She was not a very beautiful child, being rather plump and slow, but the eyes got fondly accustomed with frequent exposure, and those who really knew her could pick her any day over a right Nubian princess. And Sokoto was swarming with Nubian princesses – little girls of different ages dressed in colourful hijabs, with painstakingly painted faces, hawking non-descript snacks in dangerous places. Needless to say, Talitha never hawked. Bu somehow, her gentleness acquired the finicky particularity about a young girl’s appearance and comportment that pervaded the town. Because Hausa-Fulani girls generally married early, it was never too early to learn how to act like a proper lady.
Talitha walked in careful, measured steps with leisurely but purposeful affectation, like all the beautiful Sokoto girls did. She spoke their dialect of Hausa to perfection, though she was from Plateau State and both her parents were Birom. She could pull of full traditional African attire with a flair above her age – most Sokoto girls did it every day without blinking an extra wink. Her head wraps were art; every outfit had in it the makings of a photoshoot. Her head was always covered, partly due to the social environment and partly due to the distressing inconvenience that her hair was not as blossoming as those of her other Christian friends who could flaunt a rich tapestry with every style. And her mother didn’t yet bother with any hair extensions for her – she was only eleven years old then.
Back to the club now. It was started by somebody’s grandmother many years ago, but now old unmarried “aunties” were its grand matrons. They didn’t like the budding, adolescent girls to powder their faces, use lip gloss, plait elaborate hairstyles, or do anything at all to enhance their appearance. So during meeting days, all the pretty would sit behind demurely looking like mere shadows of themselves in dull tops on dull skirts and no jewelry at all. And of course their heads were scrupulously covered to hide the startling tints of their hair extensions.
“Sister Barbara,” Aunty Grace addressed a young, slim beauty stiffly. “Next week you will do the Word sharing.”
“Yes, aunty,” the young girl answered. She was fifteen, and outside of Girls on Fire everyone called her Barbie. Talitha was fascinated by her, but so far nothing had brought her to the notice of this tight, popular girl.
“Young ladies,” Aunty Grace called.
“On fire for Christ,” the girls chorused their customary mantra.
“Remember who you are and who you belong to,” Aunty Grace was giving a closing admonition. “Your future and your destiny must not be compromised for any temporary pleasures. Say no!”
Somehow, whenever Aunty Grace presided over meetings, the word virgin was never explicitly stated. She had a way of sternly insisting upon it while reverently refusing to utter it.
Girls on fire
Christ our freedom, love our shield
We say no, we do not yield
We are wise, no compromise
Girls on fire –
Dignity. Virginity. Responsibility.
They all loved the anthem; it was set in beautiful music, and singing it alone at home sometimes, Talitha would wonder what it’d be like to marry. Girlish dreams of a handsome husband would fill her eyes, but she never quite pictured him as more than twelve or thirteen years old and, somehow, he usually wore the face and smile of Jerry, the boy next door. Jerry was eleven years old, just like Talitha, and he was all she thought a husband would be.
“Talitha,” Jerry had met with her outside once. He was really dirty, with mud splodges on his face and some light bruises on his knees and elbows.
“Yes,” she’d smiled very widely, more because he looked amusing than that she wanted to be friendly.
“Please, please, please,” he put his hands together and begged her exaggeratedly. “Please give me water small – let me wash my body small before Mummy will see me,” he pressed his lips together and looked at her like she was very important.
“Okay,” she darted into the house.
Carefully, she sneaked out a plastic kettle – almost all houses in Sokoto had one.
“Take water,” she stretched out the kettle to him.
Somehow he managed to wash his face, but his bruises smarted at the sensation of water so he only dusted the rest of his body with dampened hands. He handed back the kettle, said thank you, and walked toward the direction of his house like a gentle lamb.
He’d made an impression on Talitha that day and she faithfully put his face on every subsequent daydream. Jerry. Yes, Jerry was exactly the kind of husband she wanted and she’d keep her virginity for him. Sometimes he was not very nice to her, he especially liked to tease her on the days she looked the prettiest, but it was okay. She knew enough, at eleven, about marriage to know that though you loved your husband, it wasn’t necessarily everyday that you liked him.
A few weeks to Christmas, Daddy said that they’d all spend the holidays in Jos. It would be for two weeks and they’d surely stay at his brother’s Rikkos home for most of it and maybe they’d even go to the village. Everyone was excited. Talitha told all her friends; Fatima even cried because she was going to miss her. Girls always had a keen sense of friendship and Talitha understood that it was only when you were going away that you knew who your true best friends were. After that day, Fatima was Talitha’s certified bestie.
Only a few things cast faint shadows on her excitement to have a Jos Christmas. The first was she’d miss the Christmas carols in church. Girls on Fire had a part there and she really liked singing soprano. The second was she wouldn’t see Barbie’s Christmas clothes with her own eyes, she’d have to wait and be told about it. Uggh!
But everything else was good, so good that she clean forgot that Jerry was her husband and you must always say goodbye to your husband before you travelled. Talitha enjoyed the journey though she slept through most of it. The bus stopped at Funtua, Katsina State to allow the passengers relieve their bodies from long sitting and have something to eat. Very late in the evening, they arrived at Plateau State; it was freezing cold weather. When a chartered taxi took them from the park to Uncle Wang’s house in Rikkos, she lost all sleep and was once again excited to see everything. Aunty Jummai hugged her warmly and made her drink tea though she didn’t want any.