By Njoki Chege
She sat by the window staring outside, the lead-coloured sky further dampening her already pensive mood. The kind of pain she harbored inside was unfathomable for someone of her age. She stared at her hands, the shaking had started, again. This was always the cue that she was about to have a meltdown. It started with the shaking, followed by lightheadedness and racing thoughts, then the sweating, and the peak was her running out of breath, almost on a chokehold. Her father’s words repeatedly rang in her ears. ‘My decision is final, so you better get used to it. School is a waste of time, not to mention that it is haram according to our tradition. Count yourself lucky that Salim has made a marriage proposal already, not to mention the amount of dowry he is willing to pay.’
Salim! The name instantly made her sick. Wasn’t he almost her father’s age? With fewer teeth than her fingers? Walking around bespectacled and with a stoop, the aura about him, full of nothing but pride and arrogance? The sheer thought of him next to her broke her heart, and it seemed like she was walking barefoot on those shards. She felt green around the gills as her dreams flashed right before her eyes; her joining university and becoming a lawyer, the graduation gown that she so yearned to wear, but mostly the look of pride in her parents eyes as she walked down the aisle with the man she loved, Ali.
She rued their retrogressive culture, one that gave so much mandate to their men and left the women groveling in dust for breadcrumbs. How she wished she would have been born in a different country, where education to girls wasn’t seen as a privilege. Where she could walk down the streets freely without wondering whether her dressing was appropriate, or worse, trying to decipher how she, at only sixteen, was supposed to be someone’s third wife, especially if the man looked half as horrible as Salim did.
Her mother! Her poor mother. How could she just sit and watch? Her silence and indifference to the whole matter cut her to the core. Wasn’t she the one encouraging her about the importance of school, citing that it was her only sure way to freedom? Surely she should have stood up for her, if not for anything else but to show her disapproval of his decisions. But no, she sat still as the news was broken to her, with a distant look on her face, like she was trying to detach herself from reality.
Wait, but she could run away from home. Yes! That was the solution. Convince Ali to take her away to some distant place where no one would recognize them. Where she could slowly rebuild the pieces of her life. It would be hard but they would get by, surely they were in love. The thought of it nearly burst her little heart with excitement as she raced out of the house to go find Ali.
His gaze dropped, and when he finally looked up after what seemed like forever, there were tears in his eyes. ‘I’m sorry Zaina, I truly am, but I’ve been meaning to tell you, Farah and I have been seeing each other for a while now. My family banned us from associating with you saying that you are a hara…’ it felt like the air had been sucked up from her. She ran, fled actually. She couldn’t stand there and listen to him finish that sentence; it would have broken her into too many pieces. Haramii. Bastard. She was around fifteen when she first heard that word. Her parents were in a heated argument, a barrage of expletives flying between them. “Listen to me you hardheaded woman, I cannot be raising someone’s child, it’s time to marry her off. No, don’t look at me like that, you know she is a harami and nothing good can come out of her.’
As the realization dawned on her, it both sank and gave relief to her delicate heart. She finally had clarity as to why she always felt sidelined in comparison to her siblings but left her wallowing in the misery of wondering who her real father was. Still, she could not summon the courage to ask her mother that question, so she resolved to carry the confusion around, the title harami sitting on her head like a crown. Could things get any worse?
She trudged, albeit grudgingly to that hellhole she called home. What to do that now her only plan had been thwarted? Was she to sit and wait for Salim to come lay claim on her like she was some piece of property? Her options were getting fewer, now that running away was not an option. She knew she could not survive out there alone without a single coin. And God forbid that she was caught; the punishment she would suffer was unfathomable. A young lady walking around without male company was strictly forbidden, a harami walking around alone was simply tempting fate. She resolved to sit tight, wait for Salim’s arrival, and cross fingers that this so-called union would not be the end of her and her grand dreams.
For the next couple of days, she sat holed up in her room in the still darkness. She refused to eat, opting instead to stay under the covers, seamlessly floating around, not knowing whether it was day or night. Sometimes the mental breakdown got so bad that she wished she could die.
