Yes my little child, I have many stories to tell you, stories of my life, our life, and the lives of all women around the world. They are tales I have known forever; they are as much a part of me as my skin. I can feel them even now, as I watch the clock of life tick by. I have seen a great deal of this life. The tale can be told, retold. This is a sad story, from a sad place.
We live in a village in a small corner, somewhere in West Africa, under an open sky. If you think a dense umbrella of trees will block your view, forget it: most of them have been cut down for firewood. That notwithstanding, still you may see a few of the neem trees that help to provide the air-conditioning installed by God. We do not have much in terms of modern houses or buildings, all you see around are huts, except the house of the Imam, which is made of mud.
Early morning in my neighborhood, you see a parade of women and animals: maidens; young girls; young women; older women; new wives; their donkeys; and livestock. We have only one horse in our village, reserved for the village head. We do not even see it except on special occasions. We also have a special carrier-donkey that carts pregnant women to the midwife, who lives far away in another village;.
The women in my neighborhood are fated to pain and misery. Life here, outsiders say, is terrible, but I say, it is worse than that, trouble is our way of life. Almost every household suffers from disease. The river we drink from spreads blindness, cancerous breasts, protruding stomachs, crippled limbs. You see young girls with contorted limbs, moving with difficulty, like oversize ducks; and, of course, prolonged and dangerous childbirth is common. The local medicine men diagnose our problems as witches and witchcraft and prescribe infusions from trees and other local concoctions.
The water we drink is polluted, almost grimy; when you see it in a glass, you may think it is diluted pap. We get fresh water only during the rainy season, and we keep that all year for our guests. We take the water home to drink and bathe, because our life depends on it. All you need to do to make it drinkable is strain out the dirt.
With much difficulty I drag myself from my mat. The early morning suns burns my eyes. From the open door I can see the men of the compound speaking in hushed voices, waiting for their wives to serve them yesterday’s leftovers. The women have to cut short their kilometer-long journeys to and from the stream and interrupt their other chores to feed the men.The men are not even aware the women are there, not because they are ugly, but because their eyes are glued to the steaming bowls set before them. The rainy season is a piece of good fortune, that is how we find food, but it is a nightmare for the women. It is divorce season. The threat is of course the weather; wet and windy, it prevents the wood from drying for the cooking fires. Many women are driven from their matrimonial homes because of that. It happened to Juma, one of my aunts; she desperately tried to finish dinner on time, but the logs refused to cooperate, she could not serve dinner that night, and she ended up banished from her children and shelter. Nobody sympathizes with her at home; regardless of the circumstances, it is a crime to serve dinner late, let alone to skip it entirely.
That early morning I am among the second batch of women and girls at the stream; the men laze and enjoy the morning breeze. I really don’t have to be at the stream that early morning. I am just like any child in the neighborhood. As we move along the path, and you look closely, you see the girls and women in groups, in ones and twos, with pots on their heads and others tied around their waists, and one or more nursing children on their backs; all struggling, going back and forth so many times to fill the empty vessels at home. Not even death will stop this daily routine in my village.
The slavelike situation of the women in my village is not because of overpopulation. Most women marry young, others die in childbirth, others survive but are abandoned at the local hospital, close to the mortuary for easy transfer to the next world, while the men are busy marrying other, younger maidens without missing a beat. That is how we are, or how they are..
Education is forbidden for girls like me; our role is to stay in the village and wed. The boys sometimes study with the only teacher in the village. Those that complete the reading of the Holy Qur’an become young teachers, they can pick any girl to marry. Household chores are the only curriculum in our schooling. As for Western education, we know about it through the adage that “it is a sure way to hell for those who indulge in it.” Modernity is a sin. Our village is just like an island. Landlocked by bad infrastructure. There is no means of entry for buses or cars, only trucks and vans that come only on market day. It takes about five hours to reach our village from the outside world. If you miss the only van, then you have two options. Either you wait until the next week’s market day, or you go on foot for four or five hours to the next village, where you can find transportation all the way through the river to another village, where you can board a vehicle to the next town or city.
My father, a farmer, has three wives. The only difference between our compound and others is that our household is not a kid factory; my father has only three children, while most of his compatriots boast a complete Barcelona team against Real Madrid, excluding the reserve. I am eight. I have an older brother who I know about through the wailings of my stepmother, who lost him to an itinerant teacher about eleven years ago; no news of him ever since. I have an older sister, Lami, fourteen, the source of my joy as well as my sorrow.
