Getting in Touch With My Feminine & Slaying the ‘Strong Woman’ II

I didn’t want to be a woman either.  I was after all a product of my environment and I associated ‘woman’ with vulnerability and low status.  I was proud of being a ‘strong woman’; ‘strong woman’ was something other than a ‘woman’. ‘Strong woman’ seemed like protection from exploitation and abuse until it became obvious that it was just another form of exploitation and abuse, exploited for being a responsible caring and thoughtful person, an engaged citizen and community member.

Strong woman isn’t a compliment. It’s an acknowledgement and reinforcement of the stereotype that women are weak, sentimental and liable to fall apart at the first sign of trouble. It’s also a con. When you’re husband figures out that you are a ‘strong woman’ he doesn’t pay the rent because he knows that you will, he doesn’t hustle to pay the school fees because you will, he just doesn’t  have to step up to the plate and take responsibility with you.

My father and the villagers used ‘strong woman’ to job me for decades, expecting me to take up responsibilities of a man without any of the benefits. I spent so many years believing the con and struggling to prove just how strong a woman I was, till I broke, quite literally. As the pressure built up my resentment grew, I resented all the demands and expectations. I became everyone’s go to person when there was a problem but had no one to go to myself when I needed a lift.

Feminism may have empowered me to accept that a woman’s way was an acceptable way but I didn’t know what that meant anymore. I was confused. What does it mean to be a ‘woman’? Not what the world says a woman is but what am I? What sort of woman am I? What sort of person am I? What does it mean to be ‘strong’? It took a while for me to realize that being strong wasn’t about doing what boys did or doing it better than the boys.

When I decided to be a ‘woman’ as opposed to a ‘strong woman’ I threw away the baby with the bath water. As soon as my kids grew up I shed all responsibility and with it all discipline. I gave in to self-pity, I felt deflated, exploited and consequently I let myself feel entitled. I had decided I wasn’t strong, I had decided I was weak but I’m not and I wasn’t. But real strength isn’t about physical or even emotional strength. Strength is bending and not breaking when the wind blows.

I’m not a ‘strong woman’, I’m just a responsible person that cares about the world I live in and the people I live with.  I am uniquely ME – with both feminine and masculine qualities, just like everybody else. That means I can be vulnerable sometimes and cry, hurt, panic, make mistakes, forgive, love and grieve. I can be feminine.

I’m vulnerable not because I am feminine but because I am a puny human being in a vast complex self-directed Universe.  And I can live with that.

Ogolo Metamorphosis by Ben Enweonwu 1991
Ogolo Metamorphosis by Ben Enweonwu 1991
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Getting in Touch with My Feminine & Slaying the ‘Strong Woman’ I

My therapist said to me ‘Lesley, you need to get in touch with your feminine’. I didn’t even realize I was out of touch with her. It took a while for it to sink in; I had let my masculine dominate, hardly surprising living in a hyper macho society like Naija. It doesn’t let you be soft and yielding and nurturing and loving and you know just feminine.  Naija demands you be fierce and strong and rugged and competitive. If not the natives will eat you alive.

I read a thesis once about how Igbo girls were socialized in pre-colonial south eastern Nigeria. They were told to struggle for their position in a queue; the lesson was that you have to fight to be first. It explained a lot about those food lines in school. Lady like wasn’t a virtue, it was a vulnerability. So if I didn’t want to eat the charred food at bottom of the pot for the rest of my life I had to learn a new ethic, literally survival of the fittest and meanest.

I learnt well. I became combative; a go getter, a hustler, a scraper, a fighter, a survivor and I was rewarded with the epithet ‘strong woman’. I never thought of myself as a strong woman, the label was foisted on me sorta like the label of feminist was foisted on me by people that suddenly saw my behaviour as problematic and atypical for a woman.  Guess I was expected to buckle under the stress and go crying to a man for help.

When I moved to Lagos and became a single parent I was called a strong woman, when I paid my rent and school fees and medical bills on my own, I was being a strong woman, but seriously what was I supposed to do? Leave my kids with their father? Go find myself a new husband and start a new life? I wasn’t THAT strong.  And how come men are never called strong when they live like normal responsible adults?

My business crashed, I picked myself up and started again I was called a strong woman. My son died I didn’t fall apart, I was a strong woman. My relationship collapsed and I moved on, I was a strong woman. When I needed to cry one day a friend wouldn’t let me and said ‘Lesley you’re stronger than that.’ When there was a problem in the village and they needed money they called me. ‘You behave like a man’ they said approvingly as I dropped the money.

I started hating the description ‘strong woman’ even while I felt compelled to live up to the expectation of it. I stopped crying, I became brittle, empathy gave way to wisdom, the demands grew and I tried harder and harder to meet them and then the anger started to build up. When the villagers called I told them ‘Leave me alone, I am a woman’. I no longer wanted to be strong.

