When I woke up today, I didn‟t know I would end up telling you this story. All I wanted to do was get to the shop as quickly as I could, and finalize the designs for this season‟s new collection.
So I staggered out of bed and got ready in an hour, with the intention of beating the horrendous Lagos traffic.
I hadn‟t the slightest idea I would be seating in front of my laptop all day. Believe me it didn‟t cross my mind.
I was searching for my car keys when I found the dusty magazine under the shelf. At first, I paid no attention to the grimy thing, but you know how nostalgia overwhelms. Suddenly I was flipping the pages, grime and all. It‟s not like I was having any luck with the key anyway.
It was the GLOW Magazine from years ago, with a 20 year old me on the cover. Looking at her, I realized how my life had changed over the years. How my priorities had readjusted, to accommodate new responsibilities. More vividly, I remember how it all happened.
My name is Aishat, and that‟s the only thing about me that hasn‟t changed.
I was born in Kano State, to a family of 17 at the time. My father was the Imam of the central city Mosque and my mother, the second of four wives, was a trader. I was my mother‟s third. We were devout (because then, the word “fanatic” would be an affront) Muslims and as such, the only piece of clothing I was allowed to adorn were handed down chadors from my “mothers” and sisters. Needless to say, I never had anything new until I was 11.
I‟m not really sure if my proficiency was as a result of circumstance or talent, but at a very young age, I began to reproduce the designs I saw on other women while on my way to school or the mosque.
I had a secret drawing book I kept to myself. As time passed, I got better with my reproductions and I began to add details, patterns and shades. I soon graduated to drawing my own original designs. By age 9, I already had my first collection. It was my little secret. It was my dream.
As much as I can remember, I have always been a rebel. I never had the slightest regard for authority. I had a Christian friend named Mary who lived a few blocks down my street. When no one was looking, I would sneak to Mary‟s house. I‟d try out her clothes and draw them on my little book. It got to a point where I didn‟t need to take my drawing book along anymore. I had all her clothes drawn.
Sometimes, we‟d try out some of her mother‟s make-up. On those rare occasions, I‟d bring my drawing book, and I‟d take a peek at her mother‟s closet while Mary ravaged her lips with her mother‟s lipstick. In all my escapades, I was never afraid of getting caught.
We did get caught one day. We‟d just finished painting our nails when Mrs. Udeh walked in on us.
At first I was livid. No, now that I think of it, transfixed would suffice. Here I was, with my drawing book and pencil, and a dress spread on the bed. Her dress. She just stood at the door way, taking it all in. By now, Mary was whimpering and stammering away sorrys. I managed to get off the bed fiddling with my pencil, all the time looking at the floor.
After what seemed an eternity, she sighed and said,
“At least now I know who‟s been moving my things”.
Em…ok did I miss the part where she’s supposed to yell at us, give us a good beating and then take me home to get beaten some more?
“You! Better go and wash that horrible make-up off your face, or I‟ll make you wear it to school tomorrow”
She continued, stifling a laugh.
“And you,” She said, this time, looking at me, “what were you doing with my…”
She stopped short as her eyes darted to my drawing book.
As she reached for it, I instinctively lunged, aiming for the book. She reached it just as I did too, but she had stronger arms. She flipped through and I watched as her
curiosity, transformed into surprise, and then to wonder. She liked what she saw, and I think, she marveled that it came from me.
She looked up at me, and in one of the most calming tones I‟ve heard, she said, “Its ok, Aishat, I won‟t tell”.
I wasn‟t supposed to, but I believed her. I barely knew her then, but from that moment, I knew I could trust her. I unknowingly made a dependable ally that day.
What can I say, my serendipity even at that time was…what’s the phrase…yes…Off-The-Charts…
So, from that day until we parted ways, I went to see Mary, every chance I got. We had our own dolls now, and mini-make-up kits. Mrs. Udeh specially bought a model sewing machine so we could practice, but all Mary wanted to do was make-up.So now, looking back, I could say that at age 9, I already had my first sewing machine.
As the years passed, Mrs. Udeh would ask for my drawing book to see the new sketches I‟d made. She‟d then make me try to replicate them, first with sewing paper, and then later, as I sewing improved, with real cloth.
While she was no professional tailor herself, Mrs. Udeh loved sewing. For her, it was more than a hobby. For her, it was an adventure.
I was her first apprentice, and she devoted her time to pouring wealth of knowledge and experience on me.
