Apr 20, 2022
Photo courtesy of Liz Lum
After her best friend was suddenly forced from school to marry, Liz Lum speaks up about injustices and harmful practices done to women and girls.
I won't stop until girls are seen as more than just their reproductive organs. I won't stop until girls are not the substitute for a family’s financial plan.
At 10 years old, I was one of the youngest and most intelligent pupils in class six. I had a record of being among the top three students in a class of more than 40 pupils all through primary school. That year, I knew my grades in the general exam would determine whether or not I would go on to attend secondary school.
My teacher, Mr. Christopher, never tried to tame my ambition. I was always part of our class debates and represented our school at spelling bee competitions. He never failed to call on me or see my potential. When he looked at me, when he looked at the girls in the class, he saw people who would take over the world!
One day, everyone was busy eating lunch. Suddenly, our attention shifted to the door and the room filled with murmurs. I lifted my head to see a beautiful, tall, light-skinned girl. Her soft curly long hair gathered in thin cornrows and two horizontal tribal marks lined the sides of her mouth. She didn't have our school uniform but rather the government school uniform. I knew then that she had transferred to our school.
The bell rang, marking the end of lunchtime, and we all prepped for math class. The teacher walked in, followed by the girl. \"Class, This is Fatu Lam Sah, ” he said. “She will join us for the rest of the term. Please let us all make sure she's comfortable and has a great time. ”
Fatu settled in, about four desks behind me. I silently wished we sat together. \"OK. Eyes on the board. \" The Teacher explained geometry concepts, but as usual, I took a lot of time to grasp them. He wrote a question on the board and asked us to come and attempt to solve it. I tried it but got it wrong, as did others.
Fatu raised her hand. \"Yes Fatu, Do you want to try? \" He said. \"Yes, Sir, \" she replied. She came forward, took the chalk, and began solving the question. In no time she was done. \"Excellent! \" Mr. Christopher said. \"Can We clap for her please? \" We All clapped for her, but I was stunned. I must admit, I felt a little threatened by her brilliance. It was a signal to up my game.
The rest of the week went by in a flash. I marveled at Fatu and her determination. She always answered questions in class. During recess, she solved math problems while the rest of us played. I wondered how she could do that. She seemed isolated, but she walked home with a pupil from our class, Charlxes, who lived in the same compound.
One Monday, while I walked to school early that morning, I saw Fatu. She walked out the gate of our proprietor's house dressed in our school uniform. I walked over to her, and we continued on our way to school. I asked why she lived with our school proprietor; she said her younger brother took care of their cows and in exchange, they sponsored her education.
I remember thinking her younger brother had to be in school, too, but I didn't push it. We continued our walk to school. I couldn't help but notice the swell of her chest. She had started to grow breasts, which I didn't have. I asked how old she was and she said 12. I envied her, eager to turn 12 so I could grow breasts too.
The term went by with Fatu and I growing closer. I visited her a lot but she couldn't come around to my place as easily. We learned so much about each other walking to and from school together. She told me about her Muslim faith –– how she tied a headscarf everywhere she went except school and prayed five times a day.
Fatu helped me out with math and I helped her with English. We spoke about our dreams and goals. She wanted to be a doctor, so we sometimes played that she was a doctor and I was her patient. She was curious, active, and detail-oriented. I loved her handwriting and how she wrote with care. I imagined a future where she wore a white lab coat.
Fatu's mother, however, was a conservative Muslim woman. She had no formal education, was married with kids, and couldn't speak English. Her mother peddled fresh cow milk and made sure she passed by our school to see Fatu during lunch. The mother would bring Fatu food, and they would have extensive conversations that I couldn’t understand. Sometimes after she left, I asked what her mother said.
Meeting her daughter during lunch was the only time Fatu’s mother could see her, as she lived with our proprietor. With time, Fatu's mother recognized me as her daughter's friend. I even invited her family over to our house so my mom could meet them. I remember thinking Fatu's younger brother was so young to be looking after cows. He was 8 and deserved to be in school.
