The Door to Freedom: One Girl's Journey
The door to the hut opened slowly. It was called a door only because it covered the entrance, but it had no hinges and was really just two pieces of wood crudely nailed together. It was heavy and awkward for a girl of 10, but every morning Kiriam shuffled it to one side and propped it up against the wall.
Sunshine lit up the single room inside and revealed a number of sleeping figures. They stirred when the hot rays touched their faces and buried their heads in the tattered cloths that served as beds.
“Kiriam, Kiriam.” A plaintive voice called out from the gloom.
“Yes, Gramama.” Kiriam hurried over to help her grandmother sit up. Sometimes she was frightened to touch her. Gramama was so frail you could see her bones through the dry skin that clung to them. One day, thought Kiriam, she would simply wither away in the night, and there’d be nothing but a pile of dust when she opened the door in the morning.
“How do you feel?” she asked anxiously. Her grandmother closed her eyes for an instant and then clenched her jaw determinedly.
“A little hungry, but I’ll be fine. We must find some food for your brothers today.”
That was always the first thing Gramama said. Feed the boys. And if it meant she and Kiriam would have to give up their supper, then that was the way it would have to be.
Finding food took up most of Kiriam’s day. First, she collected water from the well about two miles away, carrying it home in a plastic can on her head, and then she looked for wood in the hope of having something to cook on a fire later. Sometimes her older cousin JoJo would come with her into the village to beg for beans, but most of the time he would stay home with her brothers, Minlaw and Thomas. Fetching water and firewood were girls’ jobs.
Before her mother died, Kiriam had gone to school. But then her mother got the sickness, and Kiriam had to stay at home to help look after the boys. Their father was already dead, and Kiriam prayed every day that the sickness would leave her mother. But she knew, once it visited a family, it became greedy and was never satisfied with just one death. JoJo’s parents had died in the summer, which was why he also lived with Gramama.
Kiriam glanced at the sleeping boys and hoped they would stay that way a little longer. Although she loved her brothers she didn’t like JoJo very much. He was often mean to her and lately he had started looking at her in a funny way that made her feel uncomfortable. She kissed her grandmother on the cheek and picked up the plastic water can.
“I’ll be back soon. Maybe somebody will give me some food at the well.”
Her grandmother nodded, and Kiriam was about to leave when a long shadow fell across the doorway.
“May I speak with the head man?” said a silky voice.
Kiriam squinted at the figure silhouetted in the opening. She couldn’t see his features, but his body was thin and angular and he carried a staff like some ancient prophet. He reminded her of a rooster as he eyed them all, turning his head from side to side in short, jerky movements. Then, without waiting for an invitation, he stepped across the threshold into the gloom of the hut. Kiriam shrank back as he stooped over her.
“Where’s your father, little one?” he asked in his sugary voice.
“The girl’s parents are dead,” replied Gramama. “I am the head of the house.”
The man’s expression changed. He didn’t need to ask how they died.
“She has the sickness too?” He gestured his beaky face towards Kiriam.
Gramama shook her head. “No - not that it’s any business of yours,” she added.
Kiriam felt a sudden twinge of nervousness as the man levelled his gaze at her again.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Ten,” said Kiriam.
In the corner, JoJo coughed and sat up.
“Who are you?” he asked drowsily.
The man stepped back. “Ah!” he exclaimed, tapping the floor with his staff. “There is a man in the house!”
JoJo scowled. He hated responsibility and made no protest when Gramama replied, “He’s only a boy. I told you, I am the head of this house.”
Kiriam’s nervousness deepened into a gnawing anxiety. It didn’t matter what Gramama said – JoJo was the oldest boy, soon to be a man, and that meant he could overrule them all. She wished she were a man too who could make the stranger leave. She saw danger in his beady eyes.
“Of course you are very wise old mama and I meant no disrespect,” he said. “But we must defer to the man when an important decision is being made.”
“What decision?” asked JoJo, dubiously. He lifted his chin, but, Kiriam noticed, made no effort to stand up. He’d given up his manners soon after his mother died.
The man stroked the tapering brown hairs on his chin and looked thoughtfully at Gramama and JoJo.