At age fourteen it is taboo for a girl still to be sharing a room with her mother; it is an abomination. That is the predicament Lami, and all of us in the family are in.. Co-wives and other noisy neighbors draw from a deep well of sarcasm in their abuse of Lami and her mother, and by extension our father. The gossip is always how awful, to have goods as old as this (they mean my sister Lami) that no man cares about, let alone wants to buy. The tears I see running down Lami’s cheeks tell me her sadness, while I see the brawl between Lami’s mother and her co-wife as the ultimate feud between women.
“Marriage is a pronouncement by Allah. It comes to a girl when he decrees and sanctions. You can’t force it on Him. Her time shall come.” That is my aunt. In a flurry she picks up her mug and is off to the back of the house, to the toilet. She is there for about twenty minutes, not answering the call of nature, but trying to calm down. A few minutes later, it is as if a new cockerel ventures into unknown territory, as fighting ensues. Wide eyes can be seen watching. Passersby stop; it is like a wrestling ring.Innocently I watch as the bout begins. Our father is inside the compound, but the wrestlers are not aware of that until they hear him cough. Everybody rushes back into their huts. A few minutes later, he summons her at the top of his voice and the culprit kneels to accept her punishment. Slowly, my father shouts the forbidden words, “I divorce you.’” Her agonized wails carry for miles. She leaves late that very evening for her father’s compound in the next village. As her wails and anguish fade into the dark night, our father, visibly enraged, picks up his sandals and enters a nearby mosque for the late evening prayers.
The crowd at the mosque attracts Father’s attention; an itinerant old Qur’anic teacher from a village across the border in Nigeria is having a field day. He has concluded his usual preaching, which holds his audience spellbound. He doesn’t look at all knowledgeable, and his clothing suggests abject poverty, but his superior wit and extensive references to his numerous escapades across many villages and towns give him the upper hand. Father watches with a smile of satisfaction as many people donate generously to the local teacher; the teacher grins, having evaded poverty, at least for the next few months. Father approaches the haggard old man, thinking this might be a solution to his daughter’s predicament; he can transfer his problems to the teacher. As the heap of donations mounts, Father says, for all to hear, “I have given my daughter Lami’s hand in marriage to this worthy teacher, here and now.” The roar of “God is great” fills the air. The teacher thanks Allah for his wonders and blessings as the throng intones the “ameen,” like a chorus.
Later, Father’s approaching footfalls alert the caretakers of the house. His itchy cough and his thunderous voice bring a crowd swarming out of their huts, like ants fleeing the rains that flood their homestead. He announces, to the stunned ears of all, “I have just given Lami to the teacher from Nigeria.” His voice rising, he adds, “He will be back in the next two weeks to collect his bride.” The family’s joy knows no bounds; the news filters into the village and turns it into a carnival. Only Lami is not rejoicing. She has just been given, or sold, to a man she has never seen; she will be moving to a faraway country she has only heard about, to a family of strangers..
The next morning I go to my older sister’s room with a bowl of pap and bean cake. She sits in a trance, searching for answers that will not come. Her eyes fixed on the sky, tears falling like rain, she says, “‘I am not sure you will understand. Yesterday I was handed over, just like an object, to a stranger, and an old man at that. In the next few weeks I will leave you and my family. That will probably be the last time you see me, because nobody knows where the old man comes from.”
“You mean I will never sew you again,” I ask with a heavy heart. She moves closer to where I sit on the torn mat and looks more deeply into my eyes, probing to see if, at eight, I can fathom what she is about to say. She sighs and continues to talk, hoping something will penetrate my innocent ears.
“I am horrified by the slavery that we women go into daily, I am afraid that I am jumping on the bandwagon,. A woman is just like a piece of cloth in a marketplace, powerless and cheap. Yes, cheap. All that a man needs is a dowry, however meager, and he can buy a slave. A slave to work night and day, a slave for his farm, a slave to feed him and his family and his livestock. If by any chance she fails, she will begin a new life as another man’s slave, in another town, leaving behind her children and moving into another master’s house, with his crowd of children. And she begins, again, the Herculean task of taking care of another man’s household. She is trapped, unsure of what to do or not do, what to say or not say, as the rope tying her to her master can be cut any time by him, him alone. What kind of life will I have in this strange place that I have never even heard of? What have I done to deserve this?” She continues to talk to no one in particular. “My sin is that, at the age of fourteen, I have no suitor, so they have to sell me to anybody. I still recall that our only teacher said there are so many deaths in the village because girls have babies far too young.” She returns her gaze to me and says, “Soon, probably by next year, I will be gone, dead in childbirth, or in the clinic in the city, waiting for my death.” The tears fall. “Never let them make you a slave, never let anybody waste your life like they are about to waste mine. Even if I am dead, remember that, never do what I am doing, my darling sister, never. Protest! Fight! Run away if they force you! But don’t let them make you a slave.” We cry and cry till the whole compound hears us. Yes, I can now understand, she is going away, to live with a stranger, in a strange place. That I can understand.
