– by Phidelia Imiegha
“It took me twenty–something years to learn how to love myself, I don’t have that kind of time to convince somebody else.” – DanielFranzese
My name is Olive and once upon a time, I did not love myself. I grew up in a loveless home, raising my two little sisters and my broken, alcoholic mother. Truth be told, it was no home at all. My “home” was devoid of the normal feelings a regular household bore. There was no love, no care, no happiness, no laughter resounding through our walls. Our lives were characterized by gloom, tears, hunger, shame and fear of a monster; The Monster: my father.
Father walked out one afternoon when I was sixteen and never came back. He left us with nothing, save the uncompleted bungalow we lived in. None of us really cared, as all he ever did was yell at us and beat our mother. He would come home at midnight; drunk and reeking of cheap perfumes, and scream that his meal be brought despite not providing any upkeep money. When my mother failed to provide food, he would beat her mercilessly and then proceed to fall asleep on the couch, snoring loudly. The disgusting pig. I hated him and I was glad when after two months of his absence, Mother announced he was never coming back.
My joy was however short lived when she stopped going to her tailoring workshop and stayed home all day, drinking. I took over the job of fending for my family at the age of sixteen. Mother already taught me how to work her machines and sew simple patterns. It was hard convincing her customers that I could fix their clothes but soon, they came to accept the little tailor. My sisters and I dropped out of school as we could barely afford food.
A year or so after my dad left, his mother and sister had stormed into our home and demanded that my mum let them take my sisters and I with them. Mother was an alcoholic mess and hadn’t bothered protesting, I had screamed and cried and scratched and begged but they took my little sisters. They said they would’ve taken me too, but didn’t bother since I was ugly and scraggly like my mother anyway. I was left behind with a mother who was barely there. I had no friends, no sisters. I was alone and depressed. I was in a strange world, burdened with so many responsibilities, and an alcoholic mess of a parent was the greatest of them. It was too much for a sixteen-year old.
Mother never had a sober moment after my sisters left, and one day three years later, I came home to find her lifeless body in the living room, limp left hand still clutching a half-empty bottle. It then dawned on me. I was utterly alone. I was all I had now.
I hated myself and I hated life. I hated my father for leaving and I hated my mother for giving up on life. Mostly I hated God for dumping me in this cruel world. My life in Asaba became a nightmare. I could not bring myself to go back to my usual routine. I decided to sell our few valuables and move to Lagos.
By the time I was twenty-three, with almost all my savings used up , I had finished from a catering school in Lagos and was employed at a big restaurant as a cook/waitress. I lived in a one-room apartment with three other girls with whom I split the rent. I had made a few friends and had a somewhat regular life. I wasn’t happy and I didn’t have loads of boyfriends like the other girls, but at least, I was eating and I was alive.
It was while serving at that restaurant that I met Xavier. He wasn’t very good looking but he had these odd eyes that seemed to see into your soul. He had the tiniest nose I had ever seen, and a full, perfect beard. I got lost in his features and spilled soup all over his date. Trust these Lagos big girls. She got up and slapped me across the face twice all the while shouting in her American accent. She was about to give me a third slap when Xavier stood up and restrained her. I just stood there clutching my face sheepishly.
“I … I’m so sorry Sir, Ma,” I managed to whisper.
“Sorry for yourself you blind imp!” she retorted.
“Ahn ahn, I said calm down now,” he said to her. Turning to me, he spoke calmly. “I hope you won’t ask us to pay for the soup you poured on us?”
“No sir, it’s on the house,” I said quietly, knowing it was on me.
“Good”, he replied and turned to his date. “Nina, let’s go.
His date was still staring furiously at me. He half dragged her out of the place and I heaved a sigh of frustration.
Two days later.
“Olive! Customer wey you pour soup for him body dey find you o!” my Edo colleague, Efe, screamed from outside.
I looked up from the cake I was icing and frowned. What did Madam Oyibo want from me? To give me more slaps? I straightened my apron and walked outside through the back door.
It was the man whose date I had poured soup on. The actual cause of my clumsiness which led to me paying two thousand five hundred for the food wasted and the damage done to the table cover. I frowned.
“Good afternoon Sir.”
“Hello … Olivia?”
“Olive.” I said.
“Ah. Lovely name. I’m Xavier. May I talk to you?”
“Talk to me? Is there any problem?” He smiled and his eyes seemed to smile along with his lips. Those eyes again.
“No, Olivia, none at all.”
That was the beginning of what seemed like the perfect relationship. Xavier made me quit my job at the restaurant and got me a better job at a catering company. Five months after we met, he told me he loved me and that he wanted to marry. Love.
I couldn’t quite grasp the meaning of the word. No one had ever said they loved me. I had never loved anybody. I had no idea what it meant to love or what it felt like to be loved. I had absolutely no idea how to keep this love. Love was alien to me. I was determined however to accept this love and hold on to it with my life.
I had no family so there was never an official wedding. I met Xavier’s family twice and then moved into his two-room flat. He didn’t even buy me a wedding band.
Soon after I moved in, I began to notice some changes in Xavier. He had always been jealous and possessive but it was amplified when I moved into his home. I wasn’t allowed to visit friends or go out at all except to work. He showed up at my place of work randomly several times and demanded I followed him home immediately.
I soon lost that job.
