In the country of my birth, there are places in which whole families share meals from one plate, 5, 6, 7 pairs of hands slipping and sliding over each other in a rush to be fed. There are villages in which children bounce on any available knee and are smacked by any available hand; they may call for “mama” in the singular, but that call will always be answered in plural. If you were to visit this country, you would find yourself constantly on high alert, watching for the many ways in which you will be forced into involuntary sharing. An example: when driving the car you bought- a car that is yours according to the paperwork in the glove compartment, and the money you paid a car dealer- you will find yourself afraid, nervous in your ownership, as any other driver may feel the need to scratch their initials into your paintwork, brush their name onto your car, taking a dab of blue or red or green with them and leaving you to make a date with your mechanic. You share the road with other road users; never forget they co-own your sanity too. Or perhaps you’ve gone out for an evening stroll. Two young men approach with a sense of entitlement – “Aunty, what do you have for us?”- and you think very quickly and move even quicker, because in that moment you realise that everything you have is already theirs, if they want it.
In the country of my childhood, land is prized above any other thing. A man can shoot you, or set his dogs on you, for trespassing, even if you’re simply lost, or you’re just a child exploring, even if the land he calls his was won by blood and theft. There, at school, I learned that my name, written in fat black letters, had power. It meant I could determine who could touch my lunchbox, or sit on my chair, or use my pencil. This was a revelation- at home, I had no such rights. All that was mine, was someone else’s first, and in any event I was too small to do much defending. Save for the viciously fought wars with my roommate/sister, in which we split the room down the middle with masking tape and punished every infraction with cruel pinches or well-aimed rubber band missiles, my home was broad in its definition of ownership. We brought this with us, I guess.
Adolescence, a strange country of its own, taught me new things. It taught me that my body, before now simply a vessel for doing things, was first something alien, that would from time to time rebel against me in baffling ways, then, once settled, would become something I’d have to fight over for the rest of my life. Who would get to see it, enter it, touch it? I’d have to think carefully about this, determine what I was willing to trade, give up, exchange, receive for bits of myself. But this felt okay- all the girls I knew were making similar decisions and we were quite happy to muddle along together. It marked our crossing over into adulthood, this defining process, and we were too young to be afraid of it.
What people don’t tell you about travel is that, done too soon , too much, too young, it disrupts the normal process of ‘defining’ because what is right in one place is utterly wrong in another. And so I found, quite scarily, that whatever decision I made about my own body could be challenged, negated, based on where in the world I was at any given time. This complicated things.
In Nigeria, for example, I knew that my body belonged to anyone who could see it. My Aunts owned it, through their comments on my weight, and curves and skin tone. My grandmother owned it, as she took possession of my smooth hand in her wrinkled one, and wouldn’t let go for hours and hours, suffocating me in her affection. Any older woman owned it, when they tucked a questing bra strap back into my top, or tugged at a hem judgingly, or dragged me into corners at family parties to help me retie my wrapper, or patted my hair, concerned I didn’t know what a relaxer was. Men owned it too, laying claim with their looks and comments and advice- here is what you do, they’d say, to get a husband, to keep him. Strangers owned it, often and unashamedly, when they plopped their babies on my lap while they filled forms at a hospital, or stood too close to me in bank queues, breathing themselves on to my neck with aplomb. You’d go to a market, and prepare to be grabbed and pulled by anyone who felt like it. You’d go to church and prepare to be forced to your knees, or have a hand bless-pressing itself to your forehead. I didn’t mind these things, not really, I just had to remind myself that these rules didn’t apply everywhere.
I’d get on a plane back to England and find my body my own again. I could feed it as much or as little of whatever I wanted, no one would comment. No one would touch it, if I didn’t let them, or if I wasn’t subject to that particular unluckiness all girls dread. The male gaze was something I could attract or ignore, as I chose. It didn’t own me. This was how I felt when I was younger.
Now, older, I realise that this is a nonsense. That wherever we go, we are all owned in bits, in parts. By the people we let love us, hurt us, know us. Sometimes by people we’ve never seen, or met, or given permission to. How much of ourselves belongs wholly to us, and how much of ourselves do we willingly trade away for something other, or better? Who owns you?