“How much will you take for the girl?” he said abruptly.
Kiriam gasped and Gramama snorted angrily. JoJo looked confused.
“Why do you want to buy her?” he asked. “She is too young to be much use and you’ll just have to feed her.”
“She is not for sale!” interrupted Gramama. “You will leave now!”
The stranger raised his eyebrow calmly. “I think I was talking to the man of the house,” he said dismissively. “When did you last eat meat?”
Now JoJo got to his feet, and next to him, Minlaw sat up. Only Thomas continued sleeping, his breathing barely perceptible.
The man took a parcel from the folds of his robe and held it out.
JoJo stepped forward tentatively and sniffed at it. The man offered the parcel again, and JoJo took it eagerly.
“It’s goat!” he said excitedly. Minlaw’s eyes widened as he stared at the package in JoJo’s hands. His bottom lip dropped and his small pink tongue slid through the gap where his baby teeth had just fallen out. Kiriam’s heart broke as she watched them. She would never, never be able to get them meat and now this man was giving it to them in return for…for what?
As if reading her mind, his attention turned back to her and her grandmother.
“She cannot leave,” said Gramama, but with less certainty than before. “She is needed here to look after the boys. I cannot carry water and fetch wood.”
The man crossed his arms and smiled at her approvingly as if she had just solved a difficult puzzle.
“She will send you money from her new home!” he said. “I can take her to get a job in the city, and because I am a generous man,” he lifted his shoulders modestly, “I will only take half my normal fee. The rest she can send to you for meat and beans and maybe even to pay for a girl to do your chores.”
There was silence for a minute and then Gramama nodded slowly.
“Will she be taken care of?” she asked. Kiriam stared at her in utter shock.
“But, Gramama…” she whispered feebly.
The man raised his staff and touched it to his heart. “You have my word. Do we have a deal?”
JoJo wrapped the meat carefully and handed it to his grandmother as if it were a precious jewel. “You may take her,” he answered gravely. “If what you say is true it will be better for us all.”
Kiriam opened her mouth to scream but no sound came, only a dry retching that sent her reeling towards the door and fresh air. But the man blocked her escape with his staff and grasped her tightly by the shoulder.
“You must do what the head man tells you,” he said sternly. And then she was pushed outside and half dragged, half carried towards a truck that was parked on the side of the track a few yards from the hut. The back doors opened, and she was flung inside and left to come to terms with the fact that her fate had been sealed with a lump of goat’s meat.
When Kiriam awoke, she had no idea whether it was day or night or how long she had been travelling in the back of the truck. It smelt musty, and the straw she was lying on was damp and itchy.
“Who are you?” The voice sounded inches away from her ear, and Kiriam recoiled sideways, immediately knocking into somebody else.
“Hey! Careful!” The second voice was indignant.
Kiriam froze, too frightened to move, while her eyes became accustomed to the murky light. Little by little, shapes emerged from the blackness and slowly came into focus. She stared at them with growing disbelief. The truck was full of children. Some were sitting, some lying down; others huddled together for comfort in spite of the stifling heat and thick air.
“Where am I?” said Kiriam to nobody in particular.
The girl who had first spoken shrugged. “I don’t know where we are or where we’re going. The child collector came to our village and said he would take us to new homes where we would have food and find husbands. I have no family - the sickness took them - so the elders let me go. Why are you here?”
“My family sent me away to find work.” The statement sounded oddly detached, thought Kiriam, as if she were talking about somebody else. She didn’t blame JoJo or even feel angry – after all they needed to eat. It was just strange how something so monumental could happen to her in such a trivial way, and without anybody even asking how she felt about it. She had always understood that, as a girl, she had little value. But it was a very different thing to actually experience that reality so brutally.
Her companion didn’t seem surprised. For her, too, it was simply a fact of life.
“Never mind,” she said consolingly. “Hopefully our new homes will be better.”
Kiriam desperately wanted to ask about that, but without warning the truck juddered to a halt, and they were flung together into an undignified pile on the dirty floor. The engine was switched off and doors slammed. Footsteps came towards them, and suddenly the trailer was thrown open and the child collector stood before them with two or three other men standing behind.
