Aisha’s father was always saying to her, ‘We don’t want any problems with the law. Remember, no one will defend your rights. You’re invisible, a refugee. Give thanks for what you have. Be on your guard and make yourself as inconspicuous as possible.’
He didn’t need to worry. People looked straight through her. Even when she stood directly in their path, they made no eye contact, but only mumbled ‘excuse me.’ Once, on a cold winter’s day, she had dropped her handbag on purpose, outside Sainsbury’s in Holborn, at the peak of the rush hour. All the contents were strewn on the pavement, but instead of stopping to help, everyone sidestepped her umbrella, wallet, scarf and lipstick, and carried on. When she was out walking in London, she would look around her, in case someone familiar might appear. She lived alone in a ground floor flat, and at times she would stand at the window watching the street outside, as though expecting a visitor. Or she would go down to the pub at the corner, and sit there with a drink, staring at strangers. No one gave her a second glance, or even a first one.
Aisha worked for an NGO as a Human Rights Officer.
‘Not a bad career,’ her father said. ‘But don’t start getting ideas about yourself.’
One morning, Aisha was asked if she would be interested in taking a posting abroad, as a Children’s Rights Coordinator in Tanzania.
‘We need someone with experience of cultural differences,’ her boss said, ‘and a nuanced appreciation of rights.’
‘I think I have that understanding,’ she said. ‘My family moved to the UK from Syria.’
‘Rights in particular,’ he said, ‘are interpreted differently everywhere.’ He took off his glasses and polished them with his tie. ‘It all depends on context. Sometimes it’s better for rights to evolve naturally. They have to be taken and not given.’
‘I’ve been told that many times.’
‘If you decide to accept this position, you’ll need to leave immediately.’
‘I can go straight away.’
She told her father she was taking up the offer.
‘It’s great you’re getting some international experience,’ he said. ‘But you can’t afford to be naïve, you don’t know what people are like out there.’
Three weeks later, Aisha found herself in her new offices in Dar-es-Salaam, in the deep-end of work. The NGO had given a grant for the establishment of Children’s Rights Clubs at various schools across the country, and she was to carry out an evaluation study. Her report would be used to determine the funding for Phase II of the project.
On a scorching afternoon, she set out for Morogoro, with Bayyina, the young Project Officer in charge of teaching children their rights, and the driver. Along the way they passed simple mud dwellings in the baking sun, and Aisha looked out at them from the flashy black air-conditioned Pajero. Suddenly, they swerved. ‘Watch out!’ Bayyina cried.
‘Sorry Madam,’ the driver said, bringing the car to a halt at the side of the road.
‘What was that thud?’ Aisha said. ‘We must have hit something.’
‘A stupid goat.’ He got out and went over to the animal. Aisha rolled down her window. The driver stood looking down at the carcass, then kicked it, and walked back to the car.
‘Mbuzi is dead,’ he said, starting the ignition. ‘It was limping, and me, I was going too fast.’
‘We can’t just leave it here in the middle of the road,’ Aisha said.
The driver pressed his foot on the accelerator. ‘Hakuna shida. There are many who die the same way.’
‘I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do,’ Bayyina said.
Aisha turned to look back, as the car sped along the smooth tarmac. She sat on the edge of the blue velvet seat, reminded by the honking matatus with their loud music and shouting touts, just how far away she was from London.
After two and half hours, they reached Morogoro town. The high street had three dilapidated buildings on one side, and smaller, modern shops on the other. In the centre were a prison, a church, and a police station. ‘These were left behind by the Germans,’ Bayyina said, pointing to the ruins.
The driver laughed. ‘Where would us poor Africans be without the generosity of the West?’ He shook a fist at the windscreen. ‘As we say here, it’s all thanks to the big cars that we’re developing, Asante gari ya mheshimiwa. We rely on you to show us the way.’
Bayyina turned to Aisha and put her finger to her lips.
They branched into a narrow dirt road, drove for another hundred yards or so, and stopped at a wooden gate. The driver honked. Aisha looked out of the window. Two women were walking barefoot in the dirt. On their heads they carried baskets of bananas, and each had a baby on her back, wrapped in a colourful scarf. The women didn’t seem to notice the car, but kept their heads erect, and carried on talking to each other.
