The sun sat high in the deep blue sky when three well-known elders from the small village of Harar, Ethiopia, visited Yaya. The elders’ visit was unusual. Yaya’s wife, Sitina, served them tea with milk, dates, and water and dutifully returned to her bedroom. But she sat behind the curtain to listen to what the elders had to say. The negotiation was soon over. All shook hands. Yaya had agreed to marry off his daughter Malika to Zuber, a wealthy seventy-year-old trader from the village. Once the elders left, Sitina emerged from the bedroom and sat next to her husband.
“I heard everything. You made the decision quickly and without consulting with me. You could have said you would think about it and get back to them.” said Sitina.
She had been sixteen herself when she married Yaya with an arranged marriage. Sitina’s dark hair went gray prematurely, and her hands were calloused from years of housework. Although usually soft-spoken, her tone when she addressed Yaya was bitter as black coffee, as if she regretted her own marriage and did not want the same for her daughter — to cut short her education. Yaya leaned his back against the brick wall and cleared his throat.
“Sitina, when a well-known person chooses our daughter for his wife, we shouldn’t turn our back on him. We shouldn’t make ourselves arrogant,” Yaya sat back in his chair and folded his hands across his chest.
“We raised our daughter in a good manner, which earned us respect and a good reputation in this village. There shouldn’t be any concern.”
He moved his chair closer to Sitina, his voice growing louder as he spoke, his big eyes darting back and forth and veins bulging on his neck. Reputation was everything to Yaya — what his friends and the rest of the village thought of his family... Malika was his daughter, his duty, and he knew what was best for her. He didn’t care about what his daughter wanted but instead about his family’s reputation in the village. Tall, dark-skinned and bald, Yaya’s eyes were always bloodshot and his temper was known to get out of hand.
“I have a concern,” said Sitina as she put her chin on her hand.
“Abba, Umma.” Malika greeted her parents upon her return from school. The couple paused talking when they saw their daughter standing before them with her books in a plastic bag. Sitina looked into her daughter’s eyes. Malika’s pretty, dark eyes and skin told of her youth and innocence. As Sitina looked into her sixteen-year-old daughter’s eyes, knowing a marriage to Zuber would change everything, she watched her daughter’s dreams and ambitions crumble to dust.
“I always tell you not to pop your pimples,” said Sitina. “Change your clothes and wash your hands. I will give you something to eat.”
“Not right now, Umma.” Malika darted toward the room before her mother could reply. She changed her clothes and ran outside to play with her friends. The couple continued their conversation but did not reach a solution. Yaya wanted the marriage to happen, while Sitina wanted her daughter to finish school.The next day, Yaya called his relatives, Sitina’s family, and their neighbors for a meeting. The meeting was full of mixed emotions, but the group unanimously voted for the marriage to proceed.
Sitina protested, “Yaya and I have one Malika — only one, as my heart. She is too young to marry an old man who has seen his great-grandchildren. He has seen enough in his life. My innocent daughter has not yet played enough.”
“Sitina, for God’s sake,” Yaya interrupted. “We have already decided. Everybody agreed except you. You need to understand you are ruining Malika’s future. You are trying to shut the door God has opened for her.”
Yaya stood up and threw his hands in the air, the veins in his forehead and neck bulging.
“You want her to lose this opportunity and keep her in poverty?” A man sat Yaya down and gave him a glass of water to calm his anger.
Sitina began sobbing. “I want my daughter to continue her education.”
Sheikh Mustafa, a well-respected imam in the village, stood up.
“In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful,” he began and continued, “Sitina, you are the mother. Yaya, you are the father. Both of you want what is good for your daughter. But we should never ignore what Malika wants. Malika’s decision matters. I call upon you to bring Malika into this meeting right now.”
The imam sat. In a moment, Malika, who had been playing outside, was brought into the room. She sat next to her mother, wiping the sweat from her forehead. Everybody’s eyes were on Malika. Curious, Malika looked around at her family and neighbors. She had no idea why they had summoned her.
“Yaya,” said Sheikh Mustafa, “Now you can ask your daughter about her willingness.”