And so I blossomed. I made dresses every month. I even designed and sewed some of Mrs. Udeh‟s and Mary‟s clothes.
The sad thing was, as good as I was at 10, I couldn‟t own any of my designs. My father wouldn‟t hear of it.
Our house was a big house, in size and number. At a time, we numbered 50. Relatives far and near would come around for a while, it didn‟t matter how long they wanted to stay, they were always welcome.
I remember a time when some of my cousins came around. I just turned 10 that July. There were four of them. Hassan, the eldest, was 18. Mariam was next, at 11. The other two Malik and Ahmed were just 5 and 6 respectively.
I always saw in my cousins, distant brothers and sisters who‟d come once in a year to spend some time with us.
But I don‟t remember this holiday for the times I played with them. I remember it for the scar it put on my mind.
One night, after supper, I went to bed early, thinking about the next designs I‟d draw later that night when the whole house was asleep. At about 1:00am I woke up with a start. The room was dark as usual, but I thought I saw something moving. I followed it but lost it to the surrounding darkness.
I passed it off as nothing, seeing as I‟d just woken up and my sight was still fuzzy. Until I heard a sharp cry of pain from Mariam. This time, I didn‟t just look for a shadow, I ran my hands along the wall beside my bed to the switch on the wall.
No words can describe the horror that descended upon my feeble mind that night. Before me, was Hassan, stark naked, on his sister, one hand on her mouth, to stifle her cries, and another fumbling with her clothes, obviously trying to undress her.
She looked at me, eyes moist with tears, imploring me to do something. But what could I do? Hassan was way bigger than I was.
It was a split second decision, and coupled by the shock from the suddenness of the light, I had a start on Hassan. I lunged for the door. Till this day, I thank God it wasn‟t locked. I was in the hallway when I heard footsteps behind me. And they were closing in fast!
I made a last gasp effort for my mother‟s room. I burst in breathless, shaking and almost convulsive. My mother isn‟t a deep sleeper and the sleep quickly left her when she saw the state I was in. When I finally came around to talking, I narrated everything as I had seen it.
She just held me close and sobbed. I was still a child but I think I somehow understood everything. I understood how she felt. Like me, she felt trapped, powerless and beaten. I would later learn that a similar thing happened to her too.
I slept in my mother‟s room for the rest of the night. I had series of nightmares, and woke up sweating profusely that morning. This would go on for months, and at some point, I started to bed wet.
My mother went back for Mariam, because I woke up beside her.
That morning, my mother discovered some cuts on Mariam‟s thighs.
All Mariam did was cry. She didn‟t say a word, even to me. It was sad to watch. She didn‟t speak to anybody for about a year after that.
My mother told my father about what happened, and that afternoon, when I came back from school, I found some of my Uncles cars parked outside our house. I entered through the back door. In the corridor, I came face to face with Hassan. Instinctively, I ran back out. He chased me, shouting “You little witch! You just wait, I‟ll kill you!”.
I didn‟t stop running not until I got to Mary‟s house. She hadn‟t even taken off her school uniform yet and her mum was surprised to see me. I could hear my heart pounding. It was like it was going to burst.
When I finally calmed down, I told Mrs. Udeh everything. And then I cried. For Mariam, and what she could be growing through. I cried for my mother, and the powerlessness that overwhelmed her. I cried for myself. I was handicapped and I knew it. And the knowledge was killing me.
All this time, Mary was inside changing, and when she came back out I‟d dried my tears and her mum served us food. She sensed something was wrong. But how could I tell her?
She was Mary. Innocent, naïve, happy-go-lucky Mary. An only child who‟d always gotten everything she wanted. Not that she was spoilt, but she sure had it easy.
We still played tough, but I couldn‟t help but think about Mariam.
That evening, Mrs. Udeh took me home, and refused to leave until she handed me over to my mother. They had a lengthy talk, no doubt it was about the afternoon‟s incident, because when my mother came back, she was fuming and in search of Hassan. When she found him in the boy‟s quarters, she slapped him, and dragged him by his shirt outside.
The ensuing commotion caused my father and uncles to come and see what all the noise was about.
“What! You‟re holding a man by the shirt? Woman, do you know what you are doing?”
That was Uncle Taofik. He was one of those men who believed women were lesser beings. He always queried my father for being too soft on my mother.
My mother in her anger retorted, “This one‟s not a man. He‟s a swine! A pig!”
All my uncles, with their mouths open, stared in disbelief. Finally, my father spoke.
