Sometimes you meet people, they look happy but at the core of their soul and heart something in their past hurts really badly. Things they wish had been, some things they wish never should have happened; all the Ifs hurt. I found myself caught on the corner of a street in a neighborhood I would only visit for field assignments.
It was on one of such call to duty that I met this woman who obviously managed to get by in her meager business.Here was this very energetic, funny and happy woman I was interviewing about her family. She burst into tears right in the middle of our interview chat…my recorder was still on…I simply stopped and wrapped my arms around her saying every words of comfort that came to my heart at that moment. It took a while before she calmed down.
What was this middle aged woman weeping about?
While growing up as a child her parents got separated. It wasn’t the typical court divorce, her mum just her dad for whatever reasons her little mind could not grasp. She had to live with her dad but wasn’t really happy because he married another woman and it was an uncomfortable environment for her. Sometime later her mum showed up and a fight broke out between her dad and mum over who should have custody of her. She wanted badly to stay with her mother and she cried until her dad angrily sent her to her mum. He refused to sponsor her education since she chose to stay with her mum who could not afford sending her to school. She could only get a primary education…these was the point where she busted into tears…
What I saw in her eyes beyond her words & tears:
She shook her head and stared at me her interviewer.
Her eyes said I could have been educated like you
My life would have been better today if only my parents tried to put me first.
Her body shook with pains as she cried out loud saying, “I really wanted to go to school”
It felt awkward but I felt her pain. I wish I could turn back the hand of the clock to right the wrong of not allowing her to go to school. I could only give her hope that the future could be bright. In my words, “your past doesn’t have to determine your future; you can still make it; you would still succeed; getting an education is still possible; God can still beautify your life”.
Finally she stopped crying and wiped her tears as I held her close.I do not take this encounter for granted. It was a privilege to share the pain of this woman who saw me as someone that represented what she could have had. I was educated; she wasn’t….NOT SO FAIR!
Susan sat on a rocking chair knitting away enjoying the cool evening breeze on the balcony. She was knitting another sweater for her granddaughter, Adaobi whom she adored dearly. She wondered why she wasn’t home yet. Susan hoped that it wouldn’t be one of those nights that her boss kept her working late. How time flies she thought, her Adaobi is a grown woman already. As these thoughts passed through her mind in comes Adaobi dancing moving her waist from side to side. “And what are we so excited about today?” says her grandma. He finally proposed, grandma said Adaobi delightfully. A wedding proposal already, thought Susan. Behind her glasses she blinked tears of joy away as she thought of all the years of struggling to raise her only grandchild. She remembers that dreadful day when she lost her daughter Adaobi’s mother on the birth table. The pregnancy was a difficult one and she was alone in the journey. Her prince charming disappeared as soon as he got to know that she was pregnant. They had both being young when it happened. Susan found herself helping to pick and put together the broken pieces of her daughter’s heart. She hoped that after the baby was born her daughter could move on with her dreams but fate had something else in store. Her daughter never made it through leaving her with the cries of the new born now Adaobi.
Adaobi, cut through these thoughts in Susan’s mind, “grandma check out my ring…are you not happy for me?” Susan startled quickly responded, “of course I am so happy for you darling”. “So when do I finally get to meet this prince charming you have been hiding all this while?” Adaobi explained that Mark had only being very busy but that he promised to pay a visit at the weekend. Susan was excited and started to praise sing her only grandchild.
On Sunday evening Mark came to pay his would be in-law a visit. Susan was happy to receive him and Adaobi was beside herself with excitement. The young man looked calm and collected. He was very respectful and knew when to throw in a few jokes which Susan laughed to. Adaobi watched her grandmother and Mark warm up to each other. In her heart she sent up to heaven a quick thank you. Soon it was time for Mark to leave. His sweetheart escorted him out, and Susan watched them both holding hands as they walked out the front door. It was a while before Adaobi came back. When she came in, her grandmother was sitting on her rocking chair in the dark. Adaobi smiled thinking that her grandmother must have dozed off; she walked towards her with the aim of helping her to get to her bed. As soon as she was close enough Susan spoke up, “Adaobi, the young man is very nice but as an old woman who has seen many sides of life something doesn’t sit well with me about that boy”. Her granddaughter’s hand which was lifted to tap her awake stood still in mid-air. Stammering she said, bu…but mama…. Susan cut her unfinished words by laying her old shriveled fingers on Adaobi’s cheek lovingly and spoke again. “Child, an elder sees what a child doesn’t see; you need to find out more about him before making the big commitment”. With a sinking heart Adaobi knew that it was better to pay hid to the wisdom of her grandma.
