At Age 13, My Old Husband Cometh…by Maryam Uwais

My name is Hurera. I am a 13 year-old Nigerian girl. I was born and raised within a large compound of many rooms built of mud and thatch, in a beautiful and serene rural community on the outskirts of Kuyambana. There are nineteen children in our immediate family, although my own mother (my father’s current second wife) has given birth to eight, out of which I amthe sixth child. The compound comprises our relations, including grandparents, uncles, brothers and their families. For lighting in the dark, we have oil lanterns and the moon, and for water, we fetch from streams, along with relations and friends. But very recently, running water from a tap has become available in our community, through the efforts of some kind people who have installed a strange device, popularly known as ‘tuka tuka’.

This ‘tuka tuka’ gushes water in strong bursts when the bigger ones amongst us pump the handle down from up. It has transformed our lives. We only have to line up on rather long queues to fill our containers. I miss the chatter, the laughter and the clatter of our old daily journeys to the stream, although it was rather tiring, given the long distances and the heavy buckets perched on our heads on the return trip. Moreover, the rate of diarrhea has dropped drastically in our compound. We are told that this is because the water is much cleaner. Indeed, the numbers of companions on that journey to that stream has since dwindled; some have died, while others have moved on.

Many of my friends, cousins and sisters have been married off to men they hardly know. But we all expect that to happen, once we become ‘of age’. Our hopes for schooling end as soon as a suitor emerges, showing an interest in us. We are told that education is wasted on a girl, in any event. But I do not think so, although I keep my thoughts to myself. Are we not the first ‘teachers’ to our children, in life?

Anyway, the girl’s school in our community stops at JS3 level, and since my parents cannot afford to transport me to the SS3 girl’s school located in our local government headquarters, I dare not think of an education beyond the confines of our community. Of my four friends who recently wedded, however, Ladidi is the luckiest, as her new husband was nearer her age and we hear he had agreed that she continue her education in the new town where they are living now; and he has kept his word. I miss my friends. I cannot play and laugh with them anymore. Most of them are wives now, of men who are much older than we are. They have co-wives, and no time for me. We have nothing in common now.

Two of my older sisters and a cousin were married off before they were 15 years of age, so I was not surprised when I overheard my parents discussing my impending marriage. After all, I am taller than other girls my age. But I am so nervous and even terrified by the prospects of marriage, especially to this particular man. I have only met him twice, although I have a good idea of what he looks like because I peep from behind the door whenever he visits my father. He is much older than I and he has a short, white beard. He speaks in a low voice and scarcely smiles. But he has promised to bring plenty of foodstuff, livestock and seedlings for my father, to assist him the next farming season. This year, my father’s harvest was not good so he has been quite worried about his responsibilities to our extended family, most of who live within our compound.

My mother has always said to us that we should trust our father, that he would never do anything that would harm us. He is a good, hardworking and decent man, but things are hard for him. As head of our family’s compound of thirty-three people (not counting the three pregnant wives of two of his brothers and an uncle, and the chickens, guinea fowl, pigeons, geese, sheep and goats that share our compound with us) he has to find a way to feed and cater for everyone. His choice for me is final, and I should appreciate that I am one less mouth to feed for him. Should I not feel sorry for my father?

My mother says this man that is coming to marry me is not a wicked man. He may already have a large family of sixteen children and three wives at the moment, but the rumours of his being difficult for having divorced five other women in the past are just stories created to spoil his name. He is merely firm and principled. He has large acres of farmland to support his family and ours, so the neighbours are just jealous that he chose his next wife from our family.

I keep silent. My mother does not know that those rumours do not worry me since such stories are commonplace

in our community. Divorce is nothing new to me. Girls merely move back to their parents until the next husband,

after their previous husbands have found an excuse to do away with them. They leave their children behind, with no

one in particular to care for them. Our parents just cannot take in all the children from their divorced daughter’s

numerous husbands. Besides, we have to learn to trust in God to watch over our children, in our absence.

