Who Will Cook Egusi, and Other Notes on Girls, Fun, and Public Spaces

Image: Adaku Nwakanma, In-position (2019)

An all-girls boarding school is rife with slices of all the rumours that make the rounds : mean girls, cliques, lesbianism, out-of-school parties. It is also where personalities, some which may never feature again, shine the brightest. I remember how the girls within mixed gendered schools seemed quiet, and toned down, and prim, and proper — quite like the ideal, often overlooked, Nigerian wife — I often forgot they existed as classmates in the same school; all we ever heard about was the boys. All the girls knew who the boys of interest were, who they were interested in, who they had gone out with. Girls made sure not to over hype brothers before Visiting Day, as the air shooting from deflated expectations would not hesitate to make itself felt. And late at night, a good sport was a good prank on a donated male’s phone number. Personal interests were rarely the forefront of these discussions, and it paid everyone — once, the school had to limit and cross-check visitors after men looking for love on those red, hand-held, rechargeable lantern-radios found a nest in our school and came with flowers, cakes and gifts which were later shared accordingly.

Taking in the moment before me now, I see the playful smiles held with knowing looks, and more responsibilities. When the opportune time comes that I hang with my girls, there’s usually that moment, like in the movies, when the conversation fades into background noise or complete silence. All around, there is still talking and laughter at one of the million inanities that could possibly come up after being apart for any period of time. We’ve gotten older. But I only know this because of the reasons we get to see each other — the faces haven’t changed much except for the fillings of flesh in once hollow cheekbones, the evening out of skin tones, and of course, better makeup. We have conversations ranging from sex and sexuality, to abortions and women’s rights. I don’t agree with certain stances but, for the most part, I’m glad that these conversations are happening in what you could describe as a religio-conservative group. Tomorrow, one of us will get married. And I wonder about change and its ever constant nature: how fickle decisions are but how each creates an unpredictable future, and how life can vary with a small shift in said decision. What changes could occur by deciding to get married not tomorrow, but the day after? In changing the colours of the day from purple to yellow? In deciding to change the man or woman that one decided to get married to? In deciding not to get married at all?

Once in a while, we think about kicking up our feet and having a good time, away from all the pressure of budding adulthood — we all fill our quota of women evolving into women living their best lives. We talk about going shopping or to the spa or to the nail salon — activities portrayed as women’s go-to leisure and recreational activities but which is really the biggest capitalistic scam unlike any other, especially as a reward for back-breaking work and unpaid labour.

A part of me misses the days when girls would sit on chairs upon chairs mounted on tables upon tables discussing Ramsey Noah’s lookalike, Van Vicker. After exams, girls would carry deep velvet blankets and cans of sardines and sit on the lawn under udara trees talking and lazing in the streaming sun. Or they would churn up dust playing oga with their feet and hands, and jumping on boxes drawn in the sand. The groups were many, evolving, and claiming every open space. For most girls, those were the few moments they would use public spaces to its full capacity, not just as a transparent tube to get from one private or cordoned-off establishment to the other, very quite unlike the sense of ownership of environment seen in the creation of makeshift football fields and viewing centres where fans of favourite clubs teamed up, in outdoor establishments where green bottles — seeming to hold the elixir of youth — are nursed long after curfews have run into effect, and in boxers peeking out from the trousers of young men club-hopping, or just taking a late-night stroll. But even in a girl’s dominated environment, there was menace in the pockets of isolation: like the time I tried to find privacy to ease myself of a full bladder and turned around to find a man requesting for money or a kiss; like the bras lying on the way to the maths teacher’s cubicle, telling unacknowledged tales within empty corridors; like the feeling of not wanting to be alone in a dark dormitory where most of its occupants had gone to another to pray against witches and wizards inhabiting the cartoons drawn on the walls.

Alone is how most of the members of Market March had felt before storming down the streets of Yaba to protest the normalised harassment of women in its markets. The Market March, an awareness march begun in a bid to unveil the silent aggression that women face daily in the “most public space”, tore through social media with its gruesome videos of misogyny and entitlement in December 2018. Some men had said that that was not the right way to go about it. Women ought to have talked to the leaders of the market, gained permission, and tried not to enrage the men. Having volunteered earlier that day, I knew that the Market March had actually previously gone to the market leaders, but they requested that they be accompanied by an old man, a baba, before they would be granted audience. The idea that permission ought to have been granted in a place as public as a market made my blood boil, because it meant that men are the default users and custodians of public spaces. The idea made my stomach churn even as I thought about how oblivious I was taking a back-pack down an unexplored road, setting out a wrapper, and sleeping in a tree shade. It made me crave for the ownership of this space so that my daughters and her daughters will never know what it feels like to exist within the confines of expectations and a lack of safety.

I recently told a friend of mine that I did not like my friends getting married. Not that I was not happy for them, but the feeling persists that even in the last space where she is allowed to be, colonisation now transcends the public into the private life. I reveal that it feels like I lose a part of them whenever they subscribe to the impositions, restrictions and mannerisms that are often expected from a typical married woman. It is not advised to have single friends some say, while others place emphasis on the woman being a part of the husband’s family — nowhere is this more evident than in an MC’s introduction at a wedding reception where the only recognition of a woman is a Mrs., as if absorbed into some kind of program. On some days, I look at the hyphenated or completely changed surnames on Facebook and try to pronounce them together with the name of a person I’ve always known. They stick to the roof of my mouth, dry up, and are later forgotten. In an all-girls school, names are said at least five times a day, for at least 2190 days. Name and last name flow together at least 10950 times so you did not have to ask which one. For a brief moment, I wonder if I am the person from the past who only ever knows a friend as what she once was. That refuses to accept the newly-found, carried out expectations of changing last names, conforming behaviour, and colonisation of character in both public and private spaces. Maybe I am in mourning for what was — and the idea that there has to be a was — and unwilling to continue a pseudo-relationship filled with phones ringing in that manner that signifies the night is over, with questions about who will cook egusi, on days when we finally dare tiptoe out to the edge to talk about the existence of God away from blaring speakers condemning non-conforming individuals to hell.

When I open my eyes, a streak of sunlight hits the grey mat so that it seems like it is yellow and white at the same time. Black ants lace the edge where the mat stops and blades of stunted grass bend to gently caress its surface. All through the university, after all girls had gone separate ways, I tried to recreate this moment with new friends and mixed gendered schoolmates. The first time, it just seemed like a silly idea. The other time, the Champions League was on. The next, we just walked by the spot where I had imagined blankets, music, and dancing. Lying here in the largest public park of Abuja, it almost seems like a perfect moment, a curated one in fact. With the suya sellers and wait-and-take photographers near the gates reminding visitors of its purpose, the park felt more like a destination than a reclamation of the often transitory-used public space. But for now, I’ll take what I can get.

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Adaku Nwakanma

Adaku Nwakanma

I write about digital product design.