In my neighbourhood, I’ve heard about the numerous girls who have been married off to older men and have since given birth to two children or more. But there is something more revealing about this story- education, marriage, and hair.
My kid sister and I had an interview with the bride and got a little insight into why a 15-year old girl would choose her hair over school. Call it a tradition, culture or in some aspect religious belief shared by a particular group of people which does not necessarily involve all others who share the same belief.
This is what I gathered two years ago from the “Zabarmas” of Niger and other neighbouring countries, who for many years now have come to settle in various parts of Ghana.
What you are about to read is the situation at the time of the interview.
Fati lives with her parents at Awoshie, a suburb of Accra. In a few months, she would be getting married to someone she has never met before- a man old enough to be her father.
According to Fati, she has witnessed a number of child marriages in her tribe. Some of the girls had to forfeit their education at the final year of Junior High School but somehow she thought her story would be different.
“Until now, I didn’t know I was going to be married off. I had heard rumours about a supposed suitor who was in talks with my father for my hand in marriage. I had already chosen some second cycle schools with the hope of continuing my education. But it seems there is no option than to succumb to the wishes of my parents and the demands of our tradition,” she tells me.
Among the Zabarmas, custom allows a girl to be given out for marriage from the tender age of eight. However, in most cases, a majority of these children become second wives and are made to serve under the first wives who are often older and experienced than them.
Perpetrators of these acts explain that the practice is to prevent young girls from being promiscuous in a bid to protect their pride and dignity.
It is also widely believed that a woman’s glory lies in her hair and that crown is often kept and covered. In most cases, never shaved. Girls are made to keep their hair for as long as they want. It is uncommon for a girl from that tribe to cut or shave her hair.
“Zabarma girls are also not allowed to add extensions to their hair,” Fati adds.
In her case, she has grown hers since birth and has never introduced it to scissors.
Fati tells me she wishes to be in school but admits that despite the marriage proposal, it would be difficult for her to sacrifice her long hair even if she had the option of going back to school.
“Yes I want to be in school and I don’t want to get married but I also can’t stand shaving my long hair before going to school. I know this is a basic requirement in every second cycle school and maybe I’m not ready for that sacrifice,” she tells me.
Fati confesses her obsession with her hair, like most of her colleagues, adding that it is unfortunate the educational system in Ghana does not allow senior high school students to keep their hair as long as they want to. That withstanding, even if she had the chance to further her education, shaving it all off will be too big a sacrifice.
It came out during my interactions that there was a similar case involving a 14-year-old girl who wanted to defy the norm and continue her education. So when she heard of plans to get her married off, she shaved everything in order to be rejected by her suitor. Unfortunately, that didn’t work. Her parents postponed the marriage to allow her to grow it back before finally being married off. Sounds very weird.
Another older victim of child marriage also shares her ordeal with me.
Halima is now 26 years with four children.
“I got married at age 17. Even though I was still young, my friends and family mocked me that I had stayed so long at home. Most of my age mates who got married at age 13 now have many children. Normally, we are not allowed to work because our husbands provide all our needs while we make babies,” she reveals.
Are these little girls even matured and fit for marriage?
Halima tells me there is a ritual these girls go through once a suitor shows up. This forms part of the grooming process to prepare them for their marital home and that life journey.
“There is this concoction called hangandi. It is often given to the girls to gain weight. Usually, it is mixed with mashed kenkey and the bride-to-be is expected to drink it for a couple of days before the marriage rite is performed. Once she starts taking this mixture, she gains weight, increases in size and shape and looks matured irrespective of how young or small she may have looked prior to the ceremony,” she explains.
Halima tells me this special concoction is given to almost all the girls because most of them, before their marriage, look very young- just like the children they are. A girl is made to take the hangandi till she is considered a ‘marriage material’ for her husband.
Another peculiar thing about marriage in this tribe is that majority of suitors are from the same family as the girl; albeit a distant one. Most Zabarma men are considered rich and so there are claims that this move is a way of protecting the wealth of the family from getting into the hands of outsiders.
But despite all these norms of custom, culture or tradition, the Zabarmas frown on divorce. Thus, for most of these children who fall prey to child marriage, there is hardly any chance of turning back, certainly not any sooner.