Women’s Survival Tactics, ‘Vex Money’ and Generational Inheritance, in Ayobami Adebayo’s “A Spell Of Good Things”

Written by Mide Olabanji

Edited by Ruby Fatimilehin

Illustrated by Grace Kaluba

It is not uncommon to hear another assert that social media is not real life, especially as a retort during feminist discourses in Nigeria. Although many of us are introduced to feminist thoughts —like women’s access to education and precautions against male violence—from our caregivers, women who proudly wear the feminist tag remain a minority. Thanks to social media, however, a borderless community of feminists is alive and thriving, connecting Nigerian women of different classes, religions, ethnicities, and even time zones. It was “Feminist Twitter,” as the subsection is commonly called, that equipped me with the name for the abstract concept of vex money and explained the nuances surrounding wives’ secret stashes of money to me. 

One of the many strategies of women’s resistance under an unrelenting patriarchal system, wives have probably been hiding money from their husbands since marriage was invented (Connelly et al. 82; Whitaker). Although no one knows how many wives hide money from their husbands, there is evidence that the practice is widespread (Whitaker)—in Japanese societies, it is referred to as hesokuri, translated to “money hidden in the navel” (Lebra 61; WealthyMatters); and knipl, a pinch or knot, in Jewish societies (Scolnic and Eisenberg; Zelizer 88). Still, it remained a completely alien concept to me, until 2020, when an Am I The Asshole (AITA) post about a woman keeping one made rounds on Nigerian Twitter. 

Where Urban Dictionary’s explanation of vex money confines it to the Caribbean term for the extra bit of money a woman carries with her on a date, author Naomi Jackson’s conception of the term encapsulates every instance of secretly keeping away money for unfortunate, but unsurprising, situations. Here, vex money is money stashed on your person or in a secret place to be spent only in case of emergency brought upon by a once stable situation suddenly becoming vexed —usually but not always because of a man (Jackson). I leisurely read Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s A Spell Of Good Things for the first time last year; it has proven to be such a fertile land for ideas that it has produced this essay as well as my final year thesis. For Yèyé, a character in the narrative, and for many Nigerian women I know, the secret stash of vex money is not liquid cash, neither is it so secret. It is, instead, boxes of gold jewellery that Yèyé diligently polishes. 

Yèyé Christianah Àlàké, the matriarch of the Mákinwá family, was introduced to her husband by Aunty Bíólá, her oldest sister, who had to take on a motherly role after the loss of their mother in a tragic accident. From Yèyé’s sitting position on the day she met her husband to the quality of the ring he proposed with, Aunty Bíólá directed the relationship, standing by her vow to look out for her sister. 

After the wedding, Yèyé stopped listening to her “bitter and jaded” sister and decided to trust the intimacy she shared with her husband (Adébáyò 176). Unlike her sisters’ husbands, Adémólá was loving, attentive and supportive, so she “would not be part of their scheme, would not lie to her husband to get the money she needed to have four plots allocated to her, refused to stash away gold as protection against future misfortune; two as one, she and Adémólá would sink or rise together” (Adébáyò 177). So, for the first two years of her marriage, the gold-plated earring and pendant set Aunty Bíólá had gifted Yèyé was the only jewellery she owned. Aunty Bíólá, however, remained insistent over the phone and even once travelled down to emphasise her argument. She spent hours cajoling, instructing and, finally, commanding Yèyé to get money from her husband—steal it if necessary—to procure gold (Adébáyò 176). 

When Yèyé informed Adémólá that she would be using her savings to buy a plot of land, he questioned its need, since he had already inherited two hectares and everything he owned belonged to her even if her name was not on any of the assets. At the family meeting that ensued after the discussion, Yèyé’s in-laws accused her of planning to kill their son. As it turned out, Aunty Bíólá was right about the need for a secret safety net, so the following month, Yèyé told her husband that she no longer wanted to wear gold-plated jewellery because, as his wife, it spoke poorly. Adémólá never complained about her jewellery demands, dismissing them as mere fashion concerns. If Yèyé’s demands were anything more, they were an ego trip since he often bragged about adorning his wife in pieces more expensive than their children’s school fees. 

