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Theo was about five years old when he discovered that something was wrong at home. This was the age when he had developed sufficient self awareness for his older siblings to begin trusting him with certain types of information. The stories and scenarios varied widely, but the general thrust of the first few messages they passed on to him was always the same – “Be very careful around mummy. Something is wrong with her.” There were stories about being stripped naked, beaten and told to stand outside on the street stark naked, but it all seemed distant and unrelatable.
Being a bit of a stronghead, Theo did not take these hints, preferring to find out for himself what his siblings were so terrified about. In his late 20s now, he cannot remember exactly what happened the very first time he found out, but he does remember that it had something to do with an untidy room. He remembers the sight of his mother flying into the biggest fit of rage he had ever seen and attacking him with a nearby mopstick. By the time she was done with him, leaving his small 5 year-old frame heaving on the floor of his room, covered in cuts, welts and bruises, he finally understood what his siblings had been trying to tell him.
Something was very, very wrong.
“My Mother the Cronenberg”: Theo’s 12 Year Horror Story
In Season 1 Episode 6 of the animated hit series Rick and Morty, crazy scientist Rick Sanchez accidentally turns the whole of humanity into a grotesque species of monster known as Cronenbergs. While the Cronenbergs retain some physical traits, personalities and even social relationships from their previous existence as humans, it is impossible to see them as anything other than shapeless, horrifying masses of organic horror that should ideally be put down.
Rick and Morty did not exist when Theo was a child, but he used the Cronenbergs as an allegory while explaining to me the type of relationship he had with his mother. Just like a Cronenberg was in theory still the same human being they once were, and still maintain a close semblance of regular social order they used to have, his mother on the surface could act like a normal mother, especially in public. Behind closed doors however, she was a completely different animal.
Theo draws a deep breath when I tell him to describe what living with her was like. Almost 30, he still has a small anxiety attack whenever he reaches into his childhood memories. He describes a weird situation where on the surface life was good – a well-to-do- family by Nigerian standards, a great big house, several cars, expensive schools, holiday trips, the whole gamut. Behind this facade however, was the constant feeling of walking across a nest of snake eggs, not knowing when the mother will strike or where from.
Theo’s mom had a particular fondness for drawing blood whenever she flew into one of her murderous fits of rage. The house he grew up in which had the street number 12, later became “Number 12” to him instead of “home,” a gallows humour reference to a prison cell block number. He peels back his shirt sleeves to show me a patchwork of still-visible scars and scorch marks from a series of brutal beatings that started when he was five and didn’t stop until he stopped crying at 14.
There were many more of these he says, but thankfully his skin tone darkened considerably around age 12, hiding the majority of marks and scars. Theo recounts several incidents of incredible violence that he either witnessed or experienced at the hands of his mother. There was the time he came home from school with ink marks on his shirt and his punishment was to punch the rough Texcote wall outside the house for 30 minutes while she stood watch holding a cane in case he stopped, as his hands became torn and bloodied.
There was the time he witnessed her fling a bunch of keys at his oldest sister’s face, hitting her square in the eye and tearing her retina. 23 years later, she still has to wear special glasses. Another time, he remembers waking up on a Saturday afternoon to a commotion, and seeing a thick trail of blood snaking its way around the house from upstairs to downstairs and outside to the car park. Apparently his older sister did not pick a bunch of vegetables properly and the Cronenberg brought out a cane and did what she did best.
Most notably, he remembers when she caught him watching a music video he was apparently not supposed to watch, and she snatched his tennis racket off his wall and turned it into a weapon. His skull suffered a depression and a hairline fracture in the process, but nobody took him to a hospital. To date, he hates shaving his hair low because the depression in the centre of his head is still visible. He estimates that over nine years, the total number of beatings must have come close to 400.
At a point, Theo began sleeping with a meat knife under his pillow because his mother had started quoting the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac and telling him that as his mother, she had the right to take his life if he kept on “misbehaving.” Years later, Theo found out that this threat was used by other parents in a lighthearted manner. In his case, there was nothing lighthearted about it. His mother was a raging psychopath with nobody to tell her “no,” and his dad was a yes man who stayed the hell out of her way most of the time. If she made good on her threat, there would have been no consequences whatsoever for her.
