Behind me, my friends are bartering with a woman over the price of beans. A small crowd has gathered, a cacophony of opinions. I’ve been feeling ill, a mild case of the flu—most likely—so I choose to stay near the car, having little patience for crowds and noise.
I look on the horizon. It’s a beautiful morning. The sun is still low enough where it’s warm and comfortable, unlike the thick, inescapable heat it will be in a few hours. The parched, thorny trees provide zero shade here in rural Kenya.
A cluster of girls carrying pans stop for this morning’s entertainment on their way to the mouth of the mine farther up the path. The haggling over these red legumes has become so animated, you’d almost expect someone to throw a punch next.
The girls are staring at me, and begin chatting excitedly amongst themselves, as many do when they see a mzungu wearing their same regional fashion and jewelry. I greet them in the local tongue and the invisible barrier drops; they step close to examine my bracelets and touch my hair, nearly forgetting to first return my greeting. My Pokot brother, Lomaler, standing with me, laughs and teases them about me.
I am tired and so simply smile as they oggle over me. I let my mind wander away from the present.
Lomaler calls my attention back. He points to the forearm of the girl closest to me.
If I had to guess, the girl looks to be about eleven years old, but could be as old as thirteen—it’s hard to know for sure when food distribution issues and nutrition deficiency are such common problems here.
I dazedly look down to where Lomaler is pointing. I must be confused. I must be more ill than I realize. I reach out and take her hand to bring her wrist into better view. She is quiet, but willingly allows me to turn over her hand.
I am not confused. My eyes are not deceiving me. This young girl is married. She is wearing the traditional Pokot marriage bracelets to confirm this fact.
I am immediately saddened and conflicted. “But how?” I say aloud in English. No one responds.
I look to Lomaler. “What?” I ask suspiciously, as if he would reveal this as a joke, or a girl innocently playing dress up. He just smiles shyly and shrugs his shoulders.
I look back to the girl. “You’re just a child.”
My voice cracks. I choke back thick, sick saliva down my dry throat.
“You’re not even able to have children of your own yet.”
I gently touch the two thinly worn metal bands on her wrist.
Girls do get married young here; mid and upper teens is culturally acceptable. But this girl is just too young. Lomaler agrees, or he wouldn’t have pointed her out to me.
An old woman takes up the child’s arm, thinking I was confused about how long the girl had been married, explaining they had removed some bracelets from an older woman and cut them down to fit this girl’s small wrist. When she’s done growing, they will fit her with new ones.
I look up and past the women, and around, as if, by chance, the little girl’s husband were nearby to answer to me, as if I were the authority on the matter.
How old was he? How many wives did he have already?
I imagine a man in his early 40s. A successful and respected warrior with two, maybe three other wives. His second wife, I dream, has compassion on this girl, treating her more as a daughter than a sister-wife.
And what about her father? I am getting angry now. Boy, would I like the opportunity to spit in his face. He undoubtedly married off his daughter for a healthy bride price of cattle.
An overwhelming urge washes over me. I must take this girl with me, kidnap her from her husband and father and put her in school.
I inhale and exhale deeply a few times to recenter myself. This flu is making me irrational, absurd.
My friends call me away to help them load a human-sized sack of beans into the car. They’ve paid 10 shillings more per kilo than they would have liked, but it’s still a good price.
Rather than return to the group of girls, I get in the car and quietly sit, reflecting.
The young girl’s father must have been in a very desperate place to arrange such an early marriage. She probably has many younger siblings who were going hungry. The cows for her bride price are now supporting and strengthening them.
Or perhaps her father has recently died, and this girl’s older brother or uncle had no other option but to find her a husband who would be sure to provide for her.
There is no social services or welfare program out here. This is the best system society has put into play. It’s what they can do. It’s far from ideal, but it’s the best option available.
The school I work with, Daylight Center and School in Kapenguria, Kenya, has rescued a few girls from this life, has provided another option. It doesn’t line the pockets of the girls’ families like a bride price would, but it does lift the burden of another mouth to feed and offers the girls education. Upon graduating, they can find work and earn an income.
The initial shock of meeting this young bride has subsided, and now I realize that my best bet for helping girls like her is to continue helping Daylight. Rather than get upset and angry at an imperfect system, I will focus my energies helping local leaders correct these issues of poverty at the heart of the problem. I invite you to join me.