You may call it love. Or you may not. Your call. But the first time she saw him it was after the afternoon prayers at the mosque and it damn felt like love.
This is the mosque in her village of Matapani, in Tana River. See that small patch of dusty field there? That’s where she saw him again with his friends after a year or two. He’d gone off to high school and became a man. He was gathered with his friends in a semi circle, already a head taller than the rest, already standing out as their alpha. But the shadows the sun cast on the ground were still shadows of boys. His friends were laughing at something, in their crackling teenage voices. He wasn’t. He wasn’t one to laugh a lot, always wearing a sour look that she liked, like he just sucked on lemon. He stood with his weight on his left leg, wearing a bizarre generic smile that said he was ready to be elsewhere without coming across as rude.
It hadn’t rained for a while. It was sunny and bright, birds with large wings circled overhead lazily, gliding as if in slow motion.
As she and her friends, swathed in buibuis, walked by he turned casually to look at her. He would proceed to do this thing whenever he ran into her, where he just stared and said nothing. It irritated her. He was 19-years old, surely he should know how to talk to a girl.
When he eventually talked to her it was by the roadside. He stopped his old bicycle when he ran into her coming from the forest to burn charcoal. She was afraid she was smelling of smoke. She wasn’t looking her best. Up close he had a more square jaw than she remembered and a faint streak of sideburns. Are you looking forward to sitting for exams next year? He asked her. He was still seated on the bicycle, but with one leg on the ground and another on the pedal, hands folded across his chest. He had such long legs but she refused to look at them. He was in Form 3 even though technically he should have been in college. She was 15-years old.
Then they started hanging out. Mostly they would meet out at the edge of the big opening with long grass and sit under a monstrous mango tree that was once the home to a swarm of bees. It was away from human traffic. He might not have been much of a talker, but he’d ask her a lot of questions. She was happy to speak. When someone passed by they’d both settle into silence and watch them amble by. It would be two women from the market, baskets balanced on their heads. Or a lone man with a stick. Or a group of giggly children competing on who would throw the stone the furthest, over the trees yonder. Or a man on a creaky bicycle, his leg barely reaching the pedals. He said he liked her dimple, by pointing at it with a blade of grass. I like it when you smile, he’d say and she’d feel flames on her face.
She lives with her mom and her brothers in a one-roomed house with no furniture, just a mat on the floor. They are eleven children. She’s the only girl. Five of her brothers went off and got married. Together with her mom and brothers, they spend a lot of time in their small farm; green grams and maize. She attends Imani primary school, about an hour’s walk from their home. Their uniform is blue and light green. No shoes, just rubber sandals. No school bags, just a paper bag. She loves science, which means she loves madam Victoria. Everything madam Victoria says is encouraging. She also likes madam Zena, who works at both Zamba and Imani schools, under the Accelerated Learning Program. Madam Zena speaks english and she likes to tell her, ‘Only books will get you out of here’. Not a man, not a miracle. Books! She wants to be a doctor. Sometimes she wants to be a nurse. Other times she wants to be a banker. What she knows for sure is that her life is beyond the trees and the hills yonder, in that place where the sky and the land meets.
Falling in love, or this thing that felt like love, had presented a different prospect. This beautiful boy meant a future, a family. Perhaps they could get married and they would both work in a city somewhere, live in a nice house with running water. No more taking a bath in a river. Or in a makuti structure. They’d have electricity. Maybe even a television set. They’d have a house whose roof wouldn’t catch fire, a place you could walk around in, with a bedroom and a kitchen and a long corridor. Maybe they’d hang things on the walls. Their pictures, perhaps. And the pictures of their children who would eat more than one meal a day and have toys. New toys. Toys that still had stickers on them.
She didn’t plan to give up her virginity to him. The plan was to wait until they had finished school and gotten married properly, according to the Islamic laws. She wanted her mother and aunts to come for a small traditional Pokomo wedding. There would be singing and dancing and laughing. Maybe she’d get gifts; lesos, maybe shoes. Her heart would be filled with laughter and hope for a new beginning, her own home. She certainly didn’t plan to give up her virginity on the field, under that mango tree that was once the home to a massive beehive. But he’d looked so intensely in her eyes, so intensely that the discomfort of the pebbles under her became irrelevant when he said, it’s okay, I love you. That seemed enough. If love wasn’t enough, what was? It was just after 1pm, on a hot and humid day. He was heavy but not heavy enough to make her breathless. It was awkward and strange and somewhat illicit. She stared up at the leaves and the branches and the light that streaked through the leaves and she imagined a house with corridors. And toys with stickers.
