Art, it is said, imitates life. Sometimes, the opposite is the case, and when this happens, we gasp and ponder how or if we are so inclined, we bury ourselves in conspiracy theories about sinister men engineering the world we live in.
I was thinking about this while interviewing this week’s subject of the International Women’s Month, #Herstory series.
My mother didn’t tell me a lot, part of it I reckon is because I was a boy who grew into a non-binary man. She told me enough – more than many boys who grew into men certainly, and in that is rooted the bond we have. This is relevant because while listening to 47-year-old Temitope Ayetoro*, the spoken word poem Conversation With My Mother by Wana Udobang kept resurfacing in my head. Her life is so much to learn from that only years of curated tiny releases could ensure that everything she went through is passed down, but we did what we could with this interview. Enjoy.
We will start from the beginning, even though everything about your life is electrifying.
The fact that if you had said this 25 years ago I would have cringed because my immediate next thought would be, “electrocute me!” is absolutely hilarious.
I was born and raised in Sabo, Kaduna State. I lived there with my parents for 17 years, visiting their hometown of Ori Ire, Oyo every other Christmas.
Those were some gruesome years for me, and I reckon for my parents too. Myself because of the amount of self-shrinking I had to do, them because of how messed up Nigeria was at the time and the limited options they had.
Why were you shrinking?
The same reason girls shrink to this day – social expectations, and then more.
Maybe because they were going through so much with the ethnic instability in the North during and after the civil war years, maybe because of some other deep rooted issue that my young mind couldn’t understand, my parents were very distant to me and my 3 siblings. I was the second child and first girl child. My mother had expectations of me from the moment I could walk and talk back. It was a lot.
I was really close to my older brother, we were only-children for some 7 years after I came into the world. I say this to explain how I rationalized how I turned out to be masculine presenting. The explanation worked for a while, so I still go back to it sometimes. However, then as now, I cannot explain how I turned out liking girls.
It just happened. One day I was an innocent child, the next I was obsessed with my bestie at the time in ways that went beyond friendship. I was 11.
This was in 1980.
I had no words for the feeling but it was too strong to ignore. I did what I could with it at the time, which was to keep my friend close and watch where the feelings led. 3 years later, I talked to her about it as we prepared for end of term exams.
She took it in her stride and told me to work on getting over it or we will both get in trouble. We didn’t, I however did.
I think now that I was naively devoted to my mother, she was my closest confidant despite her aloofness – second only to my older brother. I got it into my head to confide in her because I was hurting. That was when the real pain started.
Where before I was hurting because my parents were too busy for me and my siblings, and the love of my life rebuffed me, now I had my parents full attention and sadly not the good kind I yearned for. The exorcisms hurt like hell, but what hurt the most was my Mom’s betrayal. It still smarts when I think about it and how that betrayal precipitated my detachment from her over the next 3 years.
What happened at 17? It seems vital.
It is. It will always be.
Part of the prayers that followed what I now understand to be my coming out to my Mom was a weekly session with my parent’s pastor. This happened for 3 years, and it took a turn for the worse in the second year.
As happens often, I now know, my parent’s pastor took advantage of my isolation from my beloved parents and siblings and began sexually molesting me. He would tell me it was for my own good, to, “learn to love men.”
I had fully given into dejection at 13 because the one person I trusted enough to confide in conspired to get me publicly shamed and tortured – the prayers weren’t just prayers there was slapping and beating to ‘chase the demon of lesbianism out.’
I couldn’t for the life of me come forward to anyone about the rape. Even my brother, who I was the closest to, had grown cold since this all started. So I learnt silence and sacrificing my body to hold on to my sanity. I don’t know if that worked.
Why do you say that?
Well, for one, my relationship with my parents never recovered after that. I bed my time until I could leave them and go far away. This was after I toyed with just killing myself and leaving the world for good.
My ticket out came in the form of an admission letter to Teacher’s College in Zaria. I couldn’t wait to leave, and once I did I swore I wasn’t going back home.
And did you keep to that promise?
