My mother, my hero*

Maryknoll

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By Julie Rattey


Neema ran through the Tanzanian bush, her school bag bumping hard against her. As soon as she had seen the lion, its mane shining a wild gold in the afternoon sun, she had carefully laid down the firewood she had gathered and crept out of sight before making a dash for it.

Neema did not dare turn around until she had reached the village and was safe among her fellow Maasai. But no sooner had she caught her breath than she felt a twinge of guilt. We’ll have no firewood tonight. But as Neema approached her house, she realized that firewood was the least of her worries. The voice coming from the house was her father’s, and he sounded angry.

 

“Neema has to be married,” he was saying. “I need the cattle we will have as her bride price.”

Neema’s mouth went dry. Married? She had been 7 when her father chose her husband, but Neema was still only 14. She was still in school. She didn’t want to marry. Neema also was afraid. Bad things could happen to young girls who married early. Neema once knew a 10-year-old Maasai girl who had been married off to a man of 90. On her wedding night, her body was torn inside. She got an infection and died. Neema took a step toward the door of the house to hear more.

“You know the law,” Neema’s mother replied. “Neema cannot marry while she is in school. And besides, Neema is first in her class. Her teachers love her and have high hopes for her. Our daughter is bright. She ought to go to secondary school when she finishes primary.”

Neema didn’t have to see her father to know that a look of disgust was crossing his face.

“This education is useless,” he snapped. He then launched into a typical tirade Neema had heard many Maasai men utter before. “Does a woman need a book to get a husband? Does she need a book to raise crops? Does she need a book to bear a child?”

***

Neema’s mother must have shot her husband one of her steely looks, because her father raised his voice to a shout.

“I am your husband and you will do as I say!”

* based on the story of Neema Naini Laizer. Laizer and Sister Mary Vertucci were the sources for information about Laizer’s home life.
“You have never helped me with anything,” Neema’s mother countered bitterly. “You only care for cattle. Why don’t you make one of them your obedient wife?”

“Cattle are the life of our village!” Neema’s father roared. “I am not going to be disgraced among our people. Neema will marry and bear strong boys who will raise cattle as our people have done for hundreds of years. And those silly little nuns and priests who go around filling women’s heads with ideas of education are partly to blame. What do they know of our traditions?”

“And you, what do you know?” Neema’s mother cried. A tinkling of bracelets and beaded necklaces told Neema that her mother was shaking with anger. “You don’t even know where the food we eat comes from, you ridiculous man. Our family starved for a year after you destroyed the crop I had raised, out of spite. Our children didn’t eat food for three days. I begged for our meals while you did nothing!

“Neema will not marry,” she continued in a calmer voice. “She will finish her studies until she finds her own career, her own life. And she will marry when she chooses.”

There was a silence. Neema closed her eyes. Please, Jesus. Let my mother win.

A loud smacking sound sent tears speeding down Neema’s cheeks; her mother had just been struck. Neighbors stopped what they were doing and stared in the direction of the house as the sound of the beating continued. They stared at Neema. At that moment, with their tall dark bodies and traditional red draped garments, they looked to Neema like open wounds. Neema couldn’t seem to move. What would happen to her mother? What would happen to her? It seemed she had fled from one beast only to be devoured by another.

***

Late one night several months later, Neema lay down on her bed, wincing in pain. Tomorrow, she thought, I will be married. Tomorrow, all my dreams will end.

Neema’s father would not change his mind. And others in the village were on his side. They drove their point home by beating Neema as she walked home from finishing primary school exams. And now her father had told her husband to come take her away.

As Neema felt for an unbruised place on which to lie, she thought of her mother — her brave, beautiful mother — in the other room. It had taken her four months to return from the hospital after that day she and Neema’s father had argued about the marriage. Yet she did not tell Neema she must obey her father. Even though her father already had taken his cattle, the bride price. Even though her father would not hesitate to raise his hand again. Neema, who wanted to be a doctor, wished she were already one so she could tend her mother’s wounds.

Was pain what life was meant to be about? Neema wondered. Was there any way to escape? Even Jesus died on a Cross. “No, Neema, life is not all pain.” Neema’s uncle, a Maasai Catholic priest, had once told her. “But pain is a part of life. And when we are with God in heaven, all our sufferings will be no more.”

Heaven sounded pretty good to Neema. To help keep her mind off her wedding day, Neema tried to imagine what heaven would be like. But the darkness in the house seemed to engulf her. It crept into her mind and would not let the light of heaven through.

 

***

 

"Neema…”

Neema’s eyes flew open. Who was outside the house? Was it her husband, come to take her away?

“Neema, it’s Uncle Karduni.”

Neema’s head reeled with curiosity. What was he doing here? Careful to not wake anyone, Neema crept out of the house.

“Quick, Neema. Come with me.”

“Where are we going?”

“To Arusha. I talked to Mary Vertucci, a Maryknoll Sister who works at the Emusoi Center
there.”

For the first time that day, Neema dared to hope. The Emusoi Center was a safe haven for girls and women. Other girls had escaped arranged marriages by living there. They were encouraged in education and given supplies they needed for secondaryschool. If Neema could get safely to the Emusoi Center that night, she might have a chance.

“We must hurry,” her uncle pressed. “Your husband will be coming.”

Neema looked back at the house. When her father went to look for her the next day and
found her missing, her mother would be the one to suffer.

Neema’s uncle put a hand on her shoulder. “I spoke with your mother, Neema. This is what she wants for you. Your father may break her body if you leave, but if you stay you will break her heart.”

Neema lowered her head. She never knew she could feel so miserable and so happy at the same time.

Her uncle’s hand shifted impatiently on her shoulder. They didn’t have much time.

“I want to go with you,” Neema said at last. “I want to be free.” CD

Photo by Sister Jeri Stokes

Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from 23rdPublications.com.