“I Couldn’t Decide If We Should Live or Die”

Like many in the West African country of Niger, I was married and pregnant by 14. And then I began to bleed.

Fati Yahaya shares her story with Jennifer Koons

NIAMEY, NIGER — Sex to me meant opening a door that I wanted to stay closed. But you cannot stop your husband from coming into your room.

My husband, his name is Mourtala, would lay on top of me every night. I slept in the same room as his mother and his older wife. She was 21 years old. She slept with her three children. During the day, we would talk — but at night, no one spoke. I would hear him slip off his shoes and then his bony knees and knuckles would push open my legs.

“See, she’s broken,” my husband’s mother would tell him in the morning. She knew I was not pregnant. I think she knew I did not want to ever become pregnant.

After a while, she told Mourtala he should divorce me. I prayed for this to happen. He must have told her OK because she soon sent for my family to come and get me. But my father refused to pay to bring me back. He said I had to stay.

And then one night, I knew I was going to have a baby. I did not want anyone to know. I tried to act the same. But my husband could tell. He had stopped getting on top of me and I heard him tell his mother that I would be a mom.

She still did not want me. So she went to my uncle and he agreed to find a way to pay 350,000 West African CFA ($730 USD) for me to come home. You have to pay back the dowry if you are the woman. Only the man can divorce the woman. And the woman’s family has to get money from everyone else if they want the woman back.

It took my family a long time to come to me. I was living far from home. I am a part of the Hausa (the largest tribe in West Africa) and used to stay in Niamey (the capital of Niger). But my husband lives in the south in Nigeria.

My belly got so big. I sat most of the day with the little girls who were my husband’s daughters. They would peel me a potato. And I got to sleep outside at night because I snored so loudly.

During my pregnancy, I did not see a doctor because he lived far away and I could not go without my husband. But he did not want to take me. I was scared because my mom and sister died when they had their babies. But I did not want to see a doctor either. I had never seen one before. So that scared me too.

My mother had five children. When she was 22, she had a sixth child and she died. And the baby died. My father’s other wife had eight children and did not want us to stay with her. So we went to live with the wife of my father’s brother.

Ten years after my mother died, my sister, Bayo died too. But it was only her first baby. He was named Abdoul. I worried about him when I was not at home. I wondered what he ate. I wondered what he learned in school.

He is the same age as one of the girls who lives with me. And I know she will marry soon. They will say she is “ready.” But she is little, about 10 years old. I don’t want her to leave and be like me. But her mother is so tired. I think she will try to find her a husband.

I see that so many of the mothers are so tired. And they are hurt. So they want the daughters to go so they do not have to cook for them and worry about them. In neighborhoods here, everyone wants you to get married. The cousins and the aunts come to your home and ask, “When is she getting married?” or “Why have you not married her?” And the mothers get embarrassed and they tell their husbands to go find men for their daughters.

But the men they find are always old. Only old men have money. Boys cannot find jobs, so they cannot have wives. And mothers and fathers worry the boys who do not have wives will try to run away with their daughters. That would be very bad for the whole family.

Even though I hated the baby in my belly, I loved my baby. I looked for food because I wanted my baby to have food. I started to think that if I died, I wanted my baby to live. And I wanted a boy. I thought maybe he could stay with the first wife’s family because she was kind. But then I worried that my husband’s mother would hit him and hurt him.

So I couldn’t decide if we should both live or die.

Then one day, my aunt and uncle came to take me back home. My stomach hurt when I walked. So we waited and waited for the bus. And when it rained, I had my baby. And I did not die. Neither did he.

My son, Mujaheet, was as long and heavy as three potatoes. He came from me so quickly. And then he cried and I thought we would be OK.

His eyes stayed closed. They put him on my heart. And then I started to bleed. It felt warm on my feet. My mouth felt dry. My eyes hurt and I shut them tightly. My arms and legs felt really heavy. I wanted to say goodbye to my son but I could not talk. I thought this was death coming. I concentrated on feeling the blood as it pooled beneath my body and fingers.

I think they took me to the doctor who lived far away. I did not wake for a long time. I remember holding Mujaheet again. He was bigger. And he cried when I fed him but he wrapped his hand around my thumb as I rested him against me. His tiny feet wiggled when I touched them to the cool floor. Our breath sounded the same when I fell asleep with him beside me.

It’s hard to talk about what happened next. My uncle and aunt could not keep us both. There wasn’t enough food. They borrowed too much from our neighbor so that I could come home. So my father said my son could come and live with him.

I wanted to scream. I felt more pain than when I lost all of my blood. I was so weak. But I could not say no. There is not a “no” when you decide who lives where and who eats. So my son left me.

My life was lucky. Some people came to my aunt last year and asked if they could teach me. This was the first time I could go to school. I got to learn to read with other girls who also had children. Most of them brought their babies and sons and daughters to our classes. And we learned about waiting until we are older to get married. They talked to our families and our neighbors so they knew we were OK.

I started to think that if I could become a teacher, I could go and get my son. So I studied. I practiced teaching my cousins and nieces and the girls who live next to us and on our road.

But it is hard. One of my cousins wants to be in our special program next year. But she still wants to get married. She is little. She is 13. Her mother wants to find the husband soon.

I think I want to be married again someday too. But I want to become a teacher first.

Illustration by Denise Nestor for The Development Set. // The Development Set is made possible by funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We retain editorial independence. // The Creative Commons license applies only to the text of this article. All rights are reserved in the images.