Yèyé then joined the league of women who felt safe in their boxes of gold jewellery, confident that if her husband was duped of all his money, if she lost her stores in a fire and some disaster befell her sisters so that she sank down a hole of misfortune with no hope of rescue from impoverishment, the pieces of jewellery would be her saviour (Adébáyò 173). “There is something tragic about living like this, with one foot out the door of intimate relationships,” Jackson writes of secret stashes, “but it is the only way I know how to live, a coping mechanism that helps me feel vulnerable enough to remain in a committed relationship but safe enough to know that staying isn’t my only option.”

When Wúràolá, Yèyé’s first daughter, turned 25, Yèyé began keeping some eighteen-carat items aside for her, and when Wúràolá got engaged at 28, Yèyé gifted them to her and advised her to keep up the secret stash tradition. This mother-daughter vulnerability reminds me of the gift my own mother gave my older sister for her 20th birthday—a gold necklace. She often enquires about its state, and I had previously concluded that her constant check-ins were because it was an expensive gift that she could not trust my sister to keep safe, but after reading A Spell Of Good Things, I am now open to the possibility that the gift was her own way of empowering her first daughter.

From a contingency fund to a route of women’s financial inclusion across generations, gold jewellery as vex money has proved itself useful in many situations, equal parts a fashion accessory and an asset in a society that discourages financial equality. True to Yèyé’s fear, her stash came in handy when her husband was kidnapped; similarly, from Aunty Bíólá to Wúràolá, three generations of women have looked out for one another. For university courses like Gender Studies, A Spell Of Good Things is an excellent study material, narrating the survival tactics of past generations’ women and equipping the present with tools for tackling modern feminist issues. 

Works Cited 

@AITA_online. “AITA for getting mad at my wife for having a secret savings account?  https://bit.ly/3iPDXcg.” X, 17 Aug. 2020, 2:20 p.m., twitter.com/AITA_online/status/1295349777153101827

Adébáyò, Ayòbámi. A Spell Of Good Things. Ouida Books, 2023. 

Connelly, Patricia M., et al. “Feminism and Development: Theoretical Perspectives.” Theoretical Perspectives on Gender and Development, edited by Jane L. Parpart et al., International Development Research Centre, 2000.

FoxyPrincess. “Vex Money.” Urban Dictionary, 3 Sept. 2010, www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Vex%20Money.

“Hesokuri and Okozukai.” WealthyMatters, 3 Aug. 2014, wealthymatters.com/2014/08/03/hesokuri-and-okozukai/.

Jackson, Naomi. “What Does ‘Vex Money’ Do To Love?” The New York Times, 10 Aug. 2022, www.nytimes.com/2022/08/10/opinion/vex-money-afro-caribbean-women.html

Lebra, Sugiyama Takie. Japanese Patterns of Behavior. University of Hawaii Press, 1976.

Scolnic Ellen, and Eisenberg Joyce. “Who Needs a Money Market Account When You Have a Knipl?” HerMoney, 3 Dec. 2018, hermoney.com/save/emergency-fund/who-needs-a-money-market-account-when-you-have-a-knipple/#:~:text=A%20knipple%20(kuh%2DNIP%2D,and%20hide%20some%20money%20inside. 

Whitaker, Leslie. “The Secret Stash: Why Do Many Women Hide Money from their Husbands.” Time, vol. 163, no. 9, 2004. Zelizer, A. Viviana. The Social Meaning of Money. Princeton University Press, 1997.

Mide Olabanji is a graduand of English Studies who is committed to living life one day at a time. When she is not listening to music, she is daydreaming about being a romance author. You can catch her on Instagram @mideolabanji.

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