There is something very manly in every Serbian woman. When and why it all begins, I have no idea. Perhaps it starts when we are little girls and our parents call us “son”. Like “Son, pick up your toys”, or “Son, wash the dishes” or “Son, pass me the cigarettes.” Yes, in Serbia parents address their daughters as “Son”. There is no reason behind it. It comes naturally. Mothers tell their daughters not to cry., that crying is for little babies only. We get spanked easily and frequently. We even get beaten with sticks, belts, branches or anything handy at a given moment. Parents let us play in parks in front of the building with other children without supervision even before we start school. When we start going to school, they walk with us only the first week until we memorize the way home. After that, we are on our own, walking to and from school with other schoolmates or often alone. They bring us to the bars with them. They take us to places where there is a lot of smoking and drinking (that is how we Serbs live). Paying nanny is not affordable to the average Serbian family. We grow up in small apartments. We often witness our parents’ frequent fights, mostly verbal though in some cases physical. Grown-ups talk in front of us about wars that were trending in the Balkan area for centuries (note: Serbia took part in almost, if not every war). Most of us have been through at least one. There is never enough money and parents make sure we know all about it. Most of the families live with grandparents, sometimes cousins in 2 bedroom flats. We don’t get toys that we want or play sports or attend every field trip. New clothes are considered luxury – if you are a younger child you inherit your older sibling’s clothes, even if your sibling is a boy. Parents teach you to share everything with everyone. Sharing is caring after all. They desperately force you to study, hoping that one day you will be better than them, become successful and get out of poverty. You watch your mother get up every morning before sunrise to make breakfast and school snacks for you and your siblings. Then she goes to work for a minimum of 8 hours, using public transportation. After work, she makes lunch for everyone. She cleans, washes dishes and does laundry. She helps you with homework then takes you to after-school activities. She makes dinner, cleans up again, puts you to sleep, reads for you, takes care of your drunken father and so on and so forth.
Once you commence high school, the grown-up life starts. You are literally on your own. You, a 14-year-old girl, take public transport to and from school, often traveling one to two hours one way. We start smoking cigarettes, going out to the clubs, drinking alcohol and dating boys. Since now our parents are paying transport to school, they barely give us enough money for food. A girl is broke, with her books and hours of standing in public transport. There is no money for new, fancy clothes. There is barely any money for clothes at all. We usually own a pair of pants, a pair of jeans, a few shirts for different weather and a couple of pairs of shoes. Hence the reason why most of us start working at that age. We will do weekend promotions, bar-tending, distribution of flyers, anything to make money for a book, cigarettes or maybe a pair of new jeans. This lifestyle continues throughout high school, until university. That is, of course, if by some miracle you have money pay for university. You work, you study. You walk the big city streets alone. The parents are never home. Your country is again in war with another country. You continue to fight every day. You are still young and there is a burning hope in you that things will somehow get better soon. On top of everything, you are expected to always look good, to have a hot body and to be attractive. You are expected to be independent and never ask for help. You are expected to be proud and to maintain self-dignity. You’ve been told not to accept anything for free, that everything that is free has the highest price. Don’t ever allow yourself to depend on a man. Don’t ever let a man financially support you. Don’t allow yourself to have to tolerate some fool. Don’t put yourself in a position that you have to get permission from a man to do something. They build fear in you. And so you grow to become independent, brave and strong. You saw wars, fights, and violence. You have lost friends to drugs, alcohol, prostitution… Relationships don’t have perspective because there is no money. You watch high school mates dating 50 – years -old, married criminals. You have friends who after graduating from a difficult university went abroad to work as housekeepers, hostesses or flight attendants. Girlfriends are beaten by drugged or drunk boyfriends. You have guy friends who are almost thirty and still live with their mothers because they waste their already miserable incomes on alcohol, parties or soccer gambling. Divorces. Fights. You’ve already refused a couple of employers trying to sleep with you so you can get or keep the job. Or professors that tried the same thing so they can grade your exams. Despite everything, you grow up to be a strong, self-sufficient, independent, brave woman. A woman who is not happy.
Hence, one day I decided to move to Nigeria. Everyone around me thought I’ve gone mad. They were wondering what business I have going there. I was 23 years old. Behind me, I had 8 years of working experience, 2 wars, 2 divorces of my parents, highest level of poverty without sleeping on the street, 7 years long relationship that failed thanks to the hard Belgrade street life, over 10 different homes and over 10 different landlords, 6 countries where I tried to make my life better, too many open wounds, and the sort of bravery that was becoming borderline madness. I was not afraid of anything in this world. There was no trace in fear in me, and there is still none, up to this day. The thought of living in Nigeria excited me. Even though I’ve traveled a lot, life never brought me to that side of the world. Africa looked to me like it was calling me to come and taste it. I was happy. No matter what negative people who are afraid of everything and never get anywhere in life told me about HIV, kidnapping, Boko Haram or all diseases, they could not make me change my mind. I was determined. I took the yellow fever shot, settled everything at home, put a little money in my pocket and packed my suitcase. My flight was booked through Paris, and two of my colleagues were flying with me. I was so excited that I was jumping around the house while I was doing the final packing. I couldn’t get rid of the smile on my face. Life was finally going in the right direction.