Navigating life as a woman in the world today is interesting. From Nigeria to Timbuktu, it’ll amaze you how similar all our experiences are. Every Wednesday, women the world over will share their experiences on everything from sex to politics right here. This is Zikoko’s What She Said.
The subject of this week’s What She Said is a 40-year-old woman. She talks about losing custody of her kids after an abusive marriage, travelling the world and how her dad’s love for food led her to start a confectionery company.
If someone was meeting you for the first time, what would you tell them about you?
I would say I am simple and a lot of people find that complicated. When it comes to my experiences, I would say I’m on my ninth life because I’ve had a crazy ride.
I grew up in a large family. I had two brothers and four sisters. I enjoyed my teenage years a lot. Sometimes I think I enjoyed it a little too much. I had friends from all over the world. At my school, people say you don’t gain knowledge, you gain friends.
My parents were free-spirited, open-minded people. When I lost my mum, a day before my tenth birthday, it changed our world. Somehow, my dad was able to fill that gap — cooking and caring. It was so seamless that we almost didn’t notice the void my mum’s death created. He filled that void so well, and we did not feel deprived. I got so interested in food because he was always cooking something.
Somehow I found myself married at the age of 20 to someone who was abusive. He stopped me from going to school, stopped people from seeing me. I had no friends nor money. I was caged in his house for years and had three children.
That’s awful. Why did you get married so early?
It’s complicated and I do not like talking about it. My mum was not there and I relied on others to guide me. But some of them were misguided and they misguided me as well. I was advised to marry early, have kids early so I could move on with my life and grow with my children. My dad was also pressured. They implied he was a man and wouldn’t understand these things. It must have all come from a good place, but it ended up wrong.
I ran away with my children a couple of times, but I ended up coming back. He would beg for my return and promise to change. But that didn’t last. In two weeks he would be back to his normal self. Until one day, I decided it all had to stop.
He took my children away from me, and it’s been 14 years without them. In a case like this, where a woman suffers is when she goes to court or when the police are involved. If you’re young, policemen say things like, you’re sleeping with other men or “If we should lock him up, you’re the one that will come begging.” The policewomen would take his side because he has money. They made my life miserable. I tell people that whatever you do, make sure you don’t find yourself in court in Nigeria or have anything to do with the police.
What did you do after you got out of your marriage?
When my marriage ended, I had ₦40 in my account. I started all over — I had been in school but my ex asked me to stay at home until my first son was ready to go to university. I didn’t defer my admission, so I started from 100L when I got out of the marriage. I was in school studying marketing when I decided to start crafting chocolates. Not for the money; it was more of the statement — I wanted to create a chocolate-crafting Nigerian company.
Tell me about your relationship with food.
My early memories of food were with my mum. She was a midwife, a businesswoman and a caterer. She and my dad enjoyed cooking for the whole family. When she died, my relationship with food was elevated by my dad. He could cook anything! He would make local soups, especially soups indigenous to our people, Delta-Igbos. We enjoyed vegetables and would pile our plates high with them.
My dad would make sundaes, salads, Mediterranean food, English food. His pounded yam was always on point. He was open to experimenting and I took on that. I started a confectionery business.
What happened next?
I got a job. During this period, I was going to court every year. It was painful, but I did it. I wanted to keep myself sane for my children. I didn’t want them to meet a woman that was broken into pieces. I had to forgive myself.
I’m thankful that even with the ugliness of my situation, God has been faithful. I tried my best to make sure that I kept my head up and my feet on the ground. There were horrible days — times where I’d convulse in bed, thinking about my children. Were they cold, crying, calling my name? Was someone beating them? I had a crazy day where I drove to the house and demanded to see them.
I had to pull back. Doing that was not going to help. If I lost my mind, what they’d get is a mad mother. The police were saying if I showed up at the house again, they would arrest me.
Where was your family in this scenario?
My family members are not fighters. There were times where I blamed them, like why didn’t they go and fight and bring my kids? But we weren’t raised that way. Even my extended family — they preferred a diplomatic approach to everything. So they engaged in conversation expecting a truce, which didn’t happen in this situation. He wasn’t a willing party.
What’s happening with you now?
For me what is paramount is being happy, expanding my mind, building my brand, seeing the world — just living. I still work with the same company where I’ve moved from entry-level to directing sales and marketing. Doing my confectionary thing and working with the firm is fun. It’s a way to challenge myself — I can be whatever I want. I can always say, okay, this has happened, shit has hit the fan, moving on.
Tell me about seeing the world.
When I started working, it was nonstop. There were days I would work till 4 a.m., take my bath and continue — I would do this for days. I just buy Redbull and keep going. The business had just started and we were trying to push it.
During this period, I never went on leave. I always wanted to be around. Once, one of my colleagues wanted to go on leave and I was in my boss’s office to discuss it. His response was, “Hey, since you started working, you’ve never gone on leave.”
I said I didn’t really need and he went, no no no no no, you have to go on leave. I started complaining, and he said that made it worse. He opened my calendar and went, “From this date to this date, don’t come to the office.” I was like, two weeks?! No way.
He changed it to one month, and I started crying. That Monday, he sent me out of the office and told me to just go somewhere. Before then, I liked Benin Republic. On trips to Togo and Ghana, I would pass through. I fell in love with the place, so I went for a week.
And it was a blast. I made friends and had so much fun. Two days after I got back I thought, I have a whole month to myself, so I went again. That’s how travelling started for me. Now my boss can’t hold me down again and he regrets starting this. I called him two weeks ago that I was on my way out of the country again; he was stressed.
Expand my confectionery company, see more of the world, be more and live more.