Why Be Repressed When You Can Be Free?

Iyabo Agbelusi

What better way to end a year of explorations on feminine strength, than with where it all begins for me. Iyabo Agbelusi is a teacher, counsellor, avid gardener, grower of things and people, including me. If someone told me a few years ago that I would be interviewing my mother about womanhood and strength, I would have laughed because our relationship simply had no range for the type of conversation in which she allowed me to see her as more than wife and mother. Then one day, she dropped the wall and let me know she wanted a relationship that transcended our roles. That vulnerability disarmed me and is a strength I keep learning from. I know my mother, but I’m not too sure how much of Iyabo I know, so I ask each question cautiously, aware of all the lines we may be crossing.

what does it mean to be a strong woman?

A strong woman is someone who has goals and is determined. She is intentional about who she wants to be and able to enjoy herself in the person that she is. This means you should be able to take a look at yourself sometimes and admit you made mistakes and because you can realise this, you are also a forgiving person. A strong woman doesn’t pretend to be what others want her to be. In fact the opposite of a strong woman for me is someone who just goes along with the crowd for the sake of it.

As with all my interviews, I am as interested in her concept of strength as I am in how it has developed. We talk about how she grew up in a somewhat dysfunctional family in which her father was violent to her mum to the extent that in frustration one day she as a young pre-pubescent girl asked her mother “why don’t you just leave?” Her mother carefully explained that she had to stay for the children’s sake because if she left, not only would she lose them but another woman coming in to the responsibility of seven children was likely to treat them terribly. From our conversation it seems Iyabo viewed this as weakness at the time or at least a conundrum she couldn’t solve — what kind of woman allows that kind of behaviour? But as she has got older and saw situations where the woman had left or died and a ‘wicked stepmother’ had come in, she realised the sacrifices that her mother had made.

That helped me to appreciate my mother and realise that she was a strong woman for staying to take care of us even if it is not a strength that I wish anyone would ever have the need for.

I can’t just leave the issue of staying in a violent relationship without further discussion. I mention that there are those who stay ‘for their children’ and never make it out alive and this statement retrieves a memory:

She died when I was 12 of high blood pressure which i think was caused by the relationship environment. There was no peace. she would probably have lived longer if she’d left but I can’t say what life we would have had as her children.

The reality of the times is not lost on me as these were events in late 1950’s/1960’s Nigeria where there weren’t many options for the woman and men beating their wives was not yet the subject of any legislation making it unlawful. Iyabo talks through some of the options women have today that weren’t available then and notes that there are still those women who prefer to stay instead of being referred to as a divorcee because of societal expectations. Notwithstanding those sad realities, which we could talk about endlessly, I refocus the conversation back to the effect of this early childhood experience on Iyabo’s conception of strength and her reflections are as serious as they are sometimes amusing.

First, as a girl, she decided she would never get married because she would not let any man abuse her. Later, she thought if she was ever to have children, she would limit them to four children so that she could up and leave easily. She bursts out laughing at the thought that she assumed four children was a small number because there were seven of them. Then of course she reckoned with the fact that her mother was also a smart woman — a teacher who having worked all day, came back home to take care of the children and then sew clothes for them and also in a professional capacity. She admired that ability to multi-task and still demand excellence from yourself and that whole environment was a huge part of her decision to excel in school, get a good job and always be in a position to be self-sufficient. Like her mother, my mother is a teacher who has always had a sewing machine that she uses and whose hands are always moving — from the garden to the kitchen, to the DIY, to…Let’s say the ability to multi-task and be self dependent is definitely a character trait that stuck.

Given these early experiences of how women can be repressed and her thinking around how to escape that, it comes as no surprise that when I ask who she considered to be a strong woman when she was younger, she mentions Justice Alakija, who was the second female lawyer in Nigeria as well as Funmilayo Ransome Kuti and the fact that she was willing to stand against the government:

I liked that kind of woman who was bold enough to stand up for women and say they needed to be treated equally in the society. Women who refused to stay in their lanes and chose to step outside the box instead.