Then the day came. Fatu's mother visited her during lunchtime. After her mother left, I noticed she was sad. Fatu revealed that she had gotten her period the previous week. Now that she was done with class six, her mom said she would marry. I was shocked. She was only 12. I didn't know what to tell Fatu. But I wanted to confront her mother.
I went back home that day and told my mom what had happened. She and I planned to invite Fatu and her mother over for a talk after we finished our exams. I was still determined to talk to her mother beforehand, but I chickened out every time her mother came during lunch. In Sub-Saharan Africa, respect is binding. Talking to an elder about something they did wrong, whether politely or not, is considered disrespectful. I wasn't ready for that.
The clock to our final exam was ticking. When prizes were awarded, I got the 'Best in English Language' prize while Fatu got the 'Best in Mathematics' prize. We were literally the overall best in school. We studied together leading up to the final exam, reading extensively and drilling each other with questions until we got them right.
Exams finally came; we were nervous but excited. The exam was a national one called FSLC (First School Leaving Certificate), so students from every school around the area took it with us. Because my name starts with L and Fatu's name begins with F, we were placed in different halls.
I didn’t see her until we walked home together that day. And then I never saw her again.
After the exams, I reminded my mom about the talk with Fatu and her mother. We planned to talk about her impending marriage, but a week after the exams I fell ill with a fever and could not go to school for three days. Fellow students came to visit me, but I was sad to see that Fatu was not with them. I wondered why my best friend did not show up when she heard I was sick.
Our teacher organized a farewell party to usher us into secondary school, but Fatu didn't come to that, either. When I got to the proprietor’s house to check on her, I found out it was too late: Fatu's mother had already taken her away to be married immediately after our exam. Despite the proprietor's wife insisting that if Fatu wanted to further her education, she would gladly sponsor it, Fatu’s mother had made up her mind.
I felt terrible. I urged my mom to talk to them, but we didn't know where they had gone. I didn't have a phone, and neither did Fatu. We couldn't get in contact. As time goes on and I grow to understand what marriage entails, I can't help but feel terrible all over again, imagining young Fatu going through that.
At the time, my mother saw my anguish. She knew I had pent-up frustration and had me channel it into workshops on girls’ rights and capacity strengthening. Attending the workshops helped me make sense of what I was feeling — of the hunger for justice and the need for people to hear me.
I grew from them, sharpening my skills and learning about child marriage and other violations of girls’ rights. When I think about it, I can't blame Fatu’s mother. She only did what was done to her and what she was programmed to believe was right.
Fast-forward to today, eight years later. I have worked with more than eight feminist organizations, such as Adolescent Girl Advisor at Global Fund for Women USA, Women Deliver Young Leader 2020, Common Action for Gender Development Cameroon, and Women for a Change Cameroon. I have mentored young girls and I have spoken out about injustices and harmful practices that are done to women and girls. I'm working on myself every day, so that I may remain resilient and able to help girls overcome these traumas.
I haven't seen or heard from Fatu since our exams when we were young children. I know no one who can help me find her, and my resources are limited. Still, I will not give up the search until I do.
I don't know if she would recognize me now. I don't know if she died from childbirth, like so many young child brides do. I don't know if she's suffering abuse from her husband or if she ran away from the marriage. There are a lot of scary possibilities running through my mind.
But I do know this: I won't stop until girls are seen as more than just reproductive organs. I won't stop until girls are not the substitute for a family’s financial plan. I won't stop until girls are acknowledged at major decision-making tables. I won’t stop until no child suffers the fate Fatu suffered.
I won't stop until our collective voices are heard.
This story was published as part of World Pulse's Story Awards program. We believe every woman has a story to share, and that the world will be a better place when women are heard. Share your story with us, and you could receive added visibility, or even be our next Featured Storyteller! Learn more.