As Told By Her Son, Chris Abani
Produced by The Kitchen Sisters
In collaboration with Nathan Dalton
Mixed by Jim McKee
Aired on May 6, 2010 on NPR’s All Things Considered
One of writer Chris Abani’s early memories of growing up in Afikbo, a small rural village in Nigeria, is sitting on the porch with his English-born mother, drinking tea, eating cucumber sandwiches, listening to Glenn Miller and knitting. “There were five of us, four boys and one girl,” he told us. “She taught us to knit, to sew, to cook to clean, to crochet.”
Daphne Mae Hunt
Daphne Mae Hunt was born in 1931 about 20 miles outside of London, where her father worked as a groundskeeper on a large estate. When she was 11, she took her school exams and got the highest grade in the entire school. But she was a girl and her mother was very uncomfortable with her going to college, so she went to secretarial school.
In the 1950s Daphne met Michael Abani at Oxford. She was working as a secretary in the geography department. He was a promising young scholarship student from a small farming and fishing village in Nigeria. The two became inseparable.
“I can imagine him being completely entranced by this small white woman who had such a big, big spirit,” Abani says. They got married in 1957 in Nigeria and Daphne lived there for the next 30 years of her life.
The Billings Ovulation Method
One of the conditions for getting married to Michael was that Daphne convert to Catholicism. She was Church of England but Michael was very Catholic. She did, and began to take Catholicism very seriously.
At the time there was a big push for birth control within the local government. The average woman in rural Nigeria was having eight or nine children. The Catholic Church wanted to be seen as a leader in the community, but wouldn’t support condoms. So they endorsed the Billings Ovulation Method, a form of birth control that involves a woman monitoring her monthly menstrual cycles to determine when she’s fertile and when she’s not.
Daphne became certified as a Billings Ovulation teacher. Her job was to teach this birth control method to rural women. But there was one problem. Although she spoke some Igbo, her command of the language was not good enough for such a sensitive and complex subject. So she enlisted an interpreter: her eight- year-old son, Chris.
Is it like a Waterfall?
With a backpack full of pictures and charts, Chris and his mother would set off and go from door to door. It was Chris’s job to begin the conversation in Igbo.
“Everything starts with a greeting,” Abani explains. “I would say, ‘Good afternoon mothers.’ You greeted a woman who had children in the plural. It would be followed by an apology from me because I was about to discuss something sacred, taboo.
“‘I am greeting you and saying that what I am about to tell you could be offensive because I’m about to break taboo. But this is what my mother wants me to tell you. What my mother’s bringing to you she says is a thing of glory, a thing of goodness, a thing of independence. And I hope you can listen.’”
Daphne would ask her son to ask the women if they were on their “holy period.” And she would want to know about the flow.
“I didn’t even know if women had language for this,” Chris says. “So I would have to approximate all of this with natural phenomena that I understood. For a heavy flow, I would ask, ‘Is it like a waterfall?’ For medium flow, ‘Is it flowing like a river?’ For a light flow, ‘Is it like a brook?’”
The menstrual cycle within traditional Nigerian culture is both respected and feared. A menstruating woman is in her sacred moment and it’s not talked about. Women don’t even discuss periods with their husbands.
“And here I am, this 8-year-old boy who they’re having to ask questions in Igbo for me to ask in English. But my mother didn’t think twice about it, because this is what women needed. If the Catholic Church was going to ban condoms, she was determined that they would find this birth control information somehow.”
Daphne didn’t think that anything she did was strange or important or groundbreaking or risqué. She just did it.
“It never struck my mother as odd that a young boy would discuss a woman’s menstrual cycle. She would always say, ‘Every good man needs a little bit of woman in them.’”
LISTEN: Daphne gives birth amidst mortar fire
LISTEN: Igbo coming of age ceremonies
Chris Abani’s first novel, published when he was 16, was Masters of the Board, a political thriller about a foiled Nigerian coup. The story was convincing enough that the Nigerian government threw him in jail for inciting a coincidentally timed real-life coup. Imprisoned and tortured twice more, he channeled the experience into poetry.
Abani’s best-selling 2004 novel GraceLand is a searing and funny tale of a young Nigerian boy, an Elvis impersonator who moves through the wide, wild world of Lagos, slipping between pop and traditional cultures, art and crime.
Now based in Los Angeles, Abani published The Virgin of Flames in 2007. He is also a publisher, running the poetry imprint Black Goat Press. He holds a BA in English (Nigeria), an MA in Gender and Culture (Birkbeck College, University of London), an MA in English and a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing (University of Southern California). He is a Professor at the University of California, Riverside and the recipient of the PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award, the Prince Claus Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a California Book Award, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a PEN Beyond the Margins Award, the PEN Hemingway Book Prize & a Guggenheim Award.
Chris Abani’s poem, Daphne’s Lot is a lyrical “novella in verse,” about his mother’s coming of age, her relationship to her family and her adopted country Nigeria. Read more about the book here.
Music From the Story
Sonata No. 10 in C major, Joseph Haydn
Omohupa, The Otarus
Kita Kita, Gasper Lawal
Sunny Ti De, King Sunny Ade
Water No Get Enemy, Fela Kuti
Gbomjo, Segun Bucknor’s Revolution
Sunset, Kronos Quartet
Tuxedo Junction, Glenn Miller
“Chris Abani Muses on Humanity”
Listen to Abani’s TED Talk:
Chris Abani, Gregory Talbot (DJ Goyo), Joe Boyd, Ifeoma Ajunwa, and TED.