21 May Deviant: A short autobiography by a fully realized àbíkú
I was named Moyosooretoluwaseninuayemi Idunnu Akinoso on the eighth day. That mouthful should explain to you the weight of expectations my mother placed on me. It apparently means that the Lord has done good in my mother’s life by bringing me along. No one ever asked me if the Lord had done me good by bringing my mother along, or by bringing me into this world. Think on that.
I was born average. Well, born under slightly abnormal conditions, given thought. It was a breech birth, “Ige” as we call it in Yoruba but nothing extraordinary. But when one is pushing out a child on an average bed, surrounded by average doctors and nurses in an average hospital, in an average country, the most extraordinary results can be borne out of the most unremarkable circumstances. And that is how, ninety-four hours of agony later, my limp form slid from between my mother’s cramping hips. I have been told that when a baby doesn’t cry in Nigeria, the doctors spank it to induce tears. It didn’t work on me. And I was placed in intensive care for a month and a half before I decided not to die. My mother used to tell me when I was being punished, that the nurses called me an Àbíkú, born to give my mother meaningless pain. I’m unsure how true that anecdote is, but I certainly lived up to it. You can count on it.
My early childhood was fairly normal, for a Nigerian kid living in a middle-class family. My sperm donor took off when I was two. Parental responsibilities were too much for his immature ass to take so he found refuge in the sensualities of some obscure youth corper. One more reason why I hated the idiot. Well, at least he did send monthly allowances as part of the divorce agreement. And my mother earned substantial money so I can say confidently that we didn’t lack much at home. I remember placing my right hand on an iron for kicks. I also remember the beating I got after my mom treated it with Ogi. I also remember vomiting in my room and getting on all fours to suck it back up, afraid my mom would get back and see the remains of my rice and stew. And the irony of ironies… My mom saw me sucking up vomit and I got beaten for it. Now, don’t you dare jump to conclusions. I wasn’t the most recalcitrant child to ever exist but there was a marked(semi-pun intended) trend following my relationship with my mother.
Give order. Fumble it up? Cane.
Talk back? Koboko.
Embarrass me in any way? Pankere.
Do anything that vexes me? Repeat.
In other words, the life of an average Nigerian kid.
It was at the age of six that I began questioning my averageness.
My primary school had a sandpit in those days. I visited the school a few years ago and they’d created an ultramodern children’s playpen, complete with Styrofoam flooring. Safer? Maybe. Styrofoam projectiles don’t seem to carry the same threat as sand. Immunized the children against all possible injuries the sandpit posed? Maybe. They even cut down the tree that used to be there. All that’s left now is to kit the kids in PPE for assurance. Don’t get me wrong, my primary school was great, except for the most important thing. Who on earth names a school after a brand of diapers? Someone unsympathetic to the reputation of their pupils, that is. I couldn’t say the bloody name in public without wincing in embarrassment. But now, I’m digressing. Back to the story.
I was six years old, it was break time and we were in the sandpit. The boys would usually instigate it first. A clump of sand would break upon a girl’s beaded shuku and base and war would erupt. Today would be different though. The boys had been going through an underwear fetish phase. He who had the best-looking underpants was crowned king for the day. Only for one unfortunate boy to ask what the girl’s underwear looked like, and all hell broke loose. Nyem-Abasi William had had his affections recently spurned by yours truly in public. He decided to seize his chance for revenge. I was distracted in a corner, chatting with my friend, Favour, when I felt the wind directly strike my bare bottom, amidst mass laughter. I whirled in shock and tried to cover my skirt, only to stare into a pair of gloating eyes and a hand attached to the hem of my lifted skirt. I slapped him. It was only a slap. So why did his body shift from its place and strike the ground? And why did he burst into such gruesome tears, revealing bloody stumps where his milk teeth used to be? These were questions I couldn’t answer my teachers or William’s mother who fired back her own slap, or my mother who gave me the worst beating of my six-year life.
I was eight years old when I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t normal.