“Ha!” he said. “Nobody dead, I hope.”
“I’m hungry!” a little girl cried.
“I need some water!” wailed another. Kiriam guessed she was about the same age as Thomas, and she wondered what work somebody so young could possibly do.
The men poured water into tin bowls and thrust them inside the truck as the child collector looked on impassively. Eager hands reached out, and a lot of the water was spilled. But some children made no effort to move, although they looked starved and desperate. Kiriam recognized the signs and knew they suffered from the sickness.
Suddenly the child collector banged his staff against the side of the truck and everybody stopped talking.
“Time to go,” he said. “Your new home awaits.”
A buzz of excited chatter rose from the dank interior and he banged his staff again.
“Silence! Get out of the truck – but don’t try to run away. We are in the desert and you will die.”
The sun scorched Kiriam’s eyes as she staggered out of the truck. White spots of light danced in front of her, and she felt her legs wobble dangerously. She leant for a moment against the wheel of the truck and glanced about.
She was in some sort of camp. Battered vehicles and tents clustered around the edge of the dusty clearing, and smoke rose from a small fire. A fire meant food and Kiriam swallowed in anticipation. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had anything more than beans to eat.
The other girls were forming a line, and one of the men pushed her roughly to join them. They stood blinking in the harsh light, swaying from hunger and thirst as the child collector walked around them.
“This is your new home,” he announced.
Kiriam frowned. Where was the city where he had promised to take her to find work and make money to send to her grandmother? Maybe it was nearby – although one look at the vast, shining horizon told her there wasn’t even a village close by. And the camp seemed deserted – what work was there here?
The girl standing next to her obviously had the same doubts and raised her hand to speak. The child collector pointed his staff at her, and she spoke timidly.
“Please, Lord Sir – where are the families you said would be waiting for us?”
The child collector snorted derisively. “There are no families here. You do not need them. You will all live here together and will become mothers and sisters and wives to each other.”
The girl’s face crumpled with disappointment, an expression that seemed to sit all too naturally on her sad little face. “Then how will I find the husband you promised?” she asked softly. “Who will I work for, and who will keep me?”
Kiriam saw the first glimmer of amusement in the child collector’s beady black eyes as he exchanged looks with the other men. One of them laughed.
“Oh, you’ll find husbands here,” he mocked. “In fact, you will be luckier than most girls because you will have a different husband every night! That way you will never get bored! Ha! Ha! Ha!” He threw back his head and cackled loudly.
Realization dawned on Kiriam, and a number of the older girls clapped their hands to their mouths in horror. Frightened voices whispered to each other as the meaning of his words sank in, and then there was nothing more to say and the girls fell silent.
The child collector waited a second longer, then banged his staff on the ground so that a cloud of dusty sand rose as far as his knees and swirled around his robe.
“Now, go!” he ordered. “You will find everything you need in the tents.” He pointed towards the ragged coverings propped up on sticks that would give shade from the sun but little else.
Kiriam lifted the flap of the small tent she was to share with three other girls and thought there must be some mistake. There was nothing inside but a couple of thin foam pads, caked with dirt and sand. There were no blankets, and the hard floor was bare. Kiriam sat down on one of the mats and buried her face between her knees, vaguely aware of the others crowding and jostling into the cramped space, but too miserable to care. To her immense surprise she found that she couldn’t cry, although from the stifled sounds around her, it wasn’t a problem for her companions.
“What are we going to do?” whimpered the girl who had hoped for a husband.
“I don’t know,” sobbed another.
“We must just accept it,” said a third. “After all, we are only girls – what else can we do?”
Kiriam felt something strange stir in the pit of her stomach. Her innate sense of injustice, the unfairness of her situation and revolt after a lifetime of suppressing her needs and emotions grew within her and crystallized into anger. She’d experienced this feeling once before, when her mother died, and had quickly learned to bury it. But now it wouldn’t be silent.
“I will not accept it!” she whispered. “I’m getting out of here!”
The others looked startled and then dismayed.
