Hawa was seventeen, the head girl and one of the smartest people in the school. She stood out, in her tall and elegant youthful beauty, at the daily school assembly held at 8 am in the open air in front of the bush secondary school, way upcountry six hours from the capital of Sierra Leone.
It was many decades before civil war, or Ebola. A time when the hardwood forests of the east of Sierra Leone were beginning to be cut down. My home was on the other side of a rice swamp that I crossed daily on my way to the school. The interview for the job of English teacher had taken place during a July torrential downpour and I was surprised at the end of it to be given the job. The salary was minimal but so were my qualifications. I was asked to take responsibility for the O level English class and to teach a little French. The class varied in ability from a sixteen-year old American girl with an uninterrupted education to a thirty two year old man with two children who was finally hoping to get his O level qualification and some kind of decent job in the capital.
My journey to school took me only five minutes but long enough to rot my leather sandals within a few short weeks. I went down the dirt road where my home was situated, then across the swamp and up the hill to school that was surrounded by a thick forest. There were magnificent old trees stretching in every direction.
I thought I had a pretty good handle on the challenges that faced young women in that place, until one day nearing the end of my time there, Hawa turned up at the door. I hadn’t seen her for a few weeks at school. She was carrying a new born baby. I greeted her with some inane expression like ‘Oh I wondered what had happened to you. I knew that you had dropped out of school but nobody told me why.’ I have always felt a certain amount of guilt for not being able to do anything for that lovely girl with womanhood forced on her at such an early age. I was so wrapped up in having to leave quite suddenly and so didn’t ask what I could do for her. I know that the male responsible for her change of status was not reprimanded in any way nor forced to leave school. There were no consequences for his actions. There was no truncation of his bright potential. I raged inside but felt powerless to do anything.
I’m reminded always of Hawa when I listen to people like Malala Yousafzai and her passion for girls’ education. She, however, is one of the fortunate few in the other part of the world with a father who is a passionate feminist. Who believes that education for girls is one of the most important ways forward. Who never hesitated to make sure that his beloved daughter had equal opportunities in life. Who did not listen when people commiserated on the occasion of her birth when they expressed their condolences and hoped that he would have a son next time. Who never wavered in his desire to have the best for his daughter. We need a world of fathers like him. Fathers who believe that their daughters are capable of greatness, just like their sons.
There is plenty of evidence that educating girls leads to overall development of a society on so many levels. But we need to call in the men, the father, the brothers, the uncles, who will champion the cause of female education so that it becomes as normal an item as the education of males. Not something that is heroic but an everyday fact of life. Not something that is unusual but commonplace. That each child that is born can expect to access schooling and to go as far as she or he aspires to. And that gender differences are nowhere on the horizon.
And in honor of Hawa, I need now get busy with sponsoring a young girl to go all the way with her schooling. And she needs to have a father behind her who believes that she is destined for greatness.