Posts Tagged ‘african feminism’

Oluremi Obasanjo – A Feminist Icon? (From the Archives)

July 9, 2017

November 27, 2008 at 6:28pm

While stuck at the airport this morning waiting for my ride to Ado-Ekiti I bought a copy of Tell magazine. A headline caught my eye, ‘Oluremi Obasanjo tells all in her book Bitter Sweet’ I turned the pages to read Fidel Bam’s review. There are a lot of unflattering adjectives to describe his review ladies. He calls it a book of vengeance I call it a book of revelations. Oluremi Obasanjo has shown great courage in writing this memoir. I’m not nearly as brave; I’m planning to write a faction because I’m totally terrified of the fall out if I print ‘the truth’ about my experiences with my ‘husbands’. Please note I use the term husbands here not to mean that I have had multiple spouses but in recognition of the Igbo-Nigerian point of view that all a woman’s in-laws are her ‘husbands’ and requiring the same amount of submission and ass kissing.

Bam in his ‘review’ keeps going on and on about how family secret’s have been made public. The first thing I learnt as a neophyte women’s rights activist was the importance of bringing things out n the light of day. Secret places are where abuse happens. I disagree with him totally as to whether posterity will forgive her, some of us already have. She has done a great thing for women’s rights in Nigeria; whether by design or accident she has become an inspiration for physically, emotionally and psychologically battered women all over the country to speak out honestly about their experience. She has punctured the stigma and shame. She has changed the public discourse on domestic violence.

Bam’s review was insensitive, unfair and prejudiced. ‘No matter the extent of Obasanjo’s humiliating his wife, is that enough reason for Oluremi to out Herod Herod?’. I remember as a young wife and mother complaining to an older woman about my husband’s womanizing, I was already considering a separation. Her advice? ‘It’s no reason to separate, my husband used to bring women into our bedroom and I served them.’ And why was I advised to endure such humiliation? For the sake of the children. She knew that the children would become the pawns in a horrible battle. She knew the rules. I didn’t, I still had my undiluted American beliefs about rights, rule of law and liberty of person regardless of gender.

I admire Oluremi! She has shown fortitude in raising her kids well despite the overwhelming odds against her and in giving her man chance after chance after chance to reform, repent and change. Although Oluremi sometimes comes across as aggressive, coarse and self righteous, I can sympathize with her having been pushed to shrewish dementia myself by a self centered husband and pesky in laws, pushed to violently and crudely reject the powerlessness imposed by the violent dominance of an outdated ideology based on paranoia, suspicion, and male privilege. Perhaps the structures for peaceful resolution exist but what do you do when they are corruptly manipulated or even ignored? Or when you don’t have the resources to access them, they’re not free after all.

Why should women go through debilitating and humiliating experiences like this just because we have decided that we can no longer live with the man we married? We can and should do something to end these abuses. Access to children after a divorce or separation is one of the biggest issues. Why should a woman be denied access to her children or denied financial support to raise them simply because she has decided to no longer accept humiliation and abuse passively? How do we stop this from ever happening to another woman again? This is not an isolated case; it’s just the most high profile one by far. I have worked with abused women for more than 10 years and no matter the economic class the story is the same.

Just last week I met a woman I’ve known for years. She separated from her husband when her kids were toddlers, she was denied access and had to go through all sorts of subterfuge to see her kids. Her husband bribed the court officials for years to stall the case she brought against him. When we met she proudly told me how her son now in his early twenties fights to protect her rights and ensure her unrestricted access. Why should her access to her children have been denied all these years? Why was she denied interaction with her children all these years? Why should her children have been denied their mother’s influence all these years? Because she could no longer live with the man she married? Why did she have to wait all these years till her son could give her justice? Why should her son, or any child, who should be focused on creating a life and starting a family need to go to battle with their paternal family to stop a mother’s abuse?

While all families have varying degrees of dysfunction and some may seem to have more than others it seems too much of a coincidence that his narcissistic, high risk behavior and mood swings only emerged after the civil war. While it’s not popular to accept that Africans also experience psychological trauma and its long term behavioral consequences it sounds to me like he was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. This is not uncommon in soldiers, even Nigerian soldiers. I handled a divorce case a while back, the husband, an armed forces man, had just returned from an active mission and was exhibiting classic symptoms of PTSD. The administration couldn’t offer him any help. He refused to admit he had a problem, his marriage collapsed under the strain. He reacted pretty much the way Obasanjo did, refusing to pay child support and becoming increasingly abusive.

Obasanjo may have had PTSD after the civil war and it may have been further aggravated by his experience in Abacha’s gulag but it is still obvious that he is a highly controlling alpha male. He seems to have won Oluremi’s heart through his sheer persistence and determination, it also seems obvious that he totally controlled her; he dictated her clothes, her education and her career. He fits the profile of wife abusers that we have identified over the decades, these are some of the traits and our high machismo society encourages them. Poor woman, it seems from her narrative that everyone just expected her to shut up and stop embarrassing her husband the big man war hero, commander in chief and Head of State, no different from what thousands of Nigerian women experience just because the man is ‘commander of chef’, ‘head of household’ and a local champion. Money and power just magnify the issues.