Apart from the physical assaults, Theo recounts the psychological torture she made him go through as he went through puberty and started losing his physical fear of her as his pain threshold went up. At a secondary school PTA meeting in 2002 which was being covered by the newspapers, Theo’s mom got up to make a comment. It was not enough that she had humiliated him by slapping him up in public during a school open day because of the usual “Your son talks in class” comment from a teacher. She was determined to make the point to the entire PTA and the press covering the event that Theo was a devil child who “acts like an angel at home, but is a devil in school.”
Presumably, disparaging your own child in front of 400 people earns you parenting wings. You’d have to ask her why she did it.
Typically, the Guardian reporter present saw that as the only interesting thing that happened all day, and decided to run that as his story. The next day, Theo’s name came out on the newspaper’s centrespread: “ “My Son Acts Like Angel At Home, Devil in School” Says Parent.” Being treated like an inmate at a Japanese prisoner of war camp was not enough. Theo also had to experience the psychological pressure of knowing that he was the single worst child in the whole of Nigeria – and there was a newspaper article to prove it.
For Theo, all of this was not the worst of it though. The worst – the absolute worst – was the pretence. His JSS2 English teacher made him put in an entry for a “Peak Mom of the Year” essay competition because she noticed that this kid was good at writing and hey, “You love your mom don’t you?” How would he explain that he did not? How would he explain that he had no idea why “Your father” was an acceptable schoolyard taunt, but “Your mother” could leave you with broken teeth? Could anyone even begin to understand how much he could not relate?
So he put in an entry that was – every word of it – a complete lie. He took composites of his classmate’s moms as he heard them described everyday, and wrote an essay about that fictional “mom” creature. Unlike the Cronenberg he went home to everyday, this “mom” composite was warm and attractive to her kids, and she did sweet things like smile at them, and pat their heads lovingly, and not chase them around the house dripping blood from being beaten like cows under nomadic herdsmen. As it tends to happen for some reason, his entry beat out over 10,000 entries from 1,500 schools around Nigeria and to his horror, he and his actual mother were invited to be on NTA 10 to compete for the grand prize. Of course he won again, because why not?
The producer said he would have to hug his mother for the cameras, and thus ensued the briefest, most awkward side hug of his life, the first – and last – time he would ever consciously embrace his mother, as she smiled broadly for the cameras with her “Mom of The Year 2003” sash. The picture appeared on the front page of most national dailies the next Monday – Theo’s anxious, secretly horrified face next to his mom’s broad, shit-eating grin as he silently wondered how many weeks free of the bloody beatings this would buy him.
It bought him five. Five weeks.
The Myth: “Real” Child Abuse Didn’t Happen to us
Something that typically finds its way into any conversation about child abuse in Nigeria is the faulty assumption that “real” child abusers walk around pouring smoke out of brightly coloured horns growing out of their heads. To admit the possibility – the reality – that child abusers are our friends, our colleagues, our neighbours, our parents, even ourselves requires a level of self-reflection and willingness to ask hard questions that we are generally not raised with.
The best analogy for how the child abuse topic is treated is how rape is treated. Whenever the existence of a rape culture is brought up, the immediate riposte goes along the lines of “They should worry about protecting themselves from those sick rapists first, instead of trying to preach to them.” This correct-sounding argument seems logical, after all who cares whether rapists exist as long as women can make sure that they never get raped right? Well the thing is statistically, the vast majority of rape victims globally are aged 12-19 years of age, and of that number, 93% of rape victims report that the rapist was known to them.
In other words, any amount of precautions taken to avoid the nighttime dark alley with the hood-wearing bogeyman will prevent at best seven percent of rapes. The vast majority of rapes cannot be prevented by anyone other than the rapist themselves because the victim is someone who trusts them or is in their authority. Sure, she can avoid staying out late or getting drunk or wearing “revealing” clothing, but when she comes home early wearing a full body niqab and her brother or lesson teacher or uncle turns out to be the rapist inside her own home, what is she supposed to do?