“Let the boy go Rhekia”
My mother hesitated, then let go.
He continued, this time talking to his brothers, “Now, I think it‟s time we called them in”.
They all consented, nodding their heads. As they turned to leave, I couldn‟t help but notice the malicious stares darted towards my mother. Their eyes were full of hatred.
I still can‟t understand how one man can harbor so much hate.
Their meeting went on for hours, and during that time, I was with the other children, in one of the empty rooms we usually gathered to hear stores from one of the mothers.
I was occupied with thoughts of the meetings outcome. At about 11:00pm when the meeting ended, there was a lot of noise from the living-room. In the midst of all the voices, I heard the clear voice of Uncle Taofik, “How can you send him away!? He‟s done nothing wrong. You‟re taking her words over ours! Over mine?”
I heard my father reply but I couldn‟t discern his words from all the noise.
When my uncles left, my other called me and my siblings together.
“From now on, you‟ll all sleep in my room. I got away with standing up to your uncles today. I might not be so lucky next time. So, we‟re going to prevent a „next time‟ ”.
It all made sense to me, and since Aida and Heba didn‟t protest, it must have made sense to them too.
So it began, the nights at my mother‟s. For some time, I was made to sleep on a mat beside the bed, because of my bed wetting.
After a few months, I‟d stopped bed wetting and resumed a somewhat normal life. I was still afraid of sleeping alone, even though Hassan no longer lived with us.
I went to Mary‟s as usual, and tried to make new dresses. I couldn‟t come up with any new designs. Even the old ones I‟d drawn, I couldn‟t sew.
I struggled for about 2 weeks, until I decided to give it up entirely. When I didn‟t show up at their house for a week, Mrs. Udeh came calling. She spoke to my mun, telling her she‟d love to have me around since Mary was an only child, and needed somebody to play with. My mother reluctantly agreed.
A lot happened after that time, and time just flew by. Suddenly, I was 13 and was developing really fast. I now had 3 drawing books, and I was a pretty good tailor. My friend Mary, ever the painter, finally admitted that she wanted to blend a career in Fine Arts and Make-up Artistry.
Me, I wanted anything that involved clothes. I would have settled for being a road side tailor, but Mrs. Udeh had us dreaming big, and now, I wanted to be Yves Saint Laurent.
Everything I did was hinged on this dream. I was happy again, and I wouldn‟t let anything steal my joy.
But just when I thought my life couldn‟t get better, it got worse.
One Saturday afternoon, I‟d just come back from my mother‟s shop to bring back food for Aida. The house was virtually empty except for the living room, where I could hear voices. As I got closer, I realized it was some sort of meeting. I could hear my father‟s voice and uncle Taofik‟s too. I passed it off as one of those gatherings they had once I a while.
Later that night, my mother sullenly called me after dinner and I could see from her gait that something was wrong. She gave me a sizeable piece of paper that turned out to be a picture of somebody. I quickly recognized him as one of the men from earlier that afternoon. I looked at my mother with a certain foreboding, and before she said it, I already knew. I had been betrothed to Alhaji Isa, and when I turned fourten, the marriage rites would be performed. I can‟t really remember how I felt at the moment, but devastated would suffice. To be succinct, my life as I knew it had abruptly ended. Even then, I had an idea how these things worked and I wanted no part in it.
I didn‟t say a word. It‟s not like my mother expected any. On that night and many cold nights after, I cried myself to sleep. I functioned more or less as a zombie, going through daily routines by rote, barely speaking to anybody.
I finally came around to telling Mary, but I made her promise not to tell her mum. The good woman had done more than enough.
I was angry with everybody. I fought at the slightest provocation. I skipped prayers and broke any law I could get away with. Fortunately, nobody noticed.
After about 4 months, I began to calm down. I noticed things were returning back to the normal everyday life. I was still a little bit apprehensive though.
It was almost December, and the school term was coming to an end. I soon put the thought of being married behind me until something happened when I was eleven. I came home early from school because of a stomach upset that day and went in through the kitchen instead of the front door, oblivious at first to the discussions going on in the living-room. As I got closer, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to listen. The words I heard hit me like a hurricane would a small town. Alhaji Isa and my father were in a heated discussion. He was getting impatient and couldn‟t afford to wait any longer. He wanted the marriage to be fixed for the end of the month. I was still in JS3!
My rioting bowels ceased to revolt and my mouth was dry and clammy. I swooned through the evening, doing my menial chores by rote. For the next two days, my mind was still recovering from the shock. Worse still, I hadn‟t been told anything yet. Not that it would have changed anything, but at least I had the right to know what happens in my own life now, don‟t I?
