“This is a man’s country,” she said. We were talking about some clubs that are men-only in Nigeria. I nodded my head not completely sure what it meant, but knowing that it certainly seemed that way. It’s hard to describe exactly. Is it a man’s country? Is it a man’s world? For me here it is very different. I’m white and American, and get treated like man in most places – unless I’m being asked for marriage. Also, with my friend Adeleke (white male) all men only talk to him, not wanting to tread on his territory unless we happen to be together. He’s even gotten texts and emails later when the men didn’t even talk to me in their conversation, asking to clarify if we were together – because they’d like to start dating me.
My other girl friend, Nigerian American, laughed to me that in her upcoming wedding her husband would have to pay a huge dowry – “for every degree I have!” – she’s a masters student, incredibly bright, lovely, and very modern/westernized. You have to understand the terms dowry and bride price do not at all explain what actually goes on in Nigerian igbeyawo (wedding). You can’t convert, remember? When you marry someone in Nigeria you are by no means marrying the person – you entirely marry the family. And the family has one hundred percent say over the marriage. When a husband’s family presents their offering at the idana or engagement ceremony, it is not a price, but an investment. It’s supporting the other family for all the education and life they have given to their daughter and saying – we’re all in this marriage together, in support in good times and bad.
There are many things like this that are misleading about gender if you try to convert your understanding from a western or American context out of the Nigerian context. This brings us to something my host father told me last week when my mom was gone. I was attempting to cook a little just to make something edible – and failing. I was trying to fry plantain but trust me, with no gas, electricity, light, etc. it’s harder than it sounds. I was crouched over a little battery stove that barely had the oil boiling. It was going poorly when my father said “let’s just give up. It’s okay.” Ashamed at my lack of skills (Cause I’m actually a fantastic cook at home!) I said “No no it’s okay, I want to try to finish this batch at least when NEPA brings light back” (NEPA is the electricity agency – when the power goes people say “NEPA took light”). He smiled at me and then laughed. “Okay,” he said pointing back towards the kitchen, “You are a woman.”
I don’t know what your reaction to that is now reading it but at the time I beamed at him and just went back to the darkened room with my torch looking for palm oil. And then I started thinking about it a little bit – “you are a woman.” Did that bother me? Why would it bother me? It’s true technically I suppose. Wait, is the context of being in a kitchen weird? I mean, not for Nigeria, no, a woman who can’t find her way around the kitchen doesn’t exist here. But you know what I felt in that moment more than anything? And something I’ve never felt when American men joke about women in the kitchen. I felt incredibly and totally proud.
This is highlighted by another funny story from that morning. My host father and I had been struggling domestically for a couple days. I came home and he was incredibly excited as he told me that a woman friend of his visited that day to see his museum. He told me she was working on her second PhD and that’s why she came to Ibadan. Then he proudly told me that when she came he asked her if she would take care of some domestic chores around the house for us and thus the plates were clean and we had a little more stew. For a second, I couldn’t help it. A little American part of me thought about how it would sound in America to ask a woman working on her second PhD, who came to do research if, yeah that stuff’s great, but could you please wash the dishes cause my wife’s gone? But then I snapped back in it – yes, still proud of all these comments.
Let me explain. Ever since I arrived in Nigeria my Nigerian mother, my teachers who are women, my neighbor who took care of me when I was sick, and market women have ceased to amaze me again and again. My mom is, for no need of a better word, a hustler. She is amazing. As an agbalagba (older respected woman) damnnnnnn she can put any man in his place. She floors any men attempting to knock at my door to harass me, she put this guy in his place for not earning the 500 Naira of work he promised, she feeds my father’s students when they find themselves in need, and she is both terrifying and a sweetheart to the younger children. Other women I have seen carry loads on their heads and back while supporting two babies around their waist. I have seen women fight tooth and nail for ten Naira off something while simultaneously joking around with the woman they are buying from. In the kitchen my host mom grinds yam when a thirty pound stick. I can barely lift the thing! She prepares palm oil herself and cooks fantastic meals. She is a guardian and a community member. All while fervently drilling my little siblings on their multiples every night in order to make sure they get through school.
