A Woman's Mission: To Teach Birth Control In Nigeria After moving to Nigeria in the late 1950s, Daphne Mae Hunt was determined to teach women about a birth control method based on their menstrual cycles -- even though it was taboo to talk about them. Her then-8-year-old son, Nigerian writer Chris Abani, came along to interpret.

A Woman's Mission: To Teach Birth Control In Nigeria

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

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SIEGEL: Today, another story from our new yearlong series The Hidden World of Girls - girls and the women they become. Stories of coming of age rituals and rites of passage, of women who crossed a line, blazed a trail, changed the tide. With Mother's Day this weekend, The Kitchen Sisters, producers Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, turn to Nigerian writer Chris Abani about an unlikely mother/son undertaking.

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Mr. CHRIS ABANI (Novelist, Poet): My mother was born Daphne Mae Hunt. She was born on a small island on the Maidenhead River just about 20 miles out of London. When she was 11, she took the school exams, she got the highest score in her entire school, but she was a girl, and her mother was very uncomfortable with her going to school, so she ended up going to secretarial school.

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Mr. ABANI: My name is Chris Abani. I'm a novelist, a poet. I was born in Igbo in southeastern Nigeria. My father, who was the first graduate from this small town got a scholarship to go to the University of Cork in Ireland, who was the first black man in town. He went from there to Oxford and met my mother.

She was working as a secretary of the geography department. They became inseparable. So I can imagine him being completely entranced by this small white woman who had such a big, big spirit. They got married in '57 in Nigeria, and she lived there for 30 years of her life.

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Mr. ABANI: And so here's my mother, they were living in a very rural part of eastern Nigeria. He was a principle of a mission school. One of the conditions of getting married to my father was that my mother convert to Catholicism. She was Church of England, but he was very Catholic. She really took her Catholicism very seriously.

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Unidentified Man: Now here is Archbishop Fulton Sheen.

Archbishop FULTON SHEEN: Peace be to you. The project about to be discussed if birth control. The words are not very proper.

Mr. ABANI: At the time, there was this big push for birth control within the local government. On average, you know, women in rural Nigeria were having eight, nine children. And the Catholic Church could not support condoms. But the church wanted to be seen as a leader, so the Billings Ovulation Method was what they decided to teach rural women.

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Billings Ovulation Method, you closely follow your monthly cycles so you know when you're most fertile and when you're not, knowing not to have sex. My mother became certified as a Billings Ovulation teacher. And her job was to go and teach this to women. It's a very complicated thing to teach. Part of the problem was that her Igbo wasn't good enough to discuss people's uterus. She needed an interpreter and mother decided to ask me to interpret for her. I was eight years old.

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Mr. ABANI: So we would set off, the two of us, and I would have a backpack. She had all these pictures and charts because not everyone was literate. I mean, we would go door to door. Everything starts with a greeting. (Speaking foreign language) Good afternoon, mothers. You greeted a woman who had children in the plural. (Speaking foreign language) meaning: All of you. It would be followed by an apology from me because I was about to discuss something sacred, taboo.

(Speaking foreign language) I am greeting you and saying that what I am about to tell you could be offensive because I'm about to break taboo. But this is what my mother wants me to tell you. What my mother's bringing to you, she says, is a thing of glory (speaking foreign language), a thing of goodness, (speaking foreign language) a thing of independence. And I hope you can listen. If you don't want to hear this, just say and I will tell her and we will leave.

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Mr. ABANI: My mother said I should ask you if you were on your holy period. Then she would want to know the flow. I didn't even know if women had language for this. So I would have to approximate all of these with natural phenomenon that I understood. For a heavy flow (speaking foreign language), is it like a waterfall? For a medium flow I'd have to say (speaking foreign language), meaning, is it flowing like a river? (speaking foreign language), is it like a brook?

These women would never discuss this with their husbands and here's this eight-year-old boy who happen to ask questions in Igbo, for me to ask in English, but it worked. She didn't think twice about it because this is what women needed. And if the Catholic Church was going to ban condoms, she was determined that they would find this birth control information somehow.

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Mr. ABANI: She and I used to sit on a porch drinking tea, eating cucumber sandwiches and listening to Glenn Miller and knitting. She chose to teach me to knit, to sew, to iron, to cook. She didn't think that anything she did was strange or important or groundbreaking or risque. She'd just do it.

Remember what I was saying: Every good man needs a little bit of woman in them.

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SIEGEL: Our story, The Hidden World of Daphne Mae Hunt told by Chris Abani is part of our new series The Hidden World of Girls. It's produced by The Kitchen Sisters and mixed by Jim McKee.

This is also a collaboration with listeners and you can learn how you can get involved at NPR.org.

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