Today I woke up to the sound of a child crying. It wasn't the whiny moan of an over-indulged child throwing a tantrum. This was genuine pain punctuated by the sound of flesh slapping flesh and the angry voice of an adult. If this were a once-in-a-while phenomenon I wouldn't be writing this post. But since I moved into my apartment almost two weeks ago, this is the sound that has woken me up nearly single every day. This is not right. No child is so badly-behaved that it needs to be beaten every single morning. This is not a problem with the child it is a problem with the parent and it is abuse.
Now, I don’t know where this family lives – they are close enough for me to hear through my second-floor window, but a walk-through of my compound today told me they are not my immediate neighbours. I don’t know the circumstances they are going through – maybe there’s financial trouble or perhaps it’s a struggling single mother or maybe it’s a mixed family who haven’t learned each other’s rhythms yet – but whatever the reason there is no excuse for what they are doing to that child.
A lot of you may not see a problem with this scenario. After all, you may have had a similar childhood and come out no worse for it. You may even be doing the same (or intend to) to your children. Don’t. The legacy of abuse is a crippling one. And as Nigerians, we are all trapped in it.
We may not realize it, but Nigeria is an abusive society. This is a society where it is acceptable for a leader to lie, steal and cheat – as long as you make money and are never caught. This is a society in which it is acceptable for a teacher to beat a child because he or she is left-handed or has a learning disability. Where it is acceptable for a mob to burn a young man alive on the suspicion of theft. Where pastors can starve and torture children based on accusations of witchcraft. It is considered normal – even expected – for an employer to bully subordinates and treat them with contempt. Where a husband may beat his wife if she doesn't have his dinner ready on time and nearly every household has an underpaid, over-worked maid or houseboy who is subject to verbal abuse, at best, or the most vile slave-like conditions, at worst.
We live in a society that does its best to dominate and subjugate us through violent attacks on our bodies and our psyches. A society composed of rigid hierarchies of gender and age that work to press us into narrow definitions of what is acceptable - without regard to our true talents or desires. It ignores our needs and neglects our well-being. It demands unthinking, unquestioning obedience in the form of “respect” and gives us nothing but false and empty praise in return. This is the textbook definition of abuse.
As a nation we suffer all the symptoms that abuse victims suffer. The destructive legacies of colonialism and military dictatorships left us brutalised – without a moral centre or a clear sense of ourselves. We don’t trust our own judgement, and so we are constantly looking outside ourselves for approval and answers. This has left us vulnerable to exploitation from foreign governments and companies, and even from our own leaders. And we are repeating the abuse we have suffered on the most defenceless in our communities – our children.
I like to think that our society is in a transition period, though. Like all victims of abuse it will take time for us to heal. But only by making a conscious, daily commitment to doing things differently can we have any hope of breaking the cycle of abuse that has locked us in place generation after generation.
First, stop abusing your children. Do not tolerate systems and institutions that abuse them either. Don’t stand by when others are being victimised – speak out. Continuously demand more from yourself and from those around you. You may find yourself alone at first – they will call you a troublemaker and tell you that you are disruptive or that you’re imitating the West. They will try to shut you up and shut you down. But you can’t let them.
Today I took the first step and called someone about that crying child. I haven't done enough, I know, but I will no longer stand by and watch. Our society must change if we want to progress and every family, every company, every institution that commits to doing things differently, is one more step in the right direction. I am confident we can get there but it starts with us and it starts today.