To this day, I do not feel proud saying what I have to say. I still carry the burden of deciding to make a safer and acceptable decision which was not the best one. I let my aunt marry off her daughter at 15!
At the time, I was not in the village for the usual visit to Bhunu village in Mrehwa. Instead, I was there for my grandmother’s memorial whom we had buried two months earlier. We had arrived the night before in order to have time to prepare for the arrival of all the relatives that were coming for the memorial. My aunt, who lives about 3 kilometres away from our homestead, arrived quite early in the morning to help.
She is always very happy to see us. She always gives us a warm welcome that involves a freshly slaughtered chicken and a clay pot full of maheu. This time, it was more serious business than just a casual visit, so we didn’t have time to sit around and chat. But she did find time to fill me in on the dot com.
It wasn’t about the suspected case of witchcraft that involved the headman’s wives as I had suspected. It was not about some random village girl who had fallen pregnant by a random herd boy who had deceived her that he had a rich brother back in the city. Instead, it was about my aunt marrying off her last born, her daughter *Irene.
I had heard through the grapevine that my aunt had turned to a certain apostolic church to deal with her husband’s chronic illness, even if it was against his will. She had been made to believe that evil spirits and demons were haunting her family and in an effort to protect herself and her children she had been consulting prophets from an apostolic church. She and some of her children had even become members of that church.
Before I could even ask if all this was true, she beat me to it and started the discussion on the issue. In fact, I had asked her if Irene was prepared to start her O’level exams which she was set to start the following Monday.
“Oh did I tell you she is getting married!” she interjected with excitement. She said it in a way that implied that what she was talking about was more important than my question.
I looked at Tete Shamiso dumbfounded. I only found the courage to blurt out a white lie after almost a minute.
“Oh congratulations, that’s good news.”
It was a lie because I completely disapproved of what she had told me. I was the same age as my aunt’s eldest daughter Lillian and we had been like sisters most of our high school years. Although we were in different schools we always aimed to out-do the other. So her younger sister Irene was like a little sister to me and I wanted the best for her.
My aunt went on to explain how she was proud that her daughter had not shamed her by hiding behind bushes with boys her age like most girls would do. She was actually happy and proud that the holy spirit had found her daughter Irene befitting to be a prophet’s wife.
Yes the Holy Spirit. That’s what one of the prophets who had been helping them fight the alleged evil spirits had told them. Now, she felt that she owed her life to the apostolic church and she saw this marriage as a blessing. To her, this was similar to the story of the Virgin Mary in the bible who among other girls her age was found worthy to carry Christ the saviour in her womb. Only that in this case, there was no baby involved, it was just marriage.
Choosing Respect over Right
Clearly what my Aunt had said was not the answer I was expecting. The irony is that unlike most girls who get married early because they cannot afford to go to school, for Irene her up-coming exams were the only stumbling block to her ‘holy matrimony’.
I had never been as disappointed in my aunt as I was on that particular day. I had always regarded her as a wise woman; after all, we are always told that only our aunts can give us good advice that will make us good wives. On this particular day, I had to reconsider my thoughts. I wanted to open my mouth and say all the nasty things I felt like. But I didn’t. I couldn’t.
I did not because it struck me that she was my father’s sister and that alone meant that I had to respect her no matter what. It’s also the reason why I would never have agreed with anyone who would have called her foolish; I respected her a lot. It is our culture to respect our elders, especially if they are close relatives. I also considered that she was the only aunt I would have stand in for me when and If I were to get married and I did not want to make her my enemy if I wanted things to go well for me.
Those thoughts silenced me. They silenced me into a false celebration of a union that was to jeopardise the potential that my cousin Irene had. A union that only made sure that Irene was going to write her exams as a fulfilment of the curriculum not as a step to further educational advancement. I wanted to remain the respectful niece to my aunt, so I kept all my child rights thoughts and feminist emotions to myself and danced to her painful tune.
Taking Guilt to the Grave
I did not say something when I had the chance to, and nothing I say today will change the fact that I let my cousin get married to a paedophile disguised as a prophet. Even though my aunt would not have been talking to me today, I am sure that could have been better than the guilt I carry around day and night.
At the expense of a good relationship with my aunt I could have secured the future of a young girl and changed her fate, or at least have given her the opportunity to make the decision to change it herself. Instead, Irene is stuck in a village far worse than ours, with a man who knows nothing more than sitting under a tree claiming to be plotting a fight against evil spirits or demons.
Like any exam written with the wrong intentions, Irene’s results were a disaster. She failed dismally and there is no possibility of her re-sitting those exams.
As I join my fellow activists in signing petitions against child-marriage, in demonstrating against the prosecutor General Johannes Tomana’s comments on child marriage, let me own up to my past. Let me be open and confess that I carry an over-bearing burden of not having stopped child marriage when I had the chance to make a difference in my own backyard.
Main image from www.huffingtonpost.com