Adaobi prayed and hoped that all would be well between her and Mark. She loved him so much and he as well didn’t give her any reason to doubt his love for her. Their love relationship kept blossoming. Soon it was his birthday and she organized a surprise party for the love of her life. She contracted a caterer to do the cooking and a few friends were invited. All of the goodies were to arrive at Mark’s residence in the evening on the D-day. All day Adaobi couldn’t pay attention at work but as soon as she closed she headed to Mark’s home in the hope of meeting her caterer at the address. As Adaobi drove into Mark’s compound where music was already blaring, the house was in frenzy. She was disappointed that Mark had gotten home earlier than she planned and perhaps by then had already let the caterer in. Adaobi didn’t like that the bubble of her planned surprise birthday bash had been busted. She quickly jumped the few staircases on the pouch and as she lifted her hands to knock on the door, it swung open. An excited sweet voice broke out singing… happy birthday to you… and stopped after the first few words. A beautiful fair face stood confused facing Adaobi.
“Who are you?” she said. And who are you? Adaobi asked instead of answering her question. The beautiful fair face replied with irritation, “His wife”, and slammed the door! Adaobi stood still and couldn’t move for several minutes. After a while panting and dizzy she managed to turn away but soon crashed on the steps of the staircases. She couldn’t cry but simply stared out into space lost in a faraway world. Adaobi’s heart was broken into so many pieces that it took several sessions of psychotherapy to mend.
A good number of women have become psychiatric patients because they were badly hurt and betrayed by some man who is either a “promised forever love” like in Adaobi’s case or a husband. How does a woman not get to that extreme breaking point? By knowing that human beings are full of surprises and your life does not come to an end because of a disappointment or betrayal. Protect your heart and let God be your succor. Life can still be beautiful and rich for you in spite of that deep hurt.
One sunny Saturday i went to the market to shop for not just a few things but a lot of stuff for the house. Usually that kind of foodstuff shopping will require hiring the services of people we call “Alabaru” ( Goods carrier) in Yoruba language.
Interestingly at the busy market you find mostly women carrying a big pan, while the men carry goods on a wheel barrow. When i have a lot of goods to carry i don’t like engaging the services of the elderly or pregnant women for that matter. So on this day i had this woman who was so heavily pregnant following me around insisting that she wanted to help me carry my goods even when i wasn’t done shopping. After a while i asked her if she could carry the goods and i had a lot! She pleaded with me so much that i had to give in. I helped to lift the goods unto her head, that effort in itself resulted into a lot of sweating. I almost changed my mind again but she bravely balanced the pan containing all my shopping items on her head. Then we began the walk to the car park. Usually i make sure i walk behind the person carrying my goods because you never know someone might just disappear with all your goods in such a busy market. But on this day, this heavily pregnant Alabaru woman moved at such a slow pace that i had to walk past her and wait a few times in order for her to catch up with me. The sun was high and hot plus she was sweating profusely. ” I kept asking her, are you sure you are ok?” Each time she would reply, “mummy mo wa paa” ( I am fine ma). Finally we got to the car park and i just couldn’t let her go without finding out a few things. I asked her about her husband and inquired into whether she had registered with any hospital. She said she had but was trying to raise money to buy her delivery items ( cotton wool, clamp cord, methylated spirit, baby’s first cloths etc) as required by the health centre. Her husband or should i say the man responsible for the pregnancy was not willing to support her. This woman must find a way to support herself.
