People often associate being petite with having a foul mouth to make up for what’s lacking in height. Standing at 5 feet 2 inches, i always detested such stereotype especially since it made it impossible for me to express myself without hearing someone accuse me with;
“Na wa o. All these short people can be very troublesome.” Hence whenever anything I didn’t like was done to me I silently took it all.
Before long I realized the answer didn’t lie in my silence because though I was not regarded as the typical short girl with a long mouth, my benignity had made me an easy target for bullies.
Adanna and her cronies were my nightmare in this regard. Adanna was loved by all due to her wit and humor- all except me. I was the butt of all her jokes.
“Walk tall, shoulders high and back, chin up. You are queens, act like it” Miss Osas our GEM club mistress would instruct.
“Mariam, bring down your shoulders. Raising them that high won’t make you any taller” Adanna would tease me to the amusement of everyone. I too usually smiled, faking nonchalance, but it always cut deep.
I wished I could pull off her merry and easy manner. She could tease someone bitterly one second and forget it the next, moving on to something else that caught her fancy while her victim stewed for hours.
I considered her foul mouthed but no one else did. Perhaps they would have were she short. To them she was witty.
Deciding that I could no longer continue that way I began to match her and anyone else who tried to pick on me wit for wit, mouth for mouth, and I decided if it ever came to it I would also match them blow for blow.
Observations about people which I never voiced because of how hurtful it might be, I began voicing t openly to protect myself from being the victim and had people laughing with me. I also had multiple lines ready for each single line of insult tossed my way. For me it became pick on before you get picked on.
With our JAMB and WAEC exams out of the way and waiting for NECO exams to start the following week, we all sat in class having fun. We felt very little need to read since the exams considered more important were over and were having a game of ‘guess’.
“Guess who is most likely to be the first to get married” Tunrayo asked and most people said “Yetunde” a few others “Sandra”
“I think it’s Yetunde” Tunrayo settled it. “She is the most beautiful and most likely will have men running after her.”
“Guess who is the class water melon?” one student asked and everyone chorused “Nkiru.” Nkiru could call up tears at will. She would cry when she failed a test, she would also cry when she passed a test.
“Guess who has a razor mouth?” Nkiru volunteered. Adanna most certainly I thought and was surprised to hear everyone calling “Mariam!”
“No way. I am not” I protested ignoring Yetunde who tried to remind me that one of the rules of the game was that you could not defend yourself. But the more I tried to counter their claims the more they gave me reasons why I am no doubt the foulest mouthed student of S.S.3.
“If only you know how many times your bad mouth has made me cry” Nkiru revealed to my consternation.
In protecting myself I had become that which I hated.
When my colleagues started assigning the more humbling duties to me, I didn’t mind. I wanted to impress. Then it became a habit of theirs which I came to detest but never had the courage to speak against. Each time, I decided to refuse every petty errand I was sent on only to find my lips stiff and my legs already moving to grant their request.
Unable to protest with words, I did so with my actions. I would come to work wearing a hard and unfriendly look on my face, hoping it would deter anyone from asking me to go invite the client in or make coffee for the client like I were some common office help. It didn’t work, only made them less friendly to match my unfriendly demeanor.
Then I chose the sloppy way out, carrying out tasks improperly. For instance I would be asked by a colleague to please pass his bag and I would pretend not to hear or would deliver coffee and cake to the client and intentionally leave out serviette. This got me lectures from my boss and head shakes of bewilderment from my colleagues.
“What is wrong with you?” one of my colleagues once asked with sincere concern and I smiled and answered that there was nothing wrong.
“Are you worried about something at home or what?” another asked. “You used to be friendlier when you started working here.” But in all these I could never bring myself to explain that I resented being treated as an inferior. Wouldn’t that make me seem ungrateful after how well I had been received or much worse a lazy worker full of complaint?
I chose a different method and tried sending other workers to do things I would ordinarily do on my own “Get me paper from the printer” I said to one who replied me with;
“Shalewa, you too like madam. Is the printer not close to you? Get it yourself jare.” It seemed so easy, the way she put me in my place but I could never come up with such ready response when I needed them. Once when I did, I noticed multiple eyes staring at me in disapproval.
This morning, at a meeting with some very important clients, a colleague sitting at the meeting with me asked me to go get some files.
“You are closer to the door. Why don’t you go get it yourself” I wanted to say, but didn’t and I rationalized that I couldn’t say that in front of the clients.