That is how child abuse works too. The state of being an abuser is not written on anyone’s face. Theo’s mother did not in any way fit the Nollywood-influenced “Patience-Ozokwor-playing-evil-stepmother” stereotype of what a child abuser should be. In between psychotic episodes, she was not any different to your typical domineering Nigerian parent – annoying, but just about tolerable. Whenever he made it to more than three weeks without one of her violent fits, Theo could almost pretend to himself that he had a normal life and a normal family, like the kind his schoolmates had.
Through the years while those things were happening, she was a respected member of the local community, an upstanding member of her church and the proverbial capable wife. She was an excellent cook who kept the house spotlessly clean, she took care of her husband well and she went to great lengths to ensure that her kids appeared perfect on the outside. On at least one occasion during a temporary dip in the family’s fortunes, she actually sold an expensive asset of hers to make sure that all 5 kids could keep on attending the eye wateringly expensive schools they were enrolled in. If anyone were to confront her with her history of horrendous child abuse, she would firmly deny everything and point to those facts as her defence.
“How could I have abused them when I did so much for them? Why are these children lying against me?”
As Theo informed me, this in fact actually happened once a few years ago when he confronted her after his father’s death. After the well-rehearsed performance routine, interspersed with the obligatory tears and lamentations, her church elders who were present actually ended up kneeling down and apologising to her – they even made him do so too.
The Reality: Nigerian Children are not Human Beings
Theo’s story, horrifying as it may be, could be written off as a statistical outlier. The perfect storm of circumstances that enabled such extreme and prolonged abuse, including economic privilege, geographical isolation, total family dysfunction, religious fundamentalism and a completely deranged authority figure who was answerable to no one, probably don’t come around very often. Despite how sad his story is, Theo’s experience is hardly representative of the Nigerian childhood experience after all.
Or is it?
While picking through Theo’s memoirs to put this story together, I realised that a significant part of the audience that will read this has perfected the art of minimising problems relating to abuse of vulnerable people. Whether it is child abuse or gender based violence, there is always that smug person whose default answer is a dismissive “Sorry about what happened to you, but not all…” These voices sometimes go on to effectively blame the victim by inferring that they did something to deserve it, they could have done more to prevent it or seek justice, or that they are simply cursed and to be despised.
When it is not possible to blame the victim or minimise the perceived severity of the abuse, these voices then move on to what I call “forgiveness blackmail,” chorusing the “F word” as though it were a public obligation that the victim owes the abuser, as against a completely personal decision that is nobody else’s business. This creates an interesting catch-22 for the conversation around child abuse. If the victim says “I do NOT forgive,” the conversation shifts to how “bitter” and “burdened” the victim is, and how they need to “let go of it for their own good.” The victim – not the abuser – thus becomes the bad person. If the victim says “I forgive,” then hooray! The problem is solved, the beef is squashed and everybody can go home. Normal service resumes.
I decided that the most scientific way of establishing the severity of Nigeria’s child abuse problem would be to get a legal and statistical angle on the problem. To this end, I gathered up some interesting UNICEF data on child abuse in Nigeria and I spoke with legal practitioner Solomon Igberaese on the subject. He informed me that despite the existence of the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Nigerian Child Rights Act which is based on it, this Act has not been domesticated around much of the country.
According to UNICEF, six out of every 10 children experience some form of violence. I suspect that the broken down data on physical violence within this number is simply impossible to collect – much like attempting to dam the ocean – so the available data only goes into specifics about sexual violence. One in four girls and one in ten boys in Nigeria have been victims of sexual violence. Nigeria also has roughly 29 million victims of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) – the highest number in the world.
By nature of the subject, reliable research on child abuse in Nigeria is very difficult to come across. There is however, such data available in countries that have similar socially conservative attitudes to those of Nigeria. A 2013 Iranian study titled Maternal Child Abuse and its Association with Maternal Anxiety in the Socio-Cultural Context of Iran gives us a rough approximate picture of how severe and far reaching the problem really is.