Yaya turned to face his only daughter, “Malika tiyya, my Malika. Zuber wants to marry you. Will you accept?” Malika looked down. The heavy silence seeped into all the corners of the room for some moments. Then, all the women in the room burst into high ululations. “Thanks to God, Malika has accepted,” said the imam as he raised his hands. 4Malika’s silence was shared with her mother. Malika never looked up the entire time. Her mother didn’t speak for the rest of the meeting. For Malika, silence was her best answer to her father’s question and wishes. In silence, she accepted her fate and sealed her destiny. In a week, Yaya’s house became busy. Men and women from the village scurried back and forth, preparing for Malika’smarriage. Goats and sheep arrived. The villagers exalted at Malika’s luck and how her parents would become rich and live a luxurious lifestyle. On the morning of the wedding, Zuber dressed well in an expensive Sarong, white shirt, and brown sandals. The rolls of fat from his neck all the way to his feet were a symbol of his wealth. Men young and old surrounded Zuber and walked with him to Malika’s house. The men carried khat, halva, gold, and clothes. The women in colorful groups welcomed the men with beautiful songs and drumbeats as they jumped in the air. The imam conducted the ceremony. The traditional dowry payments were delivered to Malika’s parents. Malika officially married Zuber. The afternoon and evening passed with wedding food and dancing at Zuber’s house. Malika watched the exultation around her with wide, quiet eyes until, finally, the wedding celebration was over. ***Weeks and months passed. Zuber was happy. His children and grandchildren visited him from America and Europe to congratulate him. His new wife was still silent. Her silence concerned Zuber, but he kept the hope that her shyness would eventually disappear. Malika would often visit her mother. Every time she visited, they exchanged greetings with sobbing and tears, not much talk. When she saw her father, she hid her emotion and talked with him normally, but still lowered her gaze. 5The whole village celebrated Malika’s pregnancy. Congratulations from villagers flooded Zuber wherever he went. As Malika’s belly grew and grew and she got closer to having her baby, two maids were hired, one to do the cooking and the other to do the housekeeping and wash the clothes. Butter, spices, honey, and barley flour were prepared, as well as pillows and a mattress for the birth. Family and friends eagerly awaited the birth of the child with bated breath and barely concealed joy.One night, when the sun was still hours away from peeking over the horizon, Sitina awoke to loud knocking on her door. She ran barefoot to open it. It was Malika’s maid, impatiently twisting her hands.“Hurry! Malika is not feeling well.” “Has she already given birth?”“No, she is not ready.”When Sitina arrived, the midwife was already there, putting cold water on Malika’s forehead with a cloth. Malika’s long and loud moaning could be heard from the street. Her mother began comforting her. Zuber walked back and forth outside the house as he smoked one cigarette after another. Before the sunrise, Malika delivered her baby girl. Zuber named her Fajir after the morning prayer.***It had been six months since baby Fajir came into the world. She was beautiful with a round face. But her soft, dark hair, white skin, and amber eyes were causing an uproar in the village. 6“How come the baby is white like Americans, Europeans, or Arabs? How come her hair is soft like ferenji, the foreigners? She doesn’t look like her parents at all.”
The gossip spread throughout the village like wildfire. Zuber soon called his family and neighbors together to sit for a meeting. Everyone invited came to the meeting, including the imam.
“I come before you to tell you that this is not my child. The child is white. Both Malika and I have dark skin like charcoal. The baby doesn’t look like me or any of my family. The child doesn’t look like Malika or any of her family. I divorce Malike; I divorce, I divorce,” said Zuber.
He scratched his head, pulling at his hair in his distress. “She must return with the foreigner’s child to her parents’ home.”
Silence settled across the room. Everybody looked shocked. Some people began whispering prayers that God would protect them from this kind of embarrassment on this earth.
“God knows best,” said the imam as he stood up to leave the house.
“By the name of God, sit down, imam, sit down for a moment,” said Sitina. Yaya rocked back and forth and remained quiet in the corner, gazing at the floor.“
"Only God is just. You are right; only God knows best,” she said as she stood and held the door as if she was preventing anyone from leaving.
“My innocent daughter is not a prostitute. I don’t have to explain how I raised her. I blame no one except her fate. This baby is not a curse but a miracle. God can create a dark-skinned baby out of a white family. He can create disabled children out of healthy parents. He can create an albino child out of parents who have no genetic disorder. He can do whatever he wants.”
“You are telling the truth,” the imam said. “I am done. Everybody can go home,” Sitina said. Everybody left one at a time.
In the evening, Sitina brought Malika and baby Fajir home.
The whole village made the Yaya family the focus of their daily gossip. “There is a foreign child in that house,” passers-by would say as they pointed their fingers at the house.
Neighbors stopped visiting them at home. Sitina and Malika began going to the market after dusk to avoid being seen in public. Yaya prayed at home and stopped going to the mosque as if he was embarrassed to lose his respect in the village. Their house was quiet but not peaceful. Sitina, Malika, and the baby began sleeping curled together on the same mattress, isolating Yaya in his bedroom alone. One morning, Yaya blamed Malika for making him prisoner in his own house.
“Leave my daughter alone. You contributed to this path of her life. Your own actions embarrassed you, not my daughter.” said Sitina in a low, angry tone.
“I wanted her to have a successful life. I gave her that with Zuber. And now that is gone,” Yaya curled his hands into fists and pressed his fingernails into his palms.
“Marriage alone cannot make people successful.”
Malika listened to her parents argue but did not speak. Not long after Zuber divorced Malika, he married another young girl from the village in a big wedding. Everybody in the village was invited, except the Yaya family. Food, dance, and 8drumbeats went on for weeks to celebrate the wedding. Yaya’s family shrunk, isolating themselves from the rest of the village. One evening, Sitina dressed up baby Fajir and tied her on her back. She instructed Malika to pack clothes for the three of them.
“May God be with you, Yaya,” Sitina told her husband before she exited the door, pulling Malika behind her.
“May God give you strength.”
“Where are you going?” Yaya asked as he followed them to the door.
“We are going to a place where my daughter can heal. We are going to a place where there is no hate and gossip. I want my daughter and granddaughter to live in peace.”
“Where are you going? Where?”
Sitina never looked back at Yaya. She took a taxi to the train station with Malika and the baby. Around midnight, the train departed for Djibouti, leaving Ethiopia behind. Sitina, Malika, and Fajir became refugees, fleeing hate and gossip and moving into an unknown land.
Author Nejib Adem was born in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia and is a graduate of Middle Tennessee State University’s Master of Arts in International Affairs. He has been working with refugees and asylum seekers for over ten years. In 2008 he was awarded the very first Baptist Healing Trust and Erie Chapman Foundation Servant’s Heart Award in Nashville, Tennessee. He is Human Rights advocate. He researches issues related to immigration, refugees, and asylum seekers.