The other day I saw two of Asabe’s younger sons begging near our compound. I remember very clearly the time when Ado was born. Asabe was so weak I was afraid she would die. She survived then, but died having her fifth child last year, well into her third marriage. She was my elder sister’s mate, and since there are only three siblings between Lami and I, she could not have been more than twenty-two years old then. I called Ado and his brother, Saleh, into our compound and shared my meal with them. I know that their father is hardly home and the food is never enough to go round. I learnt from them that they had recently been given out to the latest ‘alaramma’ in town, to learn with and accompany the other ‘almajirai’ in his custody to their next destination, wherever that may be. My heart went out to them and to Asabe, long cold in her grave. Their father had married yet another wife and needed the room that used to be their own.

I just wish I could continue with my education. There is no chance of that, however, especially because my three other co-wives (to be) are not educated. It would give the impression that he is not a fair man, and that would be against his principles and his faith. Mother tries to encourage me; she tells me that I will have an entire room to myself; my own mattress, the latest wrappers, cooking utensils and a brand new life. Just imagine; I will have my own children and begin my own family! In her own time, she had to share with a co-wife. In any event, good children do not argue with their parents. If I am obedient to my parents, God will be pleased with me. There comes a time when a girl becomes ripe for marriage and if she does not get a suitor at the right time, she could bring dishonor to her family, as Delu did. Remember Delu?

As if I could ever forget Delu! Delu was my friend. We grew up together as she lived in the next compound and was my age. We used to go out hawking groundnuts, chin chin, kulli kulli or homemade sweets, every afternoon after school, as well as in the mornings, at weekends. Delu would run ahead of us, laughing and squealing in delight when she was able to sell her items before us. She was pretty and nimble on her feet, but she was also physically more mature. Her tray was always the first to empty, with the men in our community always competing to buy her goods before ours. They would call out her name and she would run to them; sometimes even into their compounds to collect her change.

My mother had always warned us to be wary of being alone with any man, but then it was often the only way some of the customers would purchase our wares. The men always had large naira notes, so if we wanted to sell all our items off before nightfall, we needed to persuade people to buy. Woe betide you, if you came home with your tray even half full!

But Delu’s mother had since been divorced from her father and lived in another town. She had no body to talk to or advise her. Just us. We did not know much, either, because all our mothers told us was to strive NOT to be alone with men, without telling us why. Some of us were curious, but were nevertheless too afraid to be alone with them. A few were more daring, like Delu. Sometimes Delu would take a little time before emerging from those compounds, but she would usually explain that she took time because they were looking for the exact change.

Then one day we heard beatings; then shouting and crying coming from Delu’s compound. An old woman arrived late in the evening and Delu was hurriedly taken away. I have never seen her again; that was it! Only hushed whispers of a pregnancy and the shame and dishonour brought to her family. But what choices did Delu really have, with nobody there to counsel her?

Marriage is a frightening prospect to me. From all I can see around me, marriage comes with huge responsibilities, loneliness and many babies, most of who survive only if you are lucky. Talatu, my sister, tells me having babies is a

dreadful and agonising experience. She has already lost two children at birth, and almost lost her own life the last time.

The most experienced traditional birth attendant in our community did all she could for her, but the blood was just too

much for her to handle. Talatu’s husband was at his farm when the pains began, so she had to wait for his permission

before being taken to the nearest clinic. Indeed, she is afraid of him. She is even scared of the sound of his footsteps and

shivers at the mere sight of his caftan hung out to dry!

During the process of childbirth, Talatu had to be taken to the clinic for the first time, as both babies had been born at home. Barely sixteen herself, Talatu is still traumatised by the memories of other women in labour on that day, absolutely shocked by the fact that they did not even notice that they were stark naked amidst all the other people in the room with them. She tells me she kept thinking she had been brought into a room full of mad women! Now she looks away and scowls when her husband comes into her room. She says she does not want to have another child. Ever. She has heard that he is preparing to take another wife and is relieved. Hopefully, she will have some respite.

Another of my sister’s, Jummai, is a shadow of her former self. Most times she is withdrawn and quiet; she does not smile her beautiful smile, as before. Jummai had such a winning smile but now her eyes have lost their sparkle. Her only daughter is very thin, with a protruding rib cage. My poor niece cries all the time; a hoarse, whimpering sound. She is actually almost two years of age, but you would think she was only a few months old. She cannot sit by herself or eat proper food, only porridge. She wears a dazed look all the time. Sometimes we have to shake her, to know she is alive.