She was woken up by chattering noise downstairs. What on earth was there to be happy about? She wondered as she drew her curtains for the first time in weeks, heart pounding in her chest. Her stomach fell to her pit upon seeing that familiar white car parked upfront. Surely the day she dreaded couldn’t be here already. It felt like the air had been sucked right out of her when she spotted that familiar figure walking up to their front door. She couldn’t mistake that stoop if she saw it anywhere. And those spectacles that seemed to age his already wrinkled face. She just couldn’t breathe. Her legs refused to support her, and she keeled over, ready to pass out from all the overwhelming thoughts raging in her mind.
The door burst open and an excited Farha rushed in.
‘Salim is here! And he brought lots of gifts for all of us? Hurry! Come see!’
Farha’s outburst was met by stone silence.
Still nothing. She slowly walked across the room then gasped.
‘Goodness Zaina, what happened to you! Can you sit up? You look white as a sheet. Wait, let me get you a glass of water.’
‘I think I’m having a panic attack.’ Zaina mumbled in a barely audible voice as she struggled to sit up. All this was all too much. First the knowledge that she was an illegitimate child, then her failed dreams, followed by the news of Salim and finally her conversation with Ali. She burst into heaving sobs, completely torn. Farha gave her a knowing look as she walked in with the glass of water and a green shimmery dress that Zaina had never seen before.
‘Don’t make this harder than it already is Zaina. Here, put this on, mom and dad are waiting for you downstairs together with Salim.’
Zaina summoned every ounce of energy she had in her to get up and drag her feet to the bathroom. She turned the shower on with the water being just as she liked it, hot to the point that it almost scalded her skin. She stood beneath the running water, barely able to feel anything as she stared blankly into the open space. After what seemed like forever, she stepped out of the shower, patted her skin dry, and not even bothering with the lotion and fragrances, put on the green dress complete with a headscarf. She stared at her reflection in the mirror. The dress fit her in all the right places, accentuating ****her hour-glass physique. She chuckled at the irony of it all, that she could look this good and feel so horrible.
She descended the flight of stairs, dreading every step, willing her heart to stop beating so frantically and her hands to stop shaking. She first saw Salim flashing her that toothless grin, and it took all the willpower she had not to hurl herself down the stairs, and hopefully break her neck.
“Aaah, here comes the beautiful bride to be,” Salim quipped as soon as Zaina entered the room. “I see the dress fit you just perfectly.” As he kept blathering about how stunning she looked, Zaina momentarily zoned out, blocking out his voice from her ears. She took up the seat next to her mother, sank on it and held her breath for whatever was to come next. Her father stood up.
“My heart is crushed to see my beloved Zaina leaving the family. I love her dearly but it’s for the best that she gets married to Salim, who undoubtedly will take good care of her.”
Zaina nearly spat the water she was drinking. My beloved? This man had never had even an ounce of love for her. How dare he put a show like this? Like he cares? She turned to look at her mother with pleading eyes, a small part of her hoped that she would come to her rescue. Her mother turned to look the other way.
With loathe and contempt, Zaina stared at the wrapped gifts that Salim had brought, took a fleeting glance at her father’s face, and saw the look of satisfaction. Good riddance, she thought. She looked at Farah, probably the only companion she had in that house, and finally turned to have one last look at her mother. She felt nothing but rage inside her. Mad fury that she would let this happen while she sat, not even lifting a finger in disapproval. She hoped that someday, all the resentment would fade away enough for them to have that conversation. In a spur of a moment, she made a dash for the open door, practically sprinted out of the house, across the terrace and burst through the gate. Behind her, a flurry of activities as her father and Salim gave chase. Good Lord! That man could run! She had underestimated him and his stoop. As she cut the corner, she hoped against all odds that her plan would work.
According to statistics from the UN, around 37000 girls in Sub Saharan Africa are married against their choice everyday before attaining the age of eighteen, which sums up to a staggering 40%