I quickly looked up from my phone to meet the deep gaze of this young girl. She hesitated at the door, then stepped in. Uncertain but bold steps. She looked fearful. She must have wondered why she had been summoned to the head teacher’s office. I saw myself in her. I saw many girls that passed through that school for years. The colors of the school uniform had not changed. I was reminded of how timid I was at her age.
“How are you? I greeted her as I extended my hand. She shook my hand, a smile almost appearing on her face, then it was gone.
“Fine” she whispered barely audible.
I looked at her torn sweater. Her creased dress. Her fearful face, almost teary. I was there for a positive mission, but it was not easy to get a smile on her face. Her voice quivered, and I wished I can hug her, but the handshake seemed to have been quite a task for her, I gave her the personal space she needed. Listening to her narrate her day almost brought tears to my eyes. But I have learned to not show pity when there are tears in the heart. She needs to see hope, not pity. I smiled encouragingly, as I listened to her talk about her daily chores. She is not just a statistic, she has a name, a face, a life but let me call her Imani. Imani is a Kiswahili word for faith. Looking at her it struck me that those deep eyes reflect not just sadness but a lot of hope and faith that tomorrow holds a better future.
This girl struck me deeply because I can see myself about 30 years ago, wearing the same color of uniform in the same school. My mission to my Alma Mater Mang’u Primary School in the rural Kiambu County in Kenya is not a task but a personal mission that I take seriously. I have walked and driven into the school gates with different categories of individuals, some not from the area at different times over the past ten or so years, and sometimes alone. Interacting with the girls and boys gives me different perspectives and every encounter leaves a mark. Maybe they think I am doing them a favor in mentorship, but I often feel it is the other way round, I am getting favor of engaging with these girls and boys and sharing in their space, in their dreams. While different social and economic aspects leave the girls and boys in this and other public rural primary schools disadvantaged, the life of a girl remains precarious. Imani represented to me is the face of the girl in that school and other girls in rural Kenya. It reminded me of the life I had as a girl and how other girls, now women experienced life back then. I kept reflecting on realizing how lucky I had been.
Imani wakes up early in the morning to prepare her younger sister for school. She is the eldest child at home at only thirteen years old. She clarified that she is not the eldest as her 21-year-old sister is married with two children and her older brother is away from home. In a rural household, there is always an ‘acting firstborn’. As a girl, she takes over the roles of her mother sometimes. In Imani’s case, she is lost her mother at a young age, so she takes over the roles more times than not. Her father struggles to provide for the family and performs many of the traditional female gender roles. On many occasions, he wakes up and leaves the house at the crack of dawn to seek casual labor. He has no regular income, and casual labor is often on the basis of “first come” so he needs to be there very early to ensure he gets a job. If he gets some work, he is assured of food for the family that day. Some days he is not lucky. Imani and her siblings have learned to take a day at a time. They do not complain if there is no food.
Well, hunger knows no boundaries, and for a young person, the pangs must be even more severe. How can such a young girl learn to ignore hunger pangs? I silently wondered.
“Well, sometimes there is only so little that I give my younger siblings and a little to my father so that he gets more energy to back the following day to seek some employment’ She added, her face looking more mature than her thirteen years.
She fumbled with her hands, a young girl who has had to grow up too fast and already prioritizing other persons’ needs. Her future is pegged on decisions around her life and accessing education is one core need. It becomes tricky when her access to education is compromised or made difficult by experience in school, at home and in her immediate environment. This is the story of many girls her age and the seemingly minor decisions can change their life forever. Imani’s life can pan out very differently depending on the opportunities that are accorded her.
I reflected back on girls I schooled with, and how some decisions changed the course of their lives. The earliest recollection I have is of this girl who was my classmate when we were in lower primary. Many years later, the image is still vivid because I was somehow linked in her story. We were about eight years old. A boy from the neighborhood was sent to pick me from home back to school. In the lower primary, we used to be in school until 1.00 PM. My mother wondered what was the problem and the naughty boy said he did not know as he smiled sheepishly. I put back my uniform and ran back to school. I was summoned by a group of three teachers who asked me if I had taken money from the teacher’s purse. This girl who I will call Riziki had said that she saw me put my hand in the teacher’s handbag during the break. I could not believe my ears! My head felt very hot and I burst out in tears. My family did not have any allowance for vices like stealing. It was the first time someone looked at me on the face and accused me wrongly. When I look back I believe the teachers knew she was cheating because they quickly dismissed it and concluded I was innocent. I do not recall what proof was there or Riziki admitted to it, but what I recall is how she was paraded in front of the whole school. Her mother was called and she went ahead to disown her and cane her in front of the whole school, “as an example to other kids“. The mother literally disowned her and allowed for boys to taunt her. It was the ugliest scene I had ever seen. I cried along with her, despite the fact that she had accused me. That was the last day for Riziki to be in school. I do not know what became of her, but I know life was not kind to her after that. She lost her dreams of making it in life, just because of one mistake. Was the money worth her lifetime dreams? I still feel bitter when I recall this incident.
I recall in the teenage years, girls who dropped out of school due to pregnancy or embarrassment related to adolescent changes especially monthly periods when they stained their dresses. It aches when I realize that those girls were around 13 or 14 years. At no time did the issue of them being children and having been sexually abused get a mention. The girls were termed as being “bad girls.” I recall a countless number of girls who dropped out.
When I look back, I realize that I and several other girls narrowly escaped and many girls are not that lucky. Decisions by caregivers, parents, families, teachers and their own decisions and choices shape their future. I hope to walk with Imani a few more steps. I do not know what the future holds for her. I do not know what the future holds for African girls. I do not know what the future holds for the girls in the world. What I know is that we have the responsibility to walk with the girls, and enable them to be the GirlForce: Unscripted and Unstoppable and with that ensure that there is sunshine in their future.
On the 2019 International day of the girl child, I celebrate the girls who are waking up and finding a tiny smile, whatever their circumstances. I know they have what it takes to make a very bright tomorrow possible and create their feminine chiefdom. GirlForce: Unscripted and Unstoppable! Like my friend AW like saying, Girls rule the world!