"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
June 11, 2013
How My Sisters Escaped Child Marriage
by Imo Eshiet

News of a frail seventy-eight year old grandma enrolling at an elementary school in Kenya triggered fond memories of my mother. At an old age, she too registered for an adult education program. For a community leader so old, it was a scandal to many, yet she was undeterred.

A mother of eight, holding advanced college degrees, her decision confounded villagers. Some said her demons were in overdrive. Those who could not keep their opinions to themselves tried dissuading her.

They reasoned that having labored all her life to see her children through school, she ought to sit back and watch her children and grandchildren bring her the laurels she coveted. Their efforts were like wasting salt on a porcupine’s chitterlings which no matter how one seasoned it, always tasted bitter. Like the cat from which she took her nickname, Mom always landed on her feet. She brushed aside critics, retorting that darkness, ignorance and superstition were no good substitutes for knowledge!

Though the determined old woman needed no encouragement, I supported her with uniforms and books. Since she was a widow, I reckoned school activities could help her deal with her situation. I also knew her actions were the result of a severe trauma in her early childhood.

She came from a big family whose members died rapidly. Some had smallpox. Her mother was murdered over claims to her dead husband’s property. She obstinately refused Grandpa’s folks the traditional right to annex his lands, and worse, resisted their advances and so was ambushed and gruesomely murdered.

Her brother’s death too almost drove her out of her mind. The day he died was also the day his high school result was released and he had made distinction. Devastated, Mother mourned him all her life.

Impoverished by these deaths, she dropped out of school, got married and raised a family.

Though the odds were against her, she committed to see her children get what fate denied her even if that meant selling herself into slavery. Through them, she hoped her brother and his dreams would live again.

Even when she was done seeing her kids through school, her restless spirit gave her no respite. She often listened with rapt attention as we shared with her developments in science and technology. She was stunned when the US landed man on the moon! Not satisfied to hear of events secondhand, she got back to school to learn all she could about the Whiteman’s magic.

Her example encouraged others, especially when teachers stopped pestering the students for bribes once they knew her children could make trouble for them. She was a bulwark in the struggle for women’s rights in the village. She wore trousers, painted her nails, and wore makeup. She spoke out openly against wife battery and repudiated the culture of female genital mutilation and child marriage.

All these sourly outraged the community. She believed her daughters would achieve dignity and financial independence and save themselves from spousal abuse if they got education. So, she raised goats for sale, took part in palm produce trade, and joined thrift societies. When these were not enough to supplement Dad’s meager income, she hired herself out as a plantation hand. When its management embezzled workers’ salaries and owed them endlessly, she raised vegetable and tubers for sale.

She planned for us to attend school in relays. I stayed out of school for four years so that my first two sisters could get done with theirs.

An uncle who assumed answers to the agonizing downdrafts of our poverty decided to act on his novel ideas. To him educating girls was sheer wasted resource. The smart thing to do was to marry them off. So, he searched out suitors for my sisters.

One day he arrived with an old man he introduced as his friend. With jaws agape like the backside of a refuse truck, the lethargic man cut a sorry sight. When he grinned, his teeth were the decaying brown of goat droppings while his face wrinkled like a viciously wrung kitchen towel. Bent over by age, he tottered and staggered like a baby learning to walk. He so reeked of stale alcohol, a deer could pick him out miles away.

When the drunk managed to sit down, my uncle broached the purpose of their visit, declaring he brought his friend to marry any of my sisters he fancied. Such matters in my culture are usually discussed in proverbs, and my uncle layered it on. “When a tree dies does it not leave its roots behind,” he said with rhetorical flourish. “Wood already touched by fire isn't hard to set alight,” he added, suggesting my sisters were nubile enough for the half-dead man.

Assuaging appalling feelings against the old reprobate, he said, “Dogs don't love people; they love the place where they are fed.”

Little in Mother’s countenance suggested the event would not end well. Only a twitching nerve on her temple hinted at trouble. That Uncle had the nerve to act so debasingly was to Mom, a stunning craven abuse of her hopes for her daughters. She was rankled he sought to rob her of hope and frustrate her dreams and ambitions for her daughters. She excused herself as if she were going to get some snacks for her guests.

When she returned, she looked like one possessed. Her eyes were like shafts and hard as stone. In her right hand was a pestle that she swung with savage force at the miserable bottle of alcohol the guests had brought. The bottle flew out the door before it exploded midair with its contents into a shower of shard. This caused quite a stir among the fowls that were feasting on grasshoppers frolicking in the sun. One bird, a crow, lay as if taking cover the way we used to when bombed and strafed during the civil war. Shrapnel sank into its breast and it would fly no more.

Mother then turned on Uncle and his friend, who were so frozen in fear it was a wonder they did not wet their pants. She pointed the pestle to the door and the men got the message. I had no idea old men could be so fleet-footed. Getting on their bicycle, they pedaled as if fleeing a tigress. Later in a biology class I learned about adrenalin and felt thankful it helped Uncle and his friend escape murder from Mother’s hands.

Later her daughters did her proud. One became a supervisor of district schools and the other a professor of nursing, raised four daughters, among them a doctor, pharmacist, attorney and magazine editor. Her children done with school, the professor went back to medical school to become a doctor herself. She thus proved the old saying right that educating a woman was educating a nation.

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About Imo Eshiet

Imo Ben Eshiet was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Raised in his village, Uruk Enung, and at several cities in his country including Nsukka, Enugu, Umuahia, Eket and Calabar, Eshiet is a detribalized Nigerian. Although he was extensively exposed to Western education right from childhood in his country where he obtained a PhD in English and Literary Studies from the University of Calabar, he is well nurtured in African history, politics, culture and traditions.

Imo is currently a teacher in the high priests group in the Summit Ward of the Greensboro North Carolina Stake.

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