In a society where secrecy is often the order of the day for fear people’s shortcomings may be used against them, two older christian women showed her the importance of vulnerability and truth. One spoke to her frankly about infertility issues with her husband and what other issues that threw up and the other was frank about wicked mothers-in-law. She tells me a story about how one of these women kissed her husband goodbye as he left for a business trip. Once he was gone, his mother started to accuse her of working some kind of juju on the man and probably slipping something to him without his knowledge. We laugh but acknowledge that people still live through this type of madness and that sometimes, the repression of women is not just a man’s game. Iyabo insists that this is why you surround yourself with thinking people whose values align with yours. These christian women were accomplished but humble and not afraid to admit mistakes. For them all of life was a learning curve and she took this as an example of how she wanted to live.

All this talk of growth invites my usual question about the moment or season in which she stepped into womanhood. At first she recalls the process as a list — go to university, do the mandatory National Youth Corp Service, get a job, get married, have children and do womanly things. As she started ticking these things off, the realisation slowly dawned that she must be becoming a woman. I ask the question in a different way in the hope of getting a more self-aware answer:

when did you step into your power as a self-sufficient woman?

I worked for two years after my A-levels before attending university but the thing that comes to mind is that I got my driver’s license the year I graduated from university. This is important because we were living in a university environment when we first got married and the men would have programs abroad from time to time. When they were gone, I would hear some of the other wives say ‘oh I’ve never been to the bank before, I don’t know how to fit the gas or change the car tyres’. I obviously knew how to change my gas cylinders and go to the bank, but I started to learn other things. How to change my tyres, for example. It was the season of making sure I didn’t need to say ‘my husband usually does that’. I made sure I wasn’t helpless.

Speaking of making the gradual leap into adulthood, we stroll backwards to secondary school. Iyabo had looked forward to going to boarding school her whole life and when the occasion finally came, she was in school only two months when she lost her mother. She remembers the ‘Iyabo doesn’t have a mother’ whispers around school. More than that she remembers two women, one of whom could have passed for her mother’s younger sister, who took her under their wings: Mrs Aderibigbe and Mrs Sijuola.

They asked questions about how I was doing, they saw and nurtured me even though I didn’t know I needed it. It reminds me of the fact that parents used to drop their children at our house to stay with my mum sometimes for whatever reason. Maybe they felt their children would benefit from staying with a teacher for a while. I don’t know why she did it but you too grew up with different people living in our house, so maybe that’s where I got it from.

It’s news to me that this behaviour was a pass me down. I do remember always having secondary and or university students in our house growing up. At some point I just wanted my room to myself but my mother, (both my parents to be fair), had a thing for parenting people they didn’t give birth to. I guess it’s a testament to who she is and her abilities to grow things/people. As someone who set high goals for themselves, I was curious to know if Iyabo ever surprised herself with achievement.

She recalls the moment when the family was moving from Zaria in Northern Nigeria, to Akurę, she decided she was going to take seedlings and cuttings of lemons, grapes, oranges and various plants with her. Unsure of how they would survive in a different climate, she took them anyway and started a farm behind our house. I still remember hoeing the never ending mounds to plant maize. She remembers the bountiful harvest. The lemons and grapes also grew and were successful to the point that the agricultural department at the new university came to get cuttings from her so that her personal project became something that helped academics and she found that impressive. So do I. It’s also a reminder that sometimes, the things we consider to be small can become foundations for larger things we haven’t yet dreamt about.

In many ways, listening to my mother’s story makes me think her conceptualisation of strength and her idea of womanhood were shaped by defiance of a culture that would gladly repress her and determination not to become a willing participant in that game. I wanted her to expand on how Nigerian society conditioned children but especially girls, in ways that she had to unlearn intentionally.

