She’s gone

Kevin and Katie were on their way to my house. It was already late, so I decided to meet them halfway along the road.

A three-kilometer dirt path connects my village to the paved road. It isn’t the safest at night, but my visitors were coming from afar so they didn’t have much choice but to arrive after the sunset. I thought it would be better if I could find them and walk part of the way together, since I know nearly every rock in that road due to all the running I’ve been doing.

As I was setting out, Margret stopped me. She asked me something about a phone and, although I couldn’t help her, I told her I was going to get Abuti Thabo and Ausi Betathelo, Kevin and Katie. Her face lit up and she asked if she could join.

The sky started to darken, but my nerves didn’t spike. I was with Margret and I knew I would be safe, although she is 11 years my junior. We laughed about little things, like schoolgirls. She told me that my eyes were as beautiful as corn. And, to the stars, we sang snippets of Rihanna songs, bursting out into giggles.

I had a distinct feeling that this was the moment that brought me to Lesotho. I no longer felt like an imposter, someone trying to fit in but couldn’t. Instead I felt like I was meant to live it, here in Africa. It felt genuine, a real connection to someone from a world opposite to the one I grew up in.

Margret is the first person I met in village, outside of my host family and the teachers. She lives near me, with her grandmother, a few girls slightly older than her and a whole host of children whose parents I’ve never been able to indentify. Every time I walk past her house I get a hearty, “Hello, Madam!”

Her smile became my saving grace. When the rest of her class brought me nearly to tears, she would come to me after and apologize. She brought me out of funks and reminded me why I cam to Lesotho.

One Saturday, Margret came to wash my clothes, like she does often. We chatted a bit, but nothing extensive. After, I handed her 30 Maluti and an assortment of American candy that I just received in an Easter package.

Through the other teachers, I found out that, the very next day, she married and moved to another district. I was devastated.

My precious, 17-year-old friend. Now someone’s wife.

The storm of possible scenarios hit. Maybe someone with much more decision-making power than her decided her education was useless and it was best if she got married or maybe her family desperately needed the lobola, the fee a man must pay his new wife’s family for her hand, money – both high possibilities in rural Africa. She still has so much school left and she wanted to be a teacher. Could she be pregnant? What if her new husband doesn’t treat her the way she deserves? What if he beats her? What if he gives her HIV that he contracted from a concubine?

Her lost future hurt, but not as much as the realization that I would likely never see her again. In Basotho culture, it is tradition that a new wife stays with her husband until she is eight months pregnant, so, even if she is pregnant, she will likely return after I leave. Months before, I teared up at the simple thought of saying goodbye to Margret when it came time for me to return to the U.S. Now, eight months too early, I didn’t even get the chance. I already planned to give her most of my clothes and then I would buy something special just for her. But now she is gone and I never told her how much I love her.

I cried on and off for a few hours after I received the news. One of the teachers, claiming to be my guardian in Lesotho, demanded to know why I was so upset. When I told her, she said she too was very angry. She said that Margret didn’t tell anyone us because she knew we would not approve. She is right.

Then I was called to the principal’s office and Margret’s grandmother was there. Her face indicated me that she felt the same way I did. The other teacher had told me that the mother, who lives in Maseru, and grandmother tried to talk her out of it, but Margret had made up her mind. The mother cried for three days, the grandmother told the teachers.

The grandmother came to collect a letter from the principal because Margret wants to continue school at her new home. She confirmed that Margret is married but not pregnant. After seeing her grandmother, I came to the conclusion that Margret did this on her own and wasn’t forced into marriage. That is relieving and upsetting.

Her family wants her to return to school here, but she may refuse. She may also not be allowed into another school and have no other choice. I convinced her father-in-law, who came to the school seeking a letter to get her into another school, that he must tell his son she has to return to our school because we are the only ones that can help her. I even wrote her a note that he delivered. Either way, she will return to our school to take her exam in October.

I will get to see her again. At this point, I am not sure what I will say to her. I am angry with her, but also relieved that she is making her own choices. No matter what happens when we meet again, I still have that memory of singing under the stars. That will how I remember this special girl, and nothing else.

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