I stumbled across this picture the other day. It was taken back in 2006 when Jeremy first came to Fimpulu. It caught my attention when I saw three specific girls all in one shot – Nsonga, Mwape and Rosa. Gosh, I guess we’ve known these girls a long time - look at these babies - was my first thought.
They used to come back to the farm and kick balls around and play cards and make fun of bachelor Jeremy having to cook for himself. When we got married, I spent a lot of time with the trio as well – having sleepovers, painting our fingernails and talking to them about school and boys and HIV, and trying to encourage them that good choices now would bring much reward later.
We also tried to work with these girls a lot on their English, realizing that language would be their number one pitfall in school. When they all failed 9th grade, we weren’t terribly surprised since, despite our efforts, they could hardly answer the question, “how are you?” They all opted to repeat 9th grade, hoping for better results. Unfortunately, their English comprehension levels didn’t improve overnight and again, they failed. We’ve believe that the girls actually anticipated their pending failure and opted for plan B – make babies. Before they ever sat for their final exams, all three girls were with child and showing. Mwape ended up marrying her baby daddy, Nsonga reluctantly revealed the father when her mother demanded compensation and Rosa pled the 5th and still won’t talk about it.
No more school, mommies by age 16, the cycle of poverty continues, and we lament. Girls, GIRLS – WHY? Where did we go wrong? I thought we talked about the challenges of having a baby and the opportunities out there and our commitment to support you and… and… and… Clearly we missed something. Or, on second thought, maybe it has nothing to do with us. Maybe its not that we missed something but rather, society missed something.
Our suspicion is that these three realized that if they failed out of school, they would no longer be school girls, they would just be girls. Boring, immature, insignificant, little girls. According to Bemba culture, girls do not become women until they produce children. Mwape, Nsonga and Rosa determined that if their education (and therefore acceptability as little girls) was coming to an end, then it was time for womanhood to begin. To be out of school and not a woman would make them spinsters. Spinster - even I bristle at the word. How bleak and unlovely does that sound?
And so to avoid the embarrassment of both academic failure and spinsterhood, the girls played their cards according to culture’s rules. They produced babies, swiftly stepping into womanhood. I understand the game that is played. I’ve been laughed at twice this month alone because people think I’m lying about my age.
Almost thirty? Haha, funny Bethany. You only have one child, therefore you are clearly not a day over, like, 20. (my sassy translation of the Bemba)
I’ve heard comments regarding my seemingly late debut into womanhood from old and young, men and women, educated and not. Furthermore, the tone and the respect level communicated has improved significantly now that I am a mother. Motherhood is highly valued in this culture. And therefore it makes sense that each of these three girls choose to be poor-but-respected mothers rather than well-off-but-disrespected singletons.
Culture has told these girls that, apart from having children, they are tiny, insignificant, incomplete and simply waiting to become. I wish so badly that I could find the right way to interact with young girls such that they hear the message that they already are. They’ve been women in the making since birth and will be until their last as children only teach us a different dimension of womanhood, not the whole of it. Their self-worth is grounded in who the Creater himself dreams them to be – so much more than “just” baby making abilities.
We are resisting the temptation to beat ourselves up over our perceived failure with these three girls. We will continue to love them, and their babies, through the ups and downs that are sure to follow. And we remember, that new girls are born every day here; important, significant, beautiful girls.
From afar, will ya’ll help us love on these ones in the same way you love in mine?