When Parents Curse

In 2008, I worked in Nigeria briefly, with an organization focused on the sexual health of children and youth. I was giving a talk on self-esteem when a girl, no older than nine or ten, raised her hand. 

“Excuse me, ma,” she said. “If my mother tells me to follow man, and I refuse, and she says she’ll curse me, will it catch me?”  

Follow man, for those who don’t understand Nigerian colloquialisms loosely refers to dating or having sexual relations with men outside of marriage.

The girl whom I’ll refer to as Laura seemed troubled. She was fidgeting, pensive, clasping, and unclasping her hands. As I contemplated Laura’s question, I felt sorry for her. Right there, in front of me, stood a little girl, a child, bearing a grave and heavy burden. She was trying to figure out if a curse placed on her for rejecting her mother’s horrible request would affect her. 

I wanted to tell her what I thought of her mother. But in the spirit of professionalism, I didn’t. Instead, I told her her mother’s curse wouldn’t work. “When parents ask you to do something wrong, and you refuse, their curses don’t work,” I said. I knew that the explanation wasn’t good enough. It was way too simplistic to address her question, but it was the best I could give to a child who’d probably been taught to believe that her mother was an infallible god and could lay curses at will. Such ingrained beliefs take years to undo, and in some cases, are never reversed, and I wasn’t going to be in Nigeria much longer. I did, however, alert my supervisors to Laura’s situation, and they promised they’d follow up with her.

I’ve brought Laura’s story up with many of my fellow Nigerians. The response is almost always the same. Laying curses or threatening to do so, is an all too common practice in Nigeria, possibly due to flawed, long-held cultural beliefs that suggest that parents have a divine right to control their children. When there is a threat of losing control, parents try to regain control by instilling fear, very commonly the fear of being cursed. They do so using statements like:  I gave birth to you, and I will curse you by my power as your mother; I’ll curse you with these breasts with which I fed you; it will never be well with you; you’ll never amount to anything; since you’ve made me cry your children will make you cry for the rest of your life.

Though laying curses is just one of the tools in the “instilling fear” toolbox, it’s probably one of the most destructive. Whether valid or not, the perception of being cursed may lead many people into a life of chronic self-doubt and, subsequently, failure in all aspects of their lives. For instance, if Laura believes she’s cursed, every misstep, set back, or disappointment may leave her wondering whether her mother’s curse is at work. Her natural desire to strive may become compromised because she expects to fail. Failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. She may come to accept defeat as the norm and could carry this belief with her well into an adulthood full of self-sabotage. As an adult, the curse may become her obsession, may bind her mind and enslave it to words that become its jailor. And while she fixates on her so-called obstacle, time passes her by, while her peers excel in their chosen paths. She sees them go and accepts that she is nothing like them, and will never be like them because she is cursed. Her perspective on everyday life is also compromised. Just surviving becomes a challenge. Her attitude towards her finances, physical and mental health, as well as her relationships, becomes passive. In other words, in her mind, the curse, not her excessive spending, is responsible for her being broke. The curse, not the way she eats, has led to her failing health. The curse, not her inability to be consistent, is responsible for her failed relationships. 

Undoing the faulty programming created when parents curse can be life-long and arduous. Mental health therapy and counseling can help speed up the process. Sadly, the average Nigerian does not have access to a mental health therapist or counselor. Besides, such interventions are not usually well-received nor trusted within Nigerian communities. Therefore, even if they were available, the chances of Laura choosing to access them are slim to none. Laura is left to navigate the world on her own, using a mind damaged by the words of those charged with protecting it.  

 There are many things we hold dear in Nigeria. Some are good, and some, not so good. Isn’t it time we let go of the things that have hurt rather than healed us over the years, practices that hold no value for us, and the wellbeing of our children? Isn’t it time we did away with placing curses on children when they disobey? Children will drive you to the brink, sadly that’s what many children do. But dear parent, when the urge to curse your child takes hold of you, I urge you not to. The damage from your words may last forever, and you’ll see it manifest in your lifetime. Nobody wins.

For those who live in fear of a parent’s curse, please never give up. Also, no one has the right to trivialize your experience or tell you it’s not real. Because, no matter what people say, you are the one living with the experience, and only you understand how it has affected you. I urge you to seek help in a way that aligns with your values and beliefs. Intervention from an ill-equipped person can further worsen the situation, so choose wisely. For instance, those who are religious may want to seek out a progressive, educated, and well informed religious or spiritual leader, and for the non-religious, please seek out a qualified and accredited counselor who understands African family dynamics (this is so crucial). 

Whatever you do, never give up, never ever give up.


Image source: Pixbay

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5 Responses to “When Parents Curse”

  1. Bolanle

    I’m currently battling this problem with my mother. Searched the internet and I came across this. I’m in tears writing this. I’m just 20, final year students and the curse I’ve received from my mother is unimaginable. The least painful thing I’ve heard from her is Oloshi and Oloriburuku (an unfortunate being). She does it with so much pride and warn you that you’ll meet everything in the future. Due to this Covid issue, I’ve been at home for close to 5 months, been depressed since. Told my sister yesterday that I wish my mum would die(something I wish I never said) but I know I’ll be at peace if she did. God forgive me. She’s too toxic. She hasn’t given me pocket money in the past 5 months, the little money I get from friends when I buy clothes or other things she sees them and start saying I’m wicked, stingy and not caring. I have a senior brother which I hates. They are best friends and he likes to prove he loves her the more, so when I don’t maybe give her N1000 out of the N2000 I have it is a problem. She always play the victim tho. I’m just so tired of my family. Your write-up is soothing, I just had to comment. I can’t even sum up half of what I go through here. It is horrible. Any small thing she will say my mate are getting married and doing good things in life and I’m here. She does not give me more than 6k in a month for pocket money. She’s a teacher, a civil servants. She earn like 70k a month, like 60k she will use it to do Irapada in Cele?. She’s always doing one ishe or the other in Cele. And yeah, she loves her self too much, always throw the “I am finer than you” word to me. I’m just tired of everything. She beat me too. I’ve said it that anytime she lay her hand on me again, I will face her back. I’ll curse her back too. I’m tired.

    • Petra Okeke-Bestman

      Hi Bolanle,

      your comment really broke my heart. I’m sorry I’m just responding. I hope you see this comment. The truth is that this too shall pass. One day, you’ll grow older and find your own way. I am in no position to ask you to forgive, because I am not walking in your shoes. But remember, that hurt people hurt others. Parents give what they have been given by their own parents and their own before, and so on and so on. You are so young, so full of potential. All I can tell you is this, don’t stop seeking healing, don’t stop searching for, and dreaming of having something better. Read up everything you can about healing from family trauma, never ever begin to think there is something wrong with you, or that this is your fault. Millions of Nigerians are going through this, you are not alone. Find solace in seeing successful people and studying how they became that way. Remember Oprah? Do you know her story? She overcame so much to be who she is today. There are many more, even in Nigeria. The best revenge in life, is stupendous success. Good luck with your studies. There is something better and you will find it, for yourself, and your own family if you choose to have one in the future.


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