“My name is Halimat Yusuf” I paused and watched all the faces looking intently at me.
“I come from a small town in Sokoto, located in North- Eastern Nigeria, I was born into a muslim family and as was the norm, my father had four wives. My mother was the last of the wives. It was common place in my community for girls to get married early, my mum got married at twelve. I believed it was my personal destiny to get married and bear children so I learnt as much as I could in school since I knew it was temporary. ”
I could hear the gasp from the listeners, I smiled as I looked on their shocked faces. It was a bit of shock to them that twelve year olds somewhere in the world were ushered into the institution of marriage.
“My first novel was about a doctor who was dedicated to saving fistula patients in a part of northern Nigeria, that story was influenced by my friend Tekena. I was twelve when I first met him, some gangly twelve year-old Christian boy whose eyes sparkled with laughter and mischief. He sat at the other end of class as boys and girls did not sit together. We soon became friends and talked about everything twelve year olds spoke about. He occasionally teased me about my hijab and asked how I managed the heat, I replied that I was doing it for Allah, as it was haram for a woman to leave her hair uncovered.”
“His parents were Christian missionaries to the North, he occasionally came to school with novel and sat under the tree reading one when he was not making fun of a teacher or teasing a classmate, it was that act that birthed my love for books. We occasionally sat together to read a book. When my brothers found out that I was occasionally hanging out with a Christian boy at school, they beat me so hard I was sore for days. Tekena proposed writing letters, we wrote long letters to each other and found a way to deliver it without being found out. It was from his letters I learnt words like ‘silhouette’, ‘accomplice’, ‘gritty gritty’. Words I did not know their meaning and as there was no library in my school, I had to ask him for the meaning of those words, He gifted me his pocket dictionary and I began to read it and include new words in my letters even when they were out of context. It was in one of these letters he first told me that he loved me. I loved him too but that was as far as we could go I told him, I could not have that kind of relationship with a Christian.”
“When I turned fifteen, some men had paid my father a visit and not long after that, I was informed that I was to be wed at the end of the school year. It was in his arms I cried as he held me as I mourned the death of all my dreams, my mum thought I was lucky to go to school at all. I wanted to be writer, I wanted to string words together and create something beautiful, I stared at all the stories I had written and cried for dreams that will never be. He teased me endlessly about waking up to a man with horrible mouth odour and tangling the sheets holding my breath when I informed him that my would be husband’s teeth had a brownish colouration and that he smelt like cow dung.
The day before my Nikkai ceremony as I walked to the Mosque that dark morning before sunrise, he caught up to me, he was dressed like a muslim woman. Nobody will think anything about two muslim girls walking to the mosque. I tried to resist, tried to tell him that it was the will of Allah but his grip on me tightened as he pulled me to the motor pack.
‘Do it for your mum whose childhood was stolen from her, do it for your sister whose dream to be a Lawyer was ripped off by marriage, do it for all the girls suffering from VVF. Do it for me who has loved you all this while. ’
“it was one of those rare moments when he was ever serious, and talked like an adult. I can hear his voice echo in the recess of my mind as he slipped his entire life savings and a copy of ‘Dizzy Angel’ into my cold palms.”
‘Halimat, pursue your dream, write all the stories in your head, write about me too and write about our baby love.” Then I remember his high pitched laughter and his constant waving as the bus left Sokoto that cold morning in November.’
“As I think of it now, our love was not the kind that left butterflies fluttering, or left us unable to breathe, it was a rare form of friendship love that pushed me through the glass ceiling. It’s been ten years since I waved goodbye to Tekena in that dusty park. His love was wind to my wings.”
“It’s that journey that has brought me across the continents me today as we celebrate the girl child day and I ask that we fight against child marriage all over the world and give those teenage girls a chance to be educated.”
I walked down the podium amid the deafening silence and smiled at the women that had gathered to celebrate the girl child.