My mother is always sending me to give Jummai some herbs to drink and apply on her body parts. Jummai seems to be suffering from some strange illness. She has lost so much weight and has sores all over. Indeed, her husband’s second wife died recently. Jummai tells me her husband comes home late at night, but always expects a heavy meal. Meanwhile, she tells me he gives her twenty naira only ‘when it is her turn’ to prepare this hot meal. Her co-wives are hostile, sneering at her every effort to reach out and make friends. She has no visitors. Only me. She tries to discourage me when I want to leave, obviously yearning for my company and to follow me home. She, however, knows too well that our father will only insist that she be returned to her husband, as had happened twice before. Is this what marriage does to you?

A girl I used to know, Altine, ran back to her parents every time she was severely beaten by her husband. I once saw her swollen face and the horrible scars on her body.  Being her father’s age-mate, her husband complained of her constant disobedience, even disrespect. She needed to be taught a lesson. Yet that was not the person Altine was, before she got married. She was kind, polite and obedient. Upon being married off to this old man, Altine’s character began to change. She became rude and even obstinate.

After the latest beating, I hear she ran away to Magajiya, a popular lady in the city. Magajiya is known to be a kind and considerate woman. I hear she provides a haven for young girls in distress, especially the pretty ones that have nowhere to run to. She even encourages them to enroll for adult education. Thankfully, I hear Altine is back to her old self. I am told Magajiya provides them with shelter, cares and caters for their needs. They all adore and obey her, as their ‘town’ mother. Her home is always full of people, with several wealthy men coming and going especially at night, all of them eager to support and help her.

The thought of childbirth petrifies me. My favorite aunt, Gwaggo Laraba, died giving birth. Her tiny, helpless orphan died the day after. I am told that Titi, my cousin that got married at twelve years of age, was admitted in a hospital in the city. Unfortunately for her, the process of giving birth was long and hard, so she damaged her organs and has had to undergo several operations to repair her body. I have asked my mother when we can go to visit her as she has been in that hospital for over three harvest seasons, but all I am told is, ‘when God wills it’. Nobody seems to know for sure if she is getting better. I have heard that there is an unusual bad smell in that hospital so I think this is probably why nobody wants to go there. Titi’s husband has since married another wife; its almost as if she never even existed.

Mother says if I am a good wife and pray hard enough, my husband may let me go back to school after our wedding. On this matter of education, I do not trust him, or even my parents. Adults do not keep their word when it comes to us girls. Why can I not go to school before I marry? Two of my classmates consented to marriage after the men had verbally agreed to their continuing their schooling. One of them flatly denied that opportunity, despite the promises he had made to her guardian when he wanted to marry her. Nobody dare challenge or even remind him of his pledge. The other girl had to drop out of

school after delivering her first baby. The responsibilities of motherhood were so overwhelming she just could not cope

with her schoolwork. She has since given up on that dream.

Amongst those people that brought the ‘tuka tuka’ in our community, there were two ladies with kind eyes. Both of them were clean and well-dressed. Their headscarves were so beautiful. They spoke with confidence and even tried to engage me. I was shy and could not respond to them. But I was secretly very impressed and could not imagine that they would ever accept that someone else should take decisions concerning their own lives; at least not without asking what they think. I resolved then that I wanted to be like them.

I have dreams. I want to be able to support my parents and my family out of the poverty and disease that consume us in our community. I want to be a teacher, a nurse, or even a doctor. I want to have the opportunity to improve my life and the lives of others around me. To enable others to learn and grow and develop. I want to be strong and married to a man I can talk to, with healthy, educated children. I want to be happy and to be loved and cared for. I do not want to be ‘selected’ by a man who has no respect for my dignity or my worth, very much like the wares on my tray. To be used and discarded when he is bored or when someone else catches his fancy. I want to have power. To be able to make my own choices in life. To account for my own actions. I am not prepared for the duties of a wife or motherhood, coupled with the apparent despair and depression that are prematurely imposed upon child brides. Nobody seems to know or care about our pain and our suffering.

I am a child, a girl; a human being with my own emotions; hopes, fears and desires. Why is it so hard for adults to understand that my life is all about me, and not about them?

