Naserian is in high school now, several beautiful years after I first met her. A lot has changed since then. She still visits her grandmother in the manyatta village, but she is in school molding a promising future for herself and the family which she one day hopes to have. She gave me a letter for her adoptive mother asking for an encyclopedia. When I was in fifth grade, all I cared about was cartoons and confectionaries. At the same age, Naserian obsesses over improving her English and general knowledge. Even now, her strong ambition shames me and I cannot hold a flame to her courage.
Sompet is finally speaking Swahili fluently. When I first met her a few days before Christmas two years ago, she had braved the wee, ungodly hours of the morning, long before the sun had risen, away from a place she had called home for about a decade after she was born. She has never gone back. She cannot go back. Dust had formed a thick film about her legs all the way to her knees from the walk she had endured for well over ten hours, the sun beating down on her harder than the reality of what was happening. That is about five times the time it takes an adult elite runner to win a marathon. The sun would set in about three hours and her life would change from that day on. She would learn a new language, make new friends and begin to understand why she was different from her brothers back at what was home. She would also learn to call another place home.
Nanyorhi is in her teens. Thankfully, she is not throwing hormonal fits or arguing with her teachers. Maybe she is one of those girls who will not go through the phases of youth while scarring everyone else along her path into adulthood. Or maybe it is because at fifteen she has a three-year-old son. When her adoptive mother took her shopping in the big city, she broke down at the supermarket. Not just because Nairobi is such a wonderful sight with all its buzz of activity and not just because she felt privileged to be spoilt for choice for the first time in her life; but because for some reason she could not fathom that plenty could exist a little over an hour away from her people who sometimes had nothing to call theirs that was worth holding on to. She asked to have her little boy have the shoes instead of her because her old pair can handle the heat, washing with hard water and the loamy-cum-sandy earth at her school for another few months. If it comes to it, she will wear her bathroom slippers to class.
Their life stories only differ slightly. Majority of them have been adults trapped in children’s bodies for longer than they can remember. They have cooked on three stones, like most African girls. They have also walked for miles in search of water, sometimes returning home empty. However, they have also been married to men older than them – some twice or thrice their ages or even much older. A few have given birth to children whom they may or may not see when their relations visit them during school functions. Some of these girls have lost babies because they were children themselves when they gave birth, so they either miscarried or were unable to adequately provide proper or adequate dietary intake for the infants. Those who have not gone through the rite of passage that involves having their genitalia mutilated – cut and sometimes sewn up with a thorn – have merely escaped it. The many who are not so lucky learn to cope with the occasional discomforts of period pain and infection.
At night, the voice of such a girl’s mother screams at her:
“You have shamed me! You are no daughter of mine!”
They wonder why it is so wrong to want to be able to read like other girls in their country. Why it is taboo to fail to bear the scar that has made childbearing and making water such a painful and uncomfortable affair for other women who have been cut. Why the men they are given away to older men for a few head of cattle, more so when there is drought, can share a room and converse with their fathers and grandfathers – since they likely belong to the same age-group. They also wonder why they can be shared by their husbands’ friends when their household heads are away for months in search of pasture for their animals.
I grew so furious when they sat me around a fire to feed my head with images of their escape, life before education, the life of a woman in a manyatta away from the government’s laws, their basic hopes and dreams and everyday concerns. I was angry at the culture that allowed these injustices, angry at the people who upheld this culture, angry at the authorities whose arms had not completely done away with the unfair acts, angry at myself for not being able to do more to help.
I think about these girls every day. More so after spending so much time with them at the beginning of the year while I was attached at the Kajiado District Hospital, and because they are about to sit their final primary school paper; which determines whether they will secure a position in secondary school – any sort of secondary school. I think of all the hopes I have had for them, the school holidays we have spent poring over Biology notes, English compositions and Chemistry formulae. I think of all the other, better placed children their ages and younger or older, who study in circumstances that help propel them closer to a promising future. I lie awake sometimes, in the comfort of my mother’s house, recalling the lectures on food security, nutrition policies in Kenya dating back to the 1980s and the malnutrition cycle and my frustration grows new strength. I cannot tutor the girls anymore. I am hardly able to visit them. If I could, I would leave the city to be with them again; teaching them during the holidays, falling asleep on their narrow beds in their very midst, planting seeds of hope concerning their uncertain futures.
I tell the girls at the Kajiado Adventist Educational and Rehabilitation Centre that life is in the habit of rewarding those who work hard, that Maasai girls can become successful people like every other woman who walks this earth, that a chance at school is a chance at a better life for them and their families. I think about the girls in Kajiado every single day since they first started to affect my life in 2008. I think and pray that the hope we have lit in each other’s hearts will not fade into nothingness; because then I will have failed them and myself completely.
Based on the events of a true story; the story of the girls mentioned above and how I fit into it all.
S. Ogugu 2012