She was 10 the last time I saw her, at the Drop In Center before the deadly fire. She and her 9 year old sister had been named after the famous African-American tennis playing champions, and like them, they were beautiful and spirited. Now 13, she’s still slight and smiley. The big difference that I note right away is her big belly. She’s back home with her mother and 5 siblings in a dwelling in Sophia where locks are regularly broken and a rainy night means getting wet and sleeplessness; she yawns during much of our conversation. It’s a girl, she tells me, due in about two months. She doesn’t know the word ultrasound but nods affirmatively when I describe the procedure. I ask if she’s going to clinic, about her blood pressure, if she’s eating properly. The doctor told her to eat more fruits, she says, but mommy aint getting pay. Her mother is a domestic worker; she hasn’t gotten paid in two months. Di money gotta come from New York, she says, as if that explains everything. She still has dealings with the State- there is some pending court matter, not related to the pregnancy. When I ask if she understands what’s going on in court, she drops her head and admits that no, she doesn’t.
She knows about other things though. She knows about Serena Williams and her baby girl. She even knows Serena’s white man’s name. She knows that her child’s father could be charged for having had sex with her and that she’s not going to be able to put his name on the baby’s birth certificate. She only had sex with him two times, she said, and the first time was her first. He’s 19, she reveals, and Amerindian. She hopes their baby will be cute. He doesn’t have any other children, as far as she knows, although he had gotten one of her friends pregnant before hooking up with her. He broke up with that other girl after she threw away the belly, she tells me and now the girl wants to fight her. She doesn’t know exactly where in Essequibo he’s from though, nor when she’ll see him again. He came to town looking for work but there was none so he’d gone back. He’d given her a ring but don’t ask her where it is now; people are always going through and taking her stuff. She has to get a case like what lawyers have- with a combination- then her things will be safe.
So how y’all managing, if mommy aint getting pay, I ask. Her big sister is working, she says. She’s buying the baby’s things, little by little. The fruits vendor passes by as we’re talking and I buy her some bananas and mango which she eats quickly and quietly. Sometimes she goes to sleep without any dinner, she tells me. Today though, mommy left a tin of sardine which she has to fry up when she goes back home, for her younger siblings. I know about sardine and rice- it’s what I feed my cats. The tins of sardine are expired, I found when I checked- that’s why it’s so cheap in the market. But when you’re on a budget, you take your chances. One tin, mixed with rice, is breakfast and dinner for cats or people. Unless you’re pregnant and throw up if you smell, much less eat certain things.
In a functional society, where leaders understand and care about their people, all pregnant girls and women, especially underage ones, would receive free healthy food throughout their pregnancy and beyond. Clinics, hospitals, and health centers would dispense fruits and vegetables along with injections, pills and advice; heck, there would even be rooftop gardens where patients and their families could assist and learn in before they go home, as part of their recuperation. In a functional society, especially one with abundant and fertile farmland, no one would ever go to sleep hungry. Yes, there is a big yard where she’s living, she says. So you could plant some callaloo and suh, I say. She disregards my suggestion. I try again- even if you don’t like to eat it, other people would use it. You could sell and make some money. She knows the importance of money- who doesn’t in today’s society. But there are still major disconnects. Especially when you’re still a child yourself.
We talk about school; she knows to read, write, and spell she declares, but she’s not interested in books. She tells me about some fancy phone and some other teenage girls in her neighbourhood who have babies. In return, I tell her about birth control, describing the various options. I tell her that abortion is legal and available. She counters with the Bible and sin and what her mother says. I rage at how much we are failing this generation, how poorly the hours in school prepare them for real life, how little we seem to care. I think about all the girl children I knew from the Drop In Center, and how many of them I’ve seen afterwards on the road, with big bellies. There still isn’t any comprehensive sexuality education in public school, much less in the private, religious ones. Predictably, we still have one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the region, and almost half of all children under 16 are still living in poverty in Guyana.
How do you feel about having a baby, I ask curiously, as she prepares to leave. She looks at me, with a tiny smile. No way, she says.