I have been the school counselor for a few weeks and I have not really done much. Last week that changed. I do not even know how I feel about all that has been revealed this week. I sat down today to write this blog because my brain doesn’t know what else to do. I have been thinking almost non stop about the issues I am going to tell you about and I have no helpful reaction. I wish I knew what I was supposed to do.
On Wednesday I was having a mini counseling session with five of my form one students. One girl asked me for advice on how to say no to a persistent guy who was pressuring her. She said he told her he loved her and that he would take care of her. The student knew that being in a relationship at her age was difficult and she was afraid her school work would suffer. She also said she knew he was only saying he loved her so she would have sex with him. This smart student wanted to wait until she finished school before she got into a relationship. I gave her some advice. I told her to just be direct and tell him no, don’t let him promise you the world because the risks (HIV, pregnancy) are too high for a girl her age. She said she had tried that and he would not leave her alone. Then she told me that if a girl says “no”, the man will just beat her up. My mouth dropped open and I said, “Is that true?” Her friend who was sitting next to her chimed in and said yes, the men here will not be said no to. I told the girls that that was very wrong of the men to do that and said they have to be prepared, if he tries anything to try and fight back. Kick them in the groin, scream, run away. Then another girl spoke up, “Then they will come back, and they will bring all their friends”. I was in total disbelief. What was I supposed to say to that? I got very angry and I told them that that was unacceptable. No man has a right to treat them like that. But what practical advice can I tell them? Everyone knows about this problem and no one talks about it. These girls have been dealing with this since primary school. I asked when the men start harassing them and I was told that kids as young as 10 are forced or convinced to be a relationship with a much, much older man. The men tell the young girls that they will give them free rides on their motorbikes. This is a very, horrifyingly common situation. Of the form one class, only 3 of the girls were not in a relationship of this kind, and those three were in front of me asking for help. Once you have agreed to a relationship in exchange for a ride, the men spend their time trying to get you to do more. The girls who were sitting in front of me were the only ones who were not getting free motorbike rides. They knew the risks. One of them told me what would happen in the best case scenario; if you did not get AIDS or pregnant and the relationship ended. When the time came for you to get married, a man would pay a very large price for you. The dowry could be as high as 100,000 shillings, some cattle, and eight large bags of clothes. If the husband was happy with you he would even pay more after the wedding. But when he found out that you were not a virgin, he would be extremely angry. And he would pay nothing for you. You would be shamed and your family might starve.
That same day, I was walking home from school when I saw one of my students sitting by the side of the road. Her name was Fatuma, and she was crying. I asked her why and she said that she was being sent away from school to go get her parents. She owed a thousand shillings in school fees and could not afford to pay. If she could not come up with the money, she would not be able to return to school. She was in Form 3 and only had one more year to go. If she dropped out now there would be no future for her. Just like in America, if you do not have a high school diploma there are very few jobs for you. And here, where everyone is poor, there is no such thing as a minimum wage job. If you do not have a degree, you do not get a job, ever. Fatuma was crying because she knew that it was pointless, she would go and get her parents and they would not have the money. I walked her home, gave her a hug, and a piece of candy. I wanted so badly to give her the money, I have it, and I can afford it. But then what would I say to the other 120 students who are poor and need help? I could not give Fatuma the money and I felt terrible. One thousand shillings is thirteen American dollars. This girl’s entire future depended on her finding $13.
Thursday I came to school and was approached by one of the teachers to have a counseling session with a girl named Jillo. She was having a problem in all her classes, she could not stay awake. As soon as a teacher walked in the room, she would be asleep. During her prep times and during breaks, she was a bright active girl. I was requested to talk to her to find out what the problem was and if we could fix it, she is failing every single class and the teachers are concerned. I sat with her and talked for awhile. She said that she did not know what the problem was, she couldn’t help it but every single class put her to sleep. I asked if she was sick, if she was not sleeping at night, if she was stressed, or discouraged, or bored, or if she hated every single class. She said it was none of those reasons but she would not say what she thought the problem was. I gave her a piece of paper and told her she had until Monday to write me a letter telling me why. I said it would be anonymous and I would not even tell the other school counselor. I left and went and spoke with the other counselor and told him my plan to find out the problem. He said that he knew what she was going to write. She thought she was bewitched. He meant that literally and with no sarcasm. Jillo thought that someone had put her under a spell. Her parents also thought that was the case and wanted to take her to a witch doctor who could break the spell. The counselor convinced them that we should wait and try talking to the girl first, a witch doctor was too extreme at this stage. I have until Monday to find out what the problem is and then I have to fix it. And I have no clue what I am going to do.
When I got here I thought my job was to be a teacher. I was going to teach biology and physics and be a good friend to these students. Now I have no idea what to do. This whole week has changed my perspective on things. I feel like there are so many huge problems that I will not be able to even touch no matter how long I am here or how much I want to. I want a hundred cans of mace that I can give out to every girl, I want to give Fatuma $13 dollars, and I want Jillo to have a future that is far away from ignorance and witch doctors. Even if I were able to do all these things, the problems are still here. On the days when I think “what am I doing here? I could be eating a cheeseburger in a bar enjoying all the luxuries America has to offer,” I think about what I would be leaving behind. I could never go home to where life is easy and be able to sleep at night knowing the students are dealing with problems that I could never imaging dealing with. I may not be able to help these girls fix the problems, but I can stay for two years and listen to them.