Two Cows for a Childhood

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I lower my head and step into the darkness, where a teenage girl welcomes me with a smile, a little boy cuddled in her arms. Her worn out white dress, studded with tiny blue flowers, nearly reaches her ankles, creating an image too serious for her age. The boy must be around 2 years old, and the girl is in her teens.

“Where is the mother?” I ask the woman who brought us here.

“She is the mother,” Virginia says.

I feel the ground shift under my feet, so I quietly lean on the muddy wall, little branches protruding it to poke my shoulder. I strain my eyes and look at the girl more carefully, as if such inspection will somehow make her seem older, as if there are some wrinkles in her young face that I haven’t recognized first. Her features become clearer as my eyes get used to the smoky darkness surrounding us. I want to see her face once again, but my gaze is glued to her hands. “Those are child’s fingers,” I can’t stop thinking. “They ought to be playing with dolls.”

This Maasai manyatta is like any other; it is made of wooden poles plastered over with a mix of mud and cattle dung, one little window under the 5-foot ceiling providing the only light; rays of sun stretching their smoky sleeves across the darkness, dust dancing inside of them. It is hard to tell a poor family from a rich one here, because the accommodations of the Maasai are similar across the social spectrum. What tells them apart is the amount of cattle each family owns.

“They have none,” Virginia says, spelling out the verdict.

“And the goats outside?” I ask naively, refusing to give up hope.

“They belong to the neighbors,” she says, turning to the girl and asking about her age in Kimaasai.

“Eighteen,” Sophia whispers, staring at the floor.

I shake my head in disbelief. I can give her 15 at most.

We are sitting on a cow skin stretched over a few sticks dug into the ground. Sophia is facing us from across the hut, on a similar bed, lulling the baby. Her big eyes reveal little emotion, but the corners of her lips show a hint of a smile. She might have as well walked off Michelangelo’s canvas to light up this place with her innocent motherly love. But the air above her is too heavy. I can’t shake off the feeling that we are simply waiting for an older woman to join us and make this reality a little less real.

Instead, a really old man steps in, wrapped in a red shuka, the traditional Maasai robe. Right behind him, a curious child’s face takes a peak into the manyatta.


“Meet Sophia’s husband,” Virginia introduces us. “And the 5-year-old is her older daughter. Let’s go outside and take a family photo.”

It takes me a moment to process these unbearable to my Western mind facts and get off that cow skin. But it’s not until we walk out and adjust our eyes to daylight, that I realize that under the white dress with tiny blue flowers, Sophia is pregnant again. My camera zooms in on the man’s wrinkled cheeks and the hair gone white. The absolute unfairness of the girl’s situation slaps me in the face.

“Could life have been different if she went to school?” I ask.

Possibly, Virginia says, but her parents were too poor to send her to one, so they sold her off to the man for a couple of cows, a common occurrence around here.

I am trying to chase desperation out of my head. Walking away and forgetting this means giving in to helplessness. We could buy groceries, clothes or even toys for her children, but none of that will make any difference in the long run. I can’t think of anything better. I come up to Sophia and try mixing the little Kimaasai and Kiswahili I know with English, trying to communicate with her.

“Please send your girl to school,” I think I am saying, pointing at the 5-year-old leaning against the fence, peeking curiously and shyly.

She looks right into me with her huge brown eyes and nods slightly.

“I will,” she says.

I take a quick look at the child in her arms as I am walking away. This one is lucky to be a boy, I can’t help thinking.

“Does the government do anything for the families in need?” I ask Virginia on our way back.

“Nothing,” she says.

“Sophia won’t keep her word,” I tell her. “She simply can’t afford to keep it.”

“The community has built a new preschool where the girl can go for free,” Virginia reassures me, hardly alleviating the grimness of my thinking. The child will need food, and books, and shoes, and uniforms, and sooner or later her parents will see her as too much of a burden. She will be lucky if she finishes eighth grade. My mind is racing toward the roots of the problem; but I get even gloomier as I am not seeing any solutions along the way.

“Whenever your hope slips away like that, remember that kindness can still be found in this world,” Emmanuel tells me as we drive through Nairobi. “Compassion just doesn’t act as aggressively as injustice. You need to seek it out among people and channel it in the right direction.”

“Where do I channel it now?” I ask, looking at him with a slight disbelief.

“Let’s raise some funds and buy cows for Sophia.”

* * *

If you want to help other girls avoid such a fate, join Emma Academy Project and help us build a school.

3 thoughts on “Two Cows for a Childhood said:
    February 21, 2009 at 1:37 am

    wow very nice
    really i like this blog

    Jules responded:
    February 21, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    thank you

    Africa United: Movie Review | Dreaming of Africa said:
    November 13, 2013 at 6:59 am

    […] the village who could pay “the bride price” or six cows for her, or run away. Remember my post, Two Cows for a Childhood? These kinds of things just show you that everything in this movie, no matter how funny or strange […]

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