After days of thought and serious ruminations, I resolved to put up one last act of rebellion. I was going to run away. I‟ll admit, at that time, I felt I had a water-tight plan.
I‟d heard my mother and sister talking about her days as cattle traders, when they‟d travel with the herdsmen to as far as Calabar and Osun State. I concluded after ogling a detailed map of Nigeria that I‟d sneak in one of the trucks heading for Lagos. The plan was to get there and locate Aunty Zainab, my mother‟s sister lived in Surulere. From the map, Lagos didn‟t seem to be that big a State and I figured the population would be sparse. How wrong I was.
On the night before I left, I went to see Mary. I told her what I was going to do. She just listened, saying nothing. When I rose to leave, she hugged me tight and wouldn‟t let go. She cried, profusely. I did too, but mine was less intense.
I packed my little belongings while the rest of the household was asleep. I didn‟t sleep a wink so I wouldn‟t miss the truck. By 6:00am I was already there and I filed in with the women. They must have thought I was with one of them as they didn‟t ask any questions. Throughout the journey, I was car sick and retched three times. We got to Lagos late that night just in time for me to sneak again and disappear into the night.
The city was strange. It was like, it never slept. I expected to find deserted streets and a silent night. I found the exact opposite. It was like the day just started. I looked at the address I‟d written down. Surulere was not so far away from the main-land.at least that was what my map had told me.
I finally got a cab, and gave him the address. After about 30minutes, sauntering through the traffic, we finally hit a clear road, almost empty. The glistening neon signs called out to me. For the first few weeks, Lagos, for me, was a theme park. There were always new adventures at every turn.
When we got to the address, I got down and paid the driver. Looking back, I was definitely cheated on what seemed like a fair deal then.
I approached the house, somewhat apprehensive. I‟d never been out that late before. When I rang the bell at the gate, a burly man opened the gate, and asked who I wanted to see. When I told him, he looked at me with surprise, and asked, “Did you call your Aunt before leaving home?”.
When my answer was a no, he shook his head, muttering to himself.
Finally, to me, he said, “Your Aunt Zainab, and her husband moved out about a year ago”.
He must have seen the shock and surprise in my expression, because he asked, “Do you have any other relatives, around. Someone you could put up with?”
“No, my whole family is in Kano”, I heard myself say.
He looked me over again, and told me to wait. He came back out with a woman, after some time. She looked at me for a few seconds. I could tell from my expression that she was trying to make up her mind.
Finally, after what seemed to be eons, she said,” You can put up with us for the night, so you can get ready for your journey tomorrow”.
I sighed in relief. I was exhausted from the long journey and I did need a place to sleep. I never thought of the possibility of Aunt Zainab relocating.
There was no going back now, I was here, I would survive. I would live my dream.
With these good people around me, how hard could it be?
I was too tired to fight when he came, I couldn‟t have stopped him if there were 10 of me. Here I was, running away from home, from early child marriage to freedom. To a better life. To my dream.
But this was a nightmare. This was jumping from frying pan into fire. This was wicked. This was hell. He held me down and pinned me with his weight. One hand held both my arms above my head, why the other ripped my nighties. I cried and flailed. I begged intermittently between sobs.
He didn‟t listen, just gritted his teeth while he forced himself on me. I felt a sharp pain between my legs as he entered me. I still tride to wriggle, even though I knew I had lost this one. I closed my eyes and trying to fight the pain, by thinking of something else. All that came to mind was Hassan and Mariam. All I could see was a wolf devouring a little lamb. All I felt was defeat.
When he was done, he eased himself off me, and with a self-satisfied smirk the buckled his belt and walked away. I cried throughout the night. I cried for Mariam. I cried for my mother. Oh, how I longed for her.
For the first time in this cold world, I felt lonely.
I didn‟t really bleed that much, and as soon as it was bright enough, I took of the sheets and washed them. I still felt the pain, but I could at least get by. When Mrs. Adesina (her name as I would later learn) came around the kitchen, I‟d already done the dishes and was mopping the floor.
„You don‟t have to do that my dear, you should be resting from your long journey”,
“It‟s ok, ma, it‟s the least I could do, after what you did for me yesterday”.
“Aishat, I know you feel you have to pay me back, but it‟s ok, really. Our maid resumes by 8:00am.. she‟ll be here any minute.”
