I’ll tell you a story. I beg not for your pity, nor do I wish to see you angry after hearing it. See, I have watched you grow from a distance, turning into a fine young man. The apple surely does not fall far from the tree. I watched as you went through our traditional rites of passage, wishing I were near you, to provide the love and comfort only mothers are wont to give. I noticed your eyes grow cloudy and your heart heavy, as you watched your mates run into the safe arms of their mothers. They had finally been initiated into manhood, but a man would always remain a boy in the presence of his mother. I heard you curse out loud, expressing your resentment for me, for I left you when you needed me the most. It never was my fault and I hope you will understand.
The first rays of the sun had just appeared and I had not slept a wink. The dawn air was cool and I wished I could go for a walk around the compound, to take advantage of the serenity before the early risers started dragging their feet and going about their chores, but I couldn’t move. The heaviness in my feet reflected that which occupied my heart. Tears threatened to fall and it was all I could do to stop weeping. I was scared of another round of scolding if Mama found out I had been crying again. I lay in bed, willing myself to sleep, as the day ahead promised to be a long and difficult one. After countless efforts of counting invisible sheep and goats, I fell into a soft slumber. No sooner had my lids closed than I heard Bajen Kumba’s voice, coaxing me out of bed, to get ready for the activities ahead. Today, I had been exempted from doing any chores, for it was my big day.
‘Njillan, jogal ma sanga la, nga solu balaa gan yi aksi’, she coaxed. I dragged my feet to the open bathroom, where she had placed a low stool and ordered me to sit down. A bucket filled with warm water and some odd-looking twigs stood just beside her feet. She pulled a small bottle from the wraps of her woven cloth and added its contents to the water, turning its colour to a muddy brown. That must be the saafara Papa Jumai had brought in last night. I could still hear his voice in my head, as he gave Mama and Bajen Kumba instructions on how to use it. I sat on the stool and Bajen started chanting in rich Wolof that I fairly understood. A shiver ran down my spine as she sought protection from the evil djinn and spun an invisible cloak around me, to keep me safe from the evil eyes and tongues that would surely be in our midst. I sat still as she proceeded to scrub every inch of my body, chanting in low tones, and ending her ritual by pouring the remaining contents of the bucket over my head. As she tried to pick out the twigs caught in my hair, we heard voices in the main yard, as the rest of the family stirred.
Back in my room, I was dressed in Mama’s favorite serri rabbal and a beaded top my grandmother had gifted me for the special occasion. Bajen had already woven matching beads into my hair, knotting the fluffy ball at the top of my head. The elderly women, who had started pouring in from the neighbourhood, dropped in briefly to see the new bride. Each one rained compliments on me, praising my ancestors. They harped on about how radiant I looked and how lucky my husband was to have a bride as beautiful as me. Could they not see? Were they blind to the fear in my eyes, the look of dejection I had? How could they be so oblivious to the deathly look on my face and the absence of my once-radiant smile? Deep furrows lined my forehead even as Bajen urged me to smile as it was the happiest day of my life. Each time she said that, my eyes would well up with tears I dared not shed. When she was satisfied with my appearance, she went out to help the other women with the cooking. Bai had killed his prize cow, proudly declaring that he was sending off the first bride from his house. I, aged 14, still hoped he would walk in and tell me it was all a mistake. Wasn’t I his princess, his taaw, his proud Linguere, his ourusi ngalam? The tears finally fall, blurring my vision and taking me back to that warm evening, a week ago…
…I ran into the courtyard, my satchel flying behind me, and the skirt of my uniform going higher up my legs. I paused to catch my breath as all heads turned in my direction. The family sat on the large raffia mat Bai had brought home from his last trip to Guel Tapé. I could easily make out a few strange faces. As expected of every child in my town, I shook their hands, kneeling infront of each one before running off to Mama’s room. My chest was bursting with the happy news I had brought, but I had to wait for the visitors to leave. I was too caught up in my excitement to notice that something was amiss. That evening, as soon as the whispering strangers had left, I ran out to meet Bai and Mama. My younger siblings sat around them waiting for the evening’s Leebun loupane session. Greeting them again, I sat down and proudly gave them my news. ‘Some government officials came to the school today and after evaluating our work, have selected me for a scholarship in one of the schools in the city’, I said with great excitement. Mama broke into a smile and my siblings crowded around me, each one asking for a detailed narration. Bai watched silently as I launched into a long explanation, simultaneously encouraging my younger ones to work harder and surpass my achievements. He retreated to his room and after a few minutes, called for Mama and me. Thinking he wanted to discuss my scholarship, I ran into his room and sat just beside his feet. He rubbed my hair gently and waited for Mama to sink into the chair beside him. After much clearing of throats and an exchange of looks and nods, Bai spoke.
‘Njillan, sama taaw bi’, he began. ‘I have known from your birth that you were meant for greatness. You continue to make me proud at all times and for that I’m grateful. Your scholarship is no surprise to us, for you’ve worked hard for it. However, I have the offer of a better scholarship for you…one that would provide you with better life lessons and prepare you to take up your position as a full woman’. I stared wide-eyed, willing him to continue. What scholarship could be better than the one I had just been awarded? I turned to Mama, who simply smiled and fumbled with the edges of her malaan. Bai’s voice drew my attention back to him.
