(With Nigeria in the grip of a rape pandemic, Ucheoma Onwutuebe pens a poignant piece that is both prognosis, diagnosis and indictment.)
A friend and I were trading childhood memories and he told me of a time when he and his friends, all little boys, heckled a woman dressed in a tight pair of jeans. They followed her down the streets, hitting on empty cans and tins, chanting Nwanyi-trouser.
In those days, in the shanty parts of the small town where we grew up, it was considered brazen for women to wear trousers and the ridicule that came with donning a pair was almost inevitable. Men who sat on low fences and on street pavements, passing lazy afternoons in the languor of card and board games, suddenly lit up when they saw a woman walk by. They basked in the fond habit of pestering, touting and following women, (it was worse if they were dressed in trousers) until their victims were terrified into offering a response, acquiescing to their touch or fleeing the perilous scene. So rampant was the act that it is not surprising my friend and his fellow boys picked the habit, perhaps growing into men to whom bothering women was normal.
By the time I reached adolescence, wearing trousers ceased to rouse such attention from urchins and idle men. Many women were sporting jeans trousers without fear. My mother approved of them and also wore hers unabashedly. The bedeviled botherers of years past could have hardly been her lot, seeing she was married and men were careful not to harass another man’s wife.
But even when trousers had become the norm and I was a young girl prancing around in mine, I was not spared my share of worry as I walked the streets; I was not removed from the fear familiar to women who had known cat-calling firsthand. And because there was something irresponsible- call it a juvenile worry- in telling the adults at home that you dreaded to cross over to the other side of the street whenever they sent you to buy items from a nearby kiosk ‑say a box of matches suddenly run out in the middle of cooking‑ or that it was nightmarish to fetch water from the borehole on the next street because a particular man who lived few houses away followed you, I nursed my fear privately.
This man who followed me would say to me Baby, My wife, Baby talk to me na, and many times, he would make attempts to hold my hand. He found my fear and resistance so delicious that it egged him on. Whenever it was time to run errands, I would brace myself, take deep breaths, trying to calm my heart. Ignore him, I’d say to myself, do not smile, do not greet him, he may not be there today.
If I was with my aunty, this man would greet her with warmth and they would exchange pleasantries, and he would remark playfully on how I would not give him a chance at love, and an excuse about my shyness would be made by my aunty. Then, I came to believe this was the manner of all adult men: the following, the attention, the expressions of love; these were all methods of appreciating my beauty, my existence. At home I’d berate myself and think, If only I was not shy, if only I was not so stuck up in my ways, it would have been easier to deal with this man and his attention.
But I was shy, and excruciatingly so. I was never a gabby child. I remember another man whose unwanted attention was a thorn in my flesh. I will call him Nwoke. I met him in the compound where we lived for the first fifteen years of my life, a yard filled with the activities of other tenants. For a long time, my parents were the only young couple there amidst a battalion of youth, especially male. Two men lived downstairs and Nwoke was one’s younger brother and he visited often. He was friends with my aunties and he must have been good-looking because they stirred and warmed in his presence. But, he called me his wife all the time and for that I despised him. So much was the terror and distress he caused me that if he was coming one way, I’d flee the other way . If he was downstairs, I’d lock myself in. I must have been five or six then. As a game, to amuse themselves, I’d be tricked to where he was. Come outside, come and see something, come quickly, and tada! there he’d be. He’d pounce on me -one time he lifted me high in the air – and my squirming brought them great delight until I fled and hid and wished I wasn’t so shy.
There were more unwarranted proclamations of wifehood, uncomfortable showing of interest; even boys only a few years older borrowed these tricks and they performed them as a rite of passage, honing their skills in bothering women. I still recognize the fear of a cluster of men seated by the wayside on my way back from school; I remember the familiar and clammy touch of market men, the presence of men who trailed you in their cars and insisted on offering a lift you did not ask for. And how can I forget the year 2010 when schools were on strike and I had discovered a new joy to fill the idle hours: the State Library. Lost in the abundance of books and the mothball smell of knowledge; the quietude, the archaic furniture and dust-coated ceiling fans- I believed I had found a sanctuary. But trust a boy to kick the joy out of the experience. First he passed a note, I like you. I looked up at the bearer, he did not meet my fancy. I ignored him. But that was preamble. Every day, he followed me to the tuck shop when I wanted a refill; he took the empty seat next to me and walked beside me on my way home, never relenting in his confession until I devised a technique of coming to the library in the company of a male friend.
