A cow for a child

It was a sunny day in Zamfara. The central market was a heaving mass of life with the voices of haggling and quarrels over prices. The chaos was rivaled only by the uninterested noises of cows tied all around.

It was a disorderly place. Outside the large sprawl were the animals. Once you skipped your way through splashes of dung. There was the informal abattoir characterised by the drone of flies dancing on the meat. This was followed closely by food items, fruits and vegetables. Even if the sun was at its possible brightest, there was always mud. Then there was the gate that led the way into the market. Vendors sat lazily outside their stalls and called out to customers with a familiarity that would make you think you came there looking for them.

“Alhaja, come and buy hijab,” one man called to a woman shoving her way determinedly through the throng of activity with one hand and the other holding the hand of a young girl. 

Absently, she smiled and waved and continued her pilgrimage. She was soon past the gate and inside the market, Easily finding the jewellery shop.

It was locked.

“Good morning, ma!” The panting voice of the trader sounded behind her, “welcome alhaja. We have been expecting you.”

The trader, brought out a key and opened the metal door. 

She stepped in and took a seat, waving her daughter into the next seat. The trader disappeared into the back room then reappeared with four red little velvet sacks on a tray. She set them on the table in front of her.

Gingerly, she opened each of them, bringing out necklaces, bangles and earrings of pure gold. Her fingers picked out the most expensive necklace.

“Alero, come.”

Her daughter got up and stood in front of her as she held it against girl’s neck. 

It looked so out of place… So heavy.


She ignored her, calling for the trader to have them packaged and delivered to the house. This market wasn’t a place that you carry expensive items around. As the duo made their way out of the market, a bike rider swerved recklessly in their direction but quickly righted himself. Her hand had immediately grabbed her daughter’s hand. 

They were cold. She looked down into the eyes of the little girl. The girl gazed ahead into the distance, there was a pathway of dried tears running from reddened, swollen eyes. With a corner of her wrapper, she made an attempt to clean the stoic little face. Instead, the child grabbed my hand and held it tightly. “mummy please” she said, her lips quivering and tears started to circle again.

It was a restless night for Bidemi.

What could she do? 

She had hoped the idea of shopping would distract the girl from the situation at hand but it hadn’t.

 What could she do? 

She was an educated Yoruba woman who had been married off to a Hausa man. And not just any Hausa man but a prominent one at that. Prominence and wealth were everything in this part of the world. It was wealth and prominence that had had her parents look the other way when a man of fifty eight had approached them for their fifteen year old daughter’s hand in marriage. She had been the third wife in this man’s search for a male child.  By sixteen she was pregnant for her first child. It had been born stillborn She was lucky to be alive the doctor had said. Five years marched slowly and left in its wake 3 miscarriages. The other wives called her a man, a leech. Bidemi had started to believe them. However, she got pregnant again, this time delivering a baby girl but, at a cost. She would never birth another child. Within the time of her miscarriages, her husband barely missed a beat as he went on to have two more wives. The fifth, a fourteen year old, finally bore him the son he wanted. Being sterile and having just a girl-child, Bidemi was practically ignored by her husband. Finally, three years later, Bidemi left him baby in tow, returning home to Kwara.

Bidemi’s family was not pleased. Her husband had built this large family house for them where the old derelict rooms she had grown up in once stood. They didn’t want to lose it. Did she want to upset him and have them loose the house? Bidemi didn’t care. She was a twenty-four year old woman now, not the fifteen year old they could kick around and bend to their will. She met up with her childhood mates. They heard her story and looked at her with pity. It was a far cry from just a few years back when she had been the envy of them all, garbed in expensive laces and coral beads that her new husband had got. 