The driver told Aisha and Bayyina to alight. They waited for a few minutes by the gate and when no one came, Bayyina lifted the latch and they entered the school grounds.
‘This was my school,’ she said, looking around her. ‘It’s my first trip back in five years.’
‘Has it changed much?’
‘I can’t really say. I’ve kept my distance since I graduated.’ She stumbled on an exposed root, and Aisha held out her hand to steady her.
‘Thank you,’ Bayyina said. ‘The other officers tell me it’s changed, but I don’t know. It looks the same, but maybe more dilapidated.’
The playing field was uneven patches of brown grass, some parts flattened, and others with weeds almost knee-high. Along the wire fence were large wooden signs with slogans.
‘Those posts have been funded by our organisation,’ Bayyina said. Aisha glanced at them. Be friends with your parents, Violence is never right. Early pregnancy is dangerous to your life. Body changes are not a sign to start sex.’
‘Are they making any difference?’ Aisha said.
‘Changing cultural attitudes takes time. But at least we are talking about the issues.’ Bayyina’s voice fell away.
They walked on through the dry grassy field, the leaves and shrubs brushing against Aisha’s trouser legs. To the far right, a broken football post lay on its side. In one corner, a concrete bench was cemented to the ground. Beside it was a sign, attached to a wooden post, of a man’s finger pointing at the bench; Donated by USAID. Do not LOITER here. They crossed over towards the main building, a simple two-storey construction.
‘The hall is there,’ Bayyina said, ‘on the other side of the playing field.’
Aisha shaded her eyes with her hand, and saw what looked like nothing more than a large shed. From it came the sound of children singing and shouting.
‘That’s where they’re waiting for us,’ Bayyina said. ‘We asked the head teacher to showcase what the children have learnt from the rights clubs. I hope, Aisha, this field trip will help you understand our challenges, and in your report you’ll be able to indicate whether this school should get further funding, undergo a complete review, or,’ she hesitated, ‘be scrapped completely from the next phase.’
‘I’m sure I can do that,’ Aisha said. ‘Bayyina, you look troubled. Are you feeling all right?
‘A slight headache, its nothing.’
As they walked through the long dry weeds, Aisha spied something bright in the brown and yellow grass. She bent down and picked up a tennis ball, with its stitching ripped and its middle slashed. She tossed it back into the grass. A moment later, a girl stood up holding the ball in one hand. Her other hand was in her mouth and she was sucking the sleeve of her red sweater.
‘Hey,’ Bayyina shouted, as the school bell began to ring. ‘What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be with the others?’
The girl scampered off.
They reached the hall entrance, where Aisha waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. There was only a thin shaft of sunlight coming through the narrow ventilation gap between the mabati roof and the exposed brick wall. The sun was beating down on the roof. Drops of perspiration ran along Aisha’s spine as she followed Bayyina to the front of the hall.
‘These are for us,’ Bayyina said, pointing to the chairs with stickers. ‘Reserved for VIP’s.’
The hall was filled with children sitting on benches and along the sides. Adults were standing and talking. A tall bulky man in a dark suit came over and gave Aisha a tight, clammy handshake.
‘I’m Mr. Kweli, the head teacher, and we’re honoured to have you at our humble school. Please take a seat.’ He patted down the front of his jacket and adjusted his tie. Aisha looked on as he extended his hand to Bayyina, who gave him a curt nod and turned away.
‘Karibu sana, Madam Aisha,’ he said smoothly. ‘You’re most welcome.’ He clapped his hands.
‘Quiet everyone. Could we please honour our special guest.’
A group of children marched in single file from the back of the hall, stood in a row at the front, and sang the National Anthem in Kiswahili. Then when everyone was seated once more, the children sang a song. Aisha could just make out the words in the refrain ‘God bless our NGO. Welcome Madam Aisha.’
When they’d finished she stood up. ‘Thank you,’ she said, ‘I’m very touched that you’ve composed a song just for me.’