I felt so sorry for her. Women like this Alabaru woman struggle with poverty and they bravely fend for themselves and the babies in their womb. Many women who are low income earners in Africa refuse to register for antenatal at the hospital. When they finally manage to do they end up giving birth in unsafe places/condition because they can not afford necessary delivery kits. Women like me didn’t share her experience. I was equipped with the knowledge of safe delivery and motherhood; i was equipped with the resources to register, even pay money for the delivery of my babies at probably a private hospital. I was lucky to have gone to school, to be educated and therefore armed with skills that puts me on a pedestal above poverty.
Many girls and women like this Alabaru comb our market places doing menial jobs and earn money that is just enough to get a meal or two for each day. Sometimes they have to go hungry. Added to that is their exposure to street men who take advantage of them sexually. A lot of times this results in pregnancy and the man would of course move unto other vulnerable girls and women. If only this pregnant Alabaru had the opportunity to go to school, to get an education,perhaps she would not be in the hot sun carrying my goods. I looked at her and wondered if she would not add up to the data of the maternal and child mortality rate we are so desperately trying to reduce. Poverty is a major contributor to maternal mortality.
I gave this woman my phone number and a sum of money ( though it was not enough for what she needed) hoping that she would use it to purchase what is needed and not spend it on food. As the car carrying i and my goods moved away from the market, i looked on in the mirror at the very pregnant Alabaru woman still standing in the sun helplessly. She buys a N5 sachet of cold water and pours it over her head to cool off the heat. I prayed and hoped in my heart that she and her baby would survive. My prayer was answered when a few weeks later i got a call from her saying that she had just delivered a beautiful baby girl. I did confirm this when some months later we met at the market again. She looked healthy, her baby was at an almost free day care centre within the market and she was still struggling to help shoppers carry their goods. It was a great relief to see that she was ok for now. The question now is – how long would she remain at that level? This Alabaru woman’s daughter may also not see the wall of a school if she can not afford the fees. Thus the circle of poverty may continue.
According to a UNFPA report, “A woman’s chance of dying or becoming disabled during pregnancy and childbirth is closely connected to her social and economic status. The Alabaru woman was lucky to have had a safe delivery but many other women struggling with poverty are not so lucky. Therefore the education level of more women particularly in the rural communities and at the grassroots needs to improve. My proffered solution to that is provision of a viable adult education programme and also ensuring that more girls go to school. I’d say catch them young. How do we achieve this? Government, communities, families, everyone need to invest in educating our girls. As we make these efforts then we can begin to see the ripple effect in improved social and economic status of women and eventually much less maternal and child mortality rates.
Sarah(not real name) is beautiful, tall, slender, dark in complexion and an orphan. She is in senior class three and getting ready to finish high school. She would love to continue her education but cannot afford it. Sarah lives with her boyfriend, Tom (not real name) who is 15years older and taking care of her. Everything seemed to be fine until one day she started to feel unwell. Terrified that she was pregnant, she rushed to the free clinic services offered to teenagers in her neighborhood (Naguru Teenage Health Centre). Tom had warned her about not wanting a baby. At the clinic her heart was beating so hard against her chest as she opened the result of the pregnancy test. It was a great relief when the test showed negative but something was definitely still wrong with her. Sarah decided to approach one of the doctors who looked nice. Another test was carried out and that was how she was discovered to be infected with Gonorrhea. Her mind went blank at first; she wondered how she had gotten infected. It wasn’t long ago she moved in with Tom but she had another boyfriend in school. Sarah wondered if it could have been her school boyfriend or Tom who had infected her with the disease. The doctor’s voice cut through her thoughts. “You have to bring your boyfriend as well so that both of you can be treated at the same time”, he said. The terrifying look on her face told the doctor that she was not ready to bring her boyfriend to the clinic.
A year later, Sarah was still coming to the clinic for treatment and she still had not told Tom about the disease. She wanted this circle to stop but didn’t know how.
Teenagers waiting for treatment at the Naguru Teenage health centre.
