear for any occasion as I was on my way back to boarding school and being a teenager, it mattered to me. Bearing that in mind, the youngest daughter and her cousin/half-sister on night 2 were in the same room as I was but I was lying on the bed, my head buried in a book as I was usually found in those days. They were whispering loudly about the pre-wedding party they were going to the next night and how much fun it was going to be etc. Being close in age to them, I would have expected them to have the courtesy either to invite me or not to talk about it in front of me. They did not have the courtesy to extend an invitation to me. Party night came and they snuck out when it was time despite being chummy with me all day. What sort of a fool did they think I was? The morning after, they were giggling over events at the party but would fall silent if I walked in a room or turned in their general direction. What grated wasn’t that I didn’t go because to be honest, I wasn’t one for parties at that age and I certainly did not have anything to wear. What sucked was their meanness of spirit and being treated like a fool.

Since that visit, I have stayed well away from most of that family. Although I have forgiven them their neglect and meanness, I doubt I will ever forget. That amongst other things are major character flaws I really wish not to be associated with. I have not considered Auntie my aunty for very many years to my mama’s consternation. I have since told my mama about that episode and several other incidents not talked about in this blog. I know she was dismayed and even sad but perhaps a small part of her is hoping that me and my sister’s account of that incident is overly-dramatized as remembered by our young immature brains. Regardless, I sincerely believe that if we had been her actual nieces, she would not have treated us so carelessly when we were so young. And she would not have allowed that mean spirit to rub off on her daughters.

When I think of her, I think of two quotes:

“When someone would mistreat, misinform, misuse, misguide, mishandle, mislead… or any other “mis”… to others, they’re obviously missing something from their lives.”
― Donald L. HicksLook into the stillness

“I know it’s painful growing,
I bet the changes was painful too.
But nothing is as painful as being somewhere you don’t belong.
Obviously.”
― Touaxia Vang

Advertisements

Can You Miss What You Don’t Know or Have?

This one is a hard topic for me. If you have been following my posts, you will know by now that my mama was a single mother for a large part of my life. I also had a step-dad for a good chunk of my childhood. I do not know if I have mentioned my biological father at all. I probably haven’t because there isn’t much to say. I can summarise what there is to say about him. He was my mother’s boyfriend in University and despite a lot of reservation from third parties, my mother married him soon after graduation. He is from Malumfashi in Katsina State (Nigeria) and is academically gifted. His family has royal links (small fry I understand). He is still alive and working in Katsina. He is tall and considered good-looking. He is married with several children.

That last point is the one thing of all that does bother me a little. Because of the way I was brought up and my closeness with my immediate family, I sometimes feel sad that I have siblings that I could be supporting but do not. I have siblings (majority female I hear) who I could be a role model to. I could make a difference to their lives but I am unable to because I do not exist to them. I do wonder if they even know about my sister and me. If they do, do they care?

My mama got a divorce when she was 5 months pregnant with me so I was born outside of that relationship. I have no strong feelings over him. I have met him. Twice in my life. First when I was 4 or 5 and then again when I was 7 years old. I also met a couple of his brothers when I was 8 or 9 years old. To be honest, I remember more what we ate when we had lunch with him and where that meeting took place. I remember feeling somewhat conflicted and wondering how I was meant to feel. I also worried that if I liked him, would I be disloyal to my mama who was the love of my life? My mama, amazing woman that she is, hid her upset quite well but with hindsight, I know she was upset that it took him so long to turn up and that he was putting us through emotional turmoil. I recall her sitting my sister and me down after he had turned up unannounced the first time and confirming that he was indeed our biological father. She gave us a choice about going to spend the afternoon with him and said we could decide to go or not.

My sister had a vague recollection of him and was excited to see him so I didn’t object. Off we trundled to Yola International Hotel to his suite. We each had a chapman (love that drink, bright red fizzy non-alcoholic cocktail still popular in Nigeria) and I think I had a meat-pie because they made them nice and I was a fan. He must have tried to talk to us but I really don’t remember what was said. I remember saying that ‘everyone at home calls me Diya not Aisha’ when he kept calling me Aisha. I think he felt rebuffed. My sister and I soon got bored and we went off to play with the lifts and got up to mischief. He left the next day and life returned to normal. The only evidence was that he gave us some money which we promptly deposited into our savings accounts and forgot about.

