The first time a man hits his partner, it’s a mistake. It’s always a mistake.
He says he didn’t plan it. It’s not like he walked in the room planning to find his girl and beat her lips to twice their size. He was provoked; it was the way she lashed out when he told her he had stopped for drinks after work.
She always lashes out.
He asks her to consider that he had just come back from a long, strenuous day at work. He’s not that type of guy. It will not happen again.
The next time he beats her, he regrets it so bad that he can’t stand to see what he has done to her. It’s clear that it’s not a mistake anymore and he knows. He had hit her repeatedly as she was trying to block the blows, so now there are two nurses and a few neighbors watching on. His doctor friend is also there, he puts her arm in splints and begs her to rest.
“Let the painkillers do their work”
The neighbors look at him out the corners of their eyes.
She can’t go to work with a black eye and a broken arm so he tends to her for the rest of the week.
Hitting her hurt a part of him, she can see a bit of the pain in his eyes as he says this to her. He doesn’t want to hurt her anymore because he doesn’t want to hurt himself.
It will never happen again.
By the time she realizes there is a pattern, and this love of her life feels like beating her solves a problem, he’s beaten her a few more times.
He walks in a room, and the air leaves her lungs. She doesn’t know if it will happen, but it’s safer to expect it. She might have done something wrong.
YOUR FRIENDS ARE BEATING THEIR WIVES AND GIRLFRIENDS
While we ignore its finer details while victims hide beneath layers of concealer, domestic violence has become prevalent in our society.
Data from the National Demographic and Health Study of 2008 indicates that it cuts across all cultural, tribal or socio-economic lines. The study shows that 28 percent, nearly a third of all women in Nigeria have experienced some variety of such violence, a scary figure when you consider that this is a country of over 200 million people.
In recent times, stories of spousal beatings have become top priority for gossip blogs. On social platforms, especially Twitter, a week hardly goes without one report or recount of domestic abuse and the outrage that usually follows.
It is so familiar that when it happens, most people first try to explain the why or the how of this new case, when all we might be doing is trying to rationalize such behavior.
How does someone live with a spouse that enjoys beating them? Realizing that one has an abusive partner is only the first step.
When Kemi’s husband first hit her, they had been married for 13 years. The marriage had produced three children, the first of which was entering his fourth year in secondary school.
“It’s not as if we did not have our bad times”, Kemi tells me outside the home where she now lives with her three children in Palmgrove.
“We used to have arguments, but it's a normal thing. Is there any couple that does not fight”, she looks at me as if to ask for the answer we both know she wants.
“I think so” is all I can mutter.
“When we just got married, he was still following some of the other women he knew before”, she continues.
“One day, I confronted him about it in front of his friends and he shouted at me. It was not small shout o”, she says, “he was really shouting and raising his hands, it was one of his old friends that talked to him before he could calm down”.
“After that, nothing else.The worst thing he did after that was maybe he (would) complain about something and go out. I didn’t like it but I knew in my mind that it was because he was gentle.", she fights back sobs as she tries, again, to recall the events that tore her family apart, "Pelumi was not a violent person, I don’t know what changed”.
When people are abused by long-term partners, they often struggle to understand how a person that they had known for years suddenly became disposed to using physical force.
It is natural. Being in the company of a person, and enjoying a close relationship over a period of time brings a level of insight into their character that you cannot get otherwise.
But people change. It can happen due to different factors, both internal and external. Sometimes, in the case of domestic violence, the victim has something to do with this ‘sudden transition’; other times, they do not.
“The first time he ever laid his hands on me, my children started crying immediately”, Kemi stutters when I ask her when the abuse began.
She tries to continue but she can barely hold back the emotion that comes with these memories.
The experiences that she is revisiting are old wounds that still hurt. I try to offer some sort of consolation but there’s little I can do.
It takes 20 minutes and a talk with her sister, who brought me here before she comes back into her living room to continue our conversation.
“He came back from work in the afternoon that day, I was in the kitchen with Tolu (her daughter)”, she says as she joins me, now in her living room, her voice still as shaky as before she left.
“Tolu went to greet him and he just… pushed her to the kitchen to go and meet her mother”, she gesticulates. “You know, as if somebody is blocking your way.”
She is visibly uncomfortable so I try to make the conversation as fast as possible. I ask her when the actual act happened.
She is not pleased.
“Tolu came in the kitchen and she was crying, so I went to ask him why he didn’t even answer the girl, you know, to make her stop crying”, she continues, “he was so aggressive, so loud, he just started shouting at me”, she remembers.
Her husband barged angrily towards their room, leaving Kemi standing, Tolu beside her. Vexed, she followed to confront him.
What followed was a loud back and forth and very quickly, a heavy slap. One so loud that the kids ran from the living room to see what had happened.
Alarmed by the kids, her husband tried to help her up, she tells me with one or two curses sprinkled in for effect. Somehow, he controls the situation.
That night and for days after, he begs for her mercy. Kemi is hurt but within a week, she begins to rationalize his actions.
SHE NEEDS TO KNOW IT IS ALMOST NEVER HER FAULT.
“He was shouting at me about whether me and the children wanted to kill him that we were always at home, disturbing him”, she says.
Most victims mistake statements like this for a reason, instead of what they really are; an excuse blurted out in the heat of rage as a crutch — temporary respite from the impending feeling of guilt that will come when that rage is released.
Kemi was what we call ‘a full housewife’, so she decided that her ‘reason’ was her omnipresence around the house.