An arm wrestling match went ridiculously wrong. It was one of those primary school debates on what the superior gender was. Can anyone explain to me why Nigerian primary schools hold these debates? No wonder sexism is so ingrained in our culture. When you have seven and eight-year-old boys saying they are better because they go outside and do work while the girls do the housework, why won’t we have generations of worthless men both inside and outside the house?
Mommy in the kitchen cooking rice
Daddy in the parlour watching film
Children in the garden playing ball (likely boys)
That is the life of a family
God, I hate that rhyme. But I’m digressing again. Anyway, the boys were asserting their superiority when one had the bright idea of demonstrating masculine dominance by pinning down the arms of every girl in the class. He started with me. Have you ever seen the human elbow completely disconnect from the arm? I have. After placing the screaming kid in the hospital, I got a two-week suspension. My mother wasn’t pleased.
“Moyosooretoluwaseninuayemi! I enjoy the good the Lord has done in my life. You are for good and not for evil. I gave you that name by myself. I carried you in my womb for nine months and used four days to give birth to you. If you think that after all my effort you can behave anyhow, think again! (buttresses point with a slap). That was her all-time favourite quote. You should understand by now, passing off parental responsibility as a sacred privilege granted out of divine mercy. She loved it though, I’ll give her that.
I was ten years old when I began exploring the extent of my àbíkú-ness.
I used to dread the first Saturdays of every month. That was when my mum would drag me half across Lagos for groceries and other things that caught her eye. Mind you, it wasn’t the mindless roaming that I dreaded, neither was it the gladiatorial haggling between my mum and every hapless trader she came across. No, it was Tejuosho I hated. And my mum loved Tejuosho for its textiles. Whenever she came by, a horde of boys and men would chase her for her patronage, each one more vehement than the other. My mother always ignored them so out of desperation, the males turned their attention to her kid to beg her mother to patronise them. They would each beg and plead and gradually close in on me and eventually one would touch my shoulder and another my arm and yet another my face and then my left breast and so on. They would always scatter when my mom turned to face me, usually to yell at me for lagging behind. I hadn’t told her before but there was one boy who couldn’t have been more than seventeen years old and he was the bravest of them all. He would eagerly harass and grope me whenever and wherever he had the opportunity.
We always kept crates of soft drinks at home, glass bottles with metal, jagged bottle tops. Well, one Saturday I took one with me and hid it in my palm, awaiting the boy’s attention. Have you ever seen what the hand looks like without fingers? I have. The males accused me of being aje and an ashawo (the default insult for any female in Nigeria). A witch and a prostitute. They sent me and my mother away. My mother beat me at home for embarrassing her publicly. “Àbíkú! Bad child! You will not kill me!” She screamed with each strike of the cane or broom or hanger or pole or wire or teeth(Desperate times!) “The child who says her mother will not rest, that child too will not rest!” That was another favourite saying.
I was twelve when I finally began to understand myself.
We moved to the UK when I turned twelve. My mother had stopped beating me. I think it’s either because she realized that no matter how brutal her beatings were(always borne out of necessity), I never once showed any signs of change. Either that or we were no longer in the Nigeria where child abuse was celebrated, disguised as necessary discipline. I still remember my friend Edidiong from ISL. He came to school once, his right eye swollen to the size of a tennis ball. His mom threw a chair at his face for failing in school. The teachers ignored it, what could they do? It wasn’t like they weren’t as bad, who could forget Mr Odunlaja who flogged a girl until her skin tore and she bled? Or Mr Oyewole, the cane enthusiast? Or Mr TYT(Touch-Your-Toes) who would flog directly along the bent-over back of a hapless student? But now I’m digressing again.
The point is, at the age of twelve my mother decided to change tactics. Rather than the stress of beating me with any and every tool she had and then dressing me carefully to conceal her handiwork, she decided it was simpler to just place me in stress positions. And boy did she know plenty! Her personal favourite was to set me against a wall, legs and arms apart and raised, with two candles lit under each leg. She would leave me there for an hour, maybe two. One day she left me there all day while she did her hair and nails at the local shop where all the hairdressers were Nigerians. That was the day I began to understand my deviance. Would you believe me if I told you my legs and arms remained in place for over nine hours? And when my mother finally released me with a promise never to disobey her again, I stood up and carried on my business as if the punishment never happened?
