I have to start this story by saying that I will not do it justice. I know you have all heard me say it before, but one curse of this job (one of the few) is that the more remarkable the experience, the less likely it is that I can explain it sufficiently.
We were told by WV that there was a great story from a school about 50km out of Bahir Dar in a town called Adet. So we drove there Tuesday morning. We stopped by the school, but the girl was at home, and they told us we should walk to her house to see her. So we walked. And walked and walked. My gear bag weighs in at about 50 lbs and yes, I carried it all the way. The landscape is really stunning, but the idea that this girl walks all that way to school is pretty incredible alone. Of course most of the girls do. And boys. (Here is one of the struggles of telling these stories – communicating scale – but seriously, it was a LONG way).
When we arrived at the home we were looking for, there was a large family waiting. The girl, Banchiayehu, was quite shy, but her parents and older brother welcomed us. So we sat and interviewed the family, and the father told us proudly how he had made his sons and daughters go to school. He told us how he had resisted having them married too young. He told us that he had insisted that his two older daughters wait until they were 18 to marry. He seemed like such a model citizen. A beacon of change in the struggle to prevent early marriage.
Rediet, wise woman that she is, began to wonder why we had walked such a long way to see this family. She took aside the WV Community Development Worker and asked just that. It turned out that the father was, in fact, lying. Not lying a little, but lying a lot. We had been brought there because just this year, his daughter had been nearly married. Twice. If not for the intervention of her older brother, she would have been.
We spoke to the family for a bit longer, and then began the walk back to the road with Banchiayehu and her brother. A little way away from the house, we found a spot in the shade and sat down so we could get the real story. The real story was totally insane. I’m going to have to look at the interview to get all the details right, but here’s what I recall:
One fine day at the family’s house, friends and neighbors began to gather for a celebration. No one had told Banchiayehu or her brother exactly what it was for, but it didn’t take too long for them to figure out that it was a wedding. Banchiayehu’s wedding. Apparently it is not uncommon for the girls to be kept in the dark about their planned wedding because it keeps them from causing trouble with their teachers or the law. When it became clear that there was about to be a wedding, Banchiayehu was obviously quite upset. So was her older brother. He has been to school and had become convinced that early marriage was a bad idea. He had seen what happened to his other sisters and his cousins who had been married at 14 or 15. He wanted something better for his little sister.
So he simply intervened. He told his father that there would not be a wedding. His father and brothers-in-law argued with him, and it sounds like it was pretty heated. But ultimately he threatened to bring the police to arrest his own father if they went through with the wedding. So they relented. The wedding was off.
A few months later, the brother was returning home for Easter. He lives in a boys dorm in town because his school is so far from home. He is in 12th grade. When he got home he found all the preparations going on for a big Easter celebration at his house. But something didn’t seem right (he noticed that the family from the first aborted wedding was present) – and he realized that his parents planned to hide the wedding of his little sister in the Easter celebration. Again, this is apparently a very common way of avoiding trouble with the law when marrying underage girls. They simply hide the wedding celebration in another celebration and hope the police and neighbors won’t notice.
When Banchiayehu realized what was happening, she tried to run away and was caught and forcibly returned to the marriage ceremony. When her brother again tried to put a stop to it, the family was prepared to fight him. His brother-in-law turned violent and came after him with a rock. Others followed with a rope to try and tie him up. The brother (I’m sorry I can’t recall his name) managed to escape and ran to town. (Having just made part of that long walk ourselves it was particularly vivid to imagine him running and running and running. Miles.). While he told us this story, we kept glancing over at his little sister, whom he had so courageously protected. It was very very moving. Anyway – he ran to the police station but the police were apparently in a meeting and couldn’t be interrupted. So he ran on to find another government official (some sort of local supervisor) with whom he pleaded to come and stop this marriage. Incredibly, he succeeded.
And so this one has a happy ending. This marriage was stopped. They say that the father won’t try again because now the authorities are watching him, and he is afraid of the law. It is worth noting that everywhere we went people are clearly intimidated by the government – and the government is clearly committed to trying to end this practice. Unfortunately, in areas so rural, and where there is no proof of a girl’s age, enforcing this law is very difficult.
Banchiayehu is living at home with her parents still, in spite of the obvious discomfort. Her brother is not living at home, and we didn’t get the feeling he was too welcome there. He had come home the day we were there specifically so that he could tell us the truth of what had happened. He doesn’t think he will ever return to live with his family. He does say that his father now believes the wedding was a mistake, but I didn’t find that too convincing. But the kid clearly loves his dad, and doesn’t want us to think the worst of him. He is hoping to study medicine when he finishes high school.
Well, there… I’ve done a miserable job of communicating all that. It was by far one of the most intense and dramatic things I’ve ever been told. These two young people – brother and sister – bravely fighting to change centuries of cultural tradition.
Just another day on the 10×10 roller coaster.