“So later, I started to sell things. I started selling bags to workers in offices. And I started going to church too”, she adds.
The church going was his crutch when he hit her the second time. This time, her mother had come over for a brief visit.
It did not end with one slap, or two, he continued until her mother came into their room to push him aside. Then after accusing both mother and daughter of something he called ‘holding his destiny back’, he threw her clothes out.
When the children ran out the house to help their mother as she struggled with the tears and her clothes, he shut the door behind them.
“The whole thing just happened very fast. I was confused, you know. My mother was shouting at me and my husband”, she remembers.
“Everybody in our compound came out that night, even our neighbors that attended my church, they were the one that let me and my children sleep in their house until morning”
When we talk about domestic violence, blame and responsibility are the main currencies.
On social networks like Twitter, the conversation has split between two camps of self-confessed relationship experts and divorce gurus.
One camp goes on about how women nag and provoke men to anger; the other camp simply relaxes on the general submission that Nigerian men are aggressive, misogynistic and cowardly.
So the first question that most people ask is — who caused it?
But because the problem is complicated and unique to each circumstance, the answers are usually too simple to make any sense.
Save for those with some sort of professional training, no one can understand the intricacies of the dispute, the context and if there is a reason to work on things and make some attempt at staying together.
Granted, reasons are valid and there are cases where it is just one partner’s inadequacies and insecurities that are the problem.
Yes. She may have provoked him, but provocation is not an excuse for abuse in the same way poverty is not an excuse for armed robbery.
But nothing changes the fact that no reason can explain hitting a spouse and turning a partner into a victim of abuse, repeatedly, over and over again.
How or why it happened matters very little next to the act, the parties involved, the victim and the abuser.
THERE WILL NEVER BE A GOOD REASON TO HIT YOUR PARTNER.
“The next morning, everyone came to our neighbour’s house and they invited my husband to see if they could settle the fight”, Kemi laughs drily at the memory of this, “but that time, my mother had already told me that it would continue, that there was no reason to go back”.
How does someone live with an abusive spouse? Recognizing that there is a pattern is the second step, and whatever choice it inspires is most important.
“When they were trying to ask him why he started beating me, my husband was saying rubbish, that my mother blocked his destiny, that (it) was why she always came to our house, that my mother was preparing me to dominate him in his house, that I was following other men”, Kemi goes off, all the while her gaze steadily on me, as she laughs at the thought of it all.
“I just told them that I was not going to live with a man that was beating me. I have family members too now, somebody cannot just start beating me like a dog. Look at me, am I not doing fine?”, she asks.
The answer is that she is.
The concept of divorce or ‘leaving your husband or wife’ is almost taboo to most Nigerians. It is seen more as a sign of failure than the success of common sense.
The case is the same with religion and religious institutions; while it is almost impossible to undermine the role that play in marriage and family, where they face failing marriages, they are more than willing to revert to familiar scriptural references that are nearly impracticable in reality.
“Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” Luke 16:18
It’s never that simple.
The effect of this cultural tinge on our perception is that it is near impossible for society’s institutions to advise couples to split or find a solution away from each other.
So when most abused partners take their pain to friends and other couples, what they hear is something that implies that they should try harder, be more observant, gentle, accommodating and prayerful.
The individual is then left to make the choice on their own. It is never easy.
FINDING THE COURAGE TO LEAVE IS THE MOST IMPORTANT STEP
For Kemi, it was tougher than she ever expected.
After leaving her husband behind in the flat they used to share in Ketu, she lived off the help of friends and family for the better part of a year.
Then with a loan from her older brother, she expanded her bag trade. A conversation about backgrounds led to a church decoration gig that was so good, she got another. In weeks she gathered young ladies together and began calling on goodwill to get small gigs.
Small things became big ones; and after years of living with her mother in Bariga, she got her own flat and moved in with her kids. Her son, Shola resumed his first session at university the next year.
“It’s not as if everything happened well o, Segun”, she tells me, “Me and my children have suffered, there were times that I would not sell a single bag, but when I started this interior decoration business, things have become better. I’m just grateful to God”.
When confronted with an abusive partner, a woman is in a tight position. Creating an emotional connection with a person takes time and effort.
When things go rough, it does not dissolve into thin air. Some partners take advantage of this to blackmail and coerce the other into a position of weakness.
Which is why we have women who stay and take it to the chin. She feels like insisting on staying around and taking it, one blow at a time is a badge of honor.
A sign that she loves him more than he understands.
For the average married woman, the question is usually more financial. There’s never much money lying around so she and her child have few options should she decide to leave.
The result is that, to her, it can appear more sensible to bear it and hope, pray that he sees the light and changes his ways.
Finding professional help and trying to turn things in the right direction can be a smart option.
Human nature is prone to so many influences and changes that there is usually a chance of salvage. In certain instances, both spouses need to actively work on their relationship. There can be a tipping point and they can jointly avoid pushing each other to that place.
But where it becomes clear that this relationship is beyond repair, it is important that the partner has the courage and clarity of mind to make the right choice.
Kemi is one of the lucky ones. She has completely moved on and started life on her own.
Since those days, Pelumi has also moved on. She says he has a kid by another woman.
But she bears no grudges. Months before our conversations, she let her ex-husband come to her new home to see the children. He had been asking for a while.
HOW DO YOU LIVE WITH A PARTNER THAT BEATS YOU?
You leave. Your body is not a punching bag. Your emotions are not target practice.
*All names have been changed in line with the subject's request for privacy.