Chiamaka Umeasiegbu is a writer and management specialist. She has written three stage plays and directed one. She has been published by African Writer Online and Leadership Newspaper Nigeria, for whom she wrote a literary review column. Chiamaka is passionate about international development particularly the protection of vulnerable groups and the reduction of disease burden. She worked in Scotland to provide support to women affected by domestic violence. In Nigeria, she worked for the UNDP in pre-amnesty Niger Delta. She also worked to prevent HIV/AIDS and reduce the resulting stigma, and to prevent and control Malaria. She is currently working on a series of short stories and podcasts.
A short introduction to the story
Chiamaka Umeasiegbu shares the story of a triumphant non-conformist daughter, raised by her feisty widowed mother. She explores the deeply rooted prejudices against women in an extremely patriarchal society, providing insights into the culture in some parts of Southern and Northern Nigeria. Dangerous Women know no sleep shares real examples of the development and positive change that can be achieved when women are appointed to lead reforms. Through her story, she raises the pertinent question of the perception of women in Nigeria and the lack of fair and effective legislation that protects girls, and she reflects on the public’s thirst for true change.
People in the village say that nobody knows what became of Mabel, she grew and sprouted and it was over. But forget the stories about men and the night; we know what she has become. Mabel remembers her father, a gentle man whom she sees in a faded old photo smiling with crooked teeth, sitting in front of a huge typewriter. Her mama had many stories about that typewriter; it paid for mama’s teacher training college fees and her brother’s hospital treatments.
Death was not a stranger to Mabel. She remembers three trips to her father’s hometown from Lagos. The first trip was before her sixth birthday, she remembers because she did not have a birthday celebration. There was a tiny white coffin, some Jollof rice and a bottle of hot Fanta. Jake had died and she no longer smelled baby powder and prayer incense. The second trip was to bury her father. There was a big brown coffin, a lot of tears and yelling, and impromptu dancing which raised the red earth and caused the dust to settle on Mabel’s smooth shaven head. The women shaved both her and Mama’s heads and without her head-tie, Mama looked like a small ant with a giant head.
The third trip was a move to father’s hometown. Lagos had become too expensive after two years, without her father’s newspaper income; between rent, Mabel’s school fees and the transportation cost to her mother’s primary school job, there were many money problems. The third trip to her father’s town drives Mabel. She has told the story many times. They had a great plan, they would live with her Uncle and his family in the small town for a few weeks, her mother would roof the house her father had begun on the ancestral land he received from his father, and they would move out. Mabel would attend the Community Practising School where Mama would find a job. She would rent out one of the rooms to a lodger, to supplement and save for Mabel’s University tuition.
But her father’s younger brother was already living there. He placed sacks around the open windows and placed thatch as a makeshift roof. They were not allowed into the house; instead her Uncle took one look at all the luggage and went into the house muttering. Then the meeting happened.
“We are not saying you are not our brother’s wife, but you cannot inherit the house. A woman does not inherit her husband’s property.”
“She would if she had a son with our brother.”
“But the property would be her son’s not hers.”
And there it was. Mabel’s mother was livid; she told them of how she and her husband had given up so much to build this house. She spoke of how he had moulded blocks with proceeds from the crayfish she sold from the staff room in Lagos. Her eyes were wild and bright. She rummaged furiously through her luggage and brought out a notebook which she showed to them; names of debtors and creditors and dates on which bags of crayfish had exchanged hands. She hit the table so hard that the Kolanut and alligator pepper jumped off and settled on the floor.
“This is our home. This is our home. It is our home,” she yelled over and over until the breath was knocked out from her and the decibels fell to only a whisper. The spittle settled on the sides of her mouth and on the floor next to the Kolanut and alligator pepper.
Dangerous women know no sleep. She took Mabel to the church and to the traditional chief and to the Umuada; the daughters of the soil. The little one observed and sobbed and had many meals and many beds. She could tell nothing would come of the visits; everyone listened with their heads tilted to one side, a prayer afterwards, and another hot Fanta for Mabel. But there was always a certain casual desperation to the prayers and the pats on the back.
“O ga a di mma, all will be well.”
All was never well but the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart gave them one room in their school compound, and while Mabel went to school, her Mama began to teach there, often launching into what the alumni remember as spit fests of fairness and justice. She dusted down her crayfish sales book and Mabel was raised on the smell of wet chalk, kerosene from the lamp and the stove, and crayfish sales. Let it not be said that Mabel did not become a troublemaker, for she was. She wore lipstick and short skirts and smelt of crayfish all through law school. She was a rabble-rouser who challenged everything unfair and unequal. She moved to Abuja and moved her Mama with her. We know where she is, forget the stories from the village about her short skirts and the car too nice for a single woman without many men, we listen when she speaks. In January, I went to hear her speak.