“You can’t! You heard what the child collector said – you’ll die if you try to leave the camp! Besides, where will you go?” The protests came in a chorus of anxious whispers, but Kiriam could tell the girls were far from certain. Sure enough, a few minutes later their objections stopped altogether and they sat watching her warily, but with respect in their eyes.
“How will you escape?” asked the first, tentatively.
“I don’t know – but I will! There’s bound to be some chance to slip away, when they’re not looking, or something.” Kiriam refused to let doubt enter her newly emboldened heart, even though she had no plan at all.
“Maybe the child collector was lying when he said we were miles away from anywhere,” said the second girl hopefully.
“I want to come!” announced the third.
“Me too!” added the second.
The first shook her head. “I don’t know. Here we will be fed and we have somewhere to sleep. You don’t know what’s out there.”
There was another silence as each girl weighed up for herself the consequences of staying or leaving.
The distant hum of engines interrupted their thoughts, and they all turned to look at the horizon.
The child collector and his men had heard it too and turned their attention to the small cloud of dust that was heading rapidly towards them. They shielded their eyes and waited as the dust cloud grew bigger and a dozen or so vehicles gradually emerged.
“They’re early,” muttered the child collector. “I wasn’t expecting the next shipment until tomorrow.” He started walking towards the edge of the camp, away from Kiriam’s tent and towards the approaching convoy.
Kiriam stiffened with a sudden and almost unbearable anticipation. Nobody was watching them. Nobody was even looking at them. With the arrival of the next ‘shipment’ they had been forgotten.
“Now!” she urged. “Let’s go!”
Without checking to see if the others were following, she flung herself face down on the ground and began to pull herself forward with her arms and her stomach. It was hard and painful because the desert floor was more gravel than sand, and pieces of grit stuck to her elbows and knees with every inch she moved. But a potent combination of desperation and determination drove her forward, and after a time that was impossible to gauge, she reached a low outcrop of rocks and rolled behind them.
She lay flat with her head raised enough to see that two of the three girls had followed and were making the same, painful progress.
“We’ve done it!” they cried excitedly as they reached the rocks.
“Shhhh!” Kiriam replied in panic, glancing nervously at the camp that was still perilously close. “They’ll hear us!” But she felt some relief as she saw the trucks drive into the middle of the camp and the tall figure of the child collector disappear behind the furthest as the back doors opened.
“Come on. Let’s keep moving. They’re busy now, but we don’t know for how long, and they may come looking for us if they realize we’re missing.”
Ignoring the blood on her arms and legs, she dragged her body along the ground once more. On and on the girls crawled with no idea whether they were heading towards safety or a new threat. Darkness descended swiftly, and just as quickly came the cold. The frigid night air gave them some relief, numbing their lacerated skin and aching muscles, but it also made them dangerously tired. Kiriam found herself wanting to give up for no better reason than to close her eyes and sleep – perhaps forever. Rest would bring peace, and when the youngest and smallest of her two companions stopped moving, Kiriam understood how it had happened and why she would never wake up again.
“What was her name?” she asked, staring with overwhelming sadness at the frail body curled at her feet.
“I don’t know,” replied the other girl. Her voice was barely audible. “And now it doesn’t matter.”
“It does matter!” cried Kiriam. “We all matter! Our lives have to mean something! We don’t know what because nobody’s ever told us, but I’m sure if we keep going we’ll find out.”
The other girl rubbed her eyes with her fists and left gray streaks of tears on her dirty face.
“I don’t think I believe you,” she said bitterly. “But my name’s Malika. I want you to know that in case I die too. Then at least I will have mattered to you.”
Worse than that night was the following day. As soon as the sun appeared the heat was relentless and a terrible thirst overtook both girls. They’d had nothing to drink since leaving the camp, and no matter how strong their wills, their bodies could not survive much longer without water.
Kiriam was the first to stumble. She tried to get to her feet but her joints felt as if they were on fire and her head pounded so badly she couldn’t work out which way was up or down. Malika collapsed next to her and lay with her cheek pressed against the dirt, her eyes glazed and focusing on something obscure in the distance. Their breathing was laboured and harsh.