Two weeks later, the groom appears like a comet, alone, with money to take away his bride; the crowd of women hangers-on wishing to escort Lami frightens him. His poverty is obvious, his frailty is clear, and his inability to fulfill the groom’s responsibilities is evident. Our father prevails; no one will be allowed to escort my sister to her destination. The women wail. My mother ends the controversy by declaring that I shall join my sister in her journey to the unknown. My sister smiles; at least she will have someone to call her own in her new life.
Saying good-bye is excruciating. My sister clings to our mother with all her strength, leading to more wails and cries. Like a lamb to the slaughter, my sister is dragged to the parking lot.
It is the market day, though late in the evening, and the pickup van is nearly empty. The driver loads my sister’s wedding ornaments; her goat follows, then I. The bride sits close to her goat, still crying. The journey takes us nearly a day and half, galloping through bumpy roads and bushes, changing vehicles and animal carriers. With heavy loads on our heads we reach the family compound in a remote village. The compound sits in the middle of the village, with nine thatch-roofed huts. We come from a quiet compound; the football team of children that welcomes us is a novelty. Within a few hours, the whole village is agog with the news of a new bride in the household of Malam. It is still not surprising to see a new bride, because it doesn’t take much to marry, all you need is a farm and hut. Later that night, our host, our in-law in whose hut we stay for the night, explains that we will need to manage for a few days, as no preparations have been made for the new bride. Early in the morning we are at the place designated for my sister’s hollow hut. The enormous task of building is handled by the students around the compound. Three days later we move in, and the goat meanders around the courtyard with the others.
Five days later, my sister Lami becomes a woman. The pain and agony are clear: it takes days to soothe her private parts, and to learn how to move around as a woman. A few days later she begins her new job of housewifery and labor. Feeding a household of this size is the work of ten men, but here the burden falls on the woman on duty, alone. There is the father of Malam, my sister’s husband and his four wives, and their twelve children. Our side of the compound includes Malam, his three other wives, six of the children, and me, the intruder; eighteen people for a fourteen-year-old bride to feed. It is an enormous amount of work: she is expected to farm, to dry the grain, and of course sift it out and cook for this hefty group of people, sometimes, three times a day. This is not taking into account other household chores, washing dishes and clothes and the series of baths for the young ones.
I adjust quickly. I am mature enough to understand the difference between growing up in a small family and growing up in a bigger one. I rarely see my sister Lami, as she is always busy, like a factory worker, from dawn to late into the night. Despite her busy schedule she always finds time to think about our future, my future. She rarely cries these days, but at times I see her sitting alone, gazing at the sky as if waiting for a note from heaven. But when we are alone in her room, after the day’s hard work and exhaustion, she pours out her bitterness. Sometimes I grasp what she’s talking about; other times I just store everything in my brain, for future access.
Today is just like any other day; we are in her room as she begins her monologue about our misfortune, our constant predicament. I am dizzy with sleepiness after walking many kilometers to another village to escort Hajo to see a local medicine man for an ailment she has sufferedfrom all her life. My sister smiles as she settles close to me, on the mat, very close to the door. “I know you are tired after today’s journey and playing, well, so am I.” She looks at me with concern. “You are lucky, Godiya, you are young, you can sleep. For me the night is not a call to rest but a time to lie awake and worry, a time to think.” She sighs as she touches my innocent, sleepy face. “This is my life, a slave, afflicted with so many diseases . . . until we die.” As soon as she starts to soliloquize on death and the hereafter, my sleep gives way to wakefulness. I ask: Why must she always talk about death! Why death, while we are still alive, kicking and playing? She sighs again and continues.
