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Handling a Feather

Wardah Abbas looks at the issue of child upbringing in West Africa and challenges the status quo.

Rumaysah* sucked the sour blood out of her bruised lips as she approached the school gate. She suddenly became conscious of her battered self, wishing that a fairy godmother would take away the intense pain she felt and the ugly appearance she wore. It was almost eight o’clock and the students were filing down the walkway to the assembly ground. Her eyes felt heavy, her vision blurred by the tears trickling down. As the tick tock on her wrist watch brought reality closer to her, she realised just how many people were going to question her that Monday morning.


Some twenty-four hours before, the fourteen year old Rumaysah had been given a stern warning by her father who not only scolded her but also threatened to show her hell if she refused to memorise her morning adhkar for after the Fajr prayer. Not wanting to face the wrath of her father, Rumaysah had spent the whole day trying to commit the rhythmic words of dhikr to memory. She employed various strategies such as singing it as a song and reciting it while using her skipping rope. Before going to bed that night, she was confident that even if she wasn’t going to get a compliment for a job well done, she wasn’t going to see the red eyes of her father.


Immediately after the Fajr prayer next morning, Rumaysah was singled out by her father to recite the adhkar. With a broad smile on her confident-looking face, she knelt in front of her father and began the recitation:
“Subhanaka wa bihamdika, wa tabaaraka ismuka, wa ta’ala jadduka, Wa jala thana’uka, wa la ilaha ghayruka, Allahu akbar.”


Immediately after the recitation, Rumaysah’s father seized her by the arm and dragged her into his room. He gave her a cruel order to strip herself naked while he brought out a fan belt from inside his cabinet. He vehemently beat her black and blue, not minding what part of her body got bruised. What was her offence? She had said “Subhanaka” instead of “Subhanak Allahuma.” No more, no less.


Zahra*, a thirteen year old junior school student, walked into her mother’s office on a very sunny afternoon. She was looking very tired and worn out. The drama club had drained the energy out of her, making her rehearse her part over and over again. As the main character in a proposed drama, high expectations were placed on her and she worked very hard not to let them down. She had exchanged teslim with her mother and, as usual, she narrated how her day had been. She then remembered about the costumes for her drama presentation and summoned the courage to remind her mum.


“What is it?” Her mum retorted
“I want to remind you that…”
“The costumes I told you about.”
“Will you shut your trash hole, you idiot. How much have you earned today? There is no food for a lazy girl, you imbecile. If you want money for your costumes, come with me to the poultry farm this evening and fill all the water drums. No work, no money.”


Depressed and sad, Zahra in her tired body, went reluctantly to the poultry farm with her mother to fill all the drums with water which she fetched from a stream quite far from the site of the poultry, just to get enough money to buy her costumes. By the time she got home, she was too weak to do anything, not even her school assignments, and fell deeply asleep.

Six years later, Rumaysah and Zahra related these teenage experiences to me. I recall one of them telling me that those days were the most detested days of her life. It wasn’t actually surprising to me because back then I too so much hated to hear that daddy hits me hard because he loves me and mummy throws heavy tantrums at me because she wants the best for me. Each mistake I made attracted vulgar tantrums and hot slaps on my chubby cheeks as I lived a life devoid of compliments and “well done” remarks. My father made use of cable wires and fan belts to beat us so hard that I almost began to ask myself if criminals received as much torture as we did. I remember with startling clarity my years in senior school, when I totally lost my self-esteem. Finding my place in the midst of my classmates was itself difficult, but neither was home a place of respite for me. I was a victim of teenage depression and every day of that period found me wallowing in deep psychological pain.


Here in West Africa, many teenagers, especially girls, find it very hard to cope in this most delicate stage of their lives. Little wonder why most of us see university life as an escape from hell. Rumaysah is now a graduate of accounting and is now pursuing a professional course at the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria. Zahra is still in medical school, doing very well and battling through her seven year hurdle race to become a qualified pediatrician. Masha Allah, I’ve completed my five year degree course in law and I’m awaiting admission at the Nigerian Law School. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that every victim of teenage depression finds their feet in the end. In fact, the case with our trio is just one in a million, as many teenagers end up treading the evil road to destruction. Millions of teenagers experience not less than I did and only a few do not get caught up in this horrible web.


But when I read that the Prophet (SAW) treated each child with a level of personal closeness that must have required time, effort and energy, I begin to resent the way parents in West Africa bring up their children, especially the teenagers.


West African parents have a keen focus on respect, hard work and total excellence. They pressurise their children on a daily basis, never failing to remind them not to fall short of their expectations. Specifically in Nigeria, parents assume the role of dictators, not giving their children the breathing space to discover who they really are. They choose everything for their children including career ambitions and, sometimes, marriage partners. They tend to compare their children with other children around, failing to take note of the fact that children are different in their abilities and inclinations. They demand 100% perfection and anything short of this amounts to zero. They dislike highlighting their children’s areas of strength and complimenting them because, according to them, “it gets into their heads”, preferring the method of criticism. This, in their opinion, gears the children up to buckle up their belts and improve. To crown it all, they adopt terrible ways of correcting their erring children. Some parents even go as far as cutting their children’s skin with a blade to leave a scar. They believe that the scar will be a reminder to such child never to do any wrongful act again.


So it’s not surprising so many African teenagers become juvenile delinquents. My friends and I were exceptions; teenagers in West Africa often abscond from home, which appears to them as hot as hell. They are then exposed to drugs, prostitution, robbery and many other menaces which not only destroy their present, but also mar their future – they are between the devil and the deep blue sea.


A parent should be a guide, a mentor, a friend, a counsellor, a teacher, a coach – not a tyrannical dictator. The usual method of the upbringing of teenagers in West Africa is faulty and incompatible with the teachings of Islam and the example laid down by the Prophet (SAW). I really hope that parents begin to realise that parenting in the Islamic way is like handling a  feather: hold it too tightly and it will lose its beauty, hold loosely and it will fly away.


*Names have been changed

Wardah Abbas is a law student at the Nigerian Law School. Her resentment towards her upbringing has driven her to seeking out better methods of nurturing her future offspring. Find her blogging at therosespen.wordpress.com.