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

The boys are meant to be the ones who grow into strong successful individuals and the girls, women are expected to cook, clean, get married, have children, all those things that frustrated me growing up when I wondered why all that responsibility was the woman’s role. That said even before my mother died, every once in a while on a Saturday morning my dad would declare he was cooking and we would all get excited because it wasn’t normal. When mum died, he taught each of us boys and girls alike how to cook. He would say ‘it’s like science class in school, this proportion of peppers, this proportion of onions, etc. He made sure we could all do housework so when I became a parent it was easy for me to pass that along and make sure all my children could look after themselves. Whenever my son called from university for a reminder on a recipe, that was a good feeling for me, that I raised children who could care for themselves.

In terms of things that were unlearnt, we touch on the value system that dictates boys have more inherent value — the men who married new wives when the first didn’t birth boys, the denigration of those mothers with only girls and ultimately the outworkings of the egos of men who were more concerned about passing on their names than actually caring for their children. Unlearning this value system wasn’t intentional as such but as time passed she realised that it was the parents with girls who had people to care for them in old age. As far as achievement was concerned, at St Annes girls in Ibadan where she schooled, many old girls who had big positions in the civil service came back to give talks so she saw that there was no difference there either and all those experiences made her comfortable aiming as high as she wanted. The other conditioning was this silence — men were free to express their full selves but women were encouraged to be quiet — seen and not heard.

I got to that stage when I just felt I have to speak my own mind. I don’t want to just be pressed into the mould. I am an individual and I want to be able to express my thoughts and my feelings. There were people who considered it rude or forward but as far as I was concerned, it couldn’t be right for me to be a repressed human being.

That answer reminds me that my mother is a no-nonsense woman. I ask what armour she wears to go out into the world and she pauses for a minute before telling me:

prayer, a dress that is comfortable, a face that is well groomed and a good hairstyle that frames my face.

What does sisterhood mean to you?

Close reliable friends who I can speak my mind to with ease and know that they accept me for who I am. They don’t necessarily have to agree but they know, okay, so this is what’s Iyabo thinks. This is how she feels about it. These women are warm and outgoing and they don’t consider themselves to be in competition with me.

Through our conversation and what I know of her life, my mother is a highly capable, caring woman. Everything she does has its purpose and I wonder what she she considers hers to be:

To please God. Breaking that down in my interaction with people, I desire to contribute something positive that brings life into the lives of those I interact with so that they’ll hopefully be better off when they leave me than when I first met them.

Two years ago, our family moved from the house we’d lived in for almost twenty years. My father, a vicar, was retiring and it was also my parents 40th wedding anniversary. People came from within and outside of the country representing all those 20 years, but more than that, students who had graduated under her some 2 to 3 decades prior and who were now based in the UK made a point of coming to show appreciation for the fact that she (they) had made that very kind of positive impact that she speaks of above.

To end, I ask if she ever thinks of legacy and what she wants hers to be?

Iyabo Agbelusi, a wife, a mother, a woman who loved God and made an effort to be a blessing and exert a positive influence in her relationships.

Somewhere in our discussion, my mother speaks of regret in the context of not pushing for a real relationship with me sooner. For me, the focus is different. A few years ago, my mother brought herself to me to declare that our relationship wasn’t working, she made herself open enough to actually hear me and try to see a different perspective of things. That level of vulnerability was not one I expected from her or any Nigerian parent. It required a kind of humility that is absent from our ‘parent is always right’ Nigerian culture. On several occasions since we have butt heads, but the whys aren’t what I remember. What comes back to me over and over again about the woman I am discovering, is the way she takes her time to work through discord — feeling it, processing the responses to it, apologising when necessary and asking even me, to hold her accountable if she slips. How counter-cultural this is, isn’t lost on me. If her story doesn’t scream it already, this by itself, is strength.

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Tolu Agbelusi

Nigerian British poet, playwright, producer, educator and lawyer, I write stories that focus on the unperformed self, Blackness and womanhood.