I COULDN'T DECIDE IF WE SHOULD LIVE OR DIE
BY FATI YAYAHA (as told to Jennifer Koons)
Fati Yahaya is the coolest girl in her neighborhood, at least among the young girls who attend the makeshift reading lessons she offers most afternoons when many people are napping to beat the oppressive humidity in Niamey, Niger.
The 19-year-old with owl-like eyes lives with her aunt, grandmother, younger cousin, two nieces, and 10-year-old nephew Abdoul, whose French-language textbooks she borrows for herself and the other girls who do not attend school.
Fati’s older sister, Bayo, died at 15 after giving birth to Abdoul. Fati nearly suffered a similar fate at 14. Months after she was married, she became pregnant. While delivering her son, she developed a postpartum hemorrhage that left her hospitalized for five months.
Two-thirds of girls in Niger are married before they turn 18 and one-third before they turn 15, according to 2013 statistics obtained by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Cultural norms dictate that women must prove their fertility within the first year of marriage, and half of all girls in the West African country of 17.8 million become mothers before they turn 18. More than three-fourths of these same girls, who go on to have an average of 7 children, are illiterate.
Fati shares her story here.
Sex meant opening a door that I wanted closed.
But how could you stop your husband from coming into your room?
Mourtala my husband would lay on top of me every night even though I slept in the same room as his mother and his older wife who was 21 years old and slept with her three children. During the day, we would talk — but at night, no one spoke. I would hear him slip off his shoes and then his bony knees and knuckles would push open my legs.
“See, she’s broken,” my husband’s mother would tell him in the morning. She knew I wasn’t pregnant, I think she also knew I did not want to ever become pregnant.
After a while, she told Mourtala he should divorce me. I prayed for this to happen. He must have agreed because she soon sent for my family to come get me. But my father refused to pay to bring me back. He said I had to stay.
And then one night, I knew I was going to have a baby. I didn’t want anyone to know and tried to act normal. But my husband knew, he had stopped getting on top of me and I heard him tell his mother that I would soon become one myself.
She still rejected me and actually went to my uncle who agreed to find a way to pay 350,000 West African CFA ($730 USD) for me to come home. If you are the woman and you want out, you have to pay back the dowry. Only the man can divorce the woman for free leaving the woman’s family struggling to borrow money to get her back.
I am a part of the Hausa tribe (the largest in West Africa) and used to stay in Niamey (the capital of Niger). I was living far from home and it took my family a long time to rescue me. My belly got so big. I sat most of the day with the little girls who were my husband’s daughters. They would peel me a potato for dinner. But I was made to sleep outside at night because I snored so loudly.
During my pregnancy I couldn’t see a doctor, we were too far away and I wasn’t allowed to go without my husband who refused to take me. I was terrified as both my mom and sister died when they gave birth. But I did not want to see a doctor either, I had never seen one before and I was afraid.
My mother had five children.
When she was 22, she had a sixth child but both her and the baby died. My father’s other wife had eight children and did not want us to stay with her. So we went to live with our uncle’s wife.
Ten years after my mother passed away, my sister Bayo also died in childbirth but the baby survived, she named him Abdul. I started to worry about him when I wasn’t home. I wondered what he ate. I wondered what he learned at school.
Today, Abdul is the same age as one of the girls who lives with us: ten years old. I know she will be married soon, they will say that she is “ready.” I don’t want her become like me, yet when I look at her mother I see her so tired that I think it’s just going to happen.
I see that so many of the mothers are so tired, and hurt. They want theirs daughters away so they don’t have to cook for them or worry about them. In neighborhoods here, everyone wants you married. Cousins and aunts come to your home and ask, “When is she getting married?” or “Why have you not married her yet?” The mothers get embarrassed and they ask their husbands to go find one for their daughters.
But the men they chose are always old: only old men have money. Boys cannot find jobs therefore they cannot marry. And mothers and fathers worry that the boys who don’t have wives will try to run away with their daughters. That would be very bad for the whole family.
Even though I hated the baby in my belly, I loved my baby. I looked for food because I wanted my baby to have food. I started to think that if I died, I wanted my baby to live. And I wanted a boy. I thought maybe he could stay with my husband’s first wife’s family because she was kind. But then I worried that my husband’s mother would hurt him.
So I couldn’t decide if we should both live or die.
Then one day, my aunt and uncle came to take me back home. My stomach hurt when I walked. So we waited and waited for the bus. And when it rained, I had my baby. And I did not die. Neither did he.
My son Mujaheet was as long and heavy as three potatoes. He came from me so quickly. And then he cried and I thought it would all be all right.
His eyes stayed closed. They put him on my heart. And then I started to bleed. It felt warm on my feet. My mouth felt dry. My eyes hurt and I shut them tightly. My arms and legs felt really heavy. I wanted to say goodbye to my son but I could not talk. I thought this was death coming. I concentrated on feeling the blood as it pooled beneath my body and fingers.
I think they took me to the doctor who lived far away. I did not wake for a long time. I remember holding Mujaheet again. He was bigger. And he cried when I fed him but he wrapped his hand around my thumb as I rested him against me. His tiny feet wiggled when I touched them to the cool floor. Our breath sounded the same when I fell asleep with him beside me.
It’s hard to talk about what happened next.
My uncle and aunt could not keep us both. There wasn’t enough food. They had borrowed too much from our neighbor to pay my way back home. So my father said my son could come and live with him.
I wanted to scream. I felt more pain than when I lost all of my blood. I was so weak. But I could not say no. I didn’t have the right to oppose those who decide who lives where and who eats what. So they took my son away.
Yet, I consider my life lucky as some people came to ask my aunt last year if she would allow me to go to school. This was the first time I ever attended one. I learned to read with other girls who also had children, most of them brought their babies to classes. And we learned about waiting until we are older to get married. I started to think that if I could become a teacher, I could go and get my son. So I studied. I practiced teaching my cousins and nieces and the girls who live on our road.
The journey has only started and obstacles are many. One of my cousins wants to be in our special program next year but she still wants to get married. She is so little, only 13.
I think I want to be married again someday too but not before I become a teacher.
Illustration by Denise Nestor for The Development Set. //The Development Set is made possible by funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We retain editorial independence.