Ezinne Ajoku: These mad streets [NEW VOICES]

I’m paranoid about Nigerian streets, no matter the state or area, and no matter the time of day. After all, it was on the pretty empty and tranquil streets of UNICAL campus that a guy grabbed my behind in broad day light. It was a Sunday morning, I recall, and no amount of howling and threatening from my siblings did anything to stop him. Maybe it was because we were girls.  I had hoped other guys who were strolling in the direction of church, as we were, might rush to defend my honour. But no, that was just me fantasizing on one too many romance novels, where chivalry was something to anticipate. These real-life guys pretended they saw nothing.  After the deed was done, though, they were kind enough to inform us that the guy was slightly mad. And tell me sorry.

Not too long after, as I sat on a dead tree trunk in a family friend’s house, said family friend and classmate grabbed my bum. This, too, in broad daylight.  I was too shocked to move or even attempt to inquire what the hell he had just done. Or retaliate with a kick in the groin. My first thought was to question my choice of visiting attire but then I was garbed in a full length dress caftan- with very modest side slits. I dismissed it as a mistake until his repeat performance. No one told me to avoid his house like the plague.

Port Harcourt was a crazy city. A crazy city I enjoyed living in for four years, during which time I made frequent trips to Oil Mill market and Ariara market, Aba. In those markets, it was customary for vendors to accompany their catcalls of “customer, sister, oyinbo, yellow, my colour, fine girl, baby girl, Nwa yoma” with some type of body contact. Their greedy hands would always reach out to touch any available part of a woman’s body. It was most aggravating. A trip to any of the markets meant that I had to be even more mentally prepared as I was financially prepared, so that my collection of touches by strangers would be the barest minimum. Given my diminutive stature, it was doable. I developed 20/20 peripheral vision. I could see a grab, swipe before it happened and would position myself to evade it. I also learnt to hide behind people taller than me on the narrow corridors between stalls. If no one saw me coming, I could avoid being groped. Each trip back from the market had me feeling like I had gone through an episode of Survivors.

And to think this culture predates my existence. An older relative relayed the story of his visit to Balogun market in Lagos, back in the day. He had been walking behind his wife in the market when one of the traders made a grab at his wife. Primal instincts kicked in. He screamed at the dude and gave him a good scolding. The only thing was that prevented him from dealing the dude a very deserving blow was the thought that he was in foreign territory.

I was happy to serve in Gombe, and even happier when I strolled into Kasuwa (market) and not one trader was reaching out to touch me. Heaven!  Then I decided to take a stroll down the street where my lodge was situated. That stroll was aborted, when I was assaulted with a barrage of pebbles, thrown by little boys. See, I was clad in a T-shirt and knee length shorts. I had not even gone far from my house when I felt the stings.  It took me a minute to figure out where it was coming from. Apparently, my choice of attire was offensive. But more than the stoning was the blatant leering by adult males. It literally gave me nasty chills. I had the feeling that I could be attacked anytime. That taught me to wear long tops and jeans around my environs. And stroll in company, unless I couldn’t help it.

Let me not get started on those who take irrational pleasure stalking a sister on the road, or those who think that saying “baby girl” is the new cool.

The bottom line is, Nigerian streets are not safe for women. The culture of touching, groping and abuse has so pervaded the Nigerian male mindset that it has ascended to a right. Well, it is not! A woman’s body is hers alone and should not be touched unless permission has been given. And no, permission is not implied by the sort of clothes one is wearing.

I’m not asking for too much, guys. Just allow a girl to walk in peace. And that groping needs to end.  Yesterday!



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