XMENCVRS_001

Encounters Between Cultures – Oyibo in Africa (Conclusion)

The preceding instalments of this series were written as a single 3600 word essay in 2006 about my personal experience of south east Nigeria in the late 1970s and early 1980s. People wrote and read lengthy essays in those days. If you are interested you can read the entire unedited version here at the Elysium Chronicles. I have to keep the posts short now out of respect for shorter internet attention spans.

A lot has changed since then and none of it for the better. I have changed. So has my writing style. I wrote the essay before the disillusionment, before the anger, before I started working with international development. Before the Beast was born and slayed! (Another story) So I certainly didn’t change for the better. Neither did the south east or Nigeria. We all went south together.

In those days the end of the civil war was a fresh memory and spoken of frequently, independence was recalled with pride, everything seemed possible and the rural areas of south east Nigeria still offered a vibrant if simple life. Those were the good old days when village people made kola with Fanta and cabin biscuits or bananas when you visited, Nelly Uchendu idealistically crooned ‘Love Nwantinti’ on the radio and the biggest hit of the day was Nico Mbarga’s ‘Sweet Mother’.

Now when you go to the village you must go with bags of money, no one offers you kola and sharing is an anachronistic indulgence or a cynical demand for political allegiance.  What am I saying? Who goes to the village anymore? Not even the politicians. Everyone is scared of kidnappers. Your own kinsmen will arrange your kidnap for a few bucks certain that you are just not sharing all the money you’re making ‘abroad’. The natives still take sharing very seriously.  The big hits are Naeto C ‘Owu No de Touch’ and Ade Piper ‘Bad Guy’. Go figure.

The green eyed monster was kept at bay in the old days with songs like ‘Onye Egbula Nwanne Ya’ by Dr. Sir. Warrior and his Oriental Band. They sang songs full of wisdom, advice, admonishment and proverbs. They sang about how to live a good life and why you shouldn’t kill your nwanne. In Igbo language ‘nwanne’ or ‘nwannem’ is transliterated as ‘child of mother’ or ‘child of my mother’ but applies to all your lineage members, male and female, who you were ritually bound not to harm. Of course no one takes these old fashioned ideals seriously anymore, we’re all modern now.

Food still plays a central role in people’s lives but children don’t eat from one plate anymore, people hide their food when someone is coming just in case they accept an invitation to come and eat, daughters are discouraged from staying home much less being in the soup pot, and few can afford feasts or use gang labour cookouts. Everything is catered nowadays because only the rich can afford feasts and they usually hire caterers from outside the village, frequently from outside the state all together.  Materialism and individualism has made everyone less sharing and less caring.

Am I nostalgic?

Encounters Between Cultures – Oyibo in Africa VI

The other side of cooking for a multitude was eating like a multitude. An African feast is the closest thing to an all-you-can-eat buffet that you can find in rural Africa. Each person that came for a feast was just another mouth and stomach. The idea was to eat so much collectively that afterwards you and your kin could brag that the hosts were open handed and cooked so much that you and the rest of the guests couldn’t finish the food or to yap that they were stingy and did not cook enough. Everyone expected to take a doggy bag home, women came with big bags. Mine was the biggest, I actually had dogs, and most of the time the food was only fit for dogs anyway, delicately flavored with eau de perspiration.

Sharing the food to the collective generated a lot of commotion, the eldest got food before the youngest and if you let someone younger than you take food or drink before you, you would quickly lose respect so you had to make a big fuss if such a gross breach of protocol occurred. The age of co-wives was determined by date of marriage not date of birth.  Sometimes I gave my share to one of my co-wives, one in particular who was big, bad and mean. This ensured her allegiance and if anyone attacked me in the village (including the Three Witches) she would immediately leap to defend my skinny ass for which I am eternally grateful. My evolutionary reaction is flight not fight, I’m complete chicken shit when it comes to getting violently physical.

The size of the food box used to bring food to your group and the amount of drinks you got is a measure of your status and respect so if someone thought that what they received as a group was not commensurate to their status there were very vocal complaints, threats and no consumption until more was provided. If no more was forth coming the group would quietly eat what they got and then yap the hosts for the next year or so at every given opportunity. “Humph, there’s Beatrice trying to look important. Don’t mind her, do you know that when we went for her daughter’s wedding last year she couldn’t even feed us.”

My efforts at staying slim were mostly scorned. I used to get seriously berated for not eating enough! “Eat more girl you have to help us finish all the food.” Fat was good because it meant your husband provided well. Such logic survived the fact that one of the fattest wives in my kin group was married to one of my poorest ‘husbands’. They had six or seven children, I stopped counting. My attempts to talk to them about the virtues of contraception were dismissed with a casual “That is oyibo thing”. Children are an investment; you can never tell what they will be tomorrow. Nowadays they spend most their time moaning about how nobody wants to help send their children to school.

Feasting in Igbo Nigeria Copyright Lesley Agams
Feasting in Igbo Nigeria Copyright Lesley Agams

Encounters Between Cultures – Oyibo in Africa V

Another unique aspect of food culture in Igbo-Nigeria are the attitudes and conventions around large scale feasts. There are only feasts in Igbo-Nigeria, nothing like inviting ten for dinner that is an oyibo thing practiced only by the elite as part of their elitism. In the village a normal meal is usually for ten or even twenty depending on the size of your household.  The Igbo-Nigerian believes that anything worth celebrating deserves a feast and whether you invite them or not the whole village will come so plan to cook for several hundreds. A catering nightmare you might think, well the Igbo-Nigerian solved the problem long ago; communal gang labor.