She sat down, and Mr Kweli signalled for silence. ‘The children will now perform a skit,’ he said. ‘This production was prepared by the children themselves, without any help from their teachers. We hope it will demonstrate that the money you have donated to this school has been utilised effectively.’
‘That’s the stage,’ Bayyina whispered, pointing to an area demarcated with chalk lines.
Three girls made their way to the ‘stage’, which was bare except for a chair. One of the girls had a shaved head, another was as thin as a rake, and the third was the girl Aisha had spotted earlier hiding in the grass, in a torn red sweater.
‘Please begin,’ Mr Kweli said, taking a seat next to Aisha.
Shaved Head struck an exaggerated pose and placed one hand on her hip. She took off her sweater and swung it round her neck. Some of the buttons were missing from the front of her shirt. She turned to Red Sweater. ‘I saw your daddy at the school office today. What did you do wrong this time?’
Mr Kweli leaned forward in his chair. Aisha kept her attention on the actors.
‘Nothing,’ Red Sweater said, sucking her sleeve.
Skinny Bones put her arm round Red Sweater. ‘Come now, don’t be afraid. Tell your sisters what you did.’
From her pocket Shaved Head pulled out a packet of cigarettes and a box of matches. She lit up, inhaled and blew smoke into the air.
Mr Kweli jumped up. ‘Stop this nonsense. And no smoking allowed on school premises.’ He turned to Aisha. ‘Madam Aisha, I do apologise.’
‘Calm down Mr Kweli,’ Aisha said. ‘It’s just a play, please let them show us what they’ve learnt.’
Shaved Head passed the cigarette to Red Sweater. She put it in her mouth, inhaled and coughed. The audience laughed. ‘There’s no point,’ she said, ‘in me telling you or anyone anything.’
‘Very true,’ Skinny Bones said. ‘No one understands. Those who are closest to us are the very ones who are eating us. Kikulacho kinguoni mwako.’
The hall was quiet. From outside came the sound of a cock crowing.
‘Yesterday, after class,’ Red Sweater said, ‘when everyone had left, my teacher asked me to stay back. He said he needed help cleaning the classroom.’ She threw the cigarette on the floor, and crushed it with her shabby shoe. ‘He asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told him I’d like to be a teacher.’
Aisha nudged Bayyina. ‘What’s going on here?’
‘He told me I only had to obey him,’ Red Sweater said, ‘and he could guarantee me a first class grade.’
‘What happened then?’ Shaved Head asked.
‘He said every smart student knew what they had to do. He called it a small extra-curricular activity.’
‘Now look here.’ Mr Kweli stood up and took off his jacket. ‘Stop this at once.’
‘Please, let them finish,’ Aisha said.
‘I swept the classroom and the teacher gave me a soda and some sweets. He said he was going to the staffroom to get something and I should wait for him. I began to feel dizzy and my head hurt.’
Bayyina took in a sharp breath.
‘Are you all right?’ Aisha whispered, tapping her arm.
‘When I woke up,’ Red Sweater said, ‘I was lying on the classroom floor. I don’t know what happened, I couldn’t remember anything.’
Shaved Head kicked the chair on to its side, showing the bold sticker pasted underneath, ‘Generously donated by USAID.’ ‘Is that how you were?’ she said, pointing. ‘Upside down with your legs in the air?’
The audience gasped.
‘My teacher wasn’t there, but he came in soon after. What had happened to me? I asked. How did I end up on the floor with scratches on my thighs? He said he had no idea, he’d been in the staffroom the whole time.’
‘Madam Aisha.’ Mr Kweli touched her elbow.
She jerked her arm away.
‘Shh,’ Bayyina said.
‘My teacher told me he’d walk me home. On the way he said I was a special student and he could help me.’ Red Sweater sucked on her sleeve. ‘He said he’d speak to my daddy.’
Shaved Head pulled the sleeve from her mouth. ‘You are special,’ she said. ‘But not in that way.’
‘When I woke up this morning I was very sick. I told daddy. He got annoyed. He said it was all my fault, and Mr Kweli wanted to see him. I asked him why. He told me I’d made a mess of everything.’
