The Weight of the World

It’s difficult to hold all the horrors of the world in your mind at once. Sometimes we get so fixated on what’s happening in one place, and then something else flashes onto the screen, and we’re reminded: there is brutality, casual violence, acceptance of poverty and inhumanity, in many, many places. There are too few of us to pay attention to so much.

I rarely read newspapers with an eye to the bylines; Sharon Cohen of Midwest AP is an exception, and Paul Salopek in the Chicago Tribune is a further exception; he has a novelist’s eye for the telling detail, and a dispassionate voice too often missing in foreign correspondence. This is his account of a girl in Africa, married at the age of seven.

THE CENTRAL HIGHLANDS OF ETHIOPIA — Tihun Nebiyu the goat herder doesn’t want to marry. She is adamant about this. But in her village nobody heeds the opinions of headstrong little girls.

That’s why she’s kneeling in the filigreed shade of her favorite thorn tree, dropping beetles down her dress. Magic beetles.

“When they bite you here–” Tihun explains gravely, pressing the scrabbling insects into her chest through the fabric of her tattered smock “–it makes your breasts grow.”

This is Tihun’s own wishful brand of sorcery–a child’s desperate measure to turn herself into an adult. Then maybe, just maybe, her family would respect her wishes not to wed. She could rebuff the strange man her papa has chosen to be her husband. And she wouldn’t have to bear his dumb babies.

Tihun kneels in the dirt, eyes closed: an elfin figure whose smile is made goofily endearing by two missing front teeth. She holds her small hands over her nipples. She is waiting for the bugs’ enchantment to start. Seconds pass. But nothing happens. Eventually, she starts to giggle. The beetles have escaped–by crawling up her neck.

“It doesn’t work!” Tihun says, disgusted. She heaves an exaggerated sigh and squints out across the yellow-grass hills surrounding her world: “I will just have to run.”

But this is childish bluster. Tihun’s short legs can’t carry her away fast enough from the death of her childhood. Her wedding is five days away. And she is 7 years old.

It takes a certain kind of power to tell a story like that and keep yourself out of it. It’s worth signing up for the subscription to read the whole thing, cats and kittens, it really is.