Madonna Okpaleke: Dead as yesterday (30 Days, 30 Voices)
I remember the first time a guy called me pretty. A part of me wanted to believe him but another said “… don’t be fooled”. And so it went on and on that every time I was paid a compliment, I just felt betrayed and lied to.
My Father died on the 30th of June 2010 from complications relating to cancer. I was in a daze for months and felt like I was floating above the ceiling observing the world moving around me.
The day his body was flown back to Nigeria was the toughest day of all our lives. Seeing an old woman who had aged past her 56 years of age, with grey hair and dark skin and recognising her voice when she called my name was the rudest shock of all. This woman was my own mother. What had happened to her? She looked like a cancer victim, skinny, with stress lines strewn all over her face and hair in disarray. Her eyes were swollen from tears she had shed all through the plane ride back to Nigeria, knowing that the man she loved lay in a coffin at the booth of the plane, with no one to keep him company. Dead as yesterday.
So, no matter how much my heart was breaking or how much I wanted to scream to the heavens, I hugged her and tried to give her the little strength I had. We all had to.
We had grown up speaking English at home but didn’t understand a word of our native Igbo language. Imagine our shock when our father sent us to the village to spend five months with our grandfather.
Our village was typical – no water, no electricity, no good roads and loads of people still lived in mud houses. It was like a curse, we thought, for sure the man hated us. We woke up at 6am every morning to follow my grandfather to the farm to check on his yams. Sunflies destroyed our skin and we cried for our parents. Baths were taken in the stream when we went to check the cassavas we soaked from evenings before and from there learnt to swim. My grandfather enrolled us in the village school which was a far cry from what we were used to.
Our meals consisted of roasted yam with palm oil and ugba, boiled plantain with palm oil and ugba, or rice and goat meat if we worked hard. But it worked, we came back to Lagos speaking Igbo and doing more chores in the house. Appreciating, of course, the things we had.
My dad subsequently enrolled us in military schools to toughen us up. Each in a different school. Our pocket money was N500 only as my parents believed in spending prudently. I was bullied (even by my own friends) due to my scrawny physique. I had mosquito bites on my legs, so ugly that I peeled my skin everyday hoping they would magically disappear. My teeth protruded and I never laughed or smiled in public for fear of being abused. Every time I did, I placed a hand over my teeth – a practice I still unconsciously do today. I felt like a loser and stopped attending classes because I was tired of being picked upon by my teachers and classmates.
My grades began to slip and in SS1, I was asked to repeat. There were moments I hated myself, was depressed, down in the gutter and feeling worthless.
By the start of the new term my dad, after a long talk with me, changed my school. Taking the experiences from my old school with me, I became resentful and suspicious of anyone who tried to befriend me. It helped matters that I grew to be almost 6 feet 2 inches in a short period, towering over every single person on my corridor. I felt at the time that God had given me a weapon to fight back with. But no one was fighting with me.
I remember the first time a guy called me pretty. A part of me wanted to believe him but another said “Girl, you’ve been called ugly all your life, don’t be fooled”. And so it went on and on that every time I was paid a compliment, I just felt betrayed and lied to.
I look back at my life now and I think of how much I’ve grown into a strong independent woman, able to make serious life decisions just because I had parents who were willing to go the extra mile for me. It’s true I still have insecurities, but we can’t all be perfect.
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