Everyone has a history; how you act and tell your story defines you. Ace comedian and celebrity, Helen Paul, trended wildly last week. Men and women with very difficult beginnings should seek out Helen Paul and learn from her how to manage life’s complexities and dankness. I listened to the comedian’s trending video, the entire 59 minutes, two seconds. It contains everything that sets people free from taunts of fate and challenges of life. She spoke candidly; she ‘cried’ and smiled; she talked about her teenage shortcut issues and about her school report card pranks. She even confessed to sins that people hire SANs to conceal. She was lucid and got applauded. Like romance novelist, Lori Forster, she bared it all. She shamed the world with details that would ordinarily be deemed shameful. She came across as a complete human being. She waltzed through her warty beginning into her glorious now. Helen displayed unbelievable openness; she celebrated every good thing and every bad thing in her past; she freed herself and floated into life’s waiting arms. I wish our husbands in high places allow Helen to teach them how to bathe clean and dry the sponge.
“I was born out of rape,” she announced, telling the tale of the abuse that birthed her and the consequences of her being born at all. She was born in downtown Lagos into nothing and landed in the midst of thorns. She toddled in rejection, wrestling society’s moral thistles. She was denied the privilege of having a name at birth – and even on the eighth day, no one thought of an identity for her beyond the fact that a girl was impregnated by a rapist and from that act came this unwanted baby girl. She said persons she knew as aunties called her a “bastard child”; they would not even agree to sharing the family name with her. Her forename, ‘Helen’ came much later by accident; the ‘Paul’ that serves as her surname was donated by a complete stranger at the point of her registration in primary school. She was, literally, a nobody.
Bastard is a stigma word; an exclusionary term. In English, it means an ‘illegitimate child.’ The French have a different spelling and pronunciation for the word; they have bâtard suggesting “a child conceived on an improvised bed.” A bastard to the creative German is a child begotten, not on a marriage bed, but on a bench. Helen Paul was labeled a bastard by almost everyone she grew up to know as family. That very bad word has an attached legal term; it is called bastardy. There was a time in England when bastards were, in law, deemed to have no parents, no relations and no ancestors. They were not even entitled to a surname “except such as they won for themselves by reputation, and they were heirs-at-law of no one” (George Stevenson, Bastardy, 2006). Helen Paul’s Nigerian experience was, therefore, in seamless synergy with an unpleasant page in England’s social-legal history.
Helen’s story was known to me years before now but not with the tone she rendered it in the latest video. No matter how many times it is told, the bastardy narration continues to provoke gasps. If you say your own is too much, the next page humbles you. Helen is not alone. In May this year (2023), The Washington Post reported a similar story of a child born into a void and who may also grow up nameless. “If life had started gentler for the baby girl who was born at a D.C. hospital on a Sunday in January…, she wouldn’t have been sent home without a name. But life did not start gently for her. Not at all.” The Washington Post reported that four months after her birth, “and for reasons that are heartbreaking, complicated and frustrating, she still doesn’t have a birth certificate.” The newspaper adds: “Court records show that her mother was struggling with mental illness and addiction during her pregnancy, told people she didn’t want the baby and left the hospital shortly after giving birth and before filling out important paperwork. They also show that despite repeated efforts by the woman who is now caring for the baby, the four-month-old remains without any official documents bearing a name. The child doesn’t have a birth certificate, and without that, she can’t obtain a social security card, receive benefits she is entitled to or qualify for Medicaid.”
Some people’s stories come that sad, strange and complicated. It does not mean that the baby won’t climb the hill of life successfully, even without a name – or with a borrowed name. Look around you, among kings and courtiers, there are many Helen Pauls lacking the balls to tell their stories. But they are products of grace. The Helen Paul story is a lesson on how grace turns liability to asset, hate to love. But she warns her audience: “Nobody loves you except you; if you don’t love yourself, how can others love you…?” She grew up in a neighborhood where everyone viewed her with disdain and disgust; a product of rape whose story may also not be different from her mother’s: “They said this one won’t get to the tap before she would fetch water…that she won’t finish school before she would carry belle…But I always insist that I would get to the tap, I would fetch water and leave the tap running for who else wants to fetch water.” With a University of Lagos PhD and more than one Masters degrees, plus work home and abroad, she has worked the tap and her bucket is full.
In the two stories above, there is no mention of the men who sowed the seeds. Men almost always melt away after the act; they leave the women to clean up and the products to suffer. The Helen Paul narrative has her maternal grandmother in most of the places where her father is supposed to be; the US story sounds sadder: Daycares turned their back at the blameless baby “because she doesn’t have a birth certificate.” But, sometimes when life makes you bald-headed, it compensates you with a beard. An alien lady is filling the void left by the nameless baby’s ‘father’ and her mother.
I don’t know how much of the equally complicated life story of Apple founder, Steve Jobs, is in our head. Job’s is another story of rejection, adoption and success. To super-rich Steve Jobs, his biological parents who put him up for adoption were no more than his “sperm and egg bank…a sperm bank thing, nothing more.” He eventually made up with his mum but never with the dad.
In competition with the Helen Paul story last week was the scandal of an Osun family. A man’s four children were found to have been fathered by other persons. The man is Kola, his wife is Toyin. Husband and wife were on radio trading blames and accusations and making confessions. In Yoruba land where I come from, it is a stigma to be born without a known father. It is even worse if the father is known but is not the husband of the child’s mother.