I was seventeen years old when I realized my destiny.
I remember my high school days. The boys and some of the girls had long ago learned to keep their distance, restricting themselves to a few sniping comments about my intimidating height, my skin’s melanin content and the way I carried my natural hair in a Dark Caesar. I swept past every staring eye and made a beeline for my favourite table, positioned furthest away from the mob. It was here where my friends and I liked to meet and discuss everything from Arsenal’s perpetual problems to the Tories and their pestilential policies. It was here where we found refuge from the shadows of expectations our parents place on us. It was only here that I could be free to discuss my mother who wanted me to study Medicine from the second we moved. My mother who hired tutors upon tutors to brand upon me a desire for the Sciences. I told her to stop wasting her money one day, quite bluntly. I earned a slap and a warning never to repeat such again. So I decided to put her tutorial money to better use. Every week, she gave me money to go for after-school Science tutorials. Instead, I used the money to register for creative writing classes. It was a thing of joy to me, imagining my clueless mother expecting her daughter to come back with A stars plastered all over her GSCE and a full scholarship to whatever medical school she dreamed of, and waking up to see her daughter’s shadow cross the gate to Oxford University, studying English Literature. But yet again, I’m digressing. The point is, one day I truly realized my Àbíkú-ness and caused my mother some much-deserved pain.
I had gotten all A stars on my GSCE and I had been accepted into Oxford on a full scholarship. To study English Literature. Just so we’re clear, I never had the intention of telling my mother where her hard-earned money had been invested in. I never even intended to tell her about the scholarship. Somebody must have snitched because I came home one day to find my mother seated at a table.
“Sit down, Moyo.”
I sat down, eyes searching for meaning in my mom’s face. She was unhappy. I hoped I was the reason.
“Do you know one of your names is Idunnu? That means happiness. I didn’t name you Ibanuje for a reason. The nurses at the hospital kept calling you Àbíkú. I said, Olorun ma je. God forbid. You got admission to Oxford and you didn’t tell me? Your mother?” She said that last line in disbelief, as though we both wrote the exam and I was the only one who got the admission email.
“I was at the salon today,” my mother continued, ” and Lauretta was there talking about how her daughter got all A stars on her GSCE and how universities are lining up to offer her scholarship. And I couldn’t say anything. What can I say? I can’t boast about my own daughter because she never told me anything. So I come home and call your headmistress and she tells me my daughter got all A stars and Oxford offered her scholarship to study English Literature. I said, Olorun ma je. English literature, ke? I said she should keep the scholarship. My daughter is supposed to study medicine.” She spoke with such indifference like my dreams were nothing more than the dead toad in our back garden. It took everything I had not to break her apart right there and then. Then she dropped the question.
“Now, Moyo.” She leaned forward and rested her chin on her palms. “I want you to be truthful with me. Did you apply for medicine at all?”
If this was a movie, this would have been the part where every memory, every nightmare I’d ever had at the hands of my mother would swarm my consciousness. For seventeen years I’d been my mother’s daughter through every bruise and cut. For seventeen years all my fears and tears had been bottled up in anticipation of this moment, unexpected as it was. Of course, a part of me was afraid of what would happen, the part of me conditioned for subservience. But the other part, the part that for once, wanted to deserve the look of disappointment on my mother’s face, that part won over. So I flung the truth in her face, every word of it. And drank in the experience.
I used to draw myself up as a black hooded creature wielding a Kisarigama, the harbinger of woe and misfortune. I still crack up every time I think about it. I would roam the land, bereaving mortals of good and happiness in perfect dissonance with the name given to me by my first victim. I can’t forget the look of anguish on her face when I finished my tale of betrayal. I even added the plot twist in: I’d been in contact with the headmistress and officials from Oxford and I’d finalised the scholarship details with them, thereby mooting any objections my sperm acceptor had in mind. She didn’t say anything for a full minute after I was done, her black face was blanched white. Then when she did speak:
“How dare you? Am I so insignificant that you would make such plans without me? I am your mother and you would do this?” Quick as a viper bite, she reached across the table and threw a slap to my right cheek, cursing me in Yoruba as she did so. Then she threw another to the other cheek. And one more for good measure.
