Proving Them Wrong — Thanks to Grandma and Compassion

By Eric D. Lema With Joyce Tumbelston
Photos by Eric D. Lema

“My grandfather said that I am not human, that I am a snail, and I should be thrown away,” says Bahati, a 14-year-old girl in Tanzania.

Although her name means “Good Fortune” in Swahili, no one saw much future for Bahati when she was born in a village in 2005. In that male-dominated and image-conscious society, Bahati had three strikes against her: She was female, her father had died, and she had visible birth defects, including a short leg.

At first sight, her paternal grandfather ordered some of his wives to get rid of her. The women took her from her widowed mother, wrapped her with old clothes and headed to the forest. But as they went, one of the women had second thoughts. She told the others, “We should tell her grandparents from her mother’s side before we throw her away.”

When the news reached Bahati’s maternal grandmother, Ruby, she rushed to save her as-yet-unnamed granddaughter. “When I reached the forest I found my daughter crying, and another woman was holding my grandchild. I took her with me and rushed to the hospital. She was very small, and her stomach was swollen. I was not sure if she would live another day,” says Ruby.

Bahati had a physical impairment that affected her ability to eliminate waste. Doctors corrected that problem, and the swelling in her abdomen went away. They named her “Good Fortune” because she might not have survived another hour without treatment.

Short-Lived Gain, Then Another Loss
Elated, Ruby brought her daughter and Bahati home to stay with her. But her happiness was cut short by a harsh cultural tradition enforced by her husband: After a couple of weeks, he banished Bahati’s mother. The grievous tradition dictated that once married, a woman could never again live in her parents’ home, even if widowed. Bahati was on that day deprived of her mother and left in her grandmother’s care.

Ruby did her best to raise the girl. She brought Bahati to the hospital again and again throughout childhood to try to have her remaining birth defects corrected. With no means to pay for the bills, Ruby resorted to begging door to door. A woman from church told her about a nonprofit organization that helped children with disabilities, and Ruby got some help there. Her persistence enabled a much-improved life for Bahati — except that Bahati couldn’t walk normally.

No Social Safety Net
Discrimination — even violence — against girls, women and disabled people is persistent in Tanzania despite laws intended to enforce equality and human rights. Laws are simply ignored. The United Nations in Tanzania, on its website, states, “VAWG’s [violence against women and girls] far-reaching consequences are not only felt in terms of the psychosocial and physical well-being of entire families and communities, but also undermine Tanzania’s overall economic development.”

Indeed, according to Comprehensive Community Based Rehabilitation in Tanzania, an advocacy group and service provider, “People with disabilities are often among the poorest and most marginalized in society. … More than half of children with disabilities do not attend school. … Illiteracy among Tanzanians with a disability is 48%, compared to 25% among those [without] one. This seriously hinders social and economic development.”

Crawling to School
Despite all this, Ruby saw that Bahati was enrolled in kindergarten in 2010. But because of her short leg, Bahati had to crawl — literally — to get to school. She dragged herself over the cold, wet soil, past potholes filled with mud, along narrow paths covered with stones. Ruby would have carried her there but could not because she had to farm to feed them.

“I hated school,” says Bahati. “Other kids used to tell me to stand up and walk properly. When I tried to do it and fell, they would laugh at me.”

Life at home was even worse at times. Whenever her grandfather got drunk, he mocked her and threatened to chase her away. To him, she was a burden, just an extra mouth to feed.

Enter Compassion and the Church
Ruby felt a surge of hope when, in 2014, a Compassion child development center was opened in a nearby church. Though she was not sure at first if Bahati would be welcome, her prayers were answered: Bahati was registered at the center!

“When we started registering kids, we immediately thought of Bahati,” says Gordon, a staff member. “She was someone that the church knew and had tried to help before. She had stopped going to school because she could not walk.”

Partnering with Compassion, the church now had resources to truly transform Bahati’s life. “After Bahati was registered,” says Gordon, “we took her to a prosthetic specialist where she got an artificial leg.”

Her new ability to walk restored Bahati’s dignity and gave her the confidence to return to school, where she is now in her last year of primary school. “I am happy I don’t have to crawl to school as I used to,” she says. “I can play with my friends, and I enjoy being in school.”

So much so that her dream is to become a lawyer. Bahati wants to devote her adult life to helping children born in the same circumstances she was.

Upheld by a grandmother who just wouldn’t give up and empowered by a Compassion partner church that never doubted her value, Bahati has already smashed through barricades erected by her society. She is on her way to becoming a role model to raise the expectations and status of women and disabled people in Tanzania.

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. — Isaiah 1:17, NIV