Two or three months after I first came to Lagos, I had a long tiring day in the office and all my thoughts were on my warm bed at home. It had rained during the day and everywhere was rowdy and wet. On my way home, traders had taken over a huge chunk of the road, so we all had to squeeze past the other side. There was a middle aged man in front of me who I remember wore Ankara and was dragging his feet. He stopped at almost every tray to price bananas, or garden eggs, or corn, or pear. There was space in front of him, so I thought I should ask him to move a little so I could pass while he went about his shopping.
I tapped him small. “Please excuse me,” I said, pointing to the space in front of him.
He just flared up. “Can’t you see I’m buying something? Can you not wait? What is wrong with children of nowadays? Where are you even rushing to?”
Man, I was just blinking. The girl by me said, “Oga abeg comot road make we pass.” And that was it.
“See them. Useless ashawo. Olosho.”
Sigh. I saw small opening, squeezed past and went my way. His words pained me so much, I didn’t even know I was crying (yeah, cry baby).
The girl who had answered him earlier walked past me, saw the tears on my face and stopped. “Na because of small ashawo you dey cry? Hian. Na the only word Lagos men dey use cuss woman be that, no allow am pain you, just forget am.”
I sighed. Nobody had ever called me ashawo in my entire life until that day. When I was a kid, the word Ashawo was taboo. You couldn’t just all someone ashawo. Are you alright? You had to prove how you know they are ashawo. The few times I heard the word, I was either in the market and the people fighting had forgotten the faces of their fathers, or watching a Nigerian movie. Then I moved to Lagos o…
Here, calling someone ashawo is like saying ekaaro ma. I soon fell in line. As long as you are a woman, especially unmarried, dressing up, going about your business daily, somebody—usually a man—will get offended by your audacity and call you ashawo. How dare you?
The stupid men in Yaba market accelerated the process of getting used to the word. There’s no day I have gone to that market that I haven’t been called ashawo or heard them call another girl ashawo. During my NYSC, I passed through the market to the secretariat for my Community Development Service, white t-shirt tucked in khaki trouser, green and white socks tucked in boot. Still, ashawo.
It usually starts like this: “Corper you wan buy jeans? Stock jeans? Top?” They try to touch you; you move out of reach of their arms. And they say, “Who wan touch you sef? Ashawo.”
Last week, because I did not have change to give a bus conductor, he called me ashawo. I did not even flinch. I laughed. A woman in the bus was having none of it. She attacked him, “why you call am ashawo, she sleep with your papa? if you see am for road before you fit talk to am?” She and the conductor went into a verbal spat, and although I was grateful she came to my aid, I wished she had not. Showing that the word hurts only emboldens them.
I had a discussion about this word with my friends and it is funny how we have all accepted it. One of them called an Uber, but at the last minute had to cancel the trip. So, she called the driver explaining that something came up and she wants to cancel. The driver got her number and sent her a text message: one word: ashawo.
Market boys, bus conductors and drivers, random strangers along the road, okada men, men in your neighbourhood whom you greet on your way out and back, all of them will call you ashawo. Doesn’t matter what you are wearing or doing; they will call you ashawo. Now, I am used to it. Like the Warri saying goes: Na you get your mouth, say what you want.
So, that is the story of how I became an ashawo in Lagos. Because, really, how many men can you fight? How many times will you rebuke them? Do you want to get upset everyday? Nope.