Carrying the files back to the conference room, so much resentment building up at my plight, I banged the files on the table with such vehemence and stomped to my seat. As I sat, I noticed the clients and my colleagues looking at each other and then at me with disbelief. I had no idea it had been so obvious.
Maybe that would stop them from asking me to do things they did themselves when I was not there.
Later that day my Managing director called me into his office.
“I have been watching you for weeks and your behavior has become highly unbearable.” He went on listing all the ways in which I had faulted. Didn’t he see that it wasn’t my fault? That if everyone handled their business I wouldn’t be so defensive? I was not bitter by default, I just needed them to understand that I was not their errand girl.
Tears welled and spilled as he scolded me, my thoughts screamed to be heard, but I hung my head and took it all in instead.
The victim had become the villain.
Being surrounded by evil relatives must be my curse for the rest of my life. Growing up in a polygamous family, I had a step mother who was a witch and often accused my mum of being a witch. I took the very first chance I had of leaving home and married the first suitor I had at age sixteen. My mother encouraged me to accept him and keep mum about the events leading up to my engagement before my step mother, out of jealousy that her much older daughters were still single, would tie me up spiritually.
Married for ten years with a daughter whom I had in my first year of marriage and no other children coming forth since then, I began visiting prayer houses for solution to my problems. At each I got the same prophesy; my husband’s brother’s wife, my co-wife, had tied my womb so I would not have male children to contest for properties with her sons.
Unwilling to tow my mum’s line of waiting on God to fight my enemies, which I knew from experience never worked, I decided to fight her myself. I confronted her openly about being a witch and in her usual deceptive fashion she not only denied it but also got everyone vouching for her and accusing me of accusing an innocent woman.
I was asked to apologise to her at a family meeting. I did and she accepted graciously.
“As Christians it is our duty to forgive. That is what Christ did and what makes us like him.” She said. I was amazed at how easily my kinsmen were fooled. Privately she was never as nice to me as she pretended to be in public.
“Suffer not a witch to live” I quoted to my conscience and set out to make her pay. The prophet at one of the prayer houses gave me a coconut to bury in the middle of the compound and asked that I read Psalm 35 while at it to nullify all the evil she had planted there for me.
“Coconut water is known to neutralize medicine. Coupled with the Psalm 35, your co-wife will begin confessing in no time. Wear a white cloth to signify your innocence” He instructed.
At midnight I went outside with a hoe and the coconut brother Hezekiah had given me. I didn’t need my bible since I knew the Psalm by heart.
As I dug, silently reciting the Psalm, I heard a piercing scream and looked up with the hope that my co-wife had begun confessing. She screamed again calling the whole compound to come see what I was doing.
In no time I was surrounded by my husband’s family. Everyone demanded to know why I was trying to bury a coconut at night dressed in white. There was no need explaining; even I could see that the odds were against me. Worse than my co-wife’s chant of “God has vindicated me” was the look of disappointment and fear I saw on my husband’s and Abbey’s face as they stood huddled together a safe distance away from me.
Struggling to survive in a society with different characters can bring out the worst in you and make you that which you are not.
Here are a few tested-but-not-all-encompassing tips I hope will help in situations like this;
- Speak Out: If someone treats you in a way you do not like, speak out. Holding it in is like filling a cup. Someday it will overflow and spill in way of irrational behavior.
- Get Intervention: People can be irrational so that when you speak gently to them about how they’ve wronged you they flare up and become cantankerous. If you can, call a person or two whom you know your offender holds in high esteem and get them to resolve your issues.
- Talk it over: In situations when you do not want to involve a third party, wait out till your offender is in a better mood and explain to them without sounding judgmental how their behavior affects you.
- Retaliate: This is my favorite but one which requires courage. Retaliate in the same way you were offended then while your offender is feeling upset for being dealt their own medicine you explain to them that this is exactly the way you feel whenever they treat you same way.
- Give space: If these do not work, distance yourself from such a person if you can afford such luxury.
- Get witness(es): Everyone has a breaking point, if your offender ever drives you there, it is always important that you have a witness whom you’ve told everything from the start to defend you when everyone thinks you are being irrational.
- Carry out behavioral appraisal: At the end of each day, carry out a behavior appraisal and at intervals (say quarterly) ask close friends for their opinion about your attitude. Change when you notice you have become that which you do not like.