She remembered that day. Coming home to their small house, had been the most unusual thing. There were cows tied up at one corner. Large pieces of yam with bows on them. The smell of food was in the air. She stepped into the house and her mother had whisked her away. Her mother’s teeth couldn’t stay within her mouth that day. She told Bidemi how she would be going somewhere she would be well taken care of,she would have maids and a room to herself. By the time she stepped out again. The little compound was filled with more guests than she haf ever seen it old. Her friends peeped in through the hedges. They barely recognized her. Even she barely recognized herself. She had on the most laces she had only seen the people in newspapers way. And her neck chains were so heavy she was scared to touch it. She had met with the rich man that was to look after her. He looked old. Mother had said it didn’t matter. Her friends had looked on enviously,

They  all wanted to be her: to be whisked away by some rich manftom the poverty that was their upbringing. She was the Cinderella story of Kwara state. Like all fairy tales, the glitters soon dispersed and she found herself the youngest of three wives in a land where she knew no one and whose language she didn’t speak. 

That was a lifetime ago. 

On that April day, when she found herself back in Kwara, 5 year old child in hand, she had nothing. Oh, she had been well fed and clothed but, when she got back home, seeing the satisfaction and success on her friends faces, driving in cars they had bought with the money they had earned at their jobs. They had jobs, kids, and husbands who weren’t searching for more wives. She felt handicapped. Somhow from living in the midst of those women she had lost it all; an interest in education, childhood dreams of being a lawyer… All of these had faded in her race to not be labeled the barren wife. All she had to show for herself was her child, Alero. Unfortunately, Alero, though she loved her dearly hadn’t been much to show off. She was the sore thumb in the midst of her friends’ children. She understood English a little but having being brought up speaking Hausa,  she would always lapse into the comfort of her mother tongue. The other children were amused by her, regarding her like one would a pet. 

Bidemi’s friends had rallied around her in ways she had never imagined, paying for the child’s education. Her family, in a bid to pressure her to move back to Zamfara had kicked her out of the family house. Apparently, her husband had stopped sending them monthly monies and they had had to start tightening their belts. But, Bidemi’s eyes had been opened to a life outside of just birthing children She wanted to go to university and get a job and drive cars like her mates. 

One of her friends had opened up a room in their chalet for them to live in. Bidemi and Alero had blossomed. In three years, Alero had caught up with her age mates and she was soon top of her form. 

The ensuing years had also been good to Bidemi and she had gotten a bachelors’ degree and secured a job. 

The future looked bright for both she and her child. 

And then a month ago, her world was turned upside down. She appeared in school to pick up Alero, only there was no Alero. No one could give an idea. She had attended classes that day but sometime between the final bell and her arrival to take her home, the child was gone. Her slippers had beaten the pavement daily to and from the police station. She had talked to everyone in school. She had had a picture of her little girl in the newspaper.


No kidnapping demands, no auspicious sightings. Nothing. It was like Alero had simply vanished from all existence.

Two weeks passed. Running out of options, Bidemi went to the family house to talk to her parents about the best way forward. 

A three hour drive saw her outside the blue walls. The gate man let her in. Her senses were immediately assaulted with  the smell of a dung heap produced by a herd of cows, bellowing away in the sunlight. Her heart skipped a beat. She walked ahead and the then she saw it, the house was painted. It was too much of a coincidence. The last time the house had been painted was nine years ago. She started to run. Oh God, no! She burst into the house, her heart beating an uneven tattoo in her chest, she prayed. Let it  not be so. Let her worst fears not be true.

Her eyes sparking fire, she ran in and confronted them. She was right, she broke down into tears.  Her husband had come with five cows to take her only child, her twelve year old child, to be married to some forty three year old man. And her parents had agreed. They had sold her daughter for five cows. Cows for a bright future…

The police couldn’t help. Lawyers couldn’t help, there were No enforcible laws in a state that practised the sharia laws.

And so she found herself in a place she had grown to despise. Trying to find an escape for her child from this horrid grotesque destiny.


4 thoughts on “A cow for a child”

  1. Makes me clench up inside and makes me want to both spend every second fighting it and also curl up in a ball and never move again. The girls of the world, oh how they all deserve better

type now or forever hold your fingers :)

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