She never told anyone. Secretly, she felt like a woman. Grown up. She felt safe that she had found the love of her life. She felt the beauty of her secret. She looked forward to meeting him under that tree. She’d remove her hijab and he’d touch her hair and her face and say he loved her dimple. He made her feel like her face was art, something he greatly admired and marveled at how it was made. But he also talked a lot about school, she says. About life in boarding school. He talked about football. He loved football. He played defence, number 5. He talked about things like he imagined boys talk about things; with lightness and superficiality, never really delving under the surface. Walking away from some sentences, leaving them unfinished and messy and mysterious. He imagined boys not to have great commitment in talking about the things that stirred them, as if if they talked about them in detail those things would be taken away from them. Or they would lose their importance. She loved him. And he loved me, she says.
Her period comes on the 12th of every month. Sometimes they come on the 10th, but never after the 14th. Hardly ever. By the 15th of the following month, they hadn’t come. Next time they met she told him that she had missed her period. He said, they will come, give them time. She said, they are never late. I can’t be pregnant.
You are not, he said. Let’s wait.
What if I am? She asked.
You are not. He insisted.
But what if I am? She asked again.
He said he was sure she wasn’t pregnant. She believed him, even though he never got periods a day in his life. But he was older, and he had a square jaw, played defence and he looked her in the eye when telling her that she wasn’t pregnant. Also, she loved him,or this intense feeling in her chest that felt like love. They would still get a house with a corridor. Things will be just fine.
The following month her period never came either. One early morning, after tossing and turning on her mat, wondering how that was possible, that at her age of 15 years, a standard 7, would get pregnant, she walked to his home. He was in his small sleeping hut that smelled musky and boyish, still lounging in bed at 7am, obviously having had a great night’s sleep because he was a boy and they never had to worry about missing a period.
I told you I was pregnant, she told him. He looked panicked this time. The confidence had since left his intense gaze. Now he looked like a deer in headlights. He sat up shirtless on the bed, in a shuka and sighed, looking at the floor for solutions. What are we going to do? she demanded, my mother will kill me! He ran his hand over his hair and scratched it. Then he reached under the bed and retrieved some two thousand shillings in an old tin.
Go remove it, he said, handing her the money.
Where?! She was shocked. Remove it? Was that possible? She was 15, what did she know about removing a pregnancy?
At the hospital, he said as a matter-of-fact.
She couldn’t believe it. She felt panic rise in her like bile. What was she to do, walk into a hospital and say, I want to remove a baby, here is two thousand shillings?
I don’t want to remove a baby, it’s wrong! She told him. It’s against Islam!
It’s the right thing to do, he said.
He stood up and wore his shirt that was hanging from a nail on the wall. Then he re-tied his shuka, adjusting the knot on the side. She looked up at him, in consternation and confusion. He had made his decision. She took the long route home, thinking of how messed up things had gotten in such a small period of time. For two nights she never slept. She wept softly throughout the night. Everything she thought her life would amount to now felt silly, a pipedream. She remembered the words of her teacher Zena. Maybe she was right; only books would get me out of here, not a man, not a miracle, books. One evening she went to look for him at the field where he liked to play football with his friends. She stood at the edge of the pitch, away from the rest of the boisterous and heckling boys, and waited. He saw her waiting but after the game, as the sun set in a great burst of orange, he walked away with his friends. She was gutted.
In her mother’s farm – like in all farms in her village – is a small hut, raised way above the ground, that they take turns with her brothers to spend the night to fend off monkeys that like raiding the farm. This time she went with her mother to spend the night and after a meal of fish and ugali, she told her that she was pregnant. The hut was lit by a wicker lamp. She remembers her mother being very furious, reaching out and slapping her across the face, once, twice. How could you do this knowing how poor we are? She shouted. It was just you and me, you are the only girl in this family and now you have embarrassed me. You know my struggle, she said. You know how hard it is for us, you see it, I don’t walk with shoes because I’m taking all of you to school and yet you get pregnant at this age? What do you want me to do now? How will I walk in this community? You have shamed me. You have finished me. It went on into the night, her diatribe. That night no monkey dared come to the shamba upon hearing the lamentation of her mother’s voice. They both didn’t sleep a wink. In the night she could hear her mom wide awake, sighing, turning, tossing and murmuring at herself.
The next morning, she asked her the one question she should have asked the previous night; who is the boy?
