Who Was She?

A poem by Bijal Lal

First published on Medium.

Two hands, Black and Brown, holding. One has rings and the fingernails painted in red and blue. The other one has a crafted bracelet in tones of brown, yellow and green.
Two hands, Black and Brown, holding. One has rings and the fingernails painted in red and blue. The other one has a crafted bracelet in tones of brown, yellow and green.

Was she an aunty? A non-descript name we assigned to older looking ladies Was she a person with Down Syndrome? A designation we associated to someone with certain facial features

Was she just another unmarried woman? A stigmatized label we gave to women who chose a different route
Was she the nagging lady? A person we and her neighbors had learned to keep at distance
Was she the aunty with “problems”? A word even young children had learned to recognize, a word that meant she knew less so we needed to be kind.

Turns out she was Zaitun (alternate name used for confidentiality)
An avid artist,
An expert in the art of Quilling,
Her paper-made flowers blossomed my class walls, sometimes the only décor we had
Her knowledge of colors surprised me in a way a plain person like me could never phantom.

She supported her single mum’s home-made business of selling Indian snacks,
Not a day went by when she saw my lunch and promised me her mum could make it much better.

She was my intel, I knew what went around every class,
She never skipped a beat to step in when a peer needed a hand.
She is a grieving daughter and sister,
We spent our time in the school playground,
Reliving the memories of her lost father, the one who believed in her
Reliving the memories of her lost sister, the one who disregarded her the least.

She spent her days dreaming about a future with her husband and kids,
I spent my school hours, playing detective, making sure no one would abuse her in the name of marriage.
I was too young in the world of advocacy and disability rights to understand that the right of marriage was of hers, too.

Long after I stopped being her teacher, she became my friend
The one I always made plans with, but they never happened,
The one whose calls made time fly fast,
The one who always wished the best to my family.

So maybe yes, and maybe no,
Yes, she is an aunty. That’s how older women are addressed in our culture.
She may be a person with Down Syndrome. Many people in Tanzania, like her, do not have the luxury of a diagnosis.

No, she is not the nagging lady, she holds just as much value, but didn’t give her a chance
Yes, she might be an aunty with problems, but after all who isn’t? Her challenges may differ, but to assume  and accept — that those challenges set her in a negative light is a problem we all must solve.

This is the story of Zaitun, who taught me, as a special educator, to challenge my narrow world view; who made me read articles upon articles on sexual rights and equality, who made me aware of the biases I held so strongly. She is the one who teaches me the importance of being a well-informed ally and advocate, and most of all, she is the friend who knows just the right time to call to comfort my incessant anxieties.

About the author

Bijal Lal is a special educator and the founder of Tujumuishe Tanzania. She is passionate about improving access to quality inclusive education in Tanzania.

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