The second visit was only slightly less awkward and I remember thinking ‘what does this all mean anyway?’ I mean, after the first visit, he made no effort to promote any kind of relationship. I firmly believe he would never have visited again if he had no business bringing him to Yola. Since then, I have not seen or heard from him. My sister got a couple more visits to her boarding school and then nothing since. It has been over 20 years since I have heard a peep out of him. I do not think I ever met my grandmother but we did hear that she was still alive about a decade ago. A friend of my sister’s sister-in-law last week got word to my sister through the sister-in-law to say that our grandmother had died. Our reaction was lackadaisical to say the least. First, we thought ‘erm yes our grandma died about 12 years ago in two days’ (October 6th). Then we clarified that this was our paternal grandma. We mentioned it to each other in passing and no more was said. We went to sleep that night without a second thought and honestly, I can’t say I feel like I have lost anything.

This brings me to the question I wanted to address here. When we were little, and some people still say this, we were told that despite not knowing our father and his relatives, we would regret it if we let him die without trying to get to know him. Apparently (somewhat mystically) we would feel his death and be deeply saddened. Well, my grandma has just died and it made not a dent on my life. I felt the same as I would for any of my patient’s relatives dying. Sad for a moment then life goes on.

So will I be sad if my father dies today and I have no relationship with him? I suspect not. Would I be sad if my siblings died and I know nothing of them? Probably a little. Would I be sad if I found out that they are oppressed and in need of assistance I could provide? Yes quite sad. Would I be sad if I could save them from some desperate need like donate bone marrow or a kidney to save a life and I did not because no one thought to approach me? Yes definitely. Of course I wish I could be a sister to my sisters and brother. I wish things had worked out differently and that my mama’s love had not been misplaced. I wish she had seen through her loyalty and love and chosen a different man who would have treated her and her child better. I wish she had never fallen in love with this particular man but she did. It would be a waste of my time to dwell on what ifs on behalf of my mama. She has moved on. So will I. Such is life.

Sweet Mama

When I think of my mama, there is a theme song that plays in the background. ‘A Song for Mama’ by Boys II Men. The song talks about her teaching her child everything, teaching them about right and wrong. It talks about the mama believing in her child when no one else would. It talks about loving mama being the food to the soul and her being the child’s strength. Amazing song!

My mama was never the most traditional of mums. For majority of my life, she was a single mum. She is a feminist. She travelled often to attend conferences and seminars and to take part in courses, for weeks and sometimes months at a time. She did not enjoy the traditional female roles of cooking and cleaning day in, day out.  I rarely saw her do laundry and she certainly never ironed for us. But…she also did a lot of traditionally mummy things. She woke us up for school every morning she was home. She bathed us both together in the bathtub and wrapped us each in a large bath towel, tucking us in just the way we loved it so that we were like worms in a cocoon of warmth. We would hurry off to our bedroom and fall into bed, clean and warm for a quick ‘shut eye’ and make her go through the process of getting us up again. She washed my hair and patiently combed out the tangles and put hair cream on my hair and scalp. She took me to buy school books, stationary and shoes when the new term began. She waited at the end of the school term for my exam results and told me how proud she was.

My mama recounts that when I was born in a busy maternity ward in Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Teaching Hospital, Kaduna. She says she knew I was different in that first hour. The maternity unit was very busy which meant that as babies were born, they were given a cursory drying and wrapped up and placed in a queue for proper cleaning before being placed in their mothers’ arms. My mama says that I wailed so loud for so long that the midwife had to come away from the mother she was assisting to pluck me out from the waiting queue, give me a good clean and take me to my mama. I cried all through her handling and I am told that as soon as my mama took me into her arms, I took a deep breath in and fixed my eyes on her. Apparently I was as good as gold for my mum throughout childhood. Not so to everyone else. I was a right madam and often fussy especially when my mama was away on one of her trips. I cried so much that I grew up with a husky voice but my mama swears I was always good for her. I think my tears were from missing my mama and fearing that she had abandoned me.

I was a different baby from my sister. My sister was the baby that wanted to be handled 24/7. I was the opposite. I wanted my mama to cuddle me with breastfeeds but I wanted to be in my bed when I was asleep. I was happy to be at home playing when my mama went out as long as she didn’t have luggage in tow. When she went on a trip, it felt like she took a piece of me with her. I remember vividly going into her room and sitting on the side of her bed. I would stare at the enlarged picture of her taken before I was born and feel the tears well in my eyes. I would press the button on the talking clock on her headboard and lie on the cool tiled floor in the dim light and wonder if I would ever see her again. For some reason, I was always afraid that she would never come back. Even though she told us how long she would be, it always seemed to me that the deadline had passed and no one was telling the plans had changed. I would lie on the floor of her room in the silence as my sister played with the neighbourhood children and imagine she had been killed in a plane crash and everyone was keeping it from us. I would cry quietly as I imagined the worst and eventually, I would find some hope from deep within and say to myself she was OK or I would have heard of the plane crash on the news. I don’t know why in my young mind, I didn’t think she could die in a car crash which was more common place.