For 22 years!
I was terrified initially, because I would not only need to pay my own fees once my parents realized what was going on, but I would also need to fend for myself. I focused on doing the latter first.
It wasn’t hard once I found my tribe. A group of fancy girls who I would find out were only in the school because it gave them the opportunity to be in close proximity to highly placed men in academia. They were there for sex work, and used the schooling for cover. Everyone knew though.
It made sense to me to start there. The alternative would have forced me to seek the protection of respectable society, and with my history with that the choice was easy to make.
Daniella*, the ring leader, took a shining to me instantly. I would later find out it was because she “saw the lesbian in me” as she put it. We would work together for the years.
I was determined mind you to build my options deck properly. So while I worked at night, I also paid attention during the day. I graduated successfully and moved to Lagos briefly.
And your parents and siblings?
They kept sending words. This was at a time when mobile phones weren’t a thing.
When they established what I was up to they tried to rescue me, then they washed their hands off me.
My brother visted once and kept going on about how our mother cried herself to sleep every night for weeks, as if in mourning of my tragic passing. I was unmoved.
He then threatened me with violence, told me he will remove me from the school forcefully, but my girls dared him to try.
Ray*, this lanky fair girl from Calabar, knew the DPO then. She was his main babe. So they threatened him right back while I stood behind them watching as the fight died in him. I wouldn’t see him until our Dad died 22 years later.
How did you navigate that?
I was fully established in Abuja by then. With landed property and excellent connections. I was happy – as much as I could hope to be as at then, and the future didn’t look too bleak. When the news arrived – which I found out later it arrived reluctantly because my brother argued at length that the sight of me could kill our already fragile mother, I was only mildly shocked.
I wasn’t naïve about the fickleness of human life. I had by then buried two friends, Daniella among them. She died from AIDS related complications. I knew my parents would pass someday. Add to that the fact that I didn’t exactly have a great relationship with my dad who was distant even before the whole fracas about my sexuality. I was only mildly shocked.
How was the reunion like?
I wouldn’t call it that. You reunite where a possibility for union exists.
I had by then built a reputation as a powerful madam who caters to all tastes – which is code for a lesbian who helped facilitate hook ups for rich lesbian Alhajas, my family was no less displeased by this discovery.
I think I went there to show off how well I was doing.
With the help of a dear friend who was in Aso rock at the time, I went with a security detail. I also took some of my fiercest girls along to match drama for drama if it came to it. Thankfully it didn’t.
I was more shocked at the sight of my Mom than I was at that of my Dad’s corpse. She was shrunken, as if all the troubles of the world weighed her shoulders down. It broke my heart.
Did you get to talk?
It was inevitable, even though my brother tried to shield her from me.
I didn’t think I even had it in me to speak with her. I was still resentful. I think the sight of her, tired beyond belief softened my heart enough. I approached her after the church service, said, “Momy,” and choked up.
She looked at me from head to toe. I was wearing the finest things money could buy. She said, and I remember this clearly because it was the last thing she would say to me, “Vanity upon vanity, Ope, all is vanity,” and walked away hand in hand with my brother.
It was the second time something in me will die.
I left with renewed resolve notwithstanding.
What is it like to be alone in the world?
Who said I am alone in the world?
I am living proof that family is what you create not what life foists on you. I have a community of very dependable friends. I still have access to the highest echelon of society. I am still rich, and my lover of 15 years is always there for me.
There was a time, a very long time when the sadness will rise in my heart every now and then, and I would struggle to rise above it. My lover would always be there to steady me with her kindness.
My mom has been late for 6 years now. I didn’t attend her funeral, and that hurt for months on end, years really, but the deepest pain lasted months.
My carefully chosen community steadies me. And I regret nothing.
I find myself looking into the heavens every so often and wondering what my parents have to say about my continued success even though their opinions about my choices haven’t meant anything to me for a very long time. Then I make some chamomile tea and read a book on my balcony.
The view is lovely.
I know. I chose it.
Thank you so much for doing this.