For an intelligent, ambitious girl growing up in a Gambian village, life holds few tempting prospects. Marriage and motherhood, often forced, are the paths assigned to most. Nyima, too, is subject to this fate, as well as having to endure the health-endangering, ongoing practice of genital mutilation.
But ours is a heroine of immense courage, able to see beyond her situation, despite the bleakness of life. She makes it through her darkest hours, and emerges stronger on the other side, though permanently scarred by her ordeals.
It is in education and works that Nyima finds her salvation, and begins to rebuild her life, and indeed be reborn. The question is, though, can she ever truly love or trust again?
This is a moving and emphatic tale of a young woman’s struggle to come to terms with her past and culture, and above all, the possibility of having a future to look forward to, no matter what the odds.
Sally Sadie Singhateh was born in 1977 and wrote her first full-length work when she was 16. She has since published one children’s book and three novels, the latest of which is called Baby Trouble (2006, East African Educational Publishers, Nairobi, Kenya). Her poetry won her an International Poetry Award of Merit in 1995. Her other books are Christie’s Crises and The Sun Will Soon Shine. She has many unpublished short stories.
Sally, who has a background in communication, international relations and literature with focus on creative writing, currently works with The Foundation for Research on Women’s Health, Productivity and the Environment (BAFROW) as the communications officer.
When she is not busy writing, she enjoys settling down in a quiet spot with a good book. Otherwise, she draws, creates crosswords and logic puzzles, watches movies, or spends time with her family and friends.
Sally currently lives in the Gambia with her family.
I am sitting on one of the armchairs in my living room enjoying the sight of my seven years old daughter doing her lessons. Muna is the only daughter I have and the only one I shall ever have.
My eyes strayed to her again, sitting quietly on the carpeted floor carefully pronouncing the words in the Jane and Peter ladybird book she was reading. As I stared, her image began to blur and then cleared again but this time, instead of seeing Muna, I saw a young girl of six sitting quietly on a traditional mat with a worn-out book wedged between her bony thighs. Her keen eyes darted from one corner of the page to the other, while her lips moved in rhythm with her eyes. Her wild afro hair was done in the neatest rows of plats, and she wore tattered but clean clothes. The little girl was me.
I had just started the newly built nursery school in my village and was one of the very few girls in it. Though it had only been three weeks, I was already captivated by the numerals and alphabets. In class, I would stare at my teacher in great reverence, as she made us repeat our A, B, Cs, and unlike most children my age, I had already made a decision to study hard and become a teacher – just like my teacher Manga.
“Why not a nurse or a lawyer?” Teacher Manga had asked me one day.
“I want to be like you.” I had replied. “I want to teach little boys and girls everything I know!”
“Such wisdom from such a little girl.” My teacher had muttered. Then, I had not understood what she meant.
“Ya!” I cried suddenly as my mother walked into the room. “Ya, when I become a teacher, I shall teach you how to read and write!”
Ya (which means mother in Wollof) merely smiled and nodded, brushing my comment aside as a six-year-old’s fantasy. But it was not a fantasy because as the years slipped by, I proved it to her. I was always top in my class and promoted twice during primary school, thus taking my Common Entrance Examination at twelve and passing it with flying colours. My family was very proud of me, since I was a girl, and they could not have been happier when I was offered a government scholarship to do high school in Banjul. Banjul! To a naïve village girl, Banjul was the golden place, the city of opportunity and I, Nyima, was going to be blessed with that opportunity.
My head teacher informed me that if I did as well in high school, I would have a high chance of obtaining another scholarship that would see me through the Gambia’s Teacher’s Training College. I was barely thirteen and I had high hopes for my future. Whenever I was not helping Ya with the house chores or Ya Oumie with her two-year-old, I would sit in the room I shared with my five sisters and brood over the prospect of spending most of my adulthood in Banjul.
Sometimes, I would share my dreams with my paternal grandmother. Each time, she would humph and say “Like father, like daughter. Mind! The western concept of life might take you away from your roots and lead you to your doom. When that happens, my child, our ancestors shall punish you!”
Her words never made any sense to me, so I used to put them down to ‘old maid’s’ gibbering.
One day, I was locked in one of my numerous reveries when I heard Ya shouting my name. I jumped up from my mat and ran to her hut.
“Nyima, you are becoming too absent-minded of late.” She said as I sat down at her feet. “My voice is almost dead from calling out to you.” Despite her words of reproach, her voice was low and completely void of anger. She was always like that. She hardly raised her voice to scold any of her children or those of her co-mates. Ours was the only house in my village in which two co-wives lived together in peaceful co-existence.
“Ya, I was just thinking about what I would do when I become a teacher.”
She nodded. The movement caused her loose head tie to slip easily from her head, exposing ridges of untidy braids. She was naked except for the lappa she wore around her lower body and the couple of talismans hanging around her neck. Her eyes were glued to the clothes she was mending, and her mouth formed a grim line, as she methodically passed the threaded needle through the material.
“Nyima, yesterday while you were at dara (local Koranic school), nyigaiye (Uncle but used also affectionately for husband) Modou sent for me to discuss your future. As you know he has been our sole benefactor, assisting your stepmother Oumie and myself, ever since your father (Allah bless his humble soul) passed away. Therefore, it was my duty to inform him about your scholarship to study in Banjul. Nothing can make a mother happier than to see her children prosper, but” She shrugged. “I am just a woman and your uncle being your father’s younger brother is the Kilifah (a term used for the head of the family) in the family. Yallah (Allah-God) is great and merciful. He alone knows one’s destiny.”
I listened patiently as Ya continued praising Allah’s virtuousness, knowing that there was a reason for such a long speech. I did not know the reason but what I did know was that whatever she was going to say would not be to my advantage. I’d known Ya too long to realise that she was using this long speech to cover her apprehension.
Eventually, she finished her songs of praise for Allah and went back to the matter at hand. “My child, my taaw (eldest son), everything is Allah’s doing and for the right reasons too.” She paused, stole a glance in my direction, saw me watching her and quickly brought her eyes back to the clothes she was mending.
“Your uncle told me something you father never mentioned before. I am sure you have heard of Pa Momat?” It was more of a question than a statement.
I nodded. Of course, everyone knew who Pa Momat was. He owned dozens of cattle herds, a huge compound and large acres of farmlands. He also owned three wives of high breed. He was known throughout vast lands of being richer than most of the chiefs in the whole of the Lower Nuimi District.
The young women joked about how he would have had up to ten wives had religion not prohibited it. Men are restricted to as many as four wives, providing they could love and treat them equally. That, though, was not happening. There is always favouritism in polygamous marriages. But I am drifting from my narration. As I was saying, everyone knew who Pa Momat was.
“Apparently, you were betrothed to him two weeks after you were born.” Ya’s words came to me lower and slower than usual.
I did not understand. Her words seemed like total gibberish to me. I had never been so flabbergasted in my entire life. “Ya, what are you saying?” I managed to ask.
With sad eyes, brimming with tears, she was finally able to look into my confused ones. “What I’m saying is that you will not be able to go to Banjul, you cannot become a teacher. Next month, after you have turned thirteen, you will be given away. You will be a good wife to your husband and bear him many sons. Allah will bless you and open a special door for you in heaven if you fulfil your father’s wish.”
The rest of what she said was drowned to me by a strange ringing in my ears and the vigorous pounding of my heart. I saw my future shatter into a kaleidoscope of tiny pieces before my eyes. I felt something alien to me; something akin to disappointment, but worse, and yet I could not cry.