I was born in Nigeria, and contrary to the prevalent view of Africa, I had a good life. My father was a high-ranking politician and my mother earned so much running a chicken farm that she out-earned my father.
But, during my childhood, my mother wanted me and my brothers to have better opportunities and a better education. First she sent my oldest brother to America. Then, when I was 10, she moved me and my other brother to England to attend a posh boarding school (non-citizens are not technically allowed to benefit from the free, public education system in England).
My father stayed behind in Nigeria at his job, but paid for the boarding school. My mother joined the two of us a year later, with plans to start her own business, a bed and breakfast. My father sent her money to help with the down payment and mortgage on a nice house in London. She studied for a master’s degree in tourism and hospitality to make her dream business a reality.
I settled in, made friends and was happy.
When Things Started to Go Downhill
In 2001, my brother living in the U.K. left to join my other brother in America and attend college. Now it was just me and my mum, and because I was at boarding school, I was away from home for long stretches of time.
My mother started attending the UCKG church, a controversial international church that tells its members that God wants them to be rich, drive a nice car and live in a nice house–as long as they donate plenty of money to the church. Her degree in tourism turned out not to be as useful as she hoped, and the only jobs that came her way were menial.
She was a cleaner, a home care assistant, a newspaper deliverer and even started her own home cleaning business. She could never stick to one thing, getting frustrated or “inspired” and moving on to the next, making about £8,000 a year. Because of her relationship with the church, she believed she wasn’t at her full potential because Satan was trying to stop her. She made me attend church with her and watch religious programming on TV. I didn’t believe in all this at first, but you just can’t say no as a Nigerian child. Because no one else was there to challenge her religious views, I gradually came to believe in them, too.
Seeing what was happening in our lives, I was terrified.
My mother became depressed. She spent all day watching televangelists, not leaving the house for weeks at a time. She tithed 10% of whatever she was making. That wasn’t bad, but when I saw a check for $1,000 in her checkbook, she told me, “I paid that thousand so I could pay your school fees.” She had watched a telethon where they said, “God told us that the next 100 people who call and donate will get their donation back to them 100-fold.”
They didn’t mention they had recorded the telethon days earlier.
Because of her tithing and low wages, all our money seemed to disappear right away, and our living conditions quickly spiraled downward.
Thank God They Can’t Shut Off the Water
In Nigerian culture, the parents talk among themselves and the kids aren’t involved in family conversations, so I never got the chance to tell my father what was going on. He wanted to come join us, but he couldn’t leave his job or even visit–he kept applying for a visa and was denied. Meanwhile, he was sending the bulk of his money to pay for my brothers’ college educations, thinking my mum and I were doing all right.
When I was at home from boarding school during the summer or weekends, I had almost no food to eat. I survived by eating one meal of baked beans and rice a day. The telephone and TV got cut off, so I went to the library to use the internet. Utility companies can’t legally cut off the electricity or water; they can’t let people die in their houses, thank God.
Our car broke down, so I took the train to school extra early to prevent anyone from seeing me walking down the road from the train station. I couldn’t afford clothing, so I would rummage through the lost property left behind at the gym.
At home, we had debt collectors banging on our door, and my mother’s bank account was blocked. To its credit, the school never said a word to me directly about our unpaid school fees, and I kept going to classes, racking up a bill of £15,000 which never got paid.
When I tried to tell my friends about our situation, they would say, “Oh, all right,” and wouldn’t offer any help. I got angry and wondered, Why even bother? So I hid it from everyone.
When school ended, I didn’t even have £20 for the train ticket to take the G.C.S.E. exams, which are like the SATs. Finally, my father told me to use my uncle’s credit card, which up until this point my mother had refused to use, even to buy a train ticket. I barely made it in time, but somehow I scored all A’s and B’s.
Finally, my father visited for the first and last time. It was then he saw our living conditions and realized how bad the situation really was. He bought me a laptop in preparation for college. I thought perhaps now he would be able to help us, but he was powerless to convince my mother to hold down a job and stop giving away all our money. She didn’t want to move back to Nigeria, either, and never gave me the choice to.
The Beginning of the End
One day when I was cleaning the house, I found shopping bags stuffed full of two years’ unpaid bills. The mortgage company had been trying to repossess the house but had been denied twice by the judge because they didn’t have the proper paperwork. I tried to convince my mother to move to a smaller home–we had a modest four-bedroom–closer to school so we could save on the cost of boarding at my school.
But she saw the two court rulings as a sign from God that he wouldn’t let our house get taken away.
