I want to share a story of a young woman that I met years ago. I have not had the courage to tell her story yet, so please bear with me as I squeeze out the details. Know that she has haunted me in my dreams and in my waking hours since I have met her, having shaken me to the core. I am so I am glad to be finally writing this down. I will not be using her real name, mostly because I am ashamed to say I have forgotten. In fact, for the sake of accuracy, it is better to assume this is a work of fiction inspired by true events.
Nevertheless, it is important that you know that this is one of the many stories that hold me accountable to affect change. This is story of a young woman, which is the story of just one as well as the story of so many, at the same time. I want to introduce you to Fatuma. We met when I was doing some field work in Harrar, a beautiful old Ethiopian city full of history and color. Fatuma lives in a village outside the city, close to the Somali border, with her mother and her children. I forgot how many children she had but I distinctly recall the pitter patter of little feet as they walked in and out while we sat on the floor of her hut to talk. She tells me that her husband is somewhere in one of the Arab countries, she does not know which. He is working or looking for work but she has not heard from him in a while.
In the time I was there, her village was part of an area that was recovering from severe drought. The drought had left the people malnourished and impoverished and Fatuma was one of the beneficiaries of an NGO I was working with at the time. She sells eggs on the two market days every week and owns two goats because of their livelihoods project. I try to look past the veil she is wearing to guess her age. She looks about twenty two. Her mother, sitting beside her, tells me that she is the only woman in that village that sent her daughter to school.
Fatuma’s mother was Fatuma’s father’s first wife. Fatuma’s father left her to marry a younger woman, she smiles as she proudly tells me they are no longer in contact. I can see she still has not lost the twinkle in her eye, even though it is evident that life has taken its toll on her. You can see in the lines on her face and her toothless grin. She must be about forty yet she looked seventy. Fatuma snaps at her mother. She asks her so what if I went to school? I am surprised by this outburst so I ask her to explain, bewildered.
She tells me, in her village, she is a cautionary tale for all the girls and their parents. She tells me, they say, look at Fatuma, she went to school but nothing has changed. She lives the same life we do. She is as poor as the rest of us. Better not waste our time and send girls to school. Having finished the eighth grade Fatuma is the most educated woman in her village, aside from the social workers and health care workers.
She once had a job in a commercial farm near her home but the farm was shut down because of conflict. When the drought hit, she was just as vulnerable as the rest of her community. She defiantly asks me, what is the point in an education? I am never sending my daughters to school she says; I do not want them to be a cautionary tale like me.
I am dumbfounded, tears start welling in my eyes. I hold them back as I walk away. There is nothing I can do for her.
Not just yet.