Young and beautiful! That was the first impression i had of her from sight. Then after interacting with her - hospitable and hard working.
'My neighbor' - That is how i saved her mobile phone number because i kept forgetting her very traditionally difficult name. Her smile was infectious - her laugh was loud and convincing. She was from a tribe i was discouraged from associating with. It felt wrong - she was a female like me. We shared so much in common even motherhood. I was thrown off my daily assumptions - how could this be i thought! The little boy who always ran around her in circles was her son? - but it couldn't be, he must be her younger brother. She must have been about 18 years old - he looked a little under 3 years of age. Then she shared her harrowing story with me over a glass of hot cinammon flavored tea. It led me to break down in silent steamy tears and angry hot sobs at the sight of her dissapointment and surrender. She began:
I was in my second year of high school. i had friends and i was doing okay in my classes. My mother often called me to check on how i was doing. Then one day he called: It was my father, strange because he rarely did so. 'There is a family emergency' - he said sternly into the phone . 'I have requested the administration to give you a pass-out so that you can come home immediately' he added with urgency. I did not know what was super important that needed my presence - maybe grandmother was dying- i asked - he said NO it wasn't that - he refused to tell me- i panicked. I thought again - maybe mother was dying - or worse even dead. He still refused to confirm my suspicions.
I boarded the rickety old and rickety, rusty yellow buses to Juba - the capital of South Sudan. As i left Uganda the landscape changed from green lush to the dust caked landscape i was used to seeing on my way back home every holiday. My clothes were coated and my face - a foundation of dust too. We alighted into the immigration zone on the border between the two countries - like a scene out of a movie; old one roomed buildings with faded paints and even more faded police uniforms stained with sweat waiting on the inside of the hot, congested rooms with broken-down fans that had seen years of battery from negligence and whatever attitudes.
I got my passport stamped entry - never knew it was the last time i would crossing that border.
When i got to the house - a flood of aunties came out to receive me - and everyone was calling me arusa - meaning bride. They must have been mistaken. Until i realised the house was being prepared in festivitiy for MY WEDDING - a wedding i had not consented to - a wedding i was not consulted on or even informed about.
My father and mother caled me into their bedroom. "Our dear daughter time has come for you to make us proud- we have married you off to a very good man of status - he is the son of a chief in our area in the village and they have paid all the cows due. We are lucky so please do not refuse. I was furious - i said no and i was given a thorough beating for being stubborn - needless to say, i got married to this 40 year old man- i was 16, i gave birth - hopeful that i might be allowed to go back to school. He told me 'school is for children. you are a wife now and you need to start acting like one.' That was the end of the conversation.
At the time of this incident my neighbour was pregnant with her twins. It turned out that her husband was an irresponsibile man - he never provided like he was supposed to. Food was hard to come by without a quarrel. He never followed up on medical treatments of their son leaving her to beg her relatives for money to do so. To top it all off, he was an alcoholic and abused her frequently. When she reported his behaviour to her family members , all they said was " The dowry has been paid and we can't interfere or do anything about it."
In the culture, it may be more feasible to return the dowry to the groom's family and split which isn't an option as it is quite the amount of wealth that may have been utilised or is too considerable to return since it is mainly in form of cattle.
There are many ongoing advocacy programs and mentorshp programs for girls on the importance of education and danger of early marriage. It will take a while before this mentality in form of patriachy and tradiitonal curlture is fully eroded and girls given a chance to be decision makers in their own lives.