LOUD WHISPERS: Let Us Pay Attention
When I was young, there was a family who lived close to us on our street in the Fadeyi area of Lagos. I will call the man of the family Mr Benson. He had a wife, Mrs Remi Benson. When they first arrived on our street, Mr Benson had a motorbike, and his wife would ride the bike with him on occasion. Later on, he could afford a Volkswagen car, and Mrs Benson proudly sat in the front with him. That was the first of many other cars Mr Benson would own. Mr Benson’s fortunes kept improving. He was an Engineer, and he landed a job with one of the top private engineering firms in Lagos. Mrs Benson was a woman who kept to herself. She was shy, and did not seem to have any friends who visited her. She went to work and came back home and that was it. The years went by, and Mr and Mrs Benson did not have any children. Mr Benson, with more income at his disposal, and under pressure from his family, decided to take matters into his own hands. He married a second wife. Let us call her Mrs Benson 2.
Within a couple of months, Mrs Benson 2 was pregnant. That was of course very good news for Mr Benson, but I don’t need to tell you what a disaster it portended for Mrs Benson 1. The usually reserved but friendly Mrs Benson became visibly miserable. She could barely respond to greetings and walked with her head down as if she wanted to make herself as invisible as possible. I was not the one who noticed all this. It was my mother. It surprised me that my mother, who is a very private person, decided to make Mrs Benson’s plight her business. I asked my mother why she was worried about Mrs Benson, after all they were not friends and she was much younger than my mother. My mother told me that she seemed lonely and had no support system around her. According to my mother, it would only be a matter of time before she totally unraveled, and her rival would edge her out and take over the home she had struggled so hard to build. Mrs Benson was from Ondo State where my parents come from, so there was also an element of community solidarity there. One day, my mother sent for Mrs Benson, and they had a long meeting. My mother offered her a shoulder to cry on, and advised her to look after herself, starting with improving her appearance. In her depression and misery, Mrs Benson had started to look much older than she actually was. Mrs Benson was very grateful for my mother’s offer of support. True to her word, my mother supported Mrs Benson in every way she could, and after a while the results of my mother’s interventions became visible. Mrs Benson looked a lot better and stopped walking as if she carried the weight of the world on her shoulders. She loved spending time with my mum, and I was surprised to see how pretty Mrs Benson was when she laughed. Mrs Benson 2 had her baby, it was a girl. There was a big naming ceremony and even though Mrs Benson 1 was very supportive, I know that her heart was broken. My mother kept telling her it would be alright, and to have patience. Guess what? Mrs Benson 1 got pregnant shortly after. And she had a boy. Mr Benson went crazy with joy. The naming party this time around was much grander than that of her rival. Mrs Benson danced all night. It was a wonderful victory and I was ever so proud of my mother for being such a good friend.
I have never forgotten this lesson from my mother. As Africans, we used to take great pride in our communal bonds and our capacity to provide support systems for one another. Things are not that way anymore. Urbanisation, migration, poverty and other variables have changed this positive narrative. We are now mostly on our own. Even when we have the best of intentions to keep in touch with family and friends, we are always too busy to keep the promises we make to help others. We don’t notice when we have not heard from a friend or relation for a while. We assume they are getting on with their lives. When they don’t show up for events involving mutual friends or family we don’t worry about it. Who has time to look out for someone else? Who is looking out for me?, we ask ourselves. When we see people we know posting strange things on Facebook, what do we do? We probably simply ignore them. Over the past year I have had cause to call up at least two people to ask them how they are doing, based on disturbing posts on social media. Each time they were grateful to have been asked, and they agreed to seek healthier ways of addressing their challenges. I hate getting involved in other people’s business. So how do we help those who need it if they don’t ask? How do we draw the line between being concerned for people engaging in strange behaviour and invading their privacy? More qualified people than me such as my big sister and friend Gloria Ogunbadejo, who is a trained Psychotherapist can answer this. I do know that we can at least let the people concerned know that we care and will be there for them and leave it at that. What we should not do is pretend that everything is alright.
