My heart broke a little the other day when I read of the death of Anafghat. She was a teen-aged girl from Niger who I never met-- except in the context of a remarkable article by Roger Thurow in the Wall Street Journal, published two years ago, that told her story. I tore out the article and saved it, as one should save important things. Anafghat was important; she was living proof that momentous things may be accomplished by any of us, even in the least hospitable circumstances.
The recent item that noted her unexplained death was not nearly as enlightening as the account of her short life, and its expectation of hope.
Anafghat was married at age 11 to a man twice her age, in a country where poverty and the tradition make this unremarkable. Her dowry was a camel, useful for milk and transport. A bright and promising student, tradition dictated that once Anafghat was married she was not allowed to return to school. She lived at home with her father and sisters until puberty, but became pregnant quickly once she began living with her husband. Her underdeveloped (and likely undernourished) body was unable to handle the punishing demands of four days of at-home labor.
By the time her father was able to get her medical help at a hospital-- over 150 miles away--her infant son was stillborn. Anafghat was left with a fistula, or hole in her bladder, the size of a baseball. She joined the ranks of the estimated one million girls and young women in the region suffering the pain, infection, ostracism that attends this condition. (For more information, please go to the website www.nigerfistula.org.)
But Anafghat had a light in her, an intelligence and a desire to live that persisted beyond reason in such circumstances. She was aided by a team of American doctors (themselves aided by the charitable entreaties of an American couple, the Margolies) and her surgery was successful. Her father was moved by her persistent pleas to return to school; she returned home to do just that. She desperately wanted to follow the example of a Nigerian woman she met while in the hospital, a medical student who impressed Anafghat with fluency in multiple languages, and-- revealing an endearing universality among little girls-- her pretty clothes. Anafghat wanted to be, in her words, "a doctor...an important woman".
Inspired herself, in turn she inspired others, spreading the idea among her family and fellow townsmen that girls would do better to postpone marriage and childbirth, and focus on becoming literate and educated. In a country where less than 15% of women can read and write, this set her squarely against the conventional wisdom. But as the director of the National Hospital, who favors this opportunity for young girls, says: "The impact of an individual can be great".
In a hostile culture, in a harsh land, this may seem like tilting at windmills. And so it is. But she did it, and touched many in her short life. She left a legacy we should note, and honor. R.I.P.