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On Trying to Understand My Sister’s Sacrifice

On one fateful day in July 1996, I packed my few belongings and some books – most of which handwritten – and took an MV Serengeti from Mkoani heading to Unguja, where I was admitted to the then Institute of Kiswahili and Foreign Languages to pursue my diploma on Teaching Languages.

That day, my mother had made sure to wake me up early so I could catch the only passenger lorry that would drop me at Mzambarauni-Takao and from there would get another Daladala to Chake Chake and then to Mkoani.

I was 19 by that time. Having already lost my father a year ago, leaving my mother was not, by any standards, something we both wanted. We knew what it meant. But it was she, above all others, who was forcing me to go for further studies, even if it meant being away from home.

“That’s what your Dad would have wanted. He was worried for his daughter to be destroyed by your schooling, but he wanted you to study until there is nothing more to study.” Mom was always reminding me of my father’s promise. And she was not ready to let it go unfulfilled.

Yes, our father was a little bit conservative old man. As any other responsible parent, he was worried of almost each and everything he perceived as ‘dangerous’ to the wellbeing of his children. And we were just two of us. Fatma, who was born in 1969, and I in 1977.

To understand his worries, you must turn back and look at a father who was blessed with children in his old age. He was already 55 when I came to his life. Fatma had come some seven years earlier, but even that was already too late for him. All he wanted was to make sure nothing went wrong for us before he departed as he was not sure to be there when we are grown-ups.

That was a reason he took a dramatic decision to pull Fatma out from her very promising secular education and ordered her to stay at home. Was he such a cruel father? No, not at all. He was but a very loving Dad who could go miles to prove his love to us.

There is a story behind this decision of his, few of which I later heard him regretting. In the early 1980s, the government decided to roll all students who finished their secondary education to the national service known as Jeshi la Kujenga Uchumi (JKU). It was a must for all boys and girls.

Our village is situated in the area of the famous Msaani JKU camp, where some of those girls were already recruiting. One day, a group of girls came all the way with short pants to shop at our small duka. Part of their thighs open, their chests not properly covered, let alone their heads, this was – of course – too much a share for a 60 years old father to chew.

Fatma was by the time a teenager, so sharp in school that in every term she would not come down from Number 2 in the class. Actually, she was often leading the class. But picturing her daughter in 10 or so years to come in that outfit, my father defied government’s circular that made it a crime for a parent to take their children out of school with no acceptable reason. He ordered her out!

He kept receiving warning letters and attending hearings at the government offices, but he stood his feet on ground: “There’s no way my daughter will wear such clothes in front of men!” And so it was. My dear sister Fatma’s dream on education was overshadowed by our father’s fears to loose her into immoral clothing.

So, when our mother was telling of Dad’s promise, she was indirectly reminding me that I was supposed to compensate Fatma’s loss in education. I had to study not just for myself but for my sister as well. Because if she were a boy as I was, she would have been allowed to pursue all venues of education until “there would be nothing else to study!”

That day, when I boarded MV Serengeti at Mkoani, Mom’s words were all over me, Dad’s image still rolling my mind. I had a promise to keep. A mission to fulfil. Once the journey started, I took my diary and penned the poem ‘Khadhira Wangu Nyamaza‘ in Swahili (Cry Not My Khadhira) whose some verses are translated here. Khadhira is a shortened version of Arabic words Al Jaziirat ul Khadhraa, or Green Island, as first Arabian travellers called my home island, Pemba:

O, Khadhira!
This was not what I wanted, nor what I desired
But when a must is a must, the needful has to be done
Touching your shoulder, I am saying what’s required
If there were choices, this wouldn’t I have chosen
But if it is God’s decision
That today I leave you
That’s His Will, and how helpless I am!

O, Khadhira!
Don’t pour down your tears, never shouting your cries
Don’t punish yourself, O, Dear, with such blasts
As you better know, there is a return way
And to God I swear
That I can’t bear
Leaving you dear, that will never happen!

Up to this day, more than two decades later, I still try to compose my sister’s feelings on the sacrifice she was made to make for her entire life. She has never complained about our Dad’s decision to get her out of school. She has never demanded any remedy for the loss she encountered for this decision. She was always a little loving Fatu, as our Dad used to call her, and to her I have always remained his little brother Edi, the name she still calls me even as I am already above 40.

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