“Suffering is like a visitor, it won’t stay or feel welcome if you don’t offer it a seat. The way you refuse it a seat is by using its lessons to prevent others from suffering the way you did” — my later grandmother.
How it all began…
When I was eight years old I was sent to live with my maternal uncle and his wife in Lagos: a sprawling cosmopolitan city in the western part of Nigeria. Uncle was actually my mother’s first cousin, but in our culture, a person’s cousin is considered their brother or sister — just as a niece or nephew is viewed as one’s own child. So instead of referring to him as her cousin, my mother’s cousin was simply called her brother. Anyway, Uncle had requested to foster me and I was to be raised by him and his wife until the end of my secondary school education — roughly around eighteen years old. Thereafter, subject to my parent’s continued agreement, I was to complete my university education before returning back to my parents’ household. However, in some cases, the last part is bypassed altogether, if a foster happens to get a marriage proposal while still under the care of her foster parents. For then she moves directly from adoptive home to her husband’s.
Fostering in Nigeria operates on a barter system. In exchange for their education, or vocational training, the fostered child is expected to help out with household chores such as cooking, washing, cleaning, ironing, or taking care of the children of her adopted parents. At eight, I was of course considered too young to perform some of the tasks mentioned. It did not matter greatly, according to the views from our collective family; I was not a ‘typical’ adoptee. I was going into my uncle’s home (not some stranger’s) where I was sure to be treated like one of his children.
My uncle’s request was not an unusual one. In Nigeria, family members who are financially better off frequently adopt children of other family members and foster them for a set period of time. In a society with no welfare system, this form of bartering is a logical method of wealth distribution from the haves to the have-nots. It is also a way of ensuring education for children who would otherwise not have had one by reason of the limited resources of their parents.
Even though I was worried about being so far away from my family, especially my grandmother to whom I was really close, I was nonetheless super excited about going to Lagos. The very idea was heady and intoxicating. My siblings and I had heard so much about this ‘wonderland’ of a city’ from those in our community who had been ‘fortunate’ enough to visit it.
‘Buildings reaching to the heavens!
‘Men and women dressed in the latest fashion!’
‘High-Life bands playing on every street corner!’
‘A piece of water that foams and froths like all rivers gathered together and boiled in one drum at the same time — they call it Bar Beach!’
‘And then there are the parties. The Yorubas absolutely adore parties, they call them owambe: they have them every weekend, on almost every street corner, with surplus and surplus of food and drinks!
It sounded like the fantasylands in the stories told by the elders in our village to entertain children.
Lagos. Telling your playmates you were going there elevated your status immediately. It was similar to telling them you were heading to heaven, without any dying involved of course. Suddenly, everyone wanted to be your friend. Suddenly, they all wanted to share their food with you — their most cherish food. Rice and stew with pieces of meat with the bone you could suck and chew on till the gristle on it turn foamy white and devoid of any more taste; akara and moi-moi (fried and steamed bean cake), stewed yam with stockfish — nothing was too precious to share with someone who was heading to Lagos…to live there! Despite my misgivings at the prospect of separation from everything I was familiar with and love, I felt very fortunate to be the one chosen by Uncle and his wife.
Lagos! I was going to Lagos, to live. If…
The ‘if’ was a big one. My father was not available when my maternal family came to make the request. But much more worrying than his not being around was his stance on fostering. Papa hated it. Not the idea per se, but what he called ‘the wickedness and lack of compassion’ of some foster parents. ‘They maltreat children under their care and worked them like donkeys.’ He did not want that happening to any of his children.
‘But Sarah is family, not a servant, she will be treated exactly like one of my own children,’ my uncle’s wife who had come to pick me assured my mother. The only thing that will be expected of me when I was not in school, she said, was ‘keep her little cousins' company, and play with them while your brother and I are at work. In any case, one of my own sisters is living with us; another will be coming sometime during the year. They are both older than Sarah and will help with the housework. Aunty’s voice was gentle and her manner affable as she patiently addressed every concern my mother raised.
While my mother pondered the wisdom of sending me off without my father’s permission, and what that would do to her marriage if she failed to convince him on his return that it was a good decision, I skulked behind our sitting-room door, desperately longing to hear one word.
‘Yes.’ It came at last — her reluctance worn down finally by the assurance of other aunts and uncles, and that of her mother — whom everyone called, Nne.
The simple, non-melodramatic ‘yes’ was to become the singular most dramatic thing that changed the entire course of my life.