With that, she took the mopping stick, and said, “Go back to your room, I‟ll send for you when I‟m done making breakfast”.
I went back to the room I‟d been given, and sat on the chair beside the reading table. I couldn‟t bear to lie on that bed again, not after that night.
I didn‟t come out, even when, Asabi, the maid, came for me. I waited till he left, that swine of a man.
When evening came, I resolved to let last night‟s incident not happen again.
I was well rested now. This time, if he came, I would put up a fight. I would give t all I had. I would win.
I waited until late that night, with a knife under my pillow, but he didn‟t come. For the next 2 nights, I waited.
But on Thursday, when I least expected, he came again. This time, he didn‟t hold me down. I think he expected me to consent, and not put up a fight. I let him undress me. I didn‟t put up a fight like I said I would. I let him take off his shirt, and then take off mine too.
He was smiling now, that gratifying smile you have when you get when some things just come easily to you.
I waited till he lowered himself, almost entering me. I bit my lips as he nudged my petals open. I heard him sigh in ecstasy.
I watched him close his eyes. Savoring the sensation. I let him have him moment of triumph.
And then I struck.
I plunged the knife into his side. Just below the ribs.
I watched him jerk backwards, in shock, in total surprise. I watched as he help his hand above the wound the knife made, staggering backwards, his naked, vile countenance in full view.
I didn‟t get caught up in the moment. I reached for my packed bag, and I ran.
Away from him, away from the house, out into the streets, down to the junction.
Turning to the next street, I didn‟t stop. I broke into a full sprint, just as I got to 4-junction cross. I cried as I ran, oblivious to my surroundings.
I didn‟t see the car coming. The last thing I saw before I blacked out was the blinding flash of head-lights.
I woke up, in a hospital bed a few days later. I saw a man beside me. He smiled as I stirred. After watching for some time, he went out and came back with a doctor.
All I saw really was a blur, but I heard some of the conversation,
“I think she ran away…”
“She has 2 broken ribs and a fractured femur”.
When I woke up again, I found a lady with a kind of veil over her head. It looked like a variation of the hijab.
She spoke to me like she knew me. She talked about Jesus, and asked if I knew him. I had heard the name before, but I didn‟t pay much attention then. But she presented her words in such a manner that the most callous of minds would have given in to her persuasion.
She went on for hours and when she asked if I would like to be a Christian and accept Jesus, I said yes.
Years later, I found out that I had suffered severe cranial pressure as a result of blood clots in my brain. I was supposed to die. The least they could do was to have me baptized before I did.
It‟s funny, one moment I was slowly easing away, the next, I was back in this strange room, with machines beeping away, and casts inhibiting my movements.
When I finally got out 3 months later, Sister Priscilla, the one who talked to me about Jesus was there to help me with the crutches. This was the beginning of a month long rehabilitation with her in the mission house at Agege.
When I could walk on my own, Sister Pricilla asked me the questions I‟d been dreading. To save us both the time, I told her everything. Everything.
I didn‟t expect her to understand. In fact I expected her to reach for her phone and call the police. But she didn‟t. She just listened. When I was done she asked me what I wanted to do with my life. She said it was mandatory that I at least finished secondary school, which, with her guidance I did, with the other girls in the mission school. Father Mark came once in a while to see how I was doing.
During my stay in the mission house, I worked with the other Sisters, going to orphanages and Special Centre‟s for Gifted Children. When they saw my skill with sewing machines, they put me in charge of mending the children‟s clothes. I graduated from just mending to designing the altar cloths for the Sacrificial Table on the altar.
The congregation applauded my work. I wrapped their kind word around me when I felt lonely.
My big break came, when Mr. Uzor, one of SS. Peter & Paul‟s honored parishioners and regional head of Vlisco West-Africa offered me a paid student internship. Under his tutelage, I blossomed as a designer and part- time model.
At the end of my internship, I was offered a full-time job back in Lagos, to work with the Vlisco outfit there.
In all my 26 years, I‟ve learnt a lot. Life is hard on everybody at some point.
It‟s our response to these trials that matter.
Every day, I‟m on the lookout for girls like me, running from their own Alhaji Isa‟s.
I can‟t help them all, but I‟ve helped some, touched some lives, kept some dreams alive, the way Sister Priscilla did for me.
She‟s called 17 times, and pinged a whole lot more. I have to hurry to the shop now, before she drives down and drags me off this laptop by my hair.
Cover Girl, Signing Out Here.