I never quite understood all those people in Africa and in the West that romanticize communal life. It’s not as much fun as it sounds unless you are a child. Among other things it means that you have to get up at the crack of dawn, when you might just rather be sleeping, every time there is an event in your lineage that requires large scale cooking.  All married women of the lineage are required to attend. Mind you never the daughters of the lineage, they sit around on their fat asses waiting for you to finish cooking and serve them the best parts of the meat.

You might think this is good community relations and they’ll help you when you need to feed a multitude. You’re wrong, the amount of acrimony and conflict these cookouts generate is not worth whatever advantage the sociologists think come from communal living (not to mention the amount of sweat that streams straight into the food). As a matter of fact these enforced mass cookouts are a strain on human relations, a definite diplomatic failure. The same people in the village presently hyping the virtues of the traditional communal lifestyle hire caterers to cook their feasts as soon as they have enough money to behave like a ‘Big Man’.

I avoided being conscripted into these forced labor cookouts as tactfully as possible and  if I did go I behaved like I was completely incompetent, the oyibo that couldn’t peel an onion. It always worked. Before long some sucker would invariably come along, shoo me away and take over the chore assigned to me.  After a while sitting around doing nothing I’d be told I could go home. Did I mind? Of course not! I did not find it necessary to socialize with vulgar village women. Associating with them was an ordeal. They did not shave, they did not use deodorant or perfume, I was not always certain that they used soap.

And what could I possibly discuss with them? The arrival of the newest variety of disease resistant cassava cuttings? The proper way to balance ten pounds on my head on a 10 kilometer journey? How to make the Husband happy or how to wean a baby? How could an unwashed, smelly, hairy, illiterate village woman possibly give me advice about my husband or my baby? I was completely superficial. However my co-wives (because that is what they were called) enjoyed doing my chores because I would give whoever did my chores my small portion of the bar soap, snuff, white powder or meat we invariably shared after wards.

Abacha Ncha from http://www.dobbyssignature.com/
Abacha Ncha usually served at all Igbo-Nigerian feasts (from http://www.dobbyssignature.com/)

Encounters Between Cultures – Oyibo in Africa IV

If you live with your husband’s relatives in the family compound in the village they’ll try to take the best parts of the meat in whatever you are cooking. Should you attempt to stop them they will retort saying their ‘brother’ owns you, the pot and the soup. In order to preserve the integrity of your soup pot you must be able to fight with them and win. To avoid the indignity of getting your ass whipped or if you are not ready to engage in daily war fare, physical or verbal,  you either resign yourself to cooking for twenty or cook so badly no one wants to eat your food. Do not bother to complain to your husband, he is helpless to do anything other than make ineffectual noises. Matter of fact most Igbo-Nigerian men secretly desire strong wives to battle their relatives and keep them out of the soup pot.

Moving far away from the in-laws to town will not solve the problem.  They will come looking for your trouble. Under Igbo-Nigerian tribal laws not cooking for any one of your ‘husbands’ if they took it upon themselves to visit you is enough grounds for divorce. It is very important to know which of the myriad of relatives merited your retiring immediately to the kitchen to slaughter the fattest chicken you owned (if you owned such a thing) and prepare pounded yam and soup from scratch and those that could be served yesterday’s leftovers. Such knowledge could be the difference between ‘I am married’ and ‘I was married’. Village meetings have been summoned as a consequence.

“Okoro can you imagine! I went to my grandfathers’ brothers’ cousins sons house uninvited in the middle of the week and his wife who was leaving for work refused to make pounded yam and oha soup from scratch for me saying she was late for work. She sent her house girl to give me 2 slices of bread and an egg with tea. Please we must call a village meeting immediately and send her back to her father. What kind of wife is that!”

Being extremely lazy and self centered when most of my in-laws come I rarely remember to ask them about their families and events in the village much less if they are hungry. This is the height of bad manners. But then I really don’t care if they think I’m bad mannered. I moved out of the village to get away from them. Coming to my house uninvited with enough luggage for a month is bad manners where I come from and since I’m not complaining neither should they. Asking them to go is out of the question though, even your husband will draw the line there, they could ostracize him for that. The thought is tempting.

However, there are a few of the in laws  who are very dear to me (did I mention there are hundreds of in laws and husbands?). When they arrive I immediately order pizza and beer, they enjoy the oyibo food and treatment and quickly return to te village to share the news with the others.

‘Our wife Chinwe doesn’t joke with me o. As soon as I arrive she gives me beer and she only gives me oyibo food.l She knows I don’t have time for your local food when I visit her.’

Oha Soup from http://www.dobbyssignature.com/
Oha Soup and pounded yam from http://www.dobbyssignature.com/