The first time he calls me beautiful, I freeze. My whole body stills into whatever a wait is made of. When he says it the second time, I say quietly, God, please. By the time I leave his office, I have tears in my eyes and fear in my body.
When your Nigerian lecturer tells you you are beautiful, you know it is the beginning of something nasty and dangerous. When he says it a second time with a lustful look in his eyes as they linger on your chest like a compass, you know it is the beginning of a long, long road and you will not reach the end intact.
I retrieve my phone from my handbag and lean on a wall. I text the man I love. He says, “Babe, call your dad and let him know immediately…Nonsense like this banks on silence.”
I will call my father but that will be much later in the day, when my voice is stronger and I will not sound like a kitten scared shitless and cause him to worry about me.
Now, I go home. When I’m cooking, I see his face as he reminds me that he could fail me if he wanted, even though this is my final year at the university. He didn’t say it like a threat. He said, “You are not going to fail.” Information that wasn’t new to me, given my performance in the last exams. He must have expected relief, or even gratitude. He got neither. And so to make his position a bit clearer, he added after a pause, “But what if I fail you? What happens? You will have to come back next year to take the course again, right?” There was an excitement born out of mischief in his eyes. I said nothing in response. But I became terrified.
The last time I sat across a man in his office like that, we were distant ends of a pole in so many ways: I was 15, and the man was in his fifties; I was a secondary school student in my last year, and he was owner of the school; I was head girl and he had invited me over to talk about “a project.” I did not know at the time that that was the phrase men in positions of power used to get closer to prospective preys, while making out to be professional, with good intentions.
This “project” was a TV show where journalists were supposed to interview me as head girl of the school at the graduation ceremony which was a few weeks away, and which I eventually did not attend.
He told me I was beautiful. If I had known then what I know now, I would have taken it as a much redder flag than I did.
He went on to talk to me about everything but the “project”. He talked about the institution of marriage and what it took to keep it alive, something he termed “renewal.” It was like a lesson, a fatherly lesson. Except it was a Saturday and we were the only people in the school. I should have found a way to leave, but I was too scared. I was too scared to do anything. When he started to look at me in the way that abusers look at women they regarded as fit for their agenda, I felt even more paralyzed. When he stood up from his chair and began to come round to where I was seated, I asked shakily, what are you doing, sir?
You said you wanted to leave, he reminded me.
I want to ‘clear the coast’. I want to check outside to make sure no one is here to see you leave. You know, people talk, he told me.
We’re not doing anything bad, but you know people like to spread rumors, abi?
I nodded, mostly out of fear, but also out of hope. What I didn’t know was he was about to clear the coast, yes, but only to make sure that there was no one nearby likely to come in. He looked outside and came back inside, bolting the door. I stood up immediately. In retrospect, it’s funny that even seeing the crazed, lost look his eyes carried, I thought I could walk past him successfully. There are many things hope can make you feel; it’s almost as crazy as lust. He pulled me back.
He held me in what looked like an embrace but was a lock. He started to touch me in ways that I still cannot talk about to this day. First, I begged him, and then I started to cry.
He left me then, and laughed. I unlocked the door and ran down the stairs and into the yard and further down to the gates. I did not stop running until I was seated in a tricycle, on my way home, to safety.
In my third year at the university, I received news of his death. I felt nothing, but still put up a prayer for him on my WhatsApp status. I did not mean it in the least, but my friends from secondary school kept texting me to inform me, and so I had to put it up so they would know that I had heard the news already.
When I sat, again, five years later, across this new lecturer, it was these memories that haunted my head. And so, when he called me beautiful, I recognized him. When he called my face sweet, I recognized him.
When I call my dad later that day, he is crestfallen. My father underrates the destructive nature of men, and so news like these hit him with unimaginable incredulousness.
We decide that I will attempt to get another lecturer to replace him as my project supervisor.
At the coordinator’s office, after I explain things to him, he tells me he is sorry about this. I say thank you. He says he cannot do anything to help me because it would be risky for me, and might earn me the man’s spite, along with an extra year. He asks to be careful and try to navigate things carefully. He says to come back if it gets worse. No comments about reporting him, or holding him accountable. It is as though that is not even an option. When I’m about to leave, he asks me, “What were you wearing?”
I am so shocked I can’t talk.
“When you went to his office, were you wearing a hijab? Were you properly dressed?”
“How long was the hijab? Was it knee-length?”
“No, it –“
“This is the problem. If you were not wearing a knee-length hijab, of course, he would take it as an invitation. These are the issues. You students contribute to these things.”
“Actually sir –“
“No seriously, just look at it with an objective mind. You can’t go about dressed indecently and not expect these things to happen. You –“
“Sir, I wasn’t wearing a knee-length hijab, I was wearing an ankle-length hijab; a full-length hijab.”
“Well, err, okay, err,” he thinks for a moment and arrives at what he obviously thinks is an excellent idea, because he says it like a revelation, “Start wearing a Niqab then!”
I sigh and explain to him that the man has in fact asked this of me, so that I am disguised whenever I visit his office to submit a chapter. So that no one recognizes me enough to corroborate my claims if he decided to try anything with me in his office and it went south.
“Sorry,” he tells me. “But like I said, please dress decently whenever you are going to him.”
A month later, the school would receive complaints of sexual abuse and harassment, and of the rape of a young girl who had gone to class at night to study. In response, they would set up a Dress Code committee comprising men and women with tags, positioned outside the female hostel, to ensure that all female students leaving for a class are “decently dressed.”
The next time I am summoned to his office, I am sick and coming straight from the hospital. I remember to put my phone on record mode like my father said.