‘Njillan, we’ve accepted a proposal for your hand in marriage. In a week, you shall be sent out to Ngayen, where you shall begin a new life with your husband, Sengan’. I ceased breathing, letting the news sink in. I stared at Bai and Mama, wishing it was all a joke to control my earlier excitement. The looks on their faces gave nothing away and I held on to Bai’s feet, begging him to rethink his decision. I couldn’t afford to quit school. I wasn’t ready for marriage. Didn’t they see I was only 14 and was just getting used to the changes in my body? How would I take care of another, when I was still being cared for? Wild images flashed through my mind and I sat staring at my parents. I felt let down, but the disgust in my look would do nothing to change their minds. The decision had been made and I would be married off in a week…
The day went by with great festivity. Mama and Bajen Kumba fussed over me, while the family guewel sang praises and told stories of the great women in my family. Everyone was excited…but me. While the crowd feasted on the abundant meals Bai had financed and danced to the traditional sabarr, I sat forlorn, wishing the day would end, taking the bitterness and pain with it. Night came and the old women got ready for the muur. Mama looked proud as I crawled between Bajen Kumba’s legs, after going through the ritual bath, sitting atop the inverted mortar. I reluctantly accepted and poured out the handfuls of rice I had been given, muttering amen to the prayers. The old women went on to instruct me on my responsibilities in my new home. They spelt out the attributes of a perfect wife, leaving me worried about the life of submission I’d been condemned to. My husband would always be right and I always had to give in to his demands, even if they were against my wish… like the night I was ushered into his room, crawling on the coarse floor and covered in white cloth.
He sat there, smiling like he’d won a golden trophy. Wasn’t that what I was, being one of the most beautiful and well-mannered in the town? After much talk and well-wishes, the elderly women spread out that white cloth I’d oft heard about. That cloth, which was to bear the mark of my purity and either render my family proud or have them hanging their heads in shame. I cringed. Mama had asked earlier if I was ‘okay’ and I had nodded. I was certain they would all come dancing in the morning, singing dirty songs and accepting me into their circle as a full woman. That wouldn’t mask my fear and the disgust I felt at having to give out my pride to one for whom I felt nothing akin to love. My husband was a stranger and our first meeting would be on a bed, covered in white cloth, keeping alive a tradition that could very well have been extinct.
My entourage finally departed, having watched Sengan and me fight over a warm bowl of laakh, giving them the joy of predicting what our first child would be. I lay in my underclothes, balled up in a corner of the bed. My husband stared at me with hungry eyes, ready to pounce on and devour me. I trembled, even as sweat trickled down my body. Without warning, he joined me and groped around for the knot in my wrapper. He deftly undid it and heaved his body upon me. I closed my eyes as he lowered his lips to kiss me, tears rolling down my cheek. Ignoring this, he went on to touch…to rub…to squeeze, with inconsiderate force. I felt I would break down, as my body could not handle the pain. Satisfied with his work, he whispered into my ear, ‘I’m taking you now’. I braced myself for the contact, but no one had warned me of what was to follow. He forced himself into me, breaking into my tight chamber and making a smooth passage he would eventually frequent. He rammed into me and unable to handle the pain any longer, I screamed…
Ten months later, I was still screaming. This time, I was surrounded by unfamiliar faces, helping me onto an iron bed. The pain was excruciating and I was blinded by the white light in my head. The voices around me grew louder, urging me to hold on, asking me to push harder. I had no strength and unconsciously called out to God for help. With one last look ahead me, I closed my eyes and used the last of my strength to bring you forth. A moment later, I heard you cry. It was the last sound I would hear. My body grew numb and my chest stopped heaving. Everyone was busy cooing over you to notice me take my last breath. Later that day, I was dressed all in white again and taken to yet another new home. There was no celebration as I was taken away, this time by the men. Isn’t it interesting how everything differed from the events of my wedding night? That home would be peaceful, albeit lonely and I constantly prayed that you’d be well taken care of.
I have watched you from a distance, my son, and I am content with what you’ve become. In a few years, you will be the head of your own family. It is my wish that your bride be a willing one, and not one forced into your hands. My plea is for you to be considerate of her feelings. Treat her like a queen and stand by her when she brings forth your progeny. When you finally have that daughter, give her a chance to blossom. Love her like my father loved me, but protect her even more. In you, I hope she’ll see the characters of a great man. Finally, give her a chance to grow, to learn and to love. Some actions can never be reversed and I would hate to see her become another statistic, like her grandmother. Mam Olof always told us ‘su ham don jiitu, rechu dou am’. Thus, I take the time to let you know and understand, hoping the regret etched on Bai’s face as he lowered me into my grave stays a mystery to you. This, my son, is my plea to you as I continue to keep watch over you from the heavens.
The world celebrates the first ever Day of The Girl Child today and the focus is on early marriage and the impact it has on the lives of young girls forced into maturity and denied things as basic as education. The story above may be fictional, but it sadly is a reality for millions of girls all over the world. Take a stand to end the practice and create a safer haven for our girl children, for they deserve a present and a future that supports their dreams and molds them into great leaders.