“I think I see something,” said Malika breaking the silence but almost unable to form the words in her parched throat. She hadn’t moved, but Kiriam could see her eyes were flickering.
“What is it?” she croaked.
“I don’t know…it looks like houses. Maybe.”
Both girls sensed that this was their last chance to survive. The knowledge tapped their last reserves of energy, and they staggered forward. By the time they came upon the first signs of a community – tracks in the sand – they were barely aware of their surroundings. And when they reached a cluster of huts on the outskirts of the settlement, they were unable to feel even relief. The voices that greeted them and the touch of hands that lifted them up held no more meaning than a gust of wind on the sand.
It was only much, much later that Kiriam regained enough consciousness to realize she was lying on a clean mat with somebody holding a cup of water to her lips. Cool fingers stroked her hair and the shadowy figure of a woman wavered in the dimly lit room.
“You’re safe now,” she said. “You have nothing to worry about.”
In the days that followed, Kiriam and Malika gradually recovered and felt themselves to be truly blessed. Both agreed that some guiding spirit or angel had led them through the desert to the village. There was no other explanation – they could never have found it by accident.
The villagers had taken them immediately to a hostel set up especially for girls who’d been trafficked. There they’d been given medical care, food and water, and a seemingly endless stream of concerned and well-meaning people had come to talk to them. A very kind and patient policeman had asked them questions about the camp; did they remember where it was? How many other girls had been captured? Could they describe the child collector? Kiriam and Malika answered as best they could, but their memories were already becoming blurred.
Throughout it all was the constant presence of the woman Kiriam had seen when she first awakened. Mama Angelique was the founder of the hostel and a force for good in the whole community. She had helped open a local school where girls were welcomed and encouraged to attend, she organized health classes for the village women to teach them how to better care for themselves and their families, and she became the centre of existence for Kiriam and Malika.
Never before had anyone given them a sense of value, but now they went to school. When Kiriam discovered she was exceptionally good at math, Mama Angelique gave her extra lessons and even talked about going to university. But all that was in the future. For now, it was enough to know that they actually had a future.
Kiriam is walking along the dusty track that leads to her grandmother’s hut. She can see it ahead, a poor little shack surrounded by barren wasteland and still miles from the nearest well.
The doorway is closed with the same sun-bleached planks of wood she remembered serving as a door, propped up against the wall with a stone wedging them in place. Kiriam looks sadly at Mama Angelique.
“I’m too late,” she says. “They have gone.”
This is the first time Kiriam has returned to her old home. She is 15 and has grown tall. In the five years since she escaped from the traffickers, she has learned a lot, and although the time is approaching when she must leave the hostel, she hopes she will be able to continue working there in some way. Every week a new girl arrives, and Kiriam helps with counselling and support. She can always tell from looking at their eyes how long their journey to recovery will take. Sometimes she looks at a girl and knows her journey will never have an ending.
In the last few months, Mama Angelique has been paying her for her work at the hostel – although school takes priority – and that is the reason she is here today. She wants to bring money to her family.
She looks at Mama Angelique again for courage and knocks on the door. To her surprise a feeble voice replies from within, and they hastily move the boards to one side.
“Gramama!” cries Kiriam. Can it be possible that the old woman has not yet turned to dust?
There are many tears, especially when Kiriam learns that little Thomas has died from the sickness and JoJo has joined a militia who give him food to fight. Gramama doesn’t know why they are fighting, but everybody is at war these days, she says.
“So where is Minlaw?” asks Kiriam.
“He has gone to get water,” says Gramama.
“So why is the door closed?” Kiriam is puzzled.
Gramama sighs. “Sometimes he is away for a day or two, especially if he is trying to find something to eat. The door is too heavy for me to lift, so he locks me inside.”
Kiriam sits back on her heels and takes a small package from the bundle of gifts and food she and Mama have brought with them.
“Then this is for you, Gramama,” she says softly. She unwraps the paper and holds out two hinges and a handful of screws. “Mama Angelique and I will fix it before we leave and then you will be able to open and close it whenever you like.”
After all, thinks Kiriam, no woman or child should ever be trapped behind a closed door.