“You will understand some day. Know this, my little sister: in the next few months I will grow full with child, and that will be the beginning of my journey to oblivion, either through death or a permanent room at the hospital. All these things will happen to me,despite the fact that I have not asked for them. Keep this in mind: I am not human. I am just a woman. That is why somebody could sell me to a stranger, without my consent. I am here because I am the solution to someone else’s problem, and my fate is perpetual subjugation.” She winces. “Remember this, little sister, this world we are in is not our world, not meant for us. But I am sure there is another world outside our world, outside this dead world, for me and you. There is a world out there where women are free from hatred, labor, and early death.” Tears roll down our cheeks. Slowly she touches my hair as I lie curled up like a cat.
“Don’t cry, my sister; find your own way out. Don’t fall into this trap. Find that world. I am not sure where that paradise is, but my soul tells me it exists. Be wise and look for it. Be steadfast and courageous. Escape!” She cuddles me. “I am not sure you understand me. But remember this: as you grow up you will understand, and escape, for your life and the life of your unborn children.”
Three months later word comes that my sister Lami is pregnant. A happy moment for Malam, bad news for my sister and me. Even going into her seventh month, my sister is carrying the same workload as always. That very month her husband begins preparation for his journey to the wilderness. It is common knowledge that nobody can expect to see him again until well after my sister’s baby is born and crawling. And not only is my sister carrying Malam’s baby, his second wife, Indo, is on the verge of delivering. She is emaciated and weak from hunger. But even two pregnant women are not enough for Malam; we hear that a new wife is on her way. We wait for the news carrier or other proof of this rumor. It is a Friday evening when the group arrives, a smallish girl following behind them.
The two pregnant women, in advanced stages of pregnancy and with very little support from the man of the house, suffer in silence. Indo works to feed the household despite her heavy pregnancy. On a Thursday Indo goes into labor. The first day proceeds normally, but by the second day she has lost all strength. On the third day Malam gives her a potion, to no avail. The women of the compound say it is her own fault: she must have displeased Malam, must have gotten angry or raised her voice. Late in the third day of her torment, we see Indo kneel and beseech Malam to forgive her sins so that she can deliver safely. She begs and begs. Later, at the urging of other women in the compound, he relents, and then the other women soak Malam’s dirty shirt in water; when all the muck has come up they take the potion and force Indo to drink it to bring on the baby.
The potion works. On the fourth day Indo delivers, but the child dies. Indo lies in a pool of blood. Women are all over her with concoctions, but there is no remedy. Early in the morning the carrier donkey takes Indo to the clinic in town a few kilometers away. The news of Indo’s death reaches the village like wildfire. The village weeps for many days,but soon everything is back to normal.
Soon after, my sister goes into labor. I watch as she howls from the pain. Nobody is aware of the raging battle. She grabs my hands and cries, “Godiya, I am going to die, too. Just like Indo.” She screams. “When I am gone, leave this village.” Two days later, she is still in labor. As it intensifies, two of Malam’s hefty students push her to the ground, the usual childbirth assistants standing over her. Her flesh convulses, tears flow, blood oozes out like a broken dam between her thighs. It is only then that I grasp the enormity of my sister’s pain, as we move her into the midwife’s battered corn bed. Days later we are still at it, no respite. As our last option, we transport her to the city clinic. That was the last time I saw my sister .
Two months later I am back in my father’s village. Crowds on our way to my father’s compound console Malam, my escort to a death I am not yet aware of. By the time I am in my mother’s hut the reality dawns: Lami is gone, Lami is no more. I begin to wail, remembering her words: “Godiya, if I die, leave this village as soon as possible. Run.”
One night, on my way to my hut, I hear my father talking to my mother. “You saw how Malam took care of Lami and her little sister. It was just her destiny to die. You can see that Godiya is a grown-up girl already. I see no harm in marrying her to Malam. That will strengthen the bond between our two families. Let her move into her sister’s hut.” I cannot see their faces and I am not sure if my mother accepts the plan. They haggle. Finally, I hear my mother: “May Allah bless this reunion,” she says. “Ameen,” comes my father’s husky voice. He adds, “I know she is just nine years old, but I am sure Malam will allow her to grow old in his care. He can take her tomorrow. I don’t want history repeating itself and have her end up like Lami, fourteen without a husband.”
What can I do! Then my sister’s voice echoes once again. Run away. Run. Run. I stand there looking over my shoulder, my left, and then my right. I begin to run, like a plane taxiing on the runway into the unknown.
From Mace Mutum. © Rahma Abdul Majid. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Ibrahim Malumfashi. All rights reserved.