What Nigerian Girls Wear

My mother's African cloth. Purchased in Nigeria, 1962.
My mother’s African cloth. Purchased in Nigeria, 1962.

When I was a child, Nigeria meant stacks of cloth in my mother’s closet.

My mother is not African. She’s of Welsh-Irish-Assorted ancestry; most of her early life was spent in St. Louis. Her first international trip was a big one. She was 22 in 1962; one of the early waves of Peace Corps volunteers eager to see what the world had to offer. She lived in Nigeria for two years, teaching girls in secondary school.

Her English classes included more than a dash of mirth. After all, my mother was just a few years older than the girls she taught. Her students had good fun with my mother’s midwestern twang.  She teased too. One day she strutted down the corridor in the cloth wrapper worn by her students and her, preening and adjusting and fixing the wrapper as only teen girls would. They delighted in her imitation and plotted the next joke, until it was time for her to leave.

She brought a stack of African cloth back to the U.S., settled in Maryland and started a family.

I was the only shepherd garbed in a Nigerian wrapper in the school Christmas pageant. My careful explanation that most of my classmates were using old sheets held no sway at home. Down came the African cloth from the top shelf of her closet. (My mother has always had a minimalist wardrobe; the cloth only a finger tip away from her everyday wear.) It did make a good shepherd costume, hinting at a history that predated anything found on the shelves of Target.

The cloth and I retired from pageant appearances. Fast forward thirty years to International Night at my daughter’s school. She’s slated to perform an African dance, one of a corps of eager girls practicing at recess and after school with a teacher whose love for dance was contagious.

We tell my mother. She still has the wrappers of course, of course, fifty years now in her closet. The piece she picks is simple: cream and red stripes, tassels at the end. My mother wraps and arranges her willing granddaughter, who performs with great enthusiasm.

There’s a sad end to this story. My mother, daughter and I, we’re just visitors to a small bit of Nigeria, the bit found in folded fabric that rests safely in a closet.

Much has changed since my mother’s time in Africa, since she brought that cloth back fifty years ago. The girls she taught may be grandmothers too, with their own closets of wrappers. They may watch their granddaughters knowing, like my mother, that girls (and their vibrant attire) are built for learning, sashaying, teasing, dancing.

Except—and here is the heartbreak—in some places in Nigeria, the feared Boko Haram terrorists are outfitting young Nigerian girls in bombs. They are using ten year-old girls as suicide bombers. They have kidnapped teenage girls; murdered relentlessly. It’s reported that little is being done by the country’s leaders. There are no words for any of this.

I wrote and rewrote an ending; nothing was right. Because girls the world over deserve the right to go to school, dance, be safe. For too many, that’s not happening.

I know this: cloaking their stories in silence is not the answer.

#BringBackOurGirls #StopBokoHaram #IamNigeria



12 thoughts on “What Nigerian Girls Wear

  1. Kristin O'Keefe says:

    Thank you for caring so very much, Tori. You raised my awareness with the Bring Back Our Girls campaign. Just wish we could write the ending to the country’s turmoil.

    1. Kristin O'Keefe says:

      Me too. I checked the Peace Corps website, it appears that there no longer any volunteers in Nigeria. So sad, all of it.

    1. Kristin O'Keefe says:

      Thank you for the kind words about the writing, T.O. It’s a story that just feels buried, though I’m sure plenty of countries (and people) under siege feel the same. Wish there was a simple solution but politics, corruption, religious (and possibly tribal) conflict and a large dose of pure evil combine to make it all so very daunting and horrendous. I hope the world’s leaders can come together and offer counsel, assistance. Hopefully.

  2. Marico says:

    I hope that you can someday rewrite a better ending for the girls suffering not only in Nigeria but in many other parts of the world. Hopefully.

  3. Catherine Onyemelukwe says:

    Thank, Kristen – a lovely article with an appropriately sad ending. I just came back from Nigeria. I was in your mom’s PC group, married, stayed for 24 years, raised our kids there! We just celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary in my husband’s town in the east. You can read about it on my blog catherineonyemelukwe.com – I wrote the last 3 posts about the party! But today I’ll blog about Boko Haram and the upcoming elections. I blog every 4 days; see if your mom can tell you why a 4 day schedule!

    There are daily notices in the major Nigerian newspapers with a reminder about the girls, but not a lot else. No protests with a million people and world leaders, like in France.

    1. Kristin O'Keefe says:

      Catherine, I don’t know where to start! First, what a lovely blog you have; congratulations on 50 years! I will be sure to do more reading. I am hearing more Nigeria news on NPR, but they may be the exception. I hope not. It’s a travesty.
      Did you know my mother in Nigeria? It looks like you were in different regions but perhaps there were all country meetings? She was Mary Ellen Joseph then, teaching English at a girls’ secondary school in Ekiti.
      Thank for reaching out and do let me know how you found this piece–I imagine twitter, but would love to know. And again, a nice treat to connect with you. Best, Kristin


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