Some may accuse Oluremi of herself being a conniving, manipulative and scheming woman who was herself intoxicated by her husband’s power and rising profile but that would ignore very complex dynamics and be mere speculation. Oluremi’s devotion to her children is evident throughout her narrative, her own fulfilled, content and stable childhood seems the standard she sought for her children. I don’t get the impression she was as hurt by her husband’s treatment of her as she was by his treatment of their children. He wrested custody from her only to leave the children unprotected and uncared for in his house, one of the children even died despite the fact that he was second in command at the time. Her aspirations for her children were met with a rebuke that she wanted to spoil them. I empathize completely, that reflects my experience so totally, and all the while I was being accused of being a gold digger. Oluremi fought to the bitter end, I got fed up with the drama in my case, forcibly took my children and tried to do the best I could on my own.

Oluremi’s story does not necessarily impact my opinion of Obasanjo’s real and imagined achievements what it does is reveal a tormented and driven man, a career soldier with invisible psychic wounds he would never admit to and memories he would obviously prefer to forget. I was almost moved to compassion for the man, I certainly understand his leadership style better. He was not the first powerful leader to sacrifice his family for the dysfunctional and illusionary trappings of power. Powerful men through out history have chosen to indulge their vanity and act with impunity and entitlement. He was an autocrat in his home and an autocrat in government; he may have had good intentions and noble aspirations but democracy and respect for human rights and the rule of law set new requirements and expectations. He fought for his equality as a black African and cannot understand the aspirations of his women for equality as human beings. Equality is not a male prerogative, just like power is no longer the prerogative of wealth. Recognizing your wife as your partner and treating her with dignity, respect and inclusion is really not a choice, it’s a requirement for a happy fulfilled and balanced life in the modern world. Could this be why so many want to keep the masses and women stuck in the stone ages, uneducated, unemployed or under employed, superstitious and naïve?

I have reaffirmed or learn a number of things from reading this gripping account of a life interrupted;

1. there is an urgent need to review the Matrimonial Causes Act, it is archaic and it is not gender sensitive at all. Not only does it make it difficult for a woman to seek divorce it makes it expensive to pursue. The customary law systems that the majorities of woman have access to in the north and in the south of Nigeria are heavily biased against women based as they are on archaic world views where women and children were merely chattels and expose women seeking divorce and their to extreme exploitation, trauma and humiliation.
2. the Nigerian armed forces need to review their transition support for veterans returning from war, especially the psychological support they provide. Wars are dehumanizing and brutalizing, veterans need assistance re-integrating into society after prolonged exposure to the violence and brutality of armed conflict.
3. Nigerian journalists still need to learn how to write sensitively about women and women’s issues. Fidel Bam, would you have advised your sister or your daughter not to share her experience because her husband is a big man or simply because he is a man? And if yes, to what goal? To protect the image of the man that is abusing her? Or because her plight is not really that high up on your list of priority issues to deal with?

remibooksigning

My Type Of Feminism. It Has To Be Fun. 

October 24, 2016

Michelle is the star of the Obama’s last weeks in office. The media focus has been on her.The accolades have been perfuse. I’m not sure how I feel about her image tough.

“(S)he had to flatten herself to better fit the mould of first lady.” Chimamanda Adichie says.

“Because she said what she thought, and because she smiled only when she felt like smiling, and not constantly and vacuously, America’s cheapest caricature was cast on her: the Angry Black Woman. Women, in general, are not permitted anger — but from black American women, there is an added expectation of interminable gratitude, the closer to grovelling the better, as though their citizenship is a phenomenon that they cannot take for granted.”

Michelle is my Stereotyoe of the Cool Mom. She’s cool like that but she’ll NEVER get drunk and dance on  the table at your 21st birthday party (thank god!). Or do anything to shock your friends like walking around the house in her lingerie or bringing out a bong when your friends come over. She cast herself as the Black Mother – solid as a rock. Even with the world on her shoulders. She’s got a strong back. And she has fun doing it.

She is so different from the stereotypical White Mother. And the White Feminist. Whose feminism is a performance. Black women never had to perform feminism.

‘Ain’t I a woman?’ Sojouner Truth asked.

Michelle is everything I fantasise a Black Madonna to be. I can’t help think of the Mammy in ‘Gone With the Wind’. A vegetable garden in the White House? How much more Black Mother can you get? Thats the sort of thing your Aunty Ngozi or your Aba grandmother did when they visited you in America (Much to your mortification. Gardens are for ornamental flowers. Duh.) But it’s poignant to see a vegetable garden in the White House built by slaves. The legacy that black Americans have to live with is heavy indeed.