She reminds me of Dora Akunyili and the things men and women said about her. Remember when Nigerians were dying daily because of million dollar cartels manufacturing and importing fake drugs? Dora Akunyili had multiple threats to her life when she led the reform of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and changed the health system tremendously. Dora told her story many times; the story of a loved one who had heart surgery, and was lost post-op because the pharmacy next to the hospital had dispensed fake adrenalin. The pints of adrenalin sold to them were packs of nothing but sugar and plain water. She spent many years cleaning out the mess that existed in the sector including conducting many raids and signing agreements across agencies, and some countries from which the fake drugs were imported. She was threatened and shot at, amongst other things. That dangerous woman knew no sleep. When she went to run for elected office, they said many things.
“Won’t she go home and cook for her husband?”
“She is so ambitious.”
“She seems so powerful only because she spends the night with the Governor and perhaps Mr President too.”
So Mabel was fierce and articulate. She wore purple lipstick; the kind that had a matt look to it. She spoke of Maimu whose case had recently been brought to her attention. She said Maimu was 14 in 2014 when she was kidnapped from her parents’ house and taken to a man old enough to be her father. Maimu’s parents reported the case of their missing daughter to the Police in Kaduna. The police had many things to say.
“We shall investigate.”
“The police remain your friend.”
“Is she married to this man? If she is married, then she is already an adult even at 14 years old. The constitution says a female is an adult in two ways; when she turns 18, or when she becomes married, whichever occurs first.”
After 5 days, the kidnapper showed up with the old man and informed Maimu’s parents that the old man had wed their daughter according to religious rites. This was reported to the police and names were provided. Mabel’s nostrils twitched and the anger was evident as she told this story. It was 2016 and the police and the courts have now managed to bring this paedophile and the kidnapper together, but it was not an outright sentence because he wed her under religious law. The facts that he had kidnapped a minor and married her without her parents’ consent were not very important. There was anger in the room, and people began to discuss this amongst themselves; Christians and Muslims alike. We recalled the #childnotbride trend on twitter and felt a sense of sadness and shame that the clause was never amended and we re-elected some of these men and women.
Maimu turned 16 this year, and when the police finally interviewed her, she said she would follow her husband. Two years of grooming had taken its toll. Like many girls here, she would never have the opportunities that her peers worldwide had, nor will she ever have a relationship with her parents. That was one of Mabel’s reasons for campaigning vigorously for a gender equality bill that surpassed inefficiency and corruption, a bill which would be superior to religion and customs, of which Nigeria has many conflicting ones. Mabel wants a law that protects women and girls while providing equal opportunities for everyone regardless of gender.
In March 2016, a gender equality bill was proposed within the National Assembly and was heavily opposed. It seems that many men, who constitute over 90% of the Senate, do not believe that people like Maimu deserved a fair chance at life, that Mabel and her mother should not inherit the home which was bequeath on her father by his father before him because of her gender. A Senator was quoted in the media as saying that the fear in the National Assembly stemmed from the fact that the senators believed the gender equality bill could turn women into lesbians and prostitutes. So the right to conduct economic strengthening activities regardless of sex equates to this or are women just special? Forget these messages; what one wonders is how these people ended up in elected office? This is not our only narrative, but it is one of them and we must change it from within, by ourselves for ourselves. But first we must own it and speak out about it, there shall be no more suffering and smiling.
At this point Mabel wanted to know who else was interested in being a part of the fairness and equality team. Who else would campaign for the re-presentation of the gender equality bill? I stood up, and so did 96% of the room; men and women of different ages and creed, in varying states of anger, disbelief and just an overwhelming sense of sadness even. We stood for Maimu and her family, and the children that may come from that crime committed under the watch of law enforcement and a flawed constitution, for everything she could never be. We stood for Mabel and her mama who spends her days in Abuja making signs for Mabel’s protests, cooking soups and making gifts of bags of crayfish for Mabel’s friends and her school alumni. We stood for our country, our children; boys and girls, for their place in a fair and just society. And we sang the National Anthem and tweeted and yelled and swore, because we are dangerous and fair is fair. We went home late; tired, hoarse, and committed.
Dangerous women know no sleep.