Thursday, July 21, 2005

This Girl and her Baby Sister

I have a compassion for children. Just imagine what this girl goes through.

Eleven-year-old Fatuma is so desperate to finish her education that she would rather take her ten-month-old sister to school with her than remain at home looking after her while their mother goes to work. She describes what is, for her, a typical school day.

I will be 12 this year and I know there is something not right about the way I go to school. As my classmates carry their books, I have to carry my baby sister Joyce. Holding my other hand is Chacha, my six-year-old brother.

My mother goes to Komarock Estate to wash people’s clothes for money to feed us, leaving me with no choice but to go to school with the baby. Sometimes I find myself praying silently to God that the day will go smoothly so I can concentrate on my lessons.

Our school is in Maili Saba in Kariobangi. People say that only children of single parents, or Aids orphans go there but I love it and have been coming here since I was in nursery; now I’m in Standard Three.

We have five classrooms, each accommodating two classes. My class shares the same space with a Standard Two class. We are taught in turns and only a small space divides our benches. While our teacher, Mr Mwangi, is teaching the other half of the class, I am able to catch up on my assignments. I also grab the chance to take the baby out for a stroll because she gets cranky when we have to sit for too long on the hard benches.

Most of us do not have notebooks and have to write on shared pieces of paper. My friend who sits next to me helps as much as she can by jotting down most of the notes while I cradle the baby and try to keep her as quiet as possible.

During class time it is hard for me to pay attention with her crying and wanting me to carry her, but what do I do? I can only give her the porridge my mother has prepared before she leaves for work. Sometimes she continues to cry even after drinking the porridge. At such times I feel like crying, too.

It is difficult to write and carry Joyce at the same time, so a couple of weeks ago I changed my position and went to the back of the class. It is more comfortable as I can rest my back and the baby against the wall, leaving my hands free to write. But I have to be extra careful so that she doesn’t slip off the bench and fall down.

Joyce has become accustomed to sitting on the hard bench but when she gets tired I have to use my left hand to support her. When she gets tired of sitting upright, she places her head on my lap and tries to sleep but only for a few minutes before the noise of the other students wakes her up again.

When she has had her porridge she becomes jovial and loves to clap her hands. The other children love her and play with her when the teacher steps out. I think when she starts school she will be very bright because she will have already learnt her Standard Three work!

I change Joyce’s nappy during break-time, at around 10:30 am, when everyone else has gone out to play. I put the soiled nappy in a polythene bag that I keep in the corner of the classroom. This is also the time that I feed her porridge. She holds the plastic bottle to her mouth and quickly gulps the contents. I’m sometimes forced to pull it away so she will have some left for lunch. When I told my mother this, she started packing some boiled rice as well, but only when she can afford it.

My brother Chacha is in Standard One and he gets hungry too, so once in a while I have to share what little there between him and the baby. Once I was really hungry and felt tempted to sip the porridge. Finally, unable to contain myself, I took a gulp from the bottle and there was not enough left for Joyce afterwards. When it was time to feed her she drank what was left but wasn’t satisfied. She cried all through the rest of the day and the teacher eventually had to send me home early.

Another time there was no porridge so my mother cooked some ugali and sukuma wiki and left it in a hotpot for us at home. I had to leave school at lunch time and take the baby and Chacha home to eat. I have a plan for the day there will be no food. I’ll give the baby some water to drink and walk with her outside to distract her.

Even though I am in school, I miss a lot of class time because of the baby. When she cries too loudly and interrupts the class, I have to take her outside and soothe her to sleep. It is worse when she has a cold and her nose gets blocked, like now. She cries because she is unable to breathe properly. But I have come to accept that Joyce is a part of my life both at home and in school.

I am also thankful that my teacher agreed for me to come with the baby to class because he understands that I do not want to miss any lessons. He even met with my mother when she came to the school to explain the situation.

I know there are cases worse than mine in our school and this gives me the courage to carry on learning with my baby sister beside me. In nursery class there is a child called Mercy Akinyi who is only two years old. She is taken care of by her three-year-old sister in the same class. But the teacher is always ready to step in when the baby’s crying becomes too much.

I understand that my mother has to work to be able to provide for us, but how I wish she would take Joyce with her sometimes. It feels like I have this big bag on my shoulders and it is weighing me down.

When Joyce finally falls asleep in the afternoon, I place her on the floor by my feet and cover her with a shawl. I cherish these moments and try to get as much of my class work done as possible, occasionally checking to see that no one steps on her.

Sometimes she wakes up hungry and there is no porridge left to give her. To drown out her crying at such times, I drift into my make-believe world in which I am rich and able to afford to buy my mother a big house and my siblings all the food they can eat.

But as it is, I do not see any hope of being able to sit the final exams in Standard Eight because our school only goes up to Standard Five. Teacher Mwangi looks for schools to take in the brighter students so that they can continue learning. I hope he does that for me too, so I can have a chance to finish school and find a way of providing for my mother so she won’t have to work long hours and can stay at home with the baby.

Another day comes to an end and I strap Joyce to my back and pick up the polythene bag containing her things. By this time she has cried herself hoarse and is asleep. With Chacha beside me playfully kicking a stone, we set off for home, hoping against hope to find some food, even if it is last night’s ugali.

Article courtesy of the Daily Nation, Wednesday Living Magazine 20th July 2005.