Will Obama be the 44th President of the United States of America or will he be the 1st Black President of the United States of America? In 100 or 200 years time what will that mean? How will we keep score? Who will keep score? Why must we keep score? Because if we don’t we will be excluded again? Is that like saying that breaking the glass ceiling really doesn’t break anything at all because you have to come back next year to break it again? Why do we still have to fight for the 2nd, 3rd, 4th – black, female, or gay CEO/president/princeling?

Is there a point at which we’re good and have achieved the equality we seek? Then what? Consolidate? Hold on to gains and ground? Sounds exhausting. And never ending. If we were hoping to reach a tipping point of enlightenment by now Buhari’s and Trump’s emergence as leaders proves that there are still way too many ignorant mischief makers in the world.

Suddenly this whole fight within feminism seems tedious. Why are we differentiating feminisms? I love Chimamanda but as soon as I read the headline of her other story – My Feminism Is Different From Beyonce’s – I skipped the article. And didn’t come back to it till it had caused a shit storm online.

‘Feminism is the belief in the equality of men and women.” – Chimamanda Adichie.

It doesn’t matter if we preach this equality in the 20% of the moment we are not talking about men. It doesn’t matter if we do it while showing our crotch to a room full of paying gawkers or wearing elegant  block colours and addressing the UN. Nobodies feminism is the same. Even our personal feminism can and should change and evolve during your lifetime.

I’m also ambivalent about this new ‘feminism lite’ category that apparently puts men so centrally in women’s lives. My own brand of feminism used to be ‘feminism lite’. When I was 15 in between reading of James Hadley Chase all I could think and talk about were boys. (And the sort of bad boys I was reading about in James Hadley Chase. They just had to have that attitude.) And when I wasn’t thinking about boys I was thinking about sex.  (It’s what teenagers do, including your own.)

So I educated myself about sex. I read ‘Every Woman’ by Derek Llewellyn-Jones. Some progressive student sneaked it into my Catholic  boarding school. It made the rounds, it was so dog eared. I read it twice. And then bought my own copy. Boys and sex were about growing up and we were all in a hurry to grow up. The principal, Mrs Okonkwo, heard about this subversive book and gave fire and brimstone lectures during morning assembly on its dangers, the dangers of sex and especially the dangers of mkpokopi (homosexuality).

In my 20’s I got my sex education and feminism from Helen Gurley Brown and Cosmopolitan. You could describe it as feminism lite but it helped me negotiate the demands of my emerging personality.  I knew I had to work, no question about it. And not just anyhow work. Ambitious change-the-world kinda of work. I wouldn’t even think to be with a man that thought otherwise but even the most progressive men I met wanted to be ‘cared for’ – it was their definition of ‘love’. And whats wrong with that? I wanted to feel ‘cared for’ too. Who doesn’t? Its our most primal need and goes back to infancy.

In my 20’s and into my early 30’s I also spent a whole lot of time resisting all attempts to brand me a feminist. I was increasingly being called a feminist, usually by men that felt disturbed by something I had said or done. I didn’t know that much about feminists except the stereotype that they were butch, didn’t wear bras (Abomination!) and from some of the pictures I saw didn’t wash very often. So I always denied being any such thing. I had been a tom boy but now I wore bras, I had manicures and pedicures, I wore make up, I wore sexy clothes. I objectified women including myself. I was having fun discovering myself, exploring my femininity.

Then one day soon after the advent of the internet into Nigeria I decided to google feminism. I was 35. Wow. What an eye opener. Fortuitously I lived in Owerri at  the time and had access to two outstanding Igbo-Nigerian feminists – Rose and Catherine Acholonu.  Not only did I discover that indeed, I was a feminist, I discovered that feminism existed in Nigeria and in Africa long before I made that discovery.

Apparently I been a feminist since I was a child. The memo I got said “ Anything boys can do girls can do better.” I believed in male female equality with all the simplicity of a child. Even as a 5 year old I climbed trees, swam the deepest part of the river, did wheelies, jumped off cliffs, rode down impossibly steep hills and generally risked life, limb and sanity to prove that “Yes I Can”.

I took that attitude with me into adulthood. And met real social resistance to what I could or could not do. As a child I just did it, no one stopped me.  As a woman I was suddenly blocked in every direction. What I now heard was – “You’re a women, you can’t, and I won’t let you. Because I can stop you.” Like hell you can stop me. I used to fight a lot. ) You can see the type of problems this could present in a traditional relationship or marriage.

In my 40’s I lived feminism. I was a feminist. I performed feminism. I had a high flying job in international development he bastion of gender equality and evangelised across the globe. I wrote thoughtful posts about feminism and African feminism. I supported more women. Made more women friends. Even my style evolved. I started reading Esquire for fashion tips. Explored a more androgynous aesthetic.

Now in my 50’s I’m still evolving and so is my feminism. I’m back to that childhood attitude. We’re equal. Full stop. I’ll just sit over here and get on with it. And now I’m big enough you can’t stop me anymore. And yes, it still has to be fun, just like the rest of my life.

