The Gospel According to Lesley: The Evil Step Mother

Since I have introduced My Evil Step Mother let me say something about her.

She didn’t stand a chance. My Mother is a Goddess. Which woman can compete with that? My Evil Step Mother lost the popularity stakes before you even began. And she didn’t make it any better when she decided to comb my matted dreadlocked hair instead of just cutting it off when she first met me. Dreadlocks? You may wonder. Yes. I had dreadlocks at the age of four because my father didn’t comb my hair in the one year after we absconded from the Soviet Union before she joined us.

Her name was Lilia. I’m still trying to find out if she is dead or alive and whether maybe she left me something in her will. Because I have an enduring fantasy that somewhere somehow I have a long lost relative that will leave me something in his or her will. Being remembered in a will, inheriting something, is like being affirmed or validated, its like saying ‘you belong.’  Agatha Christie’s characters were always left something in someone’s will.


Lilia wasn’t all that bad really. I know she crossed the road once rather than walk on the side walk in front of a Jewish centre and that she regularly made fun of my father’s nose, our fat lips and our kinky hair. I know she had a racist opinion about every thing from black sexuality to black crime which she shared freely with me even when it wasn’t age appropriate. I know she only married my father to escape The Soviet Union. My Mother would never have considered doing such a thing. Like I said, a goddess but she didn’t know that my father would take me when he left. She didn’t even know that he could.

I also know that Lilia Nikoliayevna Zviaglosky did not sleep with my father. We’ll come to that later.

In my imagination Lilia was evil because she made me sit to learn sewing, knitting and crocheting when I would rather be outside playing in the woods behind our estate or swimming or something. I was a bit of a feral child. She did evil things like comb my hair, which hurt. She tried to make me learn the Russian alphabet and how to read and write in Russian. She even made me go to bed at 8 o’clock on Summer nights when it was still bright outside. I would lie in my bed listening to children playing outside in the sun and hate her. She was so evil she cut up my beautiful white synthetic leather boots that were all the rage in America in 1974. Then she stitched up the cuts and made me wear them to school! (I was too young to own it and it was too long before Michelle Pfeiffer popularised that look in 1993.)


I thought she was a real evil bitch. Unlike The Goddess, my real mother.

There is a price to pay for everything. Lilia paid the price. Eventually she divorced Dr. Agams and last I heard married some guy named Fred G. Paradin. Fred used to take her to Vegas on dates. The Divorce was epic. Dr. Agams filed a cross petition and included the CIA, FBI and KGB as co-respondents but not Fred. Shortly after that Dr. Agams brought me to Nigeria. (Specifically to Umuaka, a Mediaeval Little Kingdom on the banks of the Njaba River in rural south east Nigeria where I was to send the second decade of my life.)

After living in Nigeria Lilia doesn’t seem like such an Evil Step Mother after all.

You haven’t seen or heard about Evil Step Mothers till you come to Nigeria. Nigerian women seem to think that being nice to their husbands offspring by other women is a crime. Its like the default setting is Evil Step Mother Mode. I think maybe it has something to do with loyalty to your mother’s hut in polygamous homesteads. A mothers primary responsibility is to protect you from abuse. Children without mothers were targets and little better than orphans. Men never raised kids.

Evil Nigerian Step Mothers will starve you, beat you, cut your prick off if your a boy, or your eyes and tongue, shave your head if you’re a girl, especially if you are a pretty girl, make you do all the house work like Cinderella,  make you sit on the dining room floor to eat while her children ate at the table and generally make your life so miserable that you eagerly marry the first person that asks you when you are 15. Just Google ‘step mother Nigeria’ and see for yourself.

I can hear you saying “Not me! Never.”

So long as you know that your step children will never like you and will never be grateful for whatever kindness you show them. A Nigerian woman spent years raising her step children like her own. When her husband became terminally ill these step children manipulated her and her three children out of her home of over 20 years and brought their mother, who was married to someone else by then, to bury him when he died. The poor woman and her there children got nothing from the estate.

So I still call Lilia, My Evil Step Mother. I’m The Ungrateful Nigerian Step Child. And I’m still hating on her for what she did to those boots.



MzAgams@50:Better Than Ever

My father loved to tell the story of how I was born at precisely 12noon on Wednesday, January 5, 1966 at my grandmothers apartment on Leninovsky Boulevard in Central Moscow. It was -14*C outside. Snow covered every where, white and fluffy on the spaces in between black and melting slush in the streets. It must have been easy to convince him not to go for lectures that day, and easy not to want to rush off to the state run hospital till it was too late. I made my prompt arrival right there with just the two of them attending. My mother was 18 my father was 28 or so.

I arrived squalling and squealing at the indignity of it! Why on earth would you NOT go to the hospital on time and ensure that I had the best medical care available from the minute I took my first breathe! If I coulda I woulda slapped them upside the head for putting ME at such risk. I mean, anything coulda happened! Thankfully I survived their youthful inexperience and stupidity. I’m pretty sure my grandmother slapped them upside the head when she came home from work.

The Beatles were trending around the world. That doesn’t sound quite right. The Beatles were causing mass hysteria all over the world and going viral 30 years before the internet gave viral a new meaning. My father travelled to the UK from Russia pretty regular and brought Divine Mother Ludymila all their records.

The Cold War between Soviet Union and the West was at detente. Brezhnev was Chairman of the Communist Party and head of state and Lyndon B. Johnson presided in the White House. Of course the Queen was and is still the Queen unaffected by mere economics or democratic whims.  My grandmother named me Elizabeth. Not Leona and not Linda.

