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.