When we are confronted with challenges involving ourselves or people we know especially if they involve mental or emotional health, we don’t seek professional help because there are very few services available. We lay siege to our houses of worship. We make demi-gods out of mere mortals and place our fates in their hands. Those who need help don’t get or feel any better. Everything feels so hard, too difficult for them. They don’t feel heard. They are told that they are too lazy, too weak, not prayerful enough, and not hardworking enough. They are advised to seek ‘deliverance’. Every morning is not greeted as a blessing, but as another dark cloud. Till they find themselves standing at the railings of a bridge, staring into the ocean. Trying to summon the courage to do one last thing that they think they have control of – to end it all. And when they go over the bridge, we start with our recriminations and regrets. The ‘woulda’, ‘coulda’, ‘shoulda’ is relentless. As I write this, there is someone we know who is struggling to stay afloat. They might not think of killing themselves, but they are probably miserable enough to feel hopeless and worthless. We all know people who are being suffocated due to poverty, illness, poor fortune, violent relationships, all kinds of situations that can slowly but surely snuff the life out of someone formerly known as a functional human being. We might not always be there for the people who need us due to things beyond our control, but as much as we are able to, we should try our best.
A friend of mine, who I will call Leila, passed away in London in 1997. I had not seen her for a few months, and then I heard she was seriously ill. I could not reach her on the phone, and she lived in Cambridge, which was not a place to visit all the way from London without an appointment. I called Gifty, a mutual friend and asked if she had heard that Leila was ill. Gifty was much closer to Leila than I was, and if there was anything wrong, she would know. She told me that she had not seen Leila in months, and all attempts to set up a meeting had not worked. She promised to make more of an effort to find out what was going on with her. I was worried when I heard this, and I told Gifty that I was going to Tunisia for a meeting and I made her promise to check on Leila and get some news. By the time I got back from my trip, Leila had passed away. The tears we shed at her funeral were not just about losing a friend. They were tears of regret and anger. Our friend had deliberately isolated herself from us because she did not want us to know the nature of her illness. It turned out that people in her community from Zimbabwe knew what was wrong with her, but instead of rallying to support her, they gossiped about it and carried on in denial. We nominated Gifty to give the eulogy on behalf of our own network of friends. Gifty is one of the sweetest women I know, I had never seen her angry. That day, as we listened to Gifty speak, polite, but visibly angry, the gravity of what had happened sank in. Gifty stated in very clear terms that we had failed one of our own, with varying degrees of culpability. Most of Gifty’s anger was directed at people from Leila’s community, and rightfully so. Back in the day, HIV/AIDS was a terrible thing, no one wanted to deal with it, and nothing much has changed. Leila had lost her husband two years before to what was said to be a brain tumour. Shortly after he passed away, she fell ill. She struggled with her condition almost entirely by herself in cold, lonely, Cambridge. As if that was not bad enough, two days after I got back from Tunisia, my husband sat me down to give me more terrible news. A young family friend, a doctor in London had committed suicide. No one knew how depressed and desperate he had been. It was a terrible time. Let us pay attention. We don’t need to meddle or be intrusive. Just pay attention and be there when you are needed.
My heart goes out to the family of the medical doctor who committed suicide in Lagos last week. May his soul find peace. I feel deeply for everyone who has ever been close to breaking point. Life can be very harsh. We all need help. Let us support one another with anything we can offer – a listening ear, kind words, financial support, prayers, moral support and non-judgmental advice. You never know when you might be able to pull someone back from the brink. Mrs Benson found a friend who paid attention and lifted her out of despair when she needed it the most. Leila would still have died, but at least her friends would have been able to hold her hand and soothe her. As you stand for someone today, may someone stand for you in your moment of need. Have a great week.
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com