Justina Ebede stared at the frozen window of her apartment on a cold weekend in Maryland, US. She stood still, watching the little birds pecking at the icy snowman her children had built: a beautiful and cold morning that reminded her of her journey to single parenthood.
Justina, who is famous in Nollywood movies produced in Maryland, provides for her three children alone, supporting and caring for them through the roles she gets in the industry.
Some of Justina’s fans have even described her as an A list Nigerian actress in the US. But these moments did not come against the backdrop of a rising sun’s soothing rays. Justina is a victim of domestic violence. Like some other famous victims of domestic violence such as American singer, Tina Turner, Justina has been gradually turning her life around. She is empowered by the desire to shield her children from her pains. Justina was 24 when a 52-year-old man walked into her life. Her pastor assured them that it was a marriage made in heaven.
But with time, reality showed it was a marriage made in a place much less pleasant than heaven. Justina endured physical and mental abuses in the relationship.
Then as the wandering birds began to fly away from the melting snow man, Justina turned towards me and opened up about her marriage to a man who was 28 years older than she was.
She said, “Jebose, today is a gift of love and celebration. I live in an intriguing time, appreciating the sacrifices and pains of this great journey. Yesterday was history; a story of the past to the present. Tomorrow is still a mystery, an unsure and uncertain hard road to travel.
“On this cold afternoon in early February, watching the birds freely expressing their love for a busy city flowing with different peoples of the world and thinking about my pains as a victim of domestic violence in the US, you may assume I have nothing better to engage in.
“But being free from physical assault every day by a man who took me as his wife, reassures my faith in the living. How does it feel to have someone love me for me? Will I get to experience that real love before I leave this world? My 13 years of marriage to my estranged husband had been rockier than the Rocky Mountains of Tennessee.
“The memories of my past suddenly came back to haunt me. I was a victim of spousal and domestic violence abuse. I have been beaten, battered, smeared and left to die, simply because I loved this man. And I absorbed all the punishments. I was scared to leave the marriage. I became a prisoner of love where love didn’t exist.
“My husband was introduced to me by my pastor. He had visited home then from Maryland to search for a Nigerian wife. His sister brought him to our church then and my pastor persuaded and insisted that he was the man ordained by God for me.
‘My daughter, Justina, this is your husband from God,’ I remember my pastor declaring at the time. I was naïve, young and afraid. My parents were never married. I longed for fatherly love, that bonding between a young girl and her father. I never had that due to my peculiar circumstance. My father dated my mother and I was born.
“So when my estranged husband was introduced to me by a man of God, the pastor at our church in Warri, I could not question his judgement. I was longing for a father’s love and thought that being an older man, he would be that father and lover to protect and guide me through the remaining days of our lives.
“I craved for that kind of love. After two weeks, we got married and by 2002, he had relocated me to the US where my troubles began. I was 24 and he was 52.
“I arrived at a home with hateful relatives in Maryland. He was sharing his home with relatives when I moved in from Nigeria. First, his niece told him I was too young for him; she accused me of marrying him to take control of his investments. These initial experiences affected my reception, thus, two weeks after my arrival in the US, he suggested we return to Nigeria so he could investigate my family background.
“He claimed his family informed him that people from my village were notorious voodoo and witchcraft practitioners. His family had also warned him not to assist me with my legal documentation in US, but he did not listen to them. He was being manipulated by his siblings. Those early days, he would lock me out of our bedroom because his siblings told him I would remove important documents while he was at work.
“They didn’t want him to marry me. I wish I had known then. I didn’t have anywhere to go. I had no family and friends in the US. I was trapped by love of convenience. I believed everything he told me during our two weeks courtship in Warri. I believed in my pastor. Jebose, it was a marriage built on faith but destroyed by abuse.
“One year after our marriage, we had our first child. His family members disowned us and did not visit or had any relationships with us because they were not happy he was married to a younger woman. After the birth of my child, I wanted to continue with my education. I pleaded with him for sponsorship as my husband, but he refused and insisted I get a student loan to send myself to school.
“He said he had assisted me secure a green card as a spouse. I was on my own in the US then. I began to notice mood swings in him. He would yell at me, occasionally and became passive during our conversations. He distanced himself from me, denying me sex, affection and attention.
“I was beaten each time I complained, scolded and dehumanised. I struggled through college and when I completed my education, I initiated a business plan. He did not take the suggestion well. He immediately discouraged me. I wanted to pursue my passion in acting, but he beat the living daylight out of me and described me as a tube prostitute for being an actress.
“I was helpless and hopeless and felt lesser than a woman. I watched as my self esteem was disrobed from my soul by his physical and mental abuses. He said I was his maid in a strange land.
“When I eventually became a citizen of the US, I invited my mother over and initiated her trip to the US. My husband hated the fact that she was there. He cursed me and bullied my mother and I. He refused to allow me to work. All purchases were in his name. He denied me sexual affection. He only slept with me for a few times.
“I never had sexual satisfaction but rather insults, assaults and abuses. He said he was God over me and that that was his reasons for marrying me and bringing me to the US. Jebose, I was always afraid to leave so people wouldn’t laugh at me. My mother saw there was no love in my marriage. She encouraged me to leave and find my happiness somewhere else. My husband kept telling me to leave his house if I couldn’t tolerate him.
“My purpose here is to motivate other women who may be experiencing similar problems in their marriages with their spouses, to tell them it’s not okay to tolerate the abuse and dehumanisation. You can be who you aspire to be. Happiness is the key to fulfilling dreams as women. It’s not okay to be brought to America and be tortured by the man that claimed to love you.
“I married a man I never had a chance to date and never knew. I married an older man that was introduced to me by a man of God I respected. I married domestic violence. I was beaten, battered and brutalised. But through all of these, I managed to stay alive. We went to a local restaurant once, had great time and the next thing was marriage, after two weeks.
“I refused to involve the police on him because of the stigma I would face. He probably would say his family warned him not to marry me. Three times, I called the police. Each time, I changed my mind. I was afraid of him. He had guns in our home. Many Nigerians have killed their wives out of frustrations in the US. I was so afraid that I moved out of our master bedroom to another room for two years.
“I locked my door when I slept. I locked the bathroom door when I was taking my shower. My blood pressure rose to 119 over 200. My doctor was going to increase my dosage, and I was determined not to continue. I moved out in the summer.
“My life now is surrounded with happiness. I’m one of the most wanted Nigerian actresses in Maryland. I have a beautiful soul and I’m moving forward with my children. The scars of yesterday are just what they are: scars, reminders of brutal past.”