Skinny Bones kicked the chair. ‘No doubt Mr Kweli paid him some little money.’
Red Sweater pretended to cry. ‘What should I do now? I want to run away.’
‘Run then,’ Skinny Bones said, ‘as far away as you can. You’ve ruined your life here, your daddy told you to be good and you didn’t obey. So now there’s nothing left for you.’
‘I’ve got nowhere to go.’ She wrung the edge of her sweater. ‘What should I do?’
‘You can’t do anything,’ Shaved Head said. ‘You’re invisible.’
The sun was pounding through the roof. Aisha put her head in her hands.
Mr Kweli was on his feet. ‘This is some kind of joke.’
‘Do children in Morogoro have rights?’ Shaved Head shouted. ‘Do children in this school have rights?’
Shouts came from the back. ‘No.’
‘But the NGO says we have rights,’ Shaved Head said. ‘They tell us, defend your rights. Speak up.’
‘We can’t,’ Red Sweater said. ‘We have no voice.’
Skinny Bones stepped forward. ‘They tell us, bring witnesses and evidence.’
‘But if there is no evidence,’ Red Sweater said, ‘then what?’
‘No one will believe you,’ Skinny Bones said. ‘They’ll call you a liar.’
‘You must have witnesses,’ Shaved Head said.
‘But there are none,’ Red Sweater said. ‘My body is my only proof.’
‘Ha, your body!’ Skinny Bones said. ‘That’s nothing.’
‘It’s a useless fight,’ Red Sweater said, spitting on the ground near Aisha’s feet. ‘We’ll never win.’
The girls huddled together in a hug. Bayyina was sniffling into a tissue. Mr Kweli said nothing. Aisha gripped the side of her seat, watching the girls. They unlocked their embrace. Then Shaved Head took off her shoes and placed them in front of Aisha. The girl’s socks had holes in the toes. ‘We bear witness to each other.’
Skinny Bones was removing her shoes. She walked over to Aisha and placed them beside Shaved Head’s. ‘No one believes we’re not to blame. But we believe each other.’
Red Sweater was taking her shoes off too. ‘Can you, Madam, give us our rights?’
Spread before Aisha were three pairs of shoes, dusty and torn, with missing laces and broken buckles. She stared down at them.
Suddenly Bayyina stood up and faced the hall. ‘It happened to me too, five years ago. You remember, don’t you, Mr Kweli? You told me I was special.’
‘Madam Aisha,’ Mr Kweli said. ‘This is just a drama, we mustn’t get carried away.’
There was a disturbance at the back of the hall. More girls were making their way to the front, waving their shoes above their heads. Then shouts came from the middle of the hall.
‘It happened to me, in the school compound.’
‘And to me, behind the chemistry lab.’
‘And to me, in his office.’
Mr Kweli jumped on a chair. ‘This is a triple act show,’ he yelled, ‘not a group performance. Everyone sit down immediately.’
The hall was filled with children shouting, leaping on to the benches, cheering and yelling. More girls made their way to the front. Three pairs of eyes were fixed on Aisha. She undid the buckles on her sandals and placed them beside the shoes. Then she went and stood barefoot next to Red Sweater. The girl looked up at her. ‘Thank you,’ she said, taking Aisha’s hand with her grubby fingers. Aisha gave them a squeeze.
‘Who else will be a witness to the invisible?’ Bayyina shouted.
A man was striding to the front. He stopped in front of Aisha and held out a pair of black boots. The small sweaty hand tightened its grip on hers.
‘Daddy,’ Red Sweater said.
The man stared directly at his daughter, then at Aisha. He knelt down and added his boots to the row.
About the Writer:
Farah Ahamed is a short fiction writer. Her stories have been published in The Massachusetts Review, Thresholds, Kwani?, The Missing Slate, and Out of Print among others. She was highly commended in the 2016 London Short Story Prize, joint winner of the inaugural 2017 Gerald Kraak Award and has been nominated for The Caine and The Pushcart prizes. She was shortlisted for the SI Leeds Literary Prize, DNA/Out of Print Award, Sunderland Waterstones Award, Asian Writer Short Story Prize, and Strands International Short Story.