Xavier didn’t allow me look for another job. He wanted me home permanently. He would hurl insults at me all day, telling me how ugly and unlovable I was and how no body else could love me. I believed him. And so I endured the emotional abuse, believing that no one else could love me. Heck, I didn’t even love myself. Xavier would blame everything that went wrong in our lives on me. He said I had my mother and her mother before her’s bad luck. I agreed. He loved me, he couldn’t be wrong.
One year passed and he only got worse. I would stay two months and not see any other human except Xavier and the woman who brought us market supplies once weekly. I felt very alone. More alone than I had felt when my sisters were taken from me. Even more alone than I had felt when I happened upon my mother’s lifeless body reeking of alcohol.
One certain day, Xavier instructed me to cook jollof rice for him. When it was ready, I served him in the living room. He took one look at the food and pushed it away with his hand, sending it flying across the room. I jerked back, shocked and confused.
“You stupid fool! I said rice and stew. Are you now deaf?” Xavier spat out.
Already in tears, I stammered, “But … but I asked you twice and you said jollof.”
“Oh I’m now a liar? Or a fool like you? Me with my university degree, you’re calling me stupid? You illiterate!”
I started sobbing loudly.
“If you know how ugly you look when crying you will shut your mouth. Clean this mess and make me rice and stew immediately” he said, waving dismissively.
Two days later, our market supplies were brought by a strange woman. She said that our normal employee was indisposed hence she was helping. As I walked her to the gate, she turned to me and spoke.
“I’m very sorry if this sounds too direct, but are you okay? You look pale and there is a certain unhappiness about you.”
“I’m fine, thank you ma,” I replied quietly all the while screaming for help on the inside.
“Well, if you ever need someone to talk to, you should go to church. Jesus will listen. There are a lot of churches in this neighborhood. You take care dear.”
With that she walked out the door and left me pondering over her words. Church? I hadn’t gone to church since I was nine.
Two weeks and a great deal of thinking later, I decided to sneak to church. I just needed to target a time when Xavier was at work, and return before he was back. There was a big church two streets away from mine. I could walk there in less than five minutes.
I sat at the last row and stared at everybody and everything going on. I felt like an unwelcomed stranger. The people there were very friendly and all smiling, I wasn’t used to such hospitality. I felt painfully self conscious and resisted the urge to bolt more than once. It was a weekday service and lasted about two hours.
I walked back home as fast as my legs could carry me. I had a bad feeling in my chest. When I got into the compound, I knew why. Xavier’s car was parked there. I started crying. I walked into the house and met him standing at the door. I cried harder.
“You whore. So this is what you do everyday, you cheap prostitute!” he yelled.
I had just started to explain myself when I felt a blow to my face that sent me flying across the room. I saw red. Xavier walked over to me and slapped me twice, spat on me and walked out of the house. I heard him drive away.
They say it takes one drop for a cup to spill its contents.
Well that was it for me. Above every other thing, I had vowed never to become my mother. And it dawned on me that slowly, I had become her.
In that moment I saw flashes of my father kicking my mum in her stomach while she lay doubled over on the ground, my sisters and I crying in a corner. I saw flashes of my father calling my mother all sorts of names, while we looked on helplessly. I saw flashes of my father telling my sisters and I that we were females, hence we were useless and worthless and would never amount to anything. Flashes of all the times we went to bed with empty stomachs silently vowing not to end up like our mother. And in that moment I realized that I had failed.
I picked myself up and didn’t even stop to clean the blood on my lips. I ran into my room, still crying hysterically, I stuffed clothes into a box, and ran out of the house like a mad woman. Or like a woman being chased. Actually I was being chased, by the fear of becoming a woman I hated.
I ran into the street, still crying and bleeding. People stared at me but I didn’t care. I kept running. I didn’t know where I was going until I got there.
My life up until I met Jesus was a long and weary journey but the destination was worth it. The church took me in, accommodated me, treated my wounds, gave me a job and led me to Christ. In Him, I found true love and a new life. In Christ I truly understood the meaning of love.
“Love is patient, love is kind.”
I learned that true love begins with me and if I didn’t love myself, nobody could love me enough. I began to see my beauty, my intelligence, I could finally hear my own voice and speak up, give opinions. I knew no fear. I was a new woman in Christ and this woman could not be abused.
“It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”
More importantly, I forgave. I forgave my father for damaging our—my mother, my sisters and me’s—lives, and walking out on us afterwards. I forgave my mother for seeking solace in the bottle. I forgave both parents for not teaching us about Christ and his love for humanity. I forgave my grandmother and aunt for separating me from my family. I forgave Xavier for taking advantage of my insecurities. I let go of all the hurt, pain and sadness I kept inside of me for twenty-five years. And it felt good. I felt a lightness in my chest. I felt free; the burden of hatred was gone. My escape had become my freedom.
I focused all my energy on rebuilding myself; spiritually, physically and emotionally.
Two years later, I met him. Ure. My husband. My joy. I met the man who truly loves and cares about me. The man who took the time to learn every detail about me and understand all my intricacies and complexities. The man who loves, respects and honors me. The man who is proud of me and wants to show me off to the world. The man who married me in church, with God as our witness, promising to love and to cherish, in sickness and in health, till death do us part. The man with whom I bore children and created a family, an amazing family. A man I’m sharing my new life with. A man God sent to me.
“Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
I never heard from my sisters again, but everyday I pray that they’ve learned how to love, and overcome the disaster that was our childhood.
“Through my tears, I found God inside of me, and I loved him fiercely.”