The Girl Child

Growing up anywhere brings its share of problems, but growing up in a place like Kenya is a struggle that is beyond imagination. Put yourself into the shoes of a Kenyan girl; I should say feet, (many children do not wear shoes, but might wear sandals, flip-flops as I call them).
You are fortunate to still be alive at the age of six, many of your friends have died of things such as malaria, dysentery, malnutrition, and the like. The fact that both father and mother are alive is another miracle. Life expectancy for men is 40 years in Kenya and 42 years for women (rarely do you encounter gray haired men.) Malaria is still the number one killer, but AIDS comes into second place. Wherever one goes, one can see the evidence of the ravages of AIDS. Go into any school and ask how many children have only one parent, or no parent and you would be astounded. In a country like Kenya with a population of 42 million, there are as many as 2 million AIDS orphans. Yes, there is malaria and other illnesses. This is the other war, AIDS the silent killer that sweeps through offices, villages, banks, schools and government institutions. In fact many businesses refuse to give off for more than one funeral a month to their employees, since death comes so frequently to families. (One of the most secure jobs is to make caskets; unfortunately, there is never a shortage of customers.)
So here you are, a girl child in Kenya, living in a small shack, made of sun baked, mud bricks, covered by a corrugated tin roof (they are called iron sheets here), that leaks whenever it rains. The room is small, yes, the house is one room, and if you are really lucky it will be two. No kitchen, you have a small charcoal stove outside called a jiko. Charcoal costs about 11 dollars a bag and for some that lasts all month. If you have no money you spend the day searching for wood and use a fire to cook over. The community toilet and bathhouse consists of an outhouse down the path, shared by many families. Most families bathe using a plastic wash-tub. A house like this will rent for 20 to 50 dollars a month in Molo. The monthly income of your parents is only around 70 dollars combined. Father works as a night watchman for a well to do family from 7 in the evening to 7 in the morning. Mother goes off at 6:30 in the morning to do field work planting, weeding and harvesting, when available.
You are a girl of 12, and now you are home alone, well almost. Father might sleep for a few hours, but then he is off into town seeing if he can come up with some extra work and make a few more Shillings for the family. Why are you not in school? Oh, the answer to that one is easy, a girl does not need school, she only needs to take care of the house, fetch water, wood, work in the shamba, get a husband when she is older, have babies, raise a family, cook, maybe work as a maid, or in a restaurant, but there is no reason to invest in education for a woman or so the thinking goes. (Most of the lack of education for girls has to do with economics, the firstborn boy is usually sent to school if any money is available.)
Your oldest brother left at 6 am, he had to take a 2 liter container of muddy water from the village bore hole to school with him. This was used to help wash down his classroom as the only water available at the school is from rainwater runoff from the corrugated iron roofs of the classrooms and since we are in the dry season there is no water at his school. Needless to say, there is no water available for sanitation at the pit latrines the children (and most children in rural East Africa) use. He also brought a roll of toilet paper to school, since the day before he was scolded for not having any. He also had to take a new broom to class to sweep the classroom and the school grounds after school.
School is expensive. A new law had been passed in Kenya making school free through primary grades, but then there are all those other fees, such as exam fees, books, uniforms and extra this and that. These are the hidden costs that no one talks about at school, but are so common. Class size is often around 80 students to a class room. Even that is supposed to change but has not. In order to make room for your brother in his classroom your family had to purchase his desk. The cost to have the desk made at the local fundi’s shop (carpenter) was well over half a month’s income for your entire family. Mother had to come up with extra money so that your brother could pay the teacher to sit up at the front of the class, where he could hear and learn better. Money had also to be paid to have homework checked and corrected, and if you wanted extra help called tutoring for the Primary 7 exam, there was something extra for that. That is why only one of your brothers goes to school, while the other brothers hang around until maybe some of the uncles and aunts in the family can contribute something for their education. For that is how it works in Kenya, no family can ever come up with the money alone, it takes combined resources of the extended family to send children to school in most cases.
Daily, it is your job to look after the little ones and do laundry in two plastic tubs with water that you have to carry in a 5-gallon can from the river up the hill to the house. At 12 years old and as the oldest girl in the family you have the responsibility of washing, caring for your younger siblings, cooking and cleaning.
You do not have to worry about preparing meat, there is no money for that except for special celebrations. The shop is just around the corner from you. No, you can’t ask for a cut of meat, you get what is there and the price is the same. You really do not care about that chewy, tough meat anyway, plus it is covered with flies, Yuk!!!
Live chickens can be bought in the market, but they are expensive, costing between four and five dollars. It is only on special occasions that your family will buy them, it is your job to kill and pluck it clean if your brothers are not around. In the mornings it is your job to head to the market to buy red kidney beans, but during the two rainy seasons of the year they may be filled with maggots and you do not like getting your meat and protein that way, but that is reality and what can one do. Rice is available but you have to pick the rocks out of it since it is no fun chewing on them. It is also very expensive. There are potatoes which you like and sometimes use when you buy beef, but it always comes down to how much money the family has.
(The main staple of the Kenyan diet is beans, maize, skuma (a rich, green, leafy kale like vegetable) and ugali made from corn flour.)
You like going into town with your mother to market where you see clothes for sale, not that you get many, it has been some time since you last got a new skirt, and the detergent had long ago washed out all the brightness that had been there (Omo does get the dirt out, but also the color).
You reach down to scratch your feet, and notice that a few more jiggers have lodged themselves there and it would be time again to cut them out, since there was no money to go the doctor, and mother did a good enough job with a knife.
Fun, for you is playing with other children, going down to the place where the men drink the homebrew that some of the women prepare out of a common pot. There you can dance to drums with some of the other girls. You like it when everyone joins in while the old men talk about yesterday, today and tomorrow.
The future does not look bright for you. You hear people talking about things getting better, but you have not seen it. Malaria still comes to visit you on a regular basis, there is dysentery, cholera that one has to look out for, and as you have gotten older and developed as a young woman, there is the hidden problem in Africa. Your uncles have been coming around saying things to you, and suggesting that you come to visit and learn how to be a woman. Yes, things are not getting better for you.
It would be nice to learn how to read and write, but it may never happen, in fact there are not many in the family that do.
There was something new you had heard about. Some organization had set up a little house at the edge of the village and was making it possible for children to go to school without school fees. They also provided school uniforms, books, transport and some food. The cost would be paid for a by a family far away and it was called sponsorship. Maybe, just maybe this was true and someone did care about children like you.
Maybe there was more to life; maybe there would be a chance, an open door to have hope. Maybe, someone did care.