Toyin Ajao

I was born in Nigeria into a Yoruba family that followed an Islamic tradition, where my mother was the youngest of ten wives. My mother had waited 17 years before I was conceived and her fear of losing me paved ways for all sorts of superstitious prophecies. As a result, I was labelled an Abiku. In Yoruba mythology, an Abiku is considered to be a spirit child or a child possessed by an evil spirit and thought to be capable of inflicting pain on its mother through repeated occurrences of premature death and subsequent rebirth. To avert this, through Yoruba traditional belief, my body was scarred with tiny incisions including two on my face, a ritual believed to ward off the evil eye and to prevent me from plaguing my family. Due to all these paranormal excitements, I was given many names – I recall 23 of them,  most of which are prophetic or celebratory. My publicly used name Oluwatoyin, shortened to Toyin, translates to God is praiseworthy.

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Toyin Ajao Gypsy GoddessWhenever I took ill or being my precocious self, my mother, despite being a Muslim convert, would become scared and whisk me off to several multi-faith spiritualists including the ‘white garment’ churches, famed for their belief in exorcism. There, I would be subjected to lengthy bouts of prayer and was lashed with broomsticks to relinquish the supposed evil spirit within me. After exhaustive and agonising prayer sessions, I would spend several more hours crying and removing the broken bits of the broom that were lodged deep into my skin.

Like many Nigerian families, mine includes both Muslims and Christians through intermarriages. My mother was born into such a mixed family and had adopted Christianity but converted to Islam following marriage. This meant that I was brought up as a Muslim and was enrolled at Qur’anic school when I was about five years old, quickly learning to pray five times a day, fasting during Ramadan and wearing the hijab from age seven. By the time I turned 13, I was able to recite the Qur’an in Arabic. My indoctrination into Islam was accompanied by more superstition and profound fears about the natural world, as a place of doom and trepidation. I questioned the doctrine of original sin and the subjugation against women and girls. I would often ask “why” but was always beaten into silence and warned of hell.

Toyin Ajao Gypsy GoddessI remained in the Islamic faith until my mid twenties, while during my university education I was becoming more skeptical and increasingly curious about women’s rights and organized religions. My journey into scepticism morphed gradually over several years. I first converted to Christianity in a bid to heal my mother of her ailment when we met a preacher that claimed he could heal her from myasthenia gravis, a chronic neuromuscular disease, but on the condition that we joined faith. Sadly, she died shortly afterwards but I still remained in the faith as I worked through the grief. For another six years, I remained a Christian as the fear of eternal damnation in hell kept me rooted. However, by 2009, my rational mind had overtaken my sense of faith and I reinstated my burning questions about the meaning of life.

I don’t care much for labels as I think the universe is too fluid and diverse to pin it down to one single narrative, which is why I would describe myself as a freethinker. I have friends from across the spectrum of beliefs but unfortunately, some of the dogmatic ones I have known for many years have taken offence with my liberal views on issues such as homosexuality. I live by the principle of non-duality of life and all that it contains. It is remarkable that we try to reduce the vast energy that makes this universe possible to an afterlife phenomenon but living in the moment constantly eludes us. I don’t want to miss the chance to let life unfold through me as I become one with it in all its bio-centric and eco-centric essence. My understanding is that we must all find our own connection with the universe and love ourselves enough to drop our cognitive dissonance.

Toyin Ajao (aka the Gypsy Goddess) is a Peace and Conflict doctoral fellow and an assistant lecturer at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. She is also an alumna of the Africa Leadership Centre, King’s College London and Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria. Her current research interests focus on human security, conflict transformation, citizen journalism, New Media activism and advocacy, feminism, gender and sexual rights. Her creative interests include writing and dancing.

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