Today I cast my mind back to the afternoon I and my friend traded stories, the one who once chanted behind the woman in trousers, an act he deemed another innocent childhood adventure, and I am concerned anew at the high price that that particular woman and her peers must have paid to walk down the street bravely, aware that they would be followed by street urchins, aware that men would try to touch them on account of their outfits. Did she wear them, her jeans, again and again or did she hide the trousers away for shame? Did she pass through another route to avoid embarrassment or did she call their bluff and stayed with her fashion? Who was the first woman to wear trousers publicly in that little town? Did she palpitate, just like I did, before she left the house, bolstering her courage in front of a mirror? How must it have felt to need courage for something as simple as a walk down the street?
Soon I learned that a man following me was a problem of very little significance. There were girls my age, mostly helps, who had come to our town to assist madams with chores; girls from whom I heard bizarre tales of their nightly encounters on the streets. They, being the runt of society, were easy targets for molestation. Men knew they were not of much worth to their madams and they could abuse them without consequence. One night I heard our helps talking in hushed tones: a girl who lived not too far away was raped in a gutter by a soldier.
And the silence such violence was met with. The hush. The fear that someone would find out and make an outcast of the victim. Some girls who were bold enough to report what they suffered were beaten and accused of tarnishing the images of the men who violated them; some were sent back to the village for being promiscuous. But such was the town we lived in; the brave thing was punished and the grave, passed over.
In that same town, news traveled rather quickly. I remember when a neighbor left her violent husband who would eventually win custody of their children. It was the most scandalous thing I witnessed as a child: a woman walking away without her children. How dare she? People asked. It was not normal, far from appropriate. No one I knew had done something of such magnitude in sinfulness. Of course we often heard them fight and toss utensils and bang against things, but a man beating his wife was more common than a woman walking away from such violence. And even when we chanced upon her on the streets after she left, in our eyes she looked so bereft, prone to ridicule, stripped of the protection we had allotted her. She had become a pariah, an abandoned house no one would ever take shelter in. We were tempted to cross to the other side of the street to avoid greeting her and we wondered whether perhaps she remained with her abuser, her life would have been better. She was at a loss, we believed, because we were not familiar with women who took their destinies in their hands.
For my neighbor who walked away from violence, those who jeered at her were many. I tried to understand the anger of those who sneered at her guts, who questioned why she raised her head above the dictates of society. Same way I cannot make sense of the eagerness to shave off the hair of the new widow and the unkindness of the in-laws who strip her of property and leave her to tend to children on empty coffers; I have tried to understand mothers who talk their daughters back into the waiting arms of danger just to maintain the outward appearance of propriety. I still do not get the fear of those who conceal rape because a family name needs to be protected.
Image rape culture as a bird, it is the cowardice of silence that gives it wings; if misogyny were a beast, the weakness of turning a blind eye buffs its fangs. How we unwittingly become vassals of an abominable culture, fighting to save face and hiding under the cloak of theweak excuse that we do not speak openly of such things in our culture. But is culture cast on stone? Is culture incorrigible?
Anyway, I found little victory against Nwoke. He had returned to visit his brother. I was thirteen or fourteen then, still shy but not as severely. He was older now, burdened with life’s vagaries. He teased me again but half-heartedly. And thanks to the years past, his teasing lacked its usual sting and seeing him without the vibrancy of his youth, the terror in me diminished. But still…
It came to pass we were all fetching water at the central tap in the yard and he was there with my uncle who was also his friend, talking adult things, talking and talking. A jerry can was filling up and grabbing its cap, I took capfuls of water into my mouth but I did not swallow. Soon my cheeks bulged with a mouthful of water. Nwoke made to leave since it was growing dark and the mosquitoes whined. But as he drew close to me, to touch me as usual, I spat at him.
(Ucheoma Onwutuebe’s works have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The LipMag, Brittle Paper and others.)