Sorta like I learnt I was a social entrepreneur from Ashoka. I’m just there being my awesome self and someone gives me a label and a roomful of theories and academic papers to study. Well it was all very empowering since I got to explore and test the boundaries of what that means. So it definitely broadened my horizons. Thank you. Now I’ll just go back to being myself.

I think thats why so many people got mad with Chimamanda. Women love talking about men. And sex. And heart break. Men ARE central to women’s lives. The same way men say we are central to  their lives. They are the reason we wake up in the morning put on our makeup, our heels and hustle. And build empires. And dynasties. And kingdoms. Some of us anyway. And maybe we used to. When we were younger. Maybe our biology has something to do with it too. Think about it, for 30 – 35 years the female body is primed for pregnancy EVERY MONTH. She is literally a walking talking hard on.

I do not believe we are or should be slaves to our biology. Our humanity is our capacity to override mere biological urge  (or you would still be a monkey, I promise.) But people must be allowed to make an informed choice, all choices have consequences. You can’t tell people what to do. You can’t make choices for them. What gives anyone the privilege? There are no hierarchies. Hierarchies and privilege are part the problem, not the solution.

So, yes. Chimamanda can say that her feminism is different from Beyounce’s, so is her lifestyle and probably her core values. People are different. All our individual feminism are different. But I’d rather she didn’t use the 20% yardstick. Or her feminism for that matter.

I’m a mother of men and a leader of men. And women. I say to girls and young women the same thing I say to boys and young men – don’t spend ALL your time and energy on girls/boys and sex, focus on career and life and the right girl/boy will come along. And if you decide to spend all your time talking about sex or marriage remember 1. you’re an adult and adults are self sufficient and can take care of themselves 2. the ability to take care of yourself is the highest form of good 3. co-dependency can be financial as well as emotional and 4. you can do anything you want but there is a price to pay.

Just be good at whatever you do. Be an Amber Rose, a Chimamanda Adichie, a Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, A Tiwa Savage, a Beyonce, An Okonjo Iwela. Just be your god damn self. Your authentic self. Just be your best YOU. Because that takes courage. It takes a ‘Yes I Can.’ And that makes it a feminist act.

Be A person. Not a woman. A spouse. Not a wife. A parent. Not a mother.

And that brings me back to Michelle Obama. That stereotypical Black Madonna. She reminds me of my Russian grand mother. She’s even handling the transition better than Barry. I detect a certain ruefulness in him, a disillusionment. And a nostalgia. She shows an appropriate measure of nostalgia and gratitude (very important for the niggers to be grateful) but relief the Road Show is about to end and maybe now she can go back to some semblance of a normal life. Barry looks like he’ll miss the attention but more importantly that he will miss the power to make things happen. I wonder what he will be next?

Michelle will continue being Michelle, Mother in Chief. Black women (like Russian women) don’t have the privilege of a nervous breakdown. We just get on with it.

She Thought Her Pussy Would Take Her To Heaven.

July 30, 2016
wangechi-mutu-4

The Sprout by Wangechi Mutu

 

She thought her pussy would take her to heaven. That’s what she had been taught and that was what she believed but her pussy is a wasteland. Carrion birds peck away at it. Things grow in it. Nasty things. Dead things.

The beauty industry failed her. Ebony, Vogue, Essence, Cosmo are all full of advice and tips on taking care of the face, the neck, the skin, the hair. But no one told her how to take care of her pussy. No one told her it will shrivel up and die. The experts said “Ignore it till it starts to smell bad” and she looked away.

Her hands are the roots holding her to the barren earth, immobile. The world is upside down! The tree of life is inverted. The tree of knowledge of good and evil. What is good has become evil. What is evil has become good. There is no harvest. There is famine across the earth as Demeter weeps and Ani withholds her bounty.

Who is this impostor? What is this subversion? Hands work, feet walk. Her hands hold her hostage.

At least her feet still sprout new leaves. Her feet remain eager to reach heaven. And fly away with the butterflies. While her head rots. While her pussy reaches for heaven. Not her head. Never her head. Because if she thinks about it her head will explode. Her head rots and her eyes rot and vermin climb out of her mouth. The shit she says. The shit that comes out of her mouth. The shit that comes out of her rotten brain.

Reaching. Reaching for heaven with her pussy.

This is how a girl becomes a woman. Her brain rots. Assaulted with shit in fashion magazines, movies, religion, at home till her brain rots.

When a girl starts to bleed she goes skipping to Mbede, the boot camp in the middle of the forest where girls go when they start to bleed. Dancing on the way to womanhood. It is a deep secret and a shallow promise.

“Move like this, move like that. It will make him happy.”

“Be like this, be like that. It will make him stay.”

“Speak like this, speak like that. He will love you.”

“Eat! Eat it! Finish it! Men like big tits and ass.”