Black demands for civil rights were growing in the United States. Malcolm X was killed in 1965  and the Watts Riots followed in July of ’65 and again in March of ’66. The Black Panthers were formed later that year. The increasingly violent racial tensions in the United States reflected similar tensions in the newly independent colonial states heavily influenced by Franz Fanon struggling to carve out an identity for themselves and severe the yoke of colonialism.

Liberations struggles flourished across Africa. Samora and Machel in Mozambique, Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Mandela and Tambo in South Africa. Nigeria  had gained independence in 1960 and Nnamdi Azikiwe was the President but unrest was brewing in the Western Region. My birth  seemed to herald the 1966 coup, the ensuing slaughter of Igbo-Nigerians and the civil war that followed.

Would you be tempted to say – if thats the case perhaps better you had not been born then. I know I’m thinking the same thing but I was. I also think I would have to be a narcissist of anti-christ proportions to think my birth heralded so much drama, chaos, death and blood shed. I’m pretty sure there is no metaphysical correlation what so ever. Still, it makes for a compelling story line, don’t you think? A Hammer House of Horror Special – the Anti Christ is actually a WOMAN!

I could also frame the narrative of my birth around space exploration, in 1966 the Soviet Union led the Space Race and it was a great source of pride and common dinner conversation topic.  My aunt and my grandmother were all committed communists. The state could do no wrong. They were very proud. I grew up believing I could be an astronaut if I wanted to be.

Then there was the pop culture backdrop; the mini skirt was becoming a staple fashion item, Andy Warhol ruled New York, Jacqueline Sussan published ‘Valley of the Dolls’, and Harold Robbins published ‘The Adventurer’, classics I didn’t read till 20 years later.

In Africa Chinua Achebe published his third book ‘Arrow of God’ and Lagos, Nairobi, Accra, Abidjan and AddisAbaba competed for position of most cosmopolitan African city south of the Sahara.

In Moscow produced excellent soviet films, theatre, ballet and opera. Perhaps my grandmother was a bit racist in steering me towards dance and music where she assumed my half black nature would lead me to excel  instead of chemistry or physics where I guess she assumed my half black nature would not. I think I would have excelled at maths if given the opportunity.

Later in 1966 Pope Paul VI and Arthur Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury meet in Rome – the first official meeting for 400 years between the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches. And England will defeat Germany to win the World Cup. The first episode of the science fiction television series Star Trek premieres in the US.

I arrived in the midst of all this creative tension and euphoria of possibility and potential. And I arrived in a hurry. I’ve never slowed down. I’m always in a hurry.  I graduated high school at 15, university at 20 and law school at 22. Company secretary at 26, set up my first enterprise business at 28.

I also found time to get married, have three children and lose one by 20. By 22 I had lost the husband too having decided he was more of a hindrance than a help along this highway to somewhere fast that I was on and I became a  single mom. Now with hind sight I have to marvel at this very young woman’s very big balls. She had very big dreams.

She also has a big big heart. No matter how many times her heart was broken she kept looking for that elusive crazy little thing called love – with lovers, friends male and female, family, mentors it didn’t matter the relationship. There had to be love.

Its truly amazing looking back on my five decades of experience. I never really thought i would see the Big 5-0. In my melancholy troubled youth I determined not to live longer than my Divine Mother who died at 41. In protest or loyalty or just childish angst or maybe just out of vanity influenced by Blondie’s song – ‘Die Young And Stay Pretty’ – I decided I would not live beyond 41.

Despite my high risk self destructive lifestyle I made it to 50. It is truly a miracle. I should have been dead long long ago.  Well me and most every other Nigerian living in Nigeria too. Life expectancy for women is 55 compared to 52 for men. Technically I’m in the twilight of life already, an elder with just 5 years left on the clock. Well I feel like life is just starting!

Kind of tragic when you think about. People dying in their prime in Nigeria. I’m no longer so young that feel I have all  the time in the world and yet I’m not so old that I feel life is over for me either. I really does feel like a whole new possibility of life. I didn’t feel this positive when I turned 40.

I mean I was grateful that I was no fool at 40. I remember thinking – phew I made it!  I just didn’t feel a momentous difference. I didn’t really feel grown up yet. And I guess I do now. Well sorta. In some sort of way. I feel myself consciously ‘putting away the things of youth’ – like the insecurities, and the neurosis and the angst and the driven pursuit of an elusive ‘happiness’.

There is confidence in looking back and knowing you’ve played this game called life for 50 years and survived. There has been trauma, crisis, divorce, melodrama, birth, death, sickness , bankruptcy. Amid all the thorns there have been beautiful roses – children, family, friends, weddings, feasts, ceremonies, christenings, graduations, special places and special events.

I started travelling extensively at 23. I told people I was collecting memories and experiences instead of silver and gold. Boy was that true. Its been a rich and rewarding five decades. The good, the bad and the ugly have all shaped this amazingly unique person that I am. I like her. Anybody else’s opinion doesn’t count.

I’m looking forward to the next five decades. You know me, the overachiever. Now that I have passed my previously set age to die of 40 and clocked 50 I fully intend to reach 100. And why not? Its like a second chance at life. Might as well start planning 2066. Age we do not fear, we just don’t want to be decrepit.

The second half of the adventure is just beginning. Stayed tuned. MzAgams at 50 is better that ever.


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

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.