One day when Deshi Onani was still a student at the University of Calabar, she and her friends, after a tedious lecture, went somewhere within the school campus to get fried yam. After her friends bought their share, Onani stretched her hands to pick the pieces of yam she wanted, and suddenly the woman selling started shouting at her.
“She started to scream at me to leave her yam alone,” Onani said, adding that the woman asked if she wanted to “bring bad luck to her?”
Onani felt ashamed, “I wanted to crawl inside the ground and hide for good.”
Onani is left-handed, and reactions like that were not new to her, but they hurt nonetheless, “I went home and cried my eyes out because I thought it was all over. Now I was embarrassed again for something I was born with.”
There is barely any accurate data on the number of left-handed persons in Nigeria, but some studies suggest that they make up between 4 to 5% of the total population.
While they are few, left-handed Nigerians suffer a kind of discrimination that seems to have tacit approval and is overlooked.
The left hand is for wiping, nothing else
Onani grew up in western Nigeria with a culture heavy on respect. “For the Yorubas, it is considered a grave offence to give anyone, especially elders, an item with your left hand,” Onani said. “They believe the left hand is for wiping after one finishes from the toilet, so it was an insult.”
But she couldn’t help it and, from that young age, had to live with the consequences of something she had no control over. “I still hear the screams in my head,” Onani said.
It was a similar experience for Aanu Oluyide, who, as a young girl growing up in Osun State, “was bullied, beaten, and humiliated. In fact, every little mistake I made as a child and teen was attributed to being left-handed,” she said, adding that they even believed that eating with your left hand was evil.
Doing anything with one’s left hand in such a society was to submit oneself to public scrutiny. “I couldn’t even eat outside in peace. I could feel the stares piercing my skin,” said Onani.
The subject of failed cruel conversation therapy
While left-handed individuals did not choose what hand they use, they say there have been efforts to “cure” them of their lefthandedness.
“My mum did all the magic she could, ranging from wrapping heavy stones in the wrapper and tying it to my left hand so that I’d use the right,” said Mary Abeng, who is based in Calabar.
But when they loosen it, she will return to using her right hand.
Other times, Abeng’s mum would “cook rice, dish out my own and sit with a cane to watch me eat; I would have to either succeed in using the spoon to scoop rice into my mouth or sleep hungry. Even when I was trying to write, they’d give me the pencil in my right hand and hold it with me to try to spell words.”
For Onani, “ My mom told me that when she saw that I was favouring my left hand, she tried every means possible to change my hand. It didn’t work. She went to the doctor, and he told her to leave me alone, or it’ll damage my brain since it was natural,” she said.
Left-handed girls have also been threatened that they won’t find husbands because of their lefthandedness. Peace Oladipo, a journalist based in Ekiti State, said she has been told several times that she won’t get married because she uses her left hand.
Oluyide also said that her mum used to ask her how she would use her left hand to “stir amala for your husband?”
Oluyide said she tried to switch; she wished she could, “Oh God, I tried. It just didn’t work.”
Navigating a right-handed world
Even as they grow, left-handed people still have difficulty navigating a world that seems complicated for right-handed individuals in all designs. “ I tried to learn how to play the guitar once,” said Abeng. “my tutor did not know how to turn around to help me tune with my left hand. I dropped it” She still struggles with tools like scissors.
In the University, Abeng struggled to use the chairs provided at lecture venues, as they came with a desk attached to the right hand. “I would have to sit some type of way to be able to balance well, and most of the time, I got queried because they thought I was adjusting to that position to be able to cheat. The authorities didn’t do anything about it, maybe because we were very few,” she said.
For Oladipo, she struggles to use tools like cameras and even computer mouse- and as a journalist who depends on these tools, she only wishes things could be better.
Despite the challenges, sometimes they meet someone who understands them and make them feel better, and for Abeng, it was her Sunday school teacher in the children’s church.
“He made me feel comfortable using my left, and I opened up to tell him how people treated me because of my hand. He taught me this hymn ‘all things bright and beautiful’ and told me when I feel bad about myself, I should sing that hymn and remember God made things differently,” she said.
Abeng still remembers the hymn and keeps her going to this day.