“Look like this, look like that. He will never look away.”

Then she finds out that it hurts. She does not know how to complain. She does not know how to say ‘No.’ A king’s ransom in pearls has been paid for her pussy. A king’s ransom in pearls has been paid for her sight.

Her life force soaks into the earth. Manure for another generation. It is a worthy sacrifice. A noble cause. Children are the future. She lies between the three mountains erected to guard her chastity, her virtue and the family honour. Nothing grows there anymore.

Her feet must grow new leaves before she can leave. Before she can break away. But she cannot. Gangrene eats her flesh, it is dying tissue on a living host. This is the cause of her death. This is what kills her.

 

A Review of Yemisi Aribasala’s ‘Sister Outsider’ 5: Sister Sister Outsider

May 16, 2016

I found Yemisi’s choice of title cynical. Audre Lorde’s collection of essays titled ‘Sister Outsider’ explores alienation, isolation, fear, anger, hatred and ‘the lack of acknowledgement of differences between women that has occurred within the mainstream feminist movement.’

Lorde writes about her experience of exclusion as a black gay woman within mainstream (mostly white middle class) American feminism. Yet she did not reject feminism or the label feminist as result. Instead she is ‘claiming a difficult identity’ and asks to be heard and respected, for her point of view and experience to be recognised.

Is that what Yemisi is asking for too? She is after all not attacking feminism but ‘New Nigerian Feminism’ or ‘pop culture feminism’, the shiny bright feminism of Beyonce and Adichie that has apparently attracted thousands maybe ten of thousands maybe millions of devotees in Nigeria and globally.

But pop culture feminism is neither ideologically nor politically the same with theoretical feminisms. And while the later can and should feed off the energy of the former to achieve strategic gains against the patriarchy it cannot and should not expect or hold these pop culture feminists to the highest standards of feminist principles.

At every Nigerian Feminist Forum NFF and other local feminists gatherings women have disagreed and continue to disagree over support for LGBTQ. Yet the African Feminist Charter to which the Nigerian Feminist Forum and all its members are signatories makes clear that our definitions of feminisms includes respect and support for the rights of LGBTQ.

We rigorously debated and agreed that in order to identify as a feminist our members must support the rights of all people and as well as women to sexual integrity. Many Nigeria women and women’s organisations that wanted to be called ‘feminists’ walked away rather than express covert or overt support for LGBTQ rights. And we let them go.

They are not ‘feminist’ according to our definition but feminism isn’t mainstream in Nigeria, not yet. Feminism in Nigeria is one stakeholder in a vast body of activist women that is the larger Nigeria Women’s Movement.

A lot of the leaders in the women’s movement in Nigeria are feminists – like Iheoma Obibi at Alliances for Africa and Bisi Adeleye Fayemi at the African Women’s Development Fund but many of them are not and yet work with and for women as Zoe Williams describes here.  Likewise being a woman in power doesn’t make one a feminist.

“It takes courage to face your fears, your anger and your hatred” Audre Lorde writes in the essay “The Transformation Of Silence Into Language And Action.”

Lorde wrote women ‘shared a war against the tyrannies of silence’. Shaken by a confrontation with death Audre Lorde decided to speak out and act because, she says ‘you’re going to suffer and die sooner or later anyway. You’re silence won’t save you as a matter of fact it could kill you.’

Yemisi has named that thing she fears – and it is female power. She will not be silenced.

Nwachinemere Reflects on 2015

December 26, 2015

I call myself Nwachinemere because the Universe has been so kind to me. All my life.

As I reflect on the past year I think of the many ways in which it has been kind in 2015.

Its been a year of growth – professionally, personally and spiritually and in one way or the other you have been a part of that. I’d like to thank you. I have deepened my compassion and empathy, my faith in a friendly Universe and my commitment to light, love and a global community.

Some great masters before me said already that we exist for and because of each other. In Africa we have come to call it Ubuntu. Our lives are made richer through each other. Thank you for enriching my life with your presence in it.

It was some other old master (or mistress) that said “Let no one be your friend or foe, let everyone be your teacher.” I have learnt many things from each of you – about life, the universe, human nature, love, work, relationships, politics, happiness, freedom and joy. And its all been good.

Its also been a year of many changes and not just in government or ruling party. There have been personal changes. I’ve let go of old hurts and grievances, old habits and behaviour, old ways of being and old prejudices.

There have been professional changes too – I’ve come to terms with who I am and what I am. And my purpose. And my vision. I’m no longer trying to change the world. Or anybody else. I’m working on changing myself, on being myself, on being The Change.

Of course the environment has undergone radical changes that cannot be ignored – the change in government has brought radical change in the socio-economic and political landscape and requires us to adapt accordingly.

Government in Nigeria is increasingly dominated by patriarchal, patrician and conservatively religious men. Women hold less than 10% of total positions in government – elective and appointive.

