My best friend in my village’s younger sister, Kumba, just got married, or engaged, if you want to think of it in American terms. The way marriage works here is that a man will find a woman, usually a girl between the ages of 15 and 17, who he wants to marry. He will go to the family and bring kola nuts. Then they will start talking, setting prices (ie. 2000 dalasis, two cows, two goats and a new house) for the dowry—at no point is the girl asked whether or not she wants to marry this man, unless the family doesn’t do arranged marriages in the first place. Then, once the dowry has been paid, the woman officially has a husband and the man can send for the woman to come live with him at any point. Sometimes they do trial periods in the beginning, the woman will go live in her husbands compound for a couple weeks at a time before she officially moves in. Then, she will move in permanently and once enough money is acquired the wedding is held (could be months or years later—my brother’s wedding is this May and they were married 2 years ago).
So, back to Kumba. She is 15 years old and absolutely beautiful, one of my favorite girls in my village. I had no idea Kumba was also engaged until I brought up Mamatida, how mad I am that my mom doesn’t care at all about her feelings, when I had lunch with Fanta (Kumba’s older sister) a few weeks ago. She informed me that Kumba was also engaged and did not like the guy (who lives two villages away). But, she said, her father told the man, Karamba, he would have to wait a few years to marry her. Fanta (already married to a man of her choice only a couple years older and living in the capital) was applying for jobs at some banks, in hopes that if she were employed, her family would send Kumba to live with her and do the house work. That way, she could avoid the marriage. (Side note: My absolute favorite person in village, Mamatida, who is my 15 year old host sister is also recently engaged, to some guy in his thirties that lives in the capital and supposedly the dowry has already been paid, which means it’s a done deal—she has told me she doesn’t like the guy and is scared.)
So, I was in Kumba’s and Fanta’s compound in my village last week. I didn’t see Kumba and asked where she was. Amie, her sister, told me that Kumba went to Karamba’s place and wasn’t coming back. No way, I told her. Amie has told me this before when Kumba merely went to the garden, so I was hesitant to believe her. But then, Kumba’s mom confirmed that Kumba was at her husband’s but was coming back in a week or so. On my way to Adrian’s village the next day I decided to stop in the village, find the compound and surprise Kumba. I found the compound and met her husband—a nice, very tall many, probably in his late 20’s. I walked into her hut, expecting her to be ecstatic to see me, but instead I found her laying face down on her bed, crying. I was shocked. It took awhile for her to even sit up and once she did she refused to make eye contact with me and her eyes were clearly wet.
For awhile the guy who brought me to her house (probably Karamba’s brother), was sitting with us, so I couldn’t start talking to her, at least not about anything serious. The guy kept asking her questions, are you sick, what’s wrong, etc. Nothing. Kumba wouldn’t even look at him. Normally Kumba is either happy and sassy, or pissed off and sassy, so watching her just sit there lifelessly was like looking at a ghost. I was racking my brain with what could have happened. I immediately thought of typical, bad things—he raped her or beat her. But then I started thinking, maybe she’s being dramatic, trying to make the place seem terrible so I would go home and tell her mom about it. Finally I got the guy to leave and, thank god, she started talking to me. I asked if Karamba hurt her and she said yes. I asked if they had sex and she said no, which was a huge relief for me. Then I asked if he beat her and she said, yes, last night with a stick on her back. F**K.
Like 90% of the girls/women/mothers I hang out with in my village, Kumba is younger than me, but still acts like my older sister. So when it came to dealing with, I had no idea what to do. I wanted to run out the compound and grab Karamba and thrown him against the ground and kick him (how I would manage to throw down a 6 ft man, I’m not sure). Ultimately, and probably for the best, I decided to call Fanta—she would know what to do. Kumba told her what happened and then Fanta asked to talk to Karamba. When I got the phone back, Fanta told me Karamba said he never beat her. I didn’t know who to believe. Did Kumba just not want to be living there anymore or did Karamba really beat her? And if he did beat her, what can I even do about it?
After I called Fanta, an older woman whom I imagine is Karamba’s mother came in to greet me. Kumba said nothing to her and didn’t even acknowledge her presence, which… how can I compare this to something in America. It’s like going to meet your in-laws for the first time and outright refusing to shake their hands our eat any food they prepared for you. Even if Karamba hit her, which, there’s no way I could ever know that for sure, I was appalled that Kumba was acting like that. I was thinking to myself, maybe she’s doing this on purpose, maybe she thinks if she keeps this up the family will be so offended by her that they’ll call off the wedding and send her home. But if that happens, her dad will beat the shit out of her. C’mon Kumba, is that really what you want? The idea of how much trouble she would be in just pained me to think about.
After the woman left, Kumba just lay down and started crying. It was literally torture to watch her cry. Before I left, I just lay in bed with her, holding her as she cried. I felt so helpless, just like I do when I hear a child getting beat by his mother, or a wife getting beat by her husband, and can’t do a thing about it. It would be easier for me to not have to know about it, not have to see how sad she was. Like Mamatida, who never opposes any decision her mom makes, never shows anger or dissatisfaction. I normally hate the fact that Mamatida just gives in so quickly, but watching Kumba suffer like that just made me want her to do the same thing, to stop fighting and accept her fate so she didn’t keep getting hurt (physically) and beat down (emotionally).
Why would she want to be rude to Karamba’s family like that bring that type of pain upon herself? But then I realized women’s rights in The Gambia will never improve if every woman just keeps silently accepting all the shitty social norms she is asked to put up with. It takes strong women (or girls like Kumba) who acknowledge that they way they are treated is not fair and that they are entitled to certain rights, and who are willing to then demand those rights for themselves, despite whatever punishment maybe come. I wish I could suffer the consequences of it for her, but then that would be totally anathema to my goals and philosophy here that Gambians are the only people who can change their country. If I can't do that, the least I can do is be brave for her, stop being selfish about having to watch her in pain and support her in her fight.
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