At first, he spends up to 30mins critiquing my work. And then he asks, “Why do you look so uncomfortable?”
“I’m not feeling very well,” I tell him.
He says sorry. As I’m about to leave, he says in a drowsy voice, “You look beautiful in your sickness. If this was how beautiful sickness made people, then I hope you go sick more often.”
I’m expected to laugh along with him.
He asks, “Ba na gaya maa ki dinga sa Niqab idan zaki zo nan ba?”
His Hausa is heavily accented and broken. Have I not told you to wear a niqab whenever you are coming here?
“Why?” I ask him.
“We’ve talked about this before. Have we not talked about it before?” he makes it sound like it was an extensive conversation when really, it had been a curt order.
“You didn’t ask me for the reason then. Why now? Okay, it’s now you want to know?”
“What if that’s just what I want?”
I stay silent. He laughs.
“Are you sure you’re sick? I don’t think you are sick. I think you are just tired. What did you do during the weekend?” he asks suggestively.
I should be back at the hospital to take today’s injection dose. But instead, I’m standing in the office of a man supposed to be my teacher, as he makes small unnecessary talk. Wondering if, like the man from six years ago, he will leap to his feet, come to me and try to touch me.
Eventually, he let me go.
I don’t want to ever go to his office again. But I also need more recordings, more proof. The conversation we’ve just had should be conclusive proof that he’s inappropriate towards me. But I’m a law student, and I know how the law works.
Earlier this year, Daily Trust reported a case from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. A student was being sexually harassed by her supervisor. He had asked her for sex and even booked a hotel room in Kano and ordered her to meet him there. She told her husband about it and together they went to the hotel room and had him arrested.
The professor was dismissed from work. He went to court, however. His defense was that he had invited her to his hotel room to submit Chapter Three of her dissertation for his vetting. The Supreme Court not only acquitted him but ordered for his reinstatement.
In a system like this, I would need more than I have. In a system so dedicated to upholding the patriarchy even if it meant putting women in danger, I do not stand a chance.
I slip into depression. I go back to my old friend, the blade, for salvation, for comfort. I fall sick. I miss classes. I cry during the day and cry harder at night. I want to go home. I have an army of friends who are aware of my troubles with this man. They check on and comfort me all the time. So do my parents and siblings. Still, it doesn’t stop me from going under.
When Eid break comes, I travel home. We have a family meeting in the living room where we rain curses on the man, and then deliberate on what to do: I can’t report because I don’t have strong enough proof. Going back to his office would be far too dangerous; I might get the proof I want, but at what cost? I could still lose, even with proof. If I took the option of going to his office with company, he would not dare say anything inappropriate, and so I wouldn’t get my proof. In addition, I would incur his wrath.
When school resumes, I approach a lecturer I know the man respects and is friends with, and whom my father already reached out to on the phone. He promises to make the harassment stop.
Still, I make the decision to go to his office alone the next time the need arises. I would risk it in exchange for the proof I needed. But the next time I go, he is upright and professional and I know he has been put in his place. I am glad, but I am also sad. What happens to the other girls who do not have people to stand for them?
I am wrong in assuming I am now free. He finds new ways to get back at me: spends long minutes explaining why and how I’m stupid and not as intelligent as I think I am. He genuinely wants me to believe it. There were times I did. He asks me to do a thing in my dissertation one minute and screams at me for doing it the next. He tells me I might be mad, but he’s ten times madder. He gives me unrealistic deadlines and, when I meet them, cooks up more complications. One time, I burst into tears on my way out of his office. On some days, he is so kind and fatherly, and I go home wondering if the times he has been mean to me are figments of my imagination, if it’s all in my head. And if somehow, I deserve it, if I frustrate him with my stupidity. Later, I will realize that they are deliberate, these mind tricks.
In class, he tries to embarrass me during lectures, calls me a goat, a disgrace, an animal. Accuses me of making a noise when I’m literally just staring at him and listening to his lecture. Because I have a somewhat permanent seat in class, his eyes go straight to me whenever he’s teaching. He doesn’t need to search. The cycle is the same: he stops mid-lecture, makes eye contact with me and shouts my name in full. I sigh, my heart beating and tired as I rise. He accuses me of making a noise and informs me that I’m a goat. He spends long minutes “dissing” me, as one of my classmates would put it later when asking if I had a personal feud with the man. And then returns to lecturing. On some occasions, he sends me out of the class.
The day I decide to change sitting position and sit in an entirely different row to make it harder for him to spot me, his eyes dart this way and that even as he lectures, and I know he’s searching for me. Whenever his attention tends to drift towards where I’m sitting, I pull my hijab forward a bit and bow my head. This is the position I’m in when I hear him thunder my name, having spotted me. I realize my hands are shaking.
Attending his class becomes a chore, a thing to dread, fills me with anxieties. I see him and my chest becomes a restless, scared thing. I wake up on Tuesdays with panic attacks because Tuesday is the day he teaches us.
Soon, I have people coming to me to ask if I have offended the man in any way. They advise me to go to him and apologize because he is clearly holding a grudge. They say, remember this is your final semester, you don’t want him to take this grudge along when he’s marking your exam script. He might not fail you, but he will give you a weak grade.
I find it hilarious that they think I don’t already know the best I will get out of this is a weak grade.
I thank them.
Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu
Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu is a poet and essayist from Nigeria, whose work has appeared on Popula, Ake Review, Lolwe, The Republic, 20.35 Africa, Jalada Africa, and elsewhere. She is a 2018 fellow of Ebedi Writers Residency. She lives in Minna.