I was recently the host on a TV competition show for people aged 8 – 13 and there, I met Zara.
I remember the first time I saw her. She is pretty with her Fulani long limbs, nose and beautiful eyes, but it wasn’t any of that; what struck me was the defiance, almost anger, that I sensed in this 13-year old. She always wore sneakers and leggings/jeans with her hijab; while discussing with her peers, she would sit thug-mode – you know, that pose where you hunch over with your elbows perched on your knees, legs spread firmly and widely apart – and gesticulate like a rapper. Occasionally she’d laugh, displaying white happy teeth, and only in these rare moments did the child in her shine through. Almost as soon as such a moment happened however, Zara would tighten her lips, brush a thumb over her nose and resume thugging.
One time I was feeling lucky, I told her to smile, because didn’t she see the cameras were on her? Brothers and sisters in solidarity, without so much as a glance my way or even the twitch of a muscle, Zara replied, “I don’t like smiling”. End of matter. Ozugo. As my friend Nike would say, Opari! lol.
Zara is smart; she would answer her questions correctly while playing with the edges of her hijab in a manner that drawled, are we done here? And when she ran into a tight spot, when she didn’t know the right answer, she would give up instantly. Hands still stuck in hijab, she would shift her weight from one spindly leg to the other, and amidst a train of hisses (yes, into the microphone!), she’d set her face in a scowl so visibly irritated that you’d be forced to sniff your armpits – like, is it me? Am I stinking? Then she’d throw an answer at you – because she expects it’s the wrong answer and wants to be left the hell alone – but she’d get it right and qualify for the next round. And then would she permit herself a tiny smile.
This happened over and over, and it irked me quite a bit. I wanted to conk her head and say, in my father’s voice, “Mai fren, dunn be sillay!” At the same time, I wanted to hug her tight and say, “Princess, can’t you see how great you are?!”
I saw through Zara. I saw this smart girl who could win, who wanted to win, but who was so afraid to try because if she didn’t win eventually, it’d hurt too much to hear someone gloat over it. So it was safer to feign disinterest and only try halfheartedly – get the logic? Me neither. 🙂
I didn’t get the logic, but I knew that the weight on this child’s shoulders shouldn’t be borne by even a full-grown adult. I knew that her former attitude (because that’s in the past now, Zara, isn’t it?) would only lead to a dark place in life, a dank bottomless pit in which regardless of how much money, accolades or relationships she garnered, joy would perpetually evade her. I knew that it wouldn’t matter the sad story she came from, life, self-acclaimed Themis that she is, would deal with her justly. And because I knew all these, I knew that I had to teach her a lesson, she and the rest of the children.
So, I got to work. Every time I saw her at camp, I talked to her, validated her; every time I saw a hijab bowed over, I told her to chin up then I smiled at her; every time she stumbled during the competition, I re-validated her. You’ve come this far, Zara, why give up now? Give it your best shot, so that win or lose, you won already. If you give up now, don’t even bother waiting for the results because yours got called already – fail. Be strong, you can do this, you’re beautiful, you’re good, you’re smart…DJ Khaled would’ve been proud of me.
In the end, Zara came in second place nationwide. She won some money, a medal and a trophy for her school. She says she also won a mentor and “an uncle who got my back” (I denied the mentor part, I’m not that old biko). Most importantly though, she won herself confidence and a lifelong supply of precious tenacity.
Now here’s the juice. Zara told me that but for her mother, she wouldn’t even be in school. Having married at 13 herself with zero education, her mother was determined that her daughter would live different. But it was just her; Father Zara and everyone else in Zara’s family and immediate community thought it was a waste of time having my young friend in school. Her mother constantly fought, negotiated, schemed and scraped, to keep her child in school. And so, coming for the competition, Zara wanted to show everybody that she was worth it. She wanted to prove to her father and her people that girls should be allowed to go to school.
“Well, look at you now,” I told her as we sat gisting afterwards, “you did all of that. Killed it!”
She beamed. I asked if she had plans to attend the university and her nods reassured me. She said she would become a medical doctor, an actor and a TV host, and then she would build a big school in her community where girls can go for free.
“I wish my mother was here,” Zara sighed, “I told her not to come because I was afraid I’d fail her.”
“It’s okay, now you know better. You’ll never again let fear rob you of a potentially priceless moment, like this one.” I consoled her. “As for your mother, look in the mirror…she is here.”
I meant it.
When the winners lined up for pictures, Zara held her trophy up the highest, her smile the brightest…so bright I couldn’t help mine.
It was the proudest in your face moment I have ever seen.
P.S: Zara is a fictitious name used here to protect my friend. Haba, if iss you nko, will you use her real name?