This has created a dangerous imbalance that shows up in mass killings, violent crime, kidnapping, insurgency, extra-judicial murder, repressive tactics from state institutions – police, army, traffic police, customs etc etc etc.

There is a branch of feminism known as eco-feminism that likens the oppression and domination of women to the oppression and domination of Mother Earth. It says that to heal the Earth we must first heal the relationship between men and women. How we treat women is how we treat the Earth.

Ayurveda says every individual has a feminine and a masculine nature and a imbalance between the two manifests as disease in the body. Could anything be more apt right now? Isn’t Government and the Earth manifesting dis-ease?

Would gender equity and justice automatically change the world? Well, look at it this way – the sort of paradigm shift required to end women’s oppression would inevitably necessitate the recognition of the rights of ALL Others.

And my personal purpose in all this? To Become More Feminine.

My name is Lesley and I Have A RBF or Resting Bitch Face

August 6, 2015

Who knew there is such a thing as Resting Bitch Face or RBF? I didn’t till I read Jessica Bennett’s article in the NYT last week.

Apparently a RBF is

“a face that, when at ease, is perceived as angry, irritated or simply … expressionless. It’s the kind a person may make when thinking hard about something — or perhaps when they’re not thinking at all.”

Its a bitch face because women are expected to smile and be happy all the time so any deviation from this expectation is questioned. I was born with a RBF. See that frown?  That downward curl at one corner? That sneer?

Me, 2 years old (Copyright Lesley Agams)

Me, 2 years old (Copyright Lesley Agams)

Maybe its a Russian thing. Russians don’t smile a lot (unless they had a lot of vodka). Russians believe people that smile too much are retards or simpletons. Genetic selection in Russia favoured the curled down mouth.  Perhaps it came with a romantic melancholy nature too, who knows.

Me 10 years old (Copyright Lesley Agams)

Me 10 years old (Copyright Lesley Agams)

Anyway,  I didn’t smile much when I was younger. And truth be told I didn’t have a lot to smile about okay. I was as angry as the Mad Hatter.  I was angry my father brought me to Nigeria, I was angry he took me from my Mother. I hated Nigeria, I hated the boarding school with no running water and sadistic teachers and seniors. I hated the university on the outskirts of a crass muddy mercantile Igbo township. I hated the natives and their superstitious beliefs and endless meaningless pointless feuds. I hated Lagos with its traffic jams, its garbage strewn streets and its smelly lagoon.  And then my Mother died before I could see her again. I was really angry.

Me at 18 years (Copyright Lesley Agams)

Me at 18 years (Copyright Lesley Agams)

Strangers used to tell me to smile more, mostly men of course, and older women.

“You will look prettier when you smile”

As if I existed to look pretty for them.

(Here Warsan Shire’s words reverberate “It’s not my responsibility to be beautiful. I’m not alive for that purpose. My existence is not about how desirable you find me.”)

Boning boning even at my call to the Nigerian Bar in 1990. I was 24 (Copyright Lesley Agams)

Boning boning even at my call to the Nigerian Bar in 1990. I was 24
(Copyright Lesley Agams)

Merchant Bank of Africa sent me on a training course back in 1990 or something. I didn’t break a smile throughout the three day course. Hey, back then who ever I smiled at seemed to think it was a come on anyway so why smile at strangers and give them the undeserved opportunity to become a nuisance?

At the end of the course one of the male participants wrote me a lengthy letter (that was before personal computers) about how I should smile more that it would attract more people to me. As if I wanted to attract him. Or more people! (And for the avoidance of doubt I smile when I want to attract someone. You will know.)

I identified with the 19 year old quoted in Jessica’s article –

“It doesn’t make me feel like I’m unhappy, un-fun or unpleasant,” said Noelle Wyman, 19, a junior at Columbia. “My RBF makes me feel serious, pensive and reserved, like someone who only engages those who deserve it.”

Anyway at some point I let go of all that anger, I still had a RBF but I started to smile more. I realised that the RBF doesn’t look so good when you are older. I mean, look at Ben Murray Bruce. He’s got some serious bitch face but he’s a guy so no one calls him that. He looks pained when he smiles! And then compare him to Barrack Obama.

I’m not angry anymore and I smile a lot more than I used to. Smiling is good business. But its also good aesthetics.  I’m vain like that. I’ve cultivated a neutral professional smile. It entails curling my lips upwards. I look better in pictures and selfies. Sometimes I let it reach my eyes. Sometimes its even a genuine and spontaneous reaction to a moment of joy.

A rare smile in my 20's. learning to smile win my 30s and smiling through my 40s (Copyright Lesley Agams)

A rare smile in my 20’s. learning to smile in my 30s and smiling through my 40s (Copyright Lesley Agams)

I’m not saying everyone with an RBF is angry. Or Russian. Or melancholy. Just that I was all three.

You can still catch my RBF when I’m concentrating on something. Look, my son caught me working on something.