Hakim, she said.
We are going to see his parents, she said, “Come with me now.”
When they got to Hakim’s boma, his father was untying the goats and his mother was washing last evening’s utensils. Hakim himself was brushing his teeth. He looked stricken when he saw her mother and her in tow. They were welcomed to sit on a mat outside the hut and they exchanged greetings, an elaborate preamble that involved asking about each other’s health and the health of anything alive in their lives. Then she got right into it and said that their son had put her daughter in the family way and she needed to know what they planned to do about it.
The father was shocked. Hakim was called and with a square jaw said that that baby was not his. That he’d never had any sexual intercouse with that girl. Yes, they were friends, but nothing had ever happened between them, not even a handshake. She was shocked. She started weeping. Hakim’s mom said his son was too young to have slept with the girl.
He’s 18! Her mother cried.
Hakim’s father shrugged and said he couldn’t do anything about this case because Hakim had denied it. So they left. She wept silently all the way home. I felt cheated, dirty and foolish, she says. Her mother did something she vowed she would never do in her life; she called her ex-husband who they had divorced nine years back and was now living in Garsen with another family of his no doubt. After two days he came to see her. It was strange, she says, I hadn’t seen him in eight or so years. He looked bigger than she remembered him. She was happy to see him. But he wasn’t, she says. He was furious. Furious at her and at the boy and at her mother for “allowing” this to happen. He paced about making calls, ignoring them. He was calling the police. The following week, Hakim was arrested for having sex with a minor. He was held in the police cell for a few days before he was released on bond.
It must be hard enough being pregnant, but it must be harder being a 15-years old muslim girl in a small village in Tana River and pregnant. The village is small and with little else to do, people talk. Tongues wag. People point. Your friends avoid you. Their parents avoid your parents. You are like an infectious disease. Your mother silently suffers the anguish of watching her baby carry a baby in her. The boys mock you because you are tainted, dirty. You have no hymen. You avoid the market. You avoid the mosque. You walk with your head cast low. You stop going to the mosque. You are embarrassed and shamed. You often sit alone, under trees and you wonder how it all came to this. Your constant company is regret and shame and desperation. It’s now evident that you will never have a house with corridors. Or use a shower. You think of the man responsible with bitterness, when you see him going about his life uninterrupted; kicking football, riding his bicycle. You cry often. Actually, you cry a lot. When the baby starts kicking inside you, you are both confused and excited. You are a child but your body behaves like an adult’s. Everything is in conflict; your body, your mind, your life. You have lost so much by being pregnant that you can’t recognise this life anymore.
In school you don’t fit because you are now a mother in waiting, but also a student whose dreams already feel broken and unattainable. You feel failure looming, you feel the maze of poverty getting tighter. You will never come out, you realise.
She checked into Garsen Health Center one warm evening. Her mother accompanied her. She was scared and in pain. The hospital smelled of methylated spirit. The whole place seemed to echo, as if it was a new house without furniture. The overhead bulbs were bright and harsh. She laboured from the floor the whole night as lying in bed seemed to make it worse. Eventually in the morning she gave birth. It felt like going to the loo, she says of the experience of giving birth. October 28th 2019. It was a baby girl; two kilograms, small feet, pink lips. She was called Husna, named by the midwife after herself. (I know I asked why, she said, just).
Husna is now ten months old. Her mother is 16 years old. Everything has changed. Everything. She is now a woman, a baby woman. A mother. Her body has changed. Early in the year, when she went back to school, she’d feel milk dripping in her uniform during science lessons. She struggled to fit in school, to be a student and a child and a mother. She found it hard to fit in any of them. Conversations with her friends were strange; the things they talked about suddenly seemed trivial. Half her mind was always at home, with her baby.
I have to fend for Husna, she says, my mother no longer fends for me. So now every day she goes into the bush with Husna on her back and she chops down wood and she makes charcoal. It’s hard work. So is motherhood. She doesn’t know what will happen when school resumes next year. She doesn’t know if she will go back. I want to go back, she says. She still thinks there is a chance to live in that house with corridors. What’s for sure is that there will be many more like her, girls who got pregnant during this Covid time; children carrying or with babies.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has left many school-going children at home. In Kenya, over 15 Million learners were reported to be home in May. While the government has made efforts to ensure that learning is taking place, there are learners who risk being left behind due to factors such as socioeconomic status, geographical area, mother’s level of education, and gender.
PAL Network is conducting a series of Policy Dialogues in Kenya to address such issues through research.