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Trigger warning: bullying, suicide
American shows and films marked my childhood. A recurring theme in most of them was bullying, so I grew up believing that bullying was a serious problem for children in the West - and only in the West. In those stories, there was always that one student who was filled with rage and always out to get the little guys, the nerds, the fat kid, the outcast, and anyone who wasn’t cool or popular.
When I had access to the internet as a teenager and browsed Twitter, I often read news of bullied children who died by suicide, or who were killed by their bullies. These validated the thoughts I had about the Western bullying culture, and kept distracting me from the stories happening closer to home.
I grew up in a middle-class household in Nigeria. This meant I had no complaints, and a lot of free time since I wasn't worried about what to eat or wear. I consumed a lot of Western content, and identified with the stories from the foreign shows I watched. I even tried to spot some of the recurring Western characters in my real life too, and sometimes could find them despite the cultural differences. I viewed myself as the nerd and the fat kid, because I liked school and was overweight. But as I tried to find the bully in my own story, I couldn’t find one. Indeed, the bullies I saw on TV gave wedgies and pulled terrible humiliating pranks that just didn’t happen in my school.
But as I grew up, I realised my definition of bullying was only what I saw on TV, and just because it didn't align with my experience didn’t mean it didn’t exist.
When people list the problems experienced by children in third world countries, bullying is usually not one of them. So when I recently watched Cobra Kai, the Netflix series and sequel to the 1980s movie Karate Kid, I started wondering about bullying in Nigeria, and the real-life experience of our children.
I asked around, and spoke to a few who kindly shared their stories with me.
Ada* sent me a 13-minute-long voice message. I sat on my room’s sofa and intently listened to her speak about being bullied in secondary school. She was slapped by a classmate once. I could hear the anger in her voice as she explained that it happened in a classroom full of students who taunted her because her mother taught at the school, and she was considered a teacher's pet. When the boy slapped her, she didn’t report him to her teachers out of fear. She admitted that his actions left her slightly antagonistic towards Muslims for the rest of her life because the child was a Muslim.
John* told me he hated going to school from the very first few years after nursery school. The other children would walk up to him during break time, and throw his food on the ground.
‘I didn’t know why they bullied me, but when I left that school in Primary 4 and went to another, it continued. As though all my bullies had a network which they used to monitor me. It messed with my self-esteem. I became an introvert. I started playing the guitar and writing poems to cope with my low self-esteem” John said.
John's story could easily be turned into an American TV show about high school kids, and it would not feel out of place. Many would not believe this was the story of a boy who grew up in Benin city in Southern Nigeria. But data by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) in 2022 shows that bullying impacts kids everywhere: one-third of the globe's youth is bullied, and bullying affects children in all countries and locations, regardless of their income level.
One out of three teens is bullied worldwide, and when looking at the countries where children have reported the highest incidences of bullying, the report shows that 65% of girls and 62% of boys have been bullied. Bullying is therefore far from being just a Western problem.
And the more I thought about it, the more I could remember details about my own childhood. My story did have a bully, a girl who joined my class in JSS1 in secondary school, who regularly called me fat and called me ‘the person who wants to go for a beauty pageant’. She would laugh at me when we gathered to practise our catwalks for beauty pageants, held at the end of the school year.
I didn’t call it bullying until I went through Ada and John’s messages. I had shoved the experience to the back of my mind this whole time, because growing up in a third-world country like Nigeria meant that my problems could only be third-world problems: a lack of basic amenities and living in constant fear of war or famine.
I finally stopped living in denial when I realised I was not alone in my experience. I finally began to process the bullying I went through in my own life, and started to heal from the trauma it caused me. I worked on it just like I did with other aspects of my mental health over the years. And most importantly, I started unlearning the perception that a problem was only valid if it was emphasised in the West.
Bullying happens at home too, and when you remove the Western lens, there are countless stories yet to be told.
* Some names were changed on request