Copyright Adindu O

Copyright Adindu O

Meanwhile almost a decade later and long after I had forgotten the incident and with the advent of internet the letter writing guy writes an email. Yeah. He’s a writing kind of guy. He writes another long rambling missive except this time he is begging me to forgive him for his earlier letter. Which I never responded to anyway.

It actually takes me a minute to remember. I’m like, seriously? You been carrying that guilt around all these years? I feel like the Pope giving a benediction when I write back and tell him all is forgiven and forgotten.

“Go and sin no more my son.”

I expect he will write me back asking for a boon but I never hear from him again. I’m kinda surprised. He is for real? Wow. There are still people like that in the world? Awesome.

I know the pressure is on women to smile and be pleasant all the time, and women are very good at smiling and being pleasant in the most disturbing circumstances. An RBF can be an asset, it says, don’t mess with me, don’t talk to me, don’t come near me and hell no do not tell me to smile!

If someone says you have an RBF take it as a compliment, only smile when you genuinely feel like it. Like when you’re taking pictures and selfies. Or see something else you love.

If I Read About One More African Woman Valiantly Resisting Pressure to Marry

October 19, 2013

Groan! Another African woman talking about the pressure she is under to get married. Okay we get it. Marriage is considered a woman’s top priority in Africa and you are not going to succumb to the manipulations of misguided friends and relatives.  You intend to pursue your career until you find Mr. Right, who will let you live your life just the way you want to without expecting you to cook, clean and have babies. Can we talk about something else now?

I speak with all the privilege of someone that got married and had three children all before the ripe old age of 20. No I don’t think, marriage is the most important role a woman has in life, I was not under pressure by anyone to get married or have children either (except maybe my husband). I got married because I wanted to get out of my father’s house as quickly as was decently possible and I had children because I wanted to fill the gaping hole in my soul with some love.

There are a lot of reasons people get married (and have babies) and not all of them have to do with social pressure or family expectation. Some people get married for financial reasons, some get married for love, others get married because they want a house of their own, or a companion to build a life with. Some get married just to have children. No one reason is better than another. Its not a contest and there are no guarantees against heartbreak and divorce no matter how carefully you chose.

All these women grousing that they will not marry simply because they are expected to still insist they are waiting for The One.  So your grouse is not with marriage but with the fact that some misguided albeit well intentioned people are telling you to stop being picky and get on with it already before your biological clock winds down. If you are looking for Mr. Perfect who will tick all your boxes you ARE just being picky. There is no such thing as Mr. Right or The Perfect partner. All relationships are inherently flawed and require a whole lot of work.

I imagine in 10 or 20 years time reading from these same writers today how they regret not having children or regret having children late or the difficulty they are having getting pregnant. You all really need to figure out what it is you really want and stop with the self righteous pseudo feminist bull shit. Either you want to get married and have children (and that’s alright) or you don’t (that’s also alright). African feminism doesn’t need another defensive exposition on why YOU are still single.

Fashion Essentials for the Rock & Roll Feminist _ Louboutin Red Nails

July 15, 2013

It tacky its gaudy, its slutty. Its perfect! Its like slinky sexy fuck me stileetoos for the hands with long nails. It spices up every and any outfit in almost  any color. It adds cheap glamour, pseudo sophistication and femme fatale sexiness. Its Louboutin Red nail barnish.

Red Nails

Worn with a matching shade of lipstick its what every feminist needs when she wants to invoke her fuck you bad-ass sovereign. Its a challenge to any man. Like a red cape to a bull. He won’t know whether to ask you for a date or hate you as you spew your feminist spiel.

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The only thing better are Louboutin Nails

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Wear them like a slut or like a lady. Remember you are a feminist.  Your choice

A Herstory: In Igbo-Nigeria ‘Nneka’ (Mother is Great) is a Way of Life & Powerful Women & Goddesses Make Big Men

March 7, 2012

One day after 7 years wandering across continents and oceans I wake up in my papa’s little village in the jungles of south east Nigeria.

My father came home after 14 years in the Land of the White Man. There is a small party or large reception to welcome him back for weeks. Everyone wants to see him and the Golden Child he came back with.

I am a celebrity. Everywhere we go I am offered sweets, biscuits and Fanta. The village children follow me everywhere. My own personal entourage. They run after me singing ‘oyibo pe-pe’. I’m told what it means. I don’t like it.

I don’t have to do chores unless I want to but I go with the homestead children to the river everyday when they go to fetch water. I go to swim. I swim for hours while they wash their clothes or return home with water pots balanced on their heads.

My favourite place in the whole village is a bamboo grove on the banks of the Njaba river at the outskirts of town. It’s at the bottom of a hill of sharp white sand less than 5 yards from the waters edge. Water seeps out from under the roots and flows like a mini delta into the river.

