Olorun se, mi o kuku lore (thank God I have no friends) my mother says as she stands by the entrance to my room. She is happy about this fact because she is not compelled to buy some extortionately expensive “aso ebi” for an event. Now, don’t interpret this statement to mean my mother is anti-social and does not have a single friend in this world, it is the opposite in fact. She is a remarkable and very friendly woman; however, she thinks having friends, female friends never bodes well for a woman – because (insert all Nigerian movies stereotypes and ideas about female friendships).
My mother is a strong Nigerian woman that has accomplished a lot, despite the obstacles, and she doesn’t need friends.
When my mother said this, I looked at her incredulously, because foremost in my mind is the idea that a person needs a village – a community outside of their immediate family, and I been working actively to build mine. This is not to say I don’t understand my mother’s concerns, nor consider them valid. I do; I have seen everything she has been through and I might say she is justified to feel that way. However, my life and the way it is unravelling informs me that she might be wrong also.
I watched a video discussing black American women and their deemed superwoman strength today. The notion that black women are “strong, silent sufferers” – even in the face of physical, emotional, mental pain is not one that solely concerns Americans. Nigerian women can also relate to that narrative.
As far as I can recall, every woman in my life has exhibited almost superhuman strength, so much so that I have never seen them falter. My mother has had to absorb one blow from life after the other; she is inexhaustible with seemingly unfathomable strength.
In the course of facing domestic violence, she had to show up to work and other social commitments, with a smile on her face, and boundless energy. This isn’t limited to my mother but also countless Nigerian women who SHOW up regardless of their mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. It has always been expected of us.
We have been reared by women who have told us to shoulder what life deals with us, buckle down slightly under the weight, adjust to the weight of even more suffering and trudge on; no one ever told us that is possible to shrug off the weight and live lighter. To do that is to be weak, and a good woman is not a weak woman. A good woman is relentless, she works tirelessly, and she is restless (without rest). She cannot take a day off to do absolutely nothing. By this definition, I am no longer a good woman. Halelluyah!
A while ago, I was speaking to someone that meant a lot to me and I asked: “did you think your actions hurt me?” the response “no, you seem very strong, like someone that can take a lot of things, so I did not think I hurt you”. When I heard that, the first thing that popped into my head was Maya Angelou’s “did you want to see me broken, bowed head and lowered eyes…”, and in that vein I responded. I said “what did you expect me to do, walk around as if I have the weight of the world on my shoulder?” I got a non-committal sheepish smile and mumbled words as reply.
In retrospect I think whilst I wasn’t expected to act like I had the weight of the world on my shoulder, I was expected to show more vulnerability. I was expected to express those emotions that make me human, things I had been taught either overtly or covertly to keep to myself and try to figure out by myself.
When my friend and I sat down to discuss this, I explained to her that I did not think it was right for someone to be inconsiderate to me because “I seem strong and I can take it”; that to use my strength against me in this way was the worst thing a person could do to me. I was wrong; I confused self containment for strength. So, what did I mean by strength then? Is it my ability to suffer in silence? To cry bitterly in my bedroom, and come out to face the world with a smile plastered on my face? In moments of emotional turmoil, I jokingly say I am performing emotional surgery on myself whenever I go through the cycle of tears, and the subsequent self motivation that follows: I fall apart and I put myself together again. The joke is on me though; it takes a team to perform a successful surgery.
So where does this leave us? “Strong”, alone and isolated with limited support system, near broken but still functional? I don’t believe as Nigerian women we are encouraged to take care of ourselves lovingly. When things happen to us, we rarely take time to absorb its full impact before we are up and moving again: we take a licking and keep on ticking. I have always considered this momentum to be the epitome of strength but now, I am not so sure. It is resilient, and resilience is necessary in life, where does this end? Do we wait like frogs put in a vat of boiling water who only attempt to escape at the last minute because they were adjusting their body temperature to the heat and didn’t realise they were endangered until the final moment? The problem is by the time the frogs decide to jump out of the vat of hot water, they are always too weak to do so, and they die.
I believe salvation lies not only in redefining strength to include the courage to show oneself wholesome love including living our truth emotionally and in all aspects, but as it concerns Nigerian women, embracing sisterhood. No one knows what a Nigerian woman goes through like another Nigerian woman. It is possible to have a community of women who support you, want the best for you, will celebrate you and will not give a thought to harming you; women that will rise above their basest negative feelings. In the digital realm, this idea has become a reality through such groups as FIN. (Females In Nigeria). This is a closed group on Facebook, and a safe space for Nigerian women and we all come together to share our joys, triumphs, heart breaks; whatever it is we want to share, be it the simple joy of cooking a meal rightly, fixing one’s own tire, getting that job, building a house from nothing, any and everything. Some days, I am glad to read someone’s story even if it seems like my own world is perched precariously on a coin and on the verge of collapse. The group’s moderators work hard to ensure it is a safe and positive space for everyone.
It takes a village. It takes a village of sisterhood to combat toxic singular strength. We can give ourselves the permission that we have been denied: the permission to embrace our vulnerability and not see it as weakness, to live our lives and not merely survive it; the permission to be plain, old, flawed ordinary women living our best lives and exploring that black girl magic.
Photo Credit: © .shock | Dreamstime.com