Monday, March 3, 2014

Too young to marry

Neema, at 14
Neema (pronounced NAY-ma) means grace in Swahili. Neema’s first language was not Swahili; it was Maasai, the mother language of her tribe. She was her mother’s seventh and last-born. Her father had four wives and several herds of goats and cows. Neema’s mother was the second wife.

Neema’s oldest brother never went to school. Her father didn’t believe in education. But by the time Neema was six, her mother had become an advocate for education and sent her off to primary school, a few miles walk each day.

Neema sat in a classroom with forty or fifty other students and listened to the teacher. She learned to read and write, and tried to memorize the notes the teacher wrote on the board for them to copy each day.

In the evening, Neema walked home with her friends and returned to her mother’s boma. She took the goats out to feed at night, walked to the well half a mile away to draw water, and collected firewood for cooking. She sat in the smoky hut tending a bowl of ugali with greens for dinner. As she got in the bed she shared with her sister each night, she took a candle and stole a glance at her school notebooks. She loved to learn.

Neema always did well in school and the family said she had brains. She finished seventh grade. She, with all her classmates around the country, sat for the national examinations. She was neither confident nor scared; it was a test they all had to take to determine whether they could continue on to secondary school.

Neema failed the test. She would not be allowed to continue in government school. And she did not have the money to pay for private school.

She continued day in and day out with her work around the boma, never complaining. She had more time now so she made the tea in the morning and grazed the goats earlier so she could get back to help with cooking, too. Sometimes her mother was sick.

At night she called her sister and brother in the city, sobbing. “I want to go to school,” she cried. “I am afraid Father is going to find a man for me to marry.”

A few weeks after the notice of her failure on the national exam, Neema came home to find her father speaking with another village man. “You are going to marry his son,” her father said.

The man Neema was to marry was sixteen and had no education beyond the seventh grade. His family brought goats and sheep as a bride price for her father. There were parties at the boma, and all feasted on meat. There was going to be a wedding.

Neema continued to cry, and she called her brother every night pleading for help. She didn’t want to marry a man with no education and no future. A man who wasn’t a man. She didn’t want to marry at all. She was fourteen. She wanted to find a way to go back to school.

The family of the groom brought local alcohol as a gift. The wedding day was getting closer and all the plans were set. Neema’s father had gotten all his bridal gifts. He took his two younger wives and moved to the coastal region, hours away. He returned to finalize the matter.

Neema’s brother Meshak came in the middle of the day. He walked up the hill in his shuka while Neema was out hauling water. The family of the groom saw him and ran to the boma on the top of the hill to greet him, to see if there was any trouble.

While they were speaking, Neema returned with water and bowed her head respectfully to her older brother. She greeted him and quickly went to bring chai for her brother and the other guests.

They talked for a few minutes over chai, but then Meshak called Neema aside. “Pack your bag,” he told her.

Happily, she put a few khangas and her old school books in a small knapsack.

The groom’s father saw what was happening. He began to argue with Meshak. “She is bound to my son already. We have eaten meat together.”

Meshak had grown up in the same boma, the second born of their mother. He had passed the National Exam and could have gone on to high school, but his father sent him instead to tend cattle in the Serengeti with his uncle. He had been able to escape to the city finally, to become a car mechanic, and he had joined a Pentecostal church there, which taught that women had dignity. He was not going back to the city today without Neema. “No. She will not marry your son.”

The groom’s father was furious, yelling, calling others in the village to be his witness at the promise that had been made. Neema stayed quietly inside the boma, heart pounding, as the argument grew.

“Come now,” Meshak said to Neema, as a crowd began to gather around the boma. The father of the groom tried to block them, but Meshak pushed him aside and dragged Neema quickly down the hill back to the main road.

They were able to escape, not without giving the father of the groom some money. They boarded the bus for the city and returned to Meshak’s home.

Neema humbly took her place in his house, helping his wife with the cooking and cleaning, and waiting for a chance to go back to school. She shared a bed with Meshak’s young children and went about her daily tasks diligently, faithfully. She was happy to be away from the village and her father’s influence. Happy the next-door neighbors had a TV she was sometimes allowed to watch. But she still wanted to go back to school.

By the miracle of friendship and generous hospitality, I moved into Meshak’s home a few weeks after she arrived. I had met Neema and Meshak’s sister through a friend, and was looking for new housing in the city while I volunteered as an English teacher. The family welcomed me in with open arms.

I slept in the same room with Neema and ate from the same plate of ugali with her for three months.  She laughed at my foreignness and taught me how to properly tend the charcoal stove. We walked together to get fresh milk in the morning. Whenever I left for school, she demanded I give her my dirty clothes so she could wash them. Occasionally in the evening, she asked for help studying her old school books. She never asked me for money, but as I came to know her story more fully, it became clear that I could help her.

In the spring, I drummed up support from some friends to pay for the private school fees Neema needed. Neema returned to school, and we have continued to support her financially, in hopes that her success will eventually enable her to support herself and her family. Four years have gone by, and Neema has been in a boarding school where she is at the top of her class. She is able to focus much better than in primary school, when she was commuting by foot and had no electricity in the village. She took her high school final exams last November. The last I talked with her, she was waiting at Meshak’s house for results to come back. A lot is at stake—the chance to go on to a vocational college, or even university.

Meanwhile, she has learned how to live in the city. Her voice is deeper and her English is better. She is eighteen now, older and wiser, more ready for whatever comes next.

This post is a part of my Women’s History Month project, “Honoring Women’s Stories.” You can read more about the project and see other women’s stories here.

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