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.
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