“Evil child. Àbíkú!”
The second the word, ‘Àbíkú’ left her lips, I sprung into action. Leaping to my feet, I hoisted the table between us like a used paper towel. The force of the table hitting her chin threw her backwards in her chair, striking her head against the tiled kitchen floor. That was when I really got started. With every hit, I pummeled my true colours into her. With every invective, I lashed my true persona into her consciousness. I can’t remember every single insult I said or every punch, slap and kick I threw but I remember the feeling of triumph pumping through my body and the wide-eyed stare of fear in the eyes of my sperm acceptor. It was glorious.
I didn’t stop until I was satisfied I had hit every square inch of skin and run out of abuse. I went over to a chair in the corner and sat, admiring my handiwork. She moaned and spit blood, tried to sit up on her elbows, failed, tried again, failed. Finally, she gave up and propped her head against the wall, facing me.
“Àbíkú, evil child,” she rasped. I smiled and nodded at my true name. After all these years, she still thought her words and fists had an effect on me.
“You raised your hand against your own mother.”
“I don’t know who my mother is. I raised my hand against my sperm acceptor. And it had been years in the making,” I said.
“That hand will never do good again, do you hear me?” Whatever gravity her curse was supposed to contain was completely lost in the wheezing that immediately followed it. Her lungs were likely collapsed because she spits out blood again and grimaced.
“The Bible says you should honour your mother so you will live long. You cannot live long again. Your death will be worse than what you have put me through. Do you hear me? Do you hear me?!” That last sentence was directed at my departing shadow. I’d spent the GSCE weeks at a friend’s place so all my things were still there. I had no intention of coming back to that house, to her. Now, I had a life of my own ahead of me.
I always wondered if there was a God, or if He had been on my side as opposed to my mother’s. As soon as I got to my friend’s place, I called 999 and directed them to my old house. And for some crazy reason, the police never came knocking on my door for assault and battery. And I stayed on at my friend’s place until the new session started.
I turned twenty-five last week. My Nigerian accent has been completely lost and my Masters in Creative Writing is nearly finished. My abnormal strength and healing properties are still present though, the last link to a life I’d all but forgotten until last week.
She emailed me last week, only God knows how she got my address. A small birthday message and a home address. So much for time being a great healer. My therapist said I would most likely find wholeness if I reached out to her. That was the first time we disagreed. It simply wasn’t so easy to compress the first seventeen years of my life in twelve words. To go back and relive that kitchen scene over and over again, to question my actions and find no comfortable answers. Was it the right thing to do? Was it just a cathartic release or was it a moment of madness? A coming of age or a deal with the devil? There was only one way to answer these questions. That’s why I emailed her back three days ago. We agreed to meet today at a McDonald’s somewhere in a neutral territory.
She sent a picture for my viewing pleasure. There was a guy in the picture. Black, around her age, well-built. And two adolescent kids, likely his from a previous relationship. That’s probably what convinced me to agree to meet her. I wanted to show her my baby, a manuscript I finished yesterday after a two-month dry spell. A novel about a girl with special powers. A girl destined to bring misery and pain wherever she went. A girl bearing my name, Àbíkú.
I don’t know what I’ll find here, at this table, slowly depleting a Big Mac and a chocolate milkshake, hands typing out this seemingly anticlimactic ending. Peace? Reconciliation? I’m not sure.
But I’ll find something. And this is where I conclude my tale.
We’ll speak again sometime.
Author’s Note: This is a selection from a project of mine titled, ‘Harmattan Notes’, a collection of short stories and poems set in and around Nigeria. It’s available on Wattpad for now so head over for more notes.
Until next time.