By – Angela Umoru
“We do not count children in our culture.”
I must have been 7 or 8 years old when my mother drilled this into my subconscious. I grew up convinced that it was a taboo of some sort- say the number of children in your family and they would start dropping dead one after the other or something.
Being a smart child with a tongue as quick as a whip, I was ever-ready to reel out the myth to anyone who asked me how many children there were in my family.
“My mother said it is wrong to count children in our culture,” I would quip on cue and the adult who had tried to milk information out of a child would walk away, ashamed.
However, not everyone was that easy to turn away. Some would insist, “What do you mean by that? Where are you from?”
Irritated by the numerous questions and adamant about not giving away the prized information, I would retort, “I am from where I am from. Why are you asking?”
This time, they would be slightly embarrassed about being bested by a child and with a nervous laugh say, “You! What a sharp girl you are! You are too mature for your age.”
Nonetheless, I was about 10 when I learnt the true reason for my mother’s stern warning. One could never tell the dim-witted replies or mocking laughter that would follow the truth. One day, I broke the code and told an older friend who would not stop asking.
Convinced that my mother would find out (at that time, I was certain she had super powers to know when I had been naughty or disobedient even when she was not around), I replied in hushed tones, “8.”
Her 13-year old eyes grew wide and she queried further, “From one woman or does your father have another wife?”
I did not understand what was so strange about this fact so I clarified innocently, “No. My father has only one wife; my mother.”
“Hmmm!” She exclaimed as laughter mixed with shock danced across her face. “You guys are so many.”
I was not sure what to make of her reaction but it made me uneasy. The next time someone asked, it was a man way older and I had begun losing my childish audacity. The years had taught me to be more respectful and cowed.
Again, I gave an honest answer and he guffawed with his friends, saying, “Just a few more people and you would make a football team.”
Angry, I spat back, “You should hear your laughter. You sound stupid,” and walked away.
These two experiences made me ashamed of the truth but now that I am much older, I have learnt to throw caution to the wind and could care less what anyone has to say about the fact that my family is large. In fact, being a psychology enthusiast, I feel blessed to have come from such a large family as it gave me my first incursion into human psychology. From early on, I was exposed to a unique mix of personalities and I began developing my people skills.
Yet, it also taught me of the significance of child bearing and its relationship to a woman’s worth in many African societies. In many cultures, a woman’s worth was solely determined by her ability to push forth life from her body; never mind the input that the process requires from a man. If she did not have any children, she was deemed less of a woman. If she had a string of female children, she was blamed as if the ‘y’ chromosome came from her. As in my mother’s case, the number of children a woman bore showed the virility of her husband and gave credence to her womanhood. People subconsciously used it to assess a woman’s worth but, if she had ‘too many’, they would also snigger at her, especially if they were mostly girls.
With the growing wave of feminist movements, the narrative is slowly evolving. Also, globalisation and economic hardships are beginning to change the way people relate childbearing to a woman’s significance. In spite of these, the vestiges of the past are still very present with us. There is still that woman in a rural community whose worth and perhaps, economic survival is completely dependent on something she cannot control. – YA