When she came home, she always came bearing gifts. Nothing too extravagant but all special. I got my first Barbie after one trip and many years later a Cindy doll after I got over the loss of my Barbie. On a long trip to Venezuela, I got a t-shirt which I loved to bits and wore until its stitching unravelled and I had to be begged to throw it in the bin. I got a ‘born to be wild’ t-shirt from the US which when made me feel like the bee’s knees whenever I wore it. On the same US trip, she got me arguable one of the best gifts, a special edition perfume from the Disney store shaped like Belle from Beauty and the Beast. I still have the plastic Belle bottle more than 15 years later. One trip she went to the Disney store in London and got me a Tazmanian Devil woolley hat and gloves combo. A regular treat were the pick and mix sweets. The highlight was the marshmallows covered in strawberry-flavoured slightly tart sugar. Yummy! Those sweets taught us a highly valuable life lesson. She handed us each a large plastic bag full of sweets and left us to our devices. My sister would go through a fair few in the first day then slow down over the next few days. I was more calculating. I would pour out all of my sweets and group them into types and work out how I could make it so I could make my favourites last the longest. I always tried to save a strawberry sweet for weeks and ate it last. I will never forget how special that last sweet was. It almost made it okay that mama had to travel AGAIN a few months later.

I am one of those weird people who love salads. The secret? My mama. She makes the most amazing salads. I don’t know exactly how she did it but she made it so that having a special salad was an occasion in my home. She would take us to the shops to buy baked beans, sweetcorn and mushrooms. Then she would slice the tomatoes, hard boil eggs, fry the mushrooms and re-cook the beans then dress the lettuce with all of that, laid out in the most beautiful pattern. The salad would look and smell so good that we couldn’t wait to tuck in. It was so delicious that it was the main course of dinner. Thinking about it now is making me salivate. The other thing my mum is a queen of is smoothies. She loves them and she makes the best ones. What makes them extra special is the love she puts into preparing all the fruit and blending it all in batches and giving us all a helping. I have always watched children whine about eating fruit and vegetables and to be honest, I have never understood why. Because my mama was so good that she made us love fruit and vegetables.

Of course I am biased but looking back, I think she did an amazing job. She was the disciplinarian whose love I never doubted. In a society where smacking was considered the norm, she was very restrained and I can count how many times I got smacked. Each time was totally called for too and even then I knew. She is now one of my best friends, cliched though that might sound. I can talk to her about anything. My opinions are valuable to her even if she argues about it all. I am her confidant, her financial adviser, her personal doctor, her baby and her friend. I value her above everyone else and everyday, I thank God that she was gifted to me as my mother. I am thankful that she is healthy and strong and fiesty to a fault. I owe her everything I am. She is my greatest love.

My Stepdad

His name in Fulfulde means grandchild. I didn’t realise that until after his death…

I often refer to my mother as a single mom and majority of my life she was but I did have a stepdad for 7 years. She married him when I was between 3 and 4. She says the big clincher was me. As a child, I was very particular about who could look after me and where I would sleep. Suffice it to say, I would only sleep in my home or in the arms of those closest to me – mainly, my mama or one of the female cousins we always had living with us in Yola (my hometown). 

My mother recalls that not long after meeting my stepdad, I was tired after a trip and I chose to curl up in his arms and go to sleep. All this in the face of me being rather aloof with him (I was a hard child to please when it came to strangers). I think he had asked several times if she would marry him at this stage and she had hesitated. Practically, she probably thought it would be a good thing for her two girls to have a ‘father’ and the community would certainly encourage her to be married for her and her children’s protection. But I know she had been burnt by her relationship with my biological father and that she also valued her freedom highly (which a husband in Yola traditionally would take away to a large extent).

This seemingly insignificant act of sleeping in his arms did 2 things. It told my mama (rightly or wrongly) that he was a good man and that her daughter felt safe with him. It also told my stepdad that although I acted like I didn’t care much for him, I loved him in my own funny way. She says she told him her decision soon after and they got married.  

So did I warm up to him after this show of affection? Not really. I told you I was a hard child to please. I accepted him because my mama loved him. I loved him too; as one would love an uncle and not my favourite uncle at that. But I steadfastly called him uncle and I never let anyone call him my father. I always pointed out he was my stepfather to anyone who made that error. My sister, 3½ years older was a much easier child. Despite the fact that she actually knew my biological father and had been hurt by the events leading to the divorce. She treated him as she would treat her biological father. Had he lived, she would have bestowed the highest fatherly honours on him when she came to get married. She would have asked her husband’s family to ask him for her hand in marriage. Me…I never intended to do that. I would have said to my husband’s family ‘go and ask my mother – she is both mother and father to me’. The family would have overruled me of course and directed them to my stepdad had he been alive and still married to my mama. Kids!