Educated at ABU, Zaria as well as College of Law, England and Wales; and called to the Nigerian bar in 1981, Uwais is an Abuja based legal practitioner with bias for human rights.


Molara Brown


  1. LOL. Seeing this from a feed reader was a little scary. For some weird reason I saw "I was 13 when my husband "came-th".

  2. Blessings.....
    Lord this is deep.
    Have mercy...
    I must come back and re-read, the letting very small for my old eyes.

    have a great week

  3. #DeepSigh. To think this is the reality of these people, yet their men refuse to do anything about it. It's disheartening

  4. Wow! This made me sad and angry. It is very beautifully written and heartbreaking. (I had to print this out and read:) It's a long read but worth the effort.) Child brides, fistula, domestic violence, child abuse, slavery, poverty, girl-child education and so much more compressed into a single heartwrenching piece. I don't know how the adults who practice this disgusting tradition are able to live with themselves. Thanks for sharing this piece, Lara.

  5. Wow, wow, wow! What a powerful story! It was truly moving and made me so sad. I always wish there was something we can do -- it's so sad. ={


  6. Hmm... The past, the present, modernisation, tradition and the patterns of our way of life as a people. This should not be a debate. We must all ask, "if it were your 13 year old daughter?" Great piece... Great and sobering. Best wishes

  7. Judge Mary Uwais had my heart after her article on Vanguard where she challenged Islamic leaders and practices ever so humbly yet surely.

    This piece is heartbreaking. these are the children that make up our maternal health statistics. death and sickness all around.

    I thought the Maggajiya lady was from an NGO till the next sentence..her kind helpful male friends. Brothel owner. poor girls. I thought Yerima said there was no prostitution where he is.
    God help us.

  8. Judge Mary Uwais had my heart after her article on Vanguard where she challenged Islamic leaders and practices ever so humbly yet surely.

    This piece is heartbreaking. these are the children that make up our maternal health statistics. death and sickness all around.

    I thought the Maggajiya lady was from an NGO till the next sentence..her kind helpful male friends. Brothel owner. poor girls. I thought Yerima said there was no prostitution where he is.
    God help us.

  9. Judge Mary Uwais had my heart after her article on Vanguard where she challenged Islamic leaders and practices ever so humbly yet surely.

    This piece is heartbreaking. these are the children that make up our maternal health statistics. death and sickness all around.

    I thought the Maggajiya lady was from an NGO till the next sentence..her kind helpful male friends. Brothel owner. poor girls. I thought Yerima said there was no prostitution where he is.
    God help us.

  10. Judge Mary Uwais had my heart after her article on Vanguard where she challenged Islamic leaders and practices ever so humbly yet surely.

    This piece is heartbreaking. these are the children that make up our maternal health statistics. death and sickness all around.

    I thought the Maggajiya lady was from an NGO till the next sentence..her kind helpful male friends. Brothel owner. poor girls. I thought Yerima said there was no prostitution where he is.
    God help us.

  11. bookmarked this. worth reading a second time. I'm glad that this is finally coming into light. I wonder why Nigerians kept quiet about this for so long. Even I knew this was wrong when i found out about this at a very young age.

  12. Hmm, I could sense the bleakness and the despair as the narrator relays the plight of the girl child in that part of the country. It is so disheartening that human beings who brought children into the world could be party to this inhumane treatment of these same children. This is definitely a fight worth taking on. It is unfair and inhumanely wicked to subject these little ones to such traumatizing experience, be it in the name of culture or religion!!!

  13. Well worth the read!!! More educated women and men of northern origin need to stand up and challenge this evil custom going on. No one can help your sisters but you. I remember how rampant female genital mutilation used to be in the southern part of Nigeria. It took committed men and women to speak up and against that practise. Today it is a crime to do that to your child in the south. So I challenge all of you enlightened Northerners, DO something, don't just look the other way.

  14. Oh my goodness. This is distressing to read. I really hate that this is reality for most girls around the world and how OLD men are allowed to marry children(thats what they are kids!) In this day an age this shouldn't be allowed. This is pedophilia whichever way you look at it. The cycle repeats itself because women's education is taken away at such an early age leaving them solely depend on their husbands until they tire with with replace them with yet a an even younger version of them. How can we begin to change things when we withhold education?