Bear in mind that Iran has a Human Development Index (HDI) score of 0.798, which places it in the high human development category. Nigeria in contrast, has an HDI score of 0.534, putting it firmly in the low human development category. Even without accounting for child marriage and FGM, we can only speculate about how bad Nigeria’s child abuse problem must be even in the supposedly educated urban south of the country.
Or maybe we don’t, because we all have stories that we are in fact, repressing.
I just told mine.
Explanations and Recriminations
As I am sure you have figured out by now, “Theo” and I are one and the same person. Every event, image and person depicted above is real and personal to me. I have sat on this story for years, not just because I did not feel ready to tell it yet, but also because I have come to understand that there is always fierce backlash whenever someone says a truth that people do not want to hear. Out of a certain sense of “Family Business,” I have been instructed by respected family members to drop the topic and never talk about it publicly again. I understand where they are coming from, but I must politely disagree.
There are three reasons I have finally decided to put this out. The first is that no matter how it intersects with other people, my story remains my story. A story only has any value if it is told. If I sit on it because of how other people will react or judge me for it, I am denying my instincts as a storyteller, and I am doing a disservice to those whom my story might help. That brings me to the second reason. A few weeks ago, I received this in my inbox:
This is just one of dozens of messages I have received over the past year from people whose lives have been impacted positively by something I put out. The common recurring theme across these messages is a sense of relief that they are not alone and that they are not insane for feeling a certain way, as well as a feeling of being seen and heard because someone has given voice to the questions and pain that Nigerian society has designated taboo.
When I was 10 years old in the middle of my ordeal, my sister sent me a book called “A Child Called It” by Dave Pelzer. That book saved my life because for the first time, I saw someone with an experience I could completely relate to. It helped me realise that I was not the insane person and that my mother’s extremely divergent treatment of me in comparison to my younger sister was a common abuser’s tactic, not because something was wrong with me.
If there is even the slightest chance that a child somewhere is going through some of the outrageous things that I went through, and they might come across this story and understand that nothing is wrong with them and it is not their fault; that they are simply victims of unfortunate circumstances they could not control; and that there is light at the end of the tunnel, then whatever fallout may come afterward is worth it.
My final reason for writing this is to intentionally trigger thousands of readers who are in denial into opening their own memory banks and admitting to themselves that they are also in fact abuse victims. This is important because often it is the abuse victims who parrot the “I turned out fine!” line loudest who turn out to be the worst abusers themselves. A child is like a blank slate, so a consequence of an abusive childhood is often underdeveloped empathy and lowered aptitude for anything but animal survival.
I believe that the Hobbesian state of Nigerian society can be traced in large part to a widespread culture of wanton and gratuitous child abuse, because damaged children almost inevitably grow into damaged adults. The hope is that by reading this story, people can introspect and admit to themselves that just because they see certain behaviours everyday, that does not make them acceptable.
The lady in your compound who constantly beats her children at every opportunity is a child abuser. She cooks great Jollof Rice, she sings in the church choir and she has great gossip, agreed. She is still a child abuser who should be in prison. The man next door who stripped his underage housemaid naked as “punishment” for something she did is a child abuser. He gives you a lift to work, he has a great sense of humour and he told you not to bother repaying the money he spotted you last month. By all accounts he is a great guy. That does not change the fact that he is a child abuser who should be facing criminal charges. There is no sliding scale of child abuse. It is absolute – you are or you aren’t.
Statistically and anecdotally, Nigeria is by some distance, the child abuse capital of the world. We can hide from this as we tend to do, or we can commit to recognising, calling out and amending abusive behaviour against society’s most vulnerable people. If it is too late for us to fix our damage, it is not too late for us to help the next generation avoid becoming like us. If there is the slightest chance that putting myself out there will help this process along, then by all means, I am happy to be the sacrificial lamb.
That will be all.
Dedicated to Matthew Adebayo (14 years old), Toheeb Olukoya (16 years old), Azeem Olufowobi (5 years old) and Chibuike Egeonu (11 years old), some of the child abuse victims in Nigeria who were beaten to death by their mothers and step-mothers over the past three years.