While waiting to see the doctor again at the clinic, frustrated, she looks around at the many faces of other young people like her. Frank’s(not real name) face stood out as she remembers that they had met at the clinic several times in the past two months. He recognizes her as their eyes lock together and waves at her. Sarah waves back and says hello. It was the STD clinic day and so they both knew that all the others in the waiting room where all there to get treatment. Soon afterwards Frank and Sarah bumped into each other at the door of the drug dispensing room. That was how they became friends. Frank shares his story with Sarah and it turns out that he was a hot talented dude in the school’s athletic team. The girls had crushes for him and he dated anyone he wanted. Now he misses running in the team and wishes he could turn the hand of the clock backwards. Frank wants to return to his love for running and therefore worked hard to follow his treatment. Sarah on the other hand struggles with the fear of losing Tom.
Sarah and Frank feel lucky to be able to have a centre to run to but must be willing to corporate and apply the wisdom of their counsellors and doctors. Our choices make or mar our life. Don’t let fear hold you back from making the right choice.
Mary(not real name) is a young lady with great dreams for the future. Fortunately her parents unlike others decided to ensure that she had a good education. They encouraged her every step of the way, right from kindergarten, and now she is on the last lap of her education, being at the university. Mary in spite of the great promising future that lay ahead of her has one “Fear” and “pain”. Her room mate, Pat(not real name) had tried to persuade her to set herself free herself from the source of the fear and pain but doing so would make it worse. Every time Mary went to use the toilet, it takes her about an hour to be able to pee/urinate. The pain shoots through her temple and a few tears roll down her cheek. Pat is frustrated and can not understand why Mary had to hold unto this torture even with all the education she had gotten. Every time Mary visited the toilet she had to keep checking on her to make sure she is alright until she comes out . Pat had made several attempt at encouraging Mary to set herself free but like other times Mary is more terrified with the idea of breaking free from a tradition that must be followed according to her people and parents. The tradition of circumcising a female child as soon as she is old enough and worse still sewing up the opening of her Virgina until she is married. This practice is an attempt to keep girls from sexual indulgence. Any girl who does not maintain the statuesque would be rejected by the society and her family would find it hard to get her a husband. Mary did not want to be a disappointment to her parents and so she bore the pain bravely. But Mary wishes she could be free and a greater fear lucks in her mind. She wondered about what her sexual encounter with her husband would be like? She dreaded the pain as she had heard that many girls undergo excruciating pains when they get married.
Pat is lucky that even though she comes from this same culture her parents are liberated and refused to subject their daughters to this horrific practice. Many tribes in Somalia, Ethiopia and other African countries still violate the human rights of girls against genital mutilation. In places where Female Genital Mutilation had been outlawed people still pay huge sum of money in order to secretly ensure that their daughters go through the ritual. This practice is seen as a “cultural must do”, so even those who live abroad send their girls back home to go through circumcision. It is estimated that about 80% and above number of women and girls go through circumcision in Somalia and in other African countries. Some of these women and girls go through traumatic experiences that can go on for a life time. Imagine sewing the Virgina opening of some of these women and they have to have sexual intercourse with their husbands. They are only allowed to remove the stitch at delivery of a baby and then it is sown back again. This information I got from talking with a friend from Ethiopia and was horrified by what she shared with me.
A lot of questions come to my mind about why people choose to hold unto a cultural practice like female genital mutilation that has done more harm than good. Why subject a girl to such torture all in the bid to curb her God given gift of sexual fulfillment? Why is it ok for men, boys to exercise their sexual gifts without any inhibition? As a saying i heard recently goes “A key that can open several doors is known as the master key while one padlock opened by many keys is said to be fake”. Meaning that a girl has to be padlocked to keep her from being opened by many keys but a boy/man should be a master key. Sex is meant to be enjoyed by both men and women, it shouldn’t be a source of torture for women. A few women i have met in my own community who have gone through FGM are frustrated with the fact that they don’t enjoy sex, and this affects the stability of their marriage/relationship. I believe a bride should look forward to enjoying her sexual encounter with her husband not dreading it because of the excruciating pain as a result of Sewn Virgina in the name of cultural practice. A happy bride makes a happy husband.
Girls like Mary are caught in the web of either going through the pain or be rejected and isolated by their society. She dreads the day she’ll get married while Pat her friend looks forward to it. Mothers, women should be in the fore front of protecting their girls. The elders, community leaders and all stake holders as my friend said should take a long look at this practice of FGM and see it for what it is.