I grew up in a calm, what you can almost call a slow city. At that time, most adults who were literate worked for the government. Before the expansion of the big oil companies, factories, and commercial banks, government workers were the ones who ran the city. These government employees comfortably woke up at 8 AM to get ready for work and would often be seen seated in their living rooms before 5 PM, waiting for the evening news on Tv. Work-life balance reigned supreme here. Enugu people are known as people who took life easy.
In those days, there was an abundance of men who sat on street pavements, passing lazy mornings and evenings. They played board games and argued loudly about football. I remember how very slowly time moved. People seemed to have a lot of time on their hands. These men would often be seen touting and following the women who walked past them. ‘heys bebe, come let me talk to you’ ‘fine girl, kedu?’ was often yelled at these women, who were too afraid to respond as they went about their business.
Even as a little girl, I could see how wrong this behaviour was. I realised at an early age that, some people are incapable of seeing softness without wanting to hurt it. By the time I became an adolescent, I wasn’t just a spectator anymore. The unsolicited catcalling was directed at me as well.
Two mornings ago, I was talking to an acquaintance whom I met several years ago, who currently lives in the same country as me. It was a long phone call, a lot of catching up to do. The conversation drifted to the time we met in Awka. He told me about how he lacked the courage to speak to me the first day he met me but instead, followed me back to my house, watched me park my car beside my house gate, watched me get out of my car, and watched me get into my house. I have spoken to this person since the year 2017 after we exchanged phone numbers, but I never knew this happened until he talked about it two days ago.
I tried to let him see that what he did had a name – stalking, and that it was dangerous. He was very quick to dismiss me. This man who followed me home said it would only be seen as stalking if I was aware at the time he did it.
I know what a man’s unwanted attention looks and feels like. Perhaps, I know it too well to a point that I am no longer fazed by it.
Could that be why I didn’t notice that the new housemate who recently moved into the house I live in stares at the women in a weird manner? “Haven’t you noticed the creepy way he stares at you when you walk past?” – one of the housemates asked. “No” – I said. “I am writing to the landlord” – she went on. “he makes me so uncomfortable” – she added. I was concerned about this new housemate’s hygiene, which was starting to affect us all. And after several attempts at speaking with him to try to clean up the general area whenever he litters didn’t yield any results, I agreed we should get the landlord involved too.
At least I was able to move around in Enugu. In Lagos, I lacked the courage to walk down the streets at night.
I sold my car just before the covid19 lockdown to buy an SUV. While I waited for my new car, I went everywhere with uber and occasionally drove my neighbour’s car. Today, I cast my mind back to the afternoon I went to fix my hair at the salon. The process took longer than usual as it seemed half the men and women in Lagos with loc’d hairs decided to all make their hair that day. I took an uber back to my house and on getting closer to where I lived, I realized that I didn’t have any food to eat at home, so I decided to stop at this fast food place very close to my house. Unfortunately for me, the uber driver wasn’t a very patient person and acted like he brought his family problems to work. He sternly told me that he would end the trip if I stopped to buy food. He did just that, and because I was very close to home, I decided to walk.
There were new houses still being built around the estate where I lived. So you would often see the labourers whom I believe slept in those unfinished buildings loitering about at night. “Baby, did you buy food for just yourself?” “my wife” “fine girl talk to me na” – were yelled at me by these men. I feared that these street urchins would become brazen enough to not just yell these words at me, but come to touch me, snatch my bag, or both.
All I could do was walk faster. Even though my mind told me to walk faster, my legs felt like they were stuck to the interlocked floor. I wanted to run, but I imagined their cold, mean laughter and decided against it.
Last night, I read about the horrible experiences of Ukrainian women in the hands of Russian soldiers (men) and it broke my heart. Regardless of skin colour, men do horrible things to women all over the world and it doesn’t look like it is ever going to stop.
Anyway, I remember narrating my experience to a male colleague at work several days later after a long and exhausting projects meeting on MsTeams. He thought I was too fragile and overreacting and he didn’t waste any time in telling me the same. “oh just ignore them” – he said, visibly amused. I was again crushed.
Is there really a distinction between the men who harass women, those that egg them on, and those who dismiss our feelings?