|Young girl holding a child.
Image: UNICEF Australia
Zireme Azimba remembered the first time she came to Yola. She was brought to the city from Galabje, her small village in Toungo, Adamawa State. Before then, she had never imagined leaving the routine of her home; waking up at dawn, sweeping the compound, cooking, farming, cooking again, and on weekends, laundry at the small stream. Her Uncle Golfa, whose wife – Daufe – had just put to bed, came to take her from her parents to help with house chores.
When she got into Yola, she was surprised at how ‘developed’ it was. She had never seen tarred roads before and definitely had not seen such tall buildings. Quite frankly, that was the first time she had been in a car. Yes, she had been 9 years old but no one in her village had a car. She hid her excitement though. She didn’t want to disgrace her mother.
As she entered her Uncle’s house, she held her nylon bag close to her breasts; mounds that were just starting to show signs of womanhood. She was doe-eyed as she stared at her new house. The house was a two room apartment in a very crowded neighborhood. She was shown where to keep her belongings and immediately put to work.
Her uncle worked in a bakery and had to be out of the house as early as 5am. She had to be up at 4am every day. While his meal was cooking, she would take his bath water to the bathroom and iron his clothes; with an electric iron if there was ‘light’ and charcoal iron if there wasn’t. Then she would serve him his meal at about 4:45am. As soon as he was done, she would gather his plates and the ones from the night before to wash. When she had placed them outside, she would go in to carry baby Desmond and see if he needed a change of diaper or something else. After that, she would do the dishes, sweep the house and then wake her Aunt Daufe from her snore-fest called sleep. She would then wash Desmond’s and some of her Aunt’s pee-and-poo-stained clothes. She would then be sent to the market to get food stuff for dinner or to grind grains. Since her uncle worked in a bakery, he usually brought dough home in the afternoon for his wife to fry. This allowed him to make some extra money on the side. As soon as Aunt Daufe taught Zireme how to fry the dough, she stopped doing even that. Zireme would fry until about 6pm, allow it to cool for about 30 minutes, package them, and then start cooking dinner. The only free time she had was between 8pm and 10pm when she was allowed to watch television. The routine would begin again the next day.
This continued until her Aunt took in again. As soon as Aunt Daufe realized she was pregnant, she stopped even holding Desmond. Zireme just clocked 10 when her aunt took in again. She became mini-mummy to Desmond. Her aunt only held Desmond when she needed to feed him. As soon as she was done, she would quickly hand him over to Zireme.
While Zireme was doing all the work, her aunt would be watching Telenovelas, Indian and Korean series, Africa Magic and the likes. She only went out when there was no power supply. As soon as the power was gone, Aunt Daufe would take her bath and head to a friend’s house to gossip about Catalina and Consuelo. She would only rush home when she felt her husband was close to returning; and only to make sure that Zireme had prepared dinner.
By the time Zireme clocked 15, Aunt Daufe had given birth to three more children. The small house where they stayed was cramped with people, clothes, furniture, and other household materials. The older kids had to sleep in the living room with Zireme while the younger ones slept in the bedroom with their parents.
Soon, Zireme noticed a pattern. There were days when her uncle and aunt would ensure all the kids slept in the living room. Those days were usually accompanied by sounds of a creaking bed and grunts that were unmistakably her uncle’s. This awakened something warm in Zireme which she could not explain. It always made her feel weird but she learned to pretend she didn’t hear it, even though the wetness in her pants betrayed her.
In the six years since she was with her uncle, she went home to Galabje thrice. The first time was filled with ecstasy and excitement because she had not seen her friends and family for months. The first day was her happiest but that was it. She soon began to resent the ‘local’ behavior of her friends and the pittance called food which her parents ate. Worst of all, there was no TV! She had no inclination of what was happening with Ishika on her favorite Indian series. By her third day, she was all but fed up! She needed to go back to the city. The second time she went home, she kept sulking and frowning, hating her farm work and the poverty of her home so much that she nearly exploded. The last time she went home, which was three years ago, she told her mother that it was expensive bringing her home and as such, she would not come home again for a long time. Her mother understood; she always understood. She had learned that poor people had no choices so she nodded her head and patted Zireme. As she turned away, Zireme saw the look of absolute pain in her mother’s eyes and though she would have felt a twinge of guilt three years before, she didn’t feel anything. Her village is just too ‘local’ for her.
When Zireme clocked 15, her aunt started looking at her funny. She seemed to really notice her. And every time she really looked at her, Zireme felt exposed; raw, naked and completely vulnerable. It didn’t come as a surprise when he uncle called her to have the talk.
‘Zireme, you are now a woman. You cannot continue to stay here. I have spoken to your father and he has given me the permission to find you a husband.’ Zireme stared at the floor with an unreadable expression on her face but a leap of joy in her heart! She was so happy that she was finally going to be getting her own home. She didn’t hear anything else her uncle said. She was so lost in her happiness and the life she was going to be living that she just blanked out his long winded speech. When her uncle dismissed her, she went outside and finally smiled!
She was going to be married! She would have her own house and do as she liked! She hoped the man her uncle chose for her has a house as big as her uncle’s, a big generator and an even bigger TV! She would bring a maid who would do all her house chores so she can finally rest. She would finally enjoy all the series and Nigerian movies that TV had to offer. She was not bothered that she had never gone to school. She could care less that she should be a child and not a bride. She was happy and content! And she was definitely not like her neighbor – Kamara – who was always frowning, was above 25 and unmarried, and never watched TV because of her work. That night, she slept and dreamed of her new life. In a few months, she would be living in total bliss. Life was good!
Our society allows child abuse in the name of house work and training a girl-child. We need to allow children be children. We need to allow children explore the possibilities of life. Some of these possibilities come from going to school. We need to stop all forms of #ChildAbuse and #ChildMarriage in our African societies. And it all begins with YOU!