I was nine, my fifth year in elementary school when one day, out of curiosity, I pulled out my mother’s Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English and looked up the word ‘sex’. I wish I had spared myself that knowledge for suddenly, my little world took on a harsher hue. The second meaning of the word was not as intriguing as the first-it was just a synonym for ‘gender’. But it was the first meaning that took preeminence; it handed me a ticket to the theatre of the adult world. Now I knew what my King James Bible tried to hide from me when it used the word ‘intercourse’. I knew what was in those movies grown-ups watched behind locked up doors after they shooed us away. I knew what might be in those books and magazines my aunties hid from me and slapped my hands whenever I touched them, shouting, “This book is not for small children!”
So this was it. Really…? I see….
Sadly, I was alone in my discovery. It was too risqué to share with fellow playmates and too risky to confide in an adult. Prior to then, I thought boys only differed from me because they wore shorts to school and I, a gown. In class, I shared a bench with two boys- I sat between them- but after my discovery, I saw the boys in a different light. They piqued my curiosity and it was hard for me to keep up with the notion that they were ordinary playmates.
September came and I was ready for boarding school. My mother sat me down and spoke to me softly, about what was happening to my body and what more would happen to it. She told me why my chest was gathering and why the pubes were appearing; why I shouldn’t be scared and why I should not cry like the bush girls in her school days that woke one morning and found stains on their beddings. She told me how that with just a little frolicking with the boys, another being could form on my inside. I was not shocked on receiving the new knowledge she passed down to me. This news weren’t so incredible to my mind for my imaginations had fully prepared me.
It was when I arrived the gates of my new school, an all girls’ secondary school that my situation dawned on me. I was ten and for the next six years I’d be here, there’d be no boys. The following years were filled with lessons on being ladies, lessons on how to be mannered, how to be witty without being sassy, how to eat the lean and very annoying food with forks and knives (didn’t they know how hungry we were?). We in turn taught ourselves how to strut, keeping time to the music playing in our heads. These were all in preparation for the ‘wider world’, as our principal loved to call it. But to me, the phrase ‘wider world’ was just another euphemism for the word ‘men’, just as my Bible called sex, “intercourse”. So I learnt my social graces with much vigor. I could not wait to show them off to the ‘wider world’. I could have given an arm for that world. I so wanted to meet men.
When I came home on breaks and holidays however, incidences that adorned my home life scared me a bit from that world. When I waked from my sleep to the ‘you-will-kill-me-today’ cries of my neighbor as her husband disciplined her; when I eavesdropped on my aunties’ kitchen gossip as they pitied that Big Madam that took on an ascetic lifestyle, preferring to walk the length and breadth of our town rather than buying herself a car, all for fear of frightening off suitors; when my aunties returned from the market with the tales of two women-a wife and a mistress-fighting and tearing each other’s brassieres( in the marketplace!) over a man; when I saw the shame smeared like mud on the teenage mom’s face and that popular warning that came with her condition: ‘Don’t let that child call you mummy so you won’t ruin your chances’; when I saw how ostracized the divorced woman was and the plight of the widow after her in-laws have picked her clean of every inheritance; all these frightened me. Are these the sacrifices to be made? So much to give and so much to bear for the ‘wider world’!
I was young and hearing these stories and observing these occurrences made me think that whenever a mosquito bit a woman, it must have been a male one.Yet amid these woes, it didn’t stop these women from knocking on our doors, presenting my mom with invitation cards, their faces beaming. “Madam, rejoice with me oh…,” one would say. “God has finally caused his face to shine on me.” And they would make haste to borrow me from my mother to be one of their flower girls.
On those Saturdays, we’d be dolled up alongside the bride, the whole world in various shades of glee; the bride filled with so much laughter that she’d be unable to blow off a candle if you had placed one before her.But with time, I discovered something and I wondered if I was alone in my knowledge this time.
I observed the suppressed vivacity of the bride few months and years after that walk down the aisle. Where there used to be nail varnish, now there lay chipped nails. Where there used to be smart skirts, there were boubous. Where there used to be lissome bosom, I saw flaccidity. It was as though when she said, “Yes I do” to her man, she turned around and said, “No I don’t” to her ambitions. The ‘wider world’ wasn’t as rosy as I had thought.
Only when I came to maturity and began forming my own thoughts, deciding to disregard what thoughts my environment tried to hand me, that was when I realized there was really nothing to break my head for ‘the wider world’and those who chose to break their heads and wreck their lives did so out of ignorance. I discovered what little differences lay between a man and me. We were two souls living in different bodies and these souls of ours were gender-less; they had no sex to them. The only differences were in our bodies and in our senses. Where he had heftiness in his chest, I had suppleness in mine. Where there was a baritone in his voice, there was softness in mine. His frame was built with more sinews than mine to bear the weights I could not carry.I discovered that I was only a woman in my senses. If he touched me right and gently, I will open like a flower in bloom, but if he hit me with his fist, I will give a cry that will shake his teeth in their gums. If he loved me right in the dead of night, by morning, I will awake, singing while I make his breakfast. In a union I knew my role and it was in debatable.
But whenever I leave the confines of our love nest and I come face to face with a world repressive of women, I needed to let my sexless soul emerge without losing my feminine composure- those lessons on social graces were worth it after all. In a world where someone might try to sit on my promotion because of my sex, I needed to let loose and set free my gender-less soul.
It is sad to see the optionless life many women lead because of how successfully their minds have been repressed to inactivity. If a man can be, why can’t I? What hinders a woman is not her body or her sex but her poor mind and her ignorant soul. A weak soul would yield a weak person, male or female, just as a mean soul yields a mean-spirited person. Quoting Daniel Defoe, “The soul is placed in the body like a rough diamond; and must be polished, or the luster of it will never appear.”
I am no longer of the school of women that believe the ‘wider world’ is sole reason for existence, women waiting for a men to give them their voices -they’d so wait! It is just a handful of men that are willing to keep mute to let me speak, for every man loves deeply the timbre of his own voice. So amid the chorus of a million baritone voices, I have decided to make my voice unique enough to be heard, to lead a life not limited by the presence or absence of the ‘wider world’ and to keep refining my sexless soul.
Ucheoma Onwutuebe blogs at www.ucheomaonwutuebe.blogspot.com