We had no money for me to go back to school for my final two years, but my G.S.E.C. exams count as SATs and compulsive schooling ends at 16 in the U.K., so in January of 2007, at my family’s urging, I applied to a small college called St. Cloud University in Minnesota. I don’t think they could have afforded it, but they thought they would trust God and wing it, and since my brother was living near the school, I would be okay. That was pretty typical thinking on my father and mother’s part.
In February, the mortgage company wrote a final letter, telling us our eviction date was May 18th. We just prayed. My acceptance email from St. Cloud came, and I made plans to attend college in the fall.
The day of the eviction, they gave us one hour to pack everything up. We took very little, just clothes and my computer, because my mom said, “We’ll be back in one week, tops.” The eviction company left a note on our door asking us to call them and get our stuff, but eventually they gave up and burned all our possessions. My passport, exam certificates, prom dress, childhood possessions … my entire life, gone.
We were officially homeless, though we hadn’t hit bottom yet.
Out on the Streets
When my father found out we lost the house, he sent money for rent … but instead we spent it at cheap hotels. My mother continued to tithe. She thought that the only way to get out of our situation was to send money to religious organizations, and God would help us.
My father got frustrated and stopped sending money for about five or six months. When we ran out of money, I spent my first night on the streets of London. My mum and I wandered around all the tourist places, until we finally fell asleep in a train station. I sat in a photo-booth and drew the curtain, shivering. My mother called my father and said, “We slept on the streets.”
What could he do? He sent money.
The Turning Point
One day, I passed our old house and I went to look at it. When I realized someone was living there, I walked away crying. When I told my mother, she started sobbing. “I wish you hadn’t done that. You just messed up my faith.”
That was when I finally realized her faith didn’t make any sense. And yet I wouldn’t fully accept that she had a mental illness for several more years.
We continued to bounce from place to place. Because I was barely getting enough food to eat or the basic necessities, I wasn’t sure how long I was going to be on earth anymore, and I wanted to leave a record of this homelessness and what drove me to this point. So I started a blog, posting every month or so using the laptop my father had given me. It wasn’t much, but I wrote when I could. I started getting traffic, and I did a couple of anonymous interviews on smaller internet radio stations. I went to great lengths to hide who I was, using different email addresses and hiding my IP address. My friends were reaching out to me via social networks to figure out where I’d disappeared to, but I ignored them.
Meanwhile, we went from hotel to hotel all over southern England, wasting the money my father sent us. When the money ran out, my mother called family friends she hadn’t spoken to in years and we would stay with them until they asked us to leave. We did this to four different families. One time, we were supposed to get a wire transfer on a certain day from my dad, but it didn’t come through on time. We fell asleep in the market, and while I shivered in the dark, somebody who was drunk and didn’t see me peed right next to me.
From there, we moved into a dingy hotel room with one bed. It was 2010 and I was 21.
How I Got Out
It would be the perfect ending to say I got out of homelessness because of my determination. But the truth is I got out because I asked for help. I met a man who was doing repairs for the landlady whose room we were renting. He and I started dating. But eventually he said, “There’s something really wrong here. I don’t know what it is.”
I told him about my homelessness, about my mother’s delusions. And he said, “Why don’t you come live with me?”
“Why would you want to help me?” I asked.
“Because you need help,” he said. I realized then that I could ask for help and receive it. I needed somebody to believe in me, and he did.
Severing Ties With My Mother
I thought by now this whole saga would be over, but the crap kept coming. My mother disapproved of my boyfriend because he was the wrong religion and older than I am. When I moved in with him, she stalked us, peering in his windows. She cared more about my dating the wrong guy than my getting off the street.
Now she’s a week away from being homeless. She’s known since April that she needs to leave her apartment but refuses to move in with us or even let me find her a new place.
My gut is telling me maybe I should just let her make her own decisions. I know that is cruel, but I can’t even convince her to take a free eye test, much less get her to go to the doctor and get medication. In Nigeria, mental illness is something we don’t acknowledge or admit exists.
Getting Back on My Feet
Now I’m technically a visa overstayer (something else my mother said God would take care of) and can’t work, so temporarily I consider my blog, which I’ve taken back up regularly, my job. I’m applying to get a visa, but without a passport, it’s difficult. I have to prove that I’m more English than Nigerian now.
I feel a bit of an anti-feminist admitting that my dad and my boyfriend support me, but I’m not spending much, and I’m not in any debt. I think that’s an amazing accomplishment. I’m petrified of credit cards.
My boyfriend, whom I will have been dating for two years this month, encouraged me to start studying again. I’m self-studying for the exams we call the A-levels, which I will finish in January. Then I’ll be able to attend university.
I would like to be a writer. If that doesn’t work out, I’m going to try to do something in sociology or science.
I was once homeless, but I am not hopeless.
Editors note: Since the writing of this story, Natalia’s mother has found a place to stay for now.