The sand is so white, the sky so blue and the exuberant jungle is so green. Its cool under the bamboo shoots. I lie on my back looking up at the sky through the leaves. Children laugh and splash around in a cove on the river bank. Women gossip and beat clothes against an ancient log half submerged and shiny from decades of use.

I run and jump into the middle of the river on the other side of the cove where the current is swift and the water muddy brown. I want to see how fast I can swim up river. I hear shouts from the bank and look back.

‘You can’t go there! Mami-wata will get
you!’

I laugh and swim into the swiftest part of the river. The current tugs at my kicking legs like a physical hand about to pull me in and down. I laugh harder. Maybe that’s what they call Mami-Wata.

On the path to the river and in my bamboo grove there are always offerings of coins, sweets, biscuits and Fanta. I asked what they were and was told they were for Mami-Wata or Ezenwanyi the River goddess. She’s half woman and half fish like a mermaid. I know all about mermaids. I read The Little Mermaid by Pushkin and I saw her statue looking out over the sea in Copenhagen where we lived for a year.

I knew mermaids were a myth. Lilia told me so when I was 7 and she told me how and why adults told stories that weren’t true to teach children how to behave. She said all adults knew it was make believe. I don’t understand adult logic.

I march up to the first adult I see as soon as we get back to the homestead later that day.

‘Please tell them’ I demand and gesture at the gaggle of kids behind me ‘There is no such thing as Mami-Wata and mermaids.’

‘Of course Mami-Wata and mermaids are real’ she says with a wry smile playing on her lips.

I look at her scornfully and march straight up to my father huddled in a meeting with some tribal elders.

‘Papa tell these kids there is no such thing as mermaids.’ I demand.

He smiles. ‘Of course mermaids are real. This is Africa.’

I don’t find this funny. My father too? I’m devastated. I KNOW I’m right.

‘Papa. I learnt in school they’re not real’ I start arguing. I mean my white American school.

‘Well the White Man doesn’t know Africa.’

There is no use arguing. He doesn’t budge. I sulk. I know I’m right. The natives can’t be too smart if they still believe in mermaids.

Later that night after dinner Papa tells me a story.

At the beginning of his story is Agwubuo son of Duruabali (Lord of the night) Papa’s grand father. He was born around 1835. When he was a boy he was called Achinike and he was his fathers only son. After his father died his uncle’s plotted to sell him into slavery and appropriate his fathers vast land holdings for themselves.

His mother Lolo Duruabali learnt of their evil plans and ran away with him to her kins men for safety. They sent her and the boy to a master alchemist and magician that lived in the forests of Owu which was across the River Niger.

There Achinike was initiated into the cult of the River Goddess Ezenwanyi and acquired terrible powers from her. When he came back years later he was no longer the boy Achinike. He was the man named Agwubuo (spirit grow)and the spirit called Okwara Agu (first son of a lion) and his mother was the Matriarch of his household till she died.
She married many women for him and he had seven wives. His first wife (my great grand mother) was Lolo Ahunwa. Under the tutelage of her mother in law she learnt to rule her husbands vast holdings and his large household while her Lord and Master, Nna-anyi (father of all) built his empire and practised his craft uninterrupted. He was renowned and feared in the Four Towns.

Agwubuo is a shaman, an alchemist, a magician and an illusionist. He can strike his enemies down with lightning and suspend his walking stick in thin air. He can even change into an old woman to evade his enemies.

Agwubuo’s wives are all small entrepreneurs buying and selling excess produce and doing long distance trade. Lolo Ahunwa is personally very wealthy. Her husband is lender and mentor to men. She is lender and mentor to women.

Agwubuo’s daughters have to marry far away from home because the bachelors nearby are afraid of his retribution if they fight with their wives. His power protects his daughters and grand daughters from abuse in their husbands house. .

It all sounds very romantic but I don’t believe a word of it. I feel very superior to the ignorant natives. Yet I also feel my reality slip, my world view shaken. I feel myself slip like Alice through the looking glass into a world of magic.

In Africa if you don’t have a mother to look after you might as well be an orphan. Papa lost his mother to cholera when he was ten. He rarely talks about what happened to him but I hear awful stories from his sister Alumma (don’t marry beauty). She never married. When their mother died she looked after her younger siblings as best she could till she was too old to marry. Papa promised to take care of her all her remaining days.

With increasing frequency I wonder who is the African woman? It is not gender that oppresses people. Poverty oppresses people, male and female. Privileged African woman exercise considerable power. Mostly to maintain the status quo. They raise children that the status quo.

Privilege makes them opinion leaders among women. They are women leaders. The rules of power are the same. They that have the money make the rules.
The African matriarchs align with their elite husbands to rule. Derive their status from their men.

I’ve changed my mind about reality. Compassion and tolerance replace arrogance and bias. Years pass and one day I return to my bamboo grove. Its gone. Gutted by illegal sand excavation for construction. In its place a gaping hole of red clay soil like a bleeding wound. I imagine I hear Ezenwanyi cry as I turn away with tears in my eyes.