My neighbor is our resident director. When I was sick she was here every day asking me what I needed. I swear she runs half this town. She bosses everyone around even this king we’re going to meet! She was on the phone the other day yelling at him in Yoruba. A king! While simultaneously telling me about the importance of me finding a husband soon. She is the most organized, scary, and compelling boss I’ve ever seen. I also think she runs several businesses out of her house while keeping everyone in line and also is on the church council. She told us the other day that her job required her to watch over us, but taking care of me when I was sick drove her to love us. She has a mother’s heart, she says – yeah in the soul of a BAMF, I’m thinking. The community of mothers and badasses – by their sorrows, work, and joys they sew the world together.
So you see, if I could haggle half as well, cook half as delicious food, carry half as much, care half as much sweat and tears, defend, protect, and guide half as many children – what a person I would be! You are a woman. Why should this ever sound like an insult? It is a fantastic compliment actually. Yes, this is a man’s world. But men don’t get to see what I’m seeing. Out the back door of are kitchen where my mom conducts business with the market ladies, or through the eyes of a woman trying to support her community or in the kitchen late at night singing songs in Yoruba while grinding eyin to make red oil – men don’t go here. Yes, there are so many things that point to this being a man’s country. But just because some of them should be changed, doesn’t mean that the west can just make any country in their image either. My married friend who told me Nigeria was a man’s world has three or four engineering degrees, but also is a Nigerian wife to a Nigerian husband. She is a feminist, and a Nigerian woman. Is that really so hard to believe?
It is frustrating, not being able to trust men. I have learned to assume they want to “date me.” This means keep bothering me and coming to my house and harassing me and my friends until finally months later I say yes and then we’re basically married. I have learned that most men don’t think I’m very smart when I’m with another male friend of mine and only talk to him. I have learned to not smile at men I don’t know on the street, otherwise it may be a sort of invitation. I have learned to never give out my phone number or email address. It’s hard to make friends as well. Woman, unlike men, aren’t as talkative or warm. They don’t trust easily. People say “Nigerians don’t trust anybody, but get them to trust you and they’ll trust you for life.” Whereas my white male friend is able to reach out to anyone. It’s a man’s country, yeah. Some would argue it’s a man’s world. But women are communal here, they are hard-working, caring, funny, smart, and honestly, run everything. Men may have the government, the groups the ability to go out without hesitation, no thought of being raped or taken, the ability to go where women can’t – they may have the fear, but really it’s women who have the power.
And the food, so that helps. My mom almost starved my father by being gone less than a week, so who is really in charge here?
“You are a woman.” Yes, yes I am.
Funny story of the week:
The largest language spoken in Nigeria is not Yoruba, Hausa, or Igbo. It’s Pigeon. There are many different types of pigeon but it’s like English… but a lot of the times it makes everything confusing because even when people are speaking “dictionary English” they often think words mean thing that they don’t. For example, traveling to Osogbo, we all had to dress kind of nice because it’s a holy place. My teacher turned to me at one point and smiled. “You look skimpy!” she said. I was taken aback. My classmate almost gasped. I knew that Nigerians were kind of pushy and always said what is on their minds but… it was kind of rude, no?
Thankfully, Nigerians are very pushy and always say what’s on their minds. She tapped me on the shoulder and said “oho! You are not going to say thank you, now?” “What?” I said. My friend finally goes “What do you think skimpy means?” The teacher responds “well like very fine dress, no?” We all laughed. Another one is calling someone “impossible” here is actually a compliment meaning they are very free thinking.
Well, Osogbo was fun, I’ll post pictures. And my Nigerian guy friends at the bar last night were laughing at me – I finished a whole entire one beer! They were like “Come on now, you are drinking like a man! I have never seen a woman who could finish it! O kare!” They were very impressed.
It really was legitimately one normal sized beer.