There are two main rivers in Osun State. One is Oba, the other is Osun after which the state is named. It is a taboo, actionable before the throne of Olodumare, to hand over the child of the goddess of Oba river to the goddess of River Osun. That is what the woman in the Osun State story has done. With the fingers of her womanhood, she tied the occiput hairs of her husband to the strands at the foreheads of lovers outside. Everywhere something like that is found to have happened, there was a war. And there is in this case. The husband is crying murder, red and blue. But there are questions: What kind of man lived under the same roof with a woman for sixteen years and none of the four children from the union is his? Was the wife right to have claimed publicly that she went to “another village” to scoop seminal deliverance because the cock she had at home could not get her to lay eggs?
People who follow the Osun story see sizzling drama, a tragedy with a catharsis that purifies nothing. I see two shameless adults dancing naked in the marketplace. What Yoruba word, other than òdóko (a flirt), describes a married woman who births four children for four different men outside her matrimonial home? And where is the wisdom in what the man has done, going on radio to disclaim all he had ever called his children? Shouldn’t he have gone quietly into the night with a divorce while attempting a rebuild of his life without, particularly, the children knowing why? Besides, the children are all grown. The first of the four children is sixteen years old; the others are eleven, eight and five years old respectively. Why would His Lordship, the husband, suo motu, go for DNA tests and climb the rooftops to broadcast the results? Some elders wonder where the man’s sense had been since 2007 when the journey started. They ask why the man wrecked himself with a DNA test – seeking to know the content of a snake’s pregnancy. They say the children already called him father and knew no one else as father. They quote Chinua Achebe’s Ogbuefi Ezeudu as he warns Okonkwo about Ikemefuna: “That boy calls you ‘father’, do not have a hand in his death.” Okonkwo did what he was warned not to do and never recovered from its effects. Going to a radio station to ditch those innocent children so openly has social and mental consequences for the children, and, more tragically for the man himself.
Now, what kind of woman acts the part of the lady in the centre of this storm? Between 4th January, 1988 and 9th July of same year, Elisha P. Renne, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, was in the Yoruba part of today’s Kogi State seeking answers to questions about marriage, fidelity and divorce. At a point, she asks an elderly Bunu Yoruba woman: “If a woman is married and has a lover and has children by this lover, and if the husband dies, who will get custody of the children?” And the woman answers: “Once a husband has accepted a child, even if the man dies, the child belongs to his family. It is the husband who takes the child, not the lover.” But why would a wife do that to her husband? The woman adds: “If it weren’t for ojúkòkòrò (greed) you wouldn’t have a lover to help you have children. Before you have a child for a lover, there must be reasons. The reason why women had lovers in the old days was if a woman was with her husband for ten years and had no children. It may not be the husband’s fault. It may be that God doesn’t join them together. In that case, a woman may have a lover in another village. If God accepted her prayer, she might go to another village and become pregnant. If she became pregnant after living with her husband for ten years, she would not tell the husband (that another man was responsible) but would continue to be with him, and the husband would accept the children as his own. And the secret would remain with the woman. When the husband saw that the wife was pregnant, he would kneel down and thank God, and the woman would never tell the lover she had become pregnant by him.”
Professor Renne isn’t done with her questions. She asks the old woman again: “What about a woman who has children and still takes a lover? “It is ojúkòkòrò (greed),” the woman responds, sharply, and continues: “If it is a woman who easily has children, she won’t be taking a lover as a woman who doesn’t.” She blames men for losing concentration on their families and everything around them. She declares that before òlàjú (civilization), wives were never left for wolves to devour: “They wouldn’t be doing in the old days what they are doing nowadays. Your husband would be watching you; you would be afraid. They would do things together with the husband’s family, with the wife’s family, so the husband or the wife would not be alone and be able to meet a lover.” The seminal conversation did not end without the old woman telling the Oyinbo researcher that in her days, “if you were a child of a lover, you would not like to hear that you were an omo àlè (bastard).” Even today, to label someone an omo àlè is to murder them (See Elisha P. Renne’s ‘If Men are Talking, They Blame it on Women: A Nigerian Woman’s Comments on Divorce and Child Custody’, published in Feminist Issues/Spring, 1990).
Everyone is sitting in judgement over the serial adultery in Osun; even notorious sinners are part of the jury. No one is giving a thought to what becomes of the innocent products of the waywardness. Bastard is a sound no one is ever happy to dance to. The first Norman king of England was William I (1066-1087). But because he was born out of wedlock, his subjects silently called him William the Bastard. He was aware of the stigma and didn’t enjoy it; no one does. Yet, he was very successful as a warrior king so much so that 200 years later, history changed his name to William the Conqueror. Helen Paul as a child heard being called omo àlè (child of illegitimacy) because she had no identifiable father. She declared, correctly, that a child of her experience can’t “grow in love.” And that is because what she went through was horror. Although she lived and thrived and didn’t get lost, she hasn’t forgotten who said what – and she won’t forget. The Osun man said his wife gave him four omo àle because DNA test results said he didn’t father them. The four victims of the tests are not likely to forget and forgive everyone involved in their humiliation. They are a dangerous addition to the bitterness walking the Nigerian space.