Standing on the stage giving a TED Talk in Shreveport Louisiana, I asked the audience how I got there. It was a rhetorical question to them. For me, it was a long unpleasant ride on a roller coaster.
I begin my story from when my journey began….
A little bit about Zulaiha Wallace.
Born into a very large family, I was my father’s 17th child, my mother’s 6th and only girl. My dad had 4 wives, my mother was the second.
It was my 11th birthday, I just started secondary school that fall when my dad walked into my mother’s living room. I was eavesdropping…..
“I think it’s time you talked to Zulaiha, Alhaji is getting impatient; he wants everything to be finalised before the new year”
“Toh, Alhaji” my mother answered.
That night, mother called me, and as I sat on the bed we shared, she started…
“You know Alh. Sanusi, your father’s friend?”
Of course we all know him, a kind hearted man, a philanthropist. He is well known across town. And to my family? He was a God-sent.
“Yes mama” I replied.
“He is a kind man and has been particularly kind to our family. The reason is because when you were born, he came visiting and brought gifts for ‘kamu’ on you. Your father now believes it is time.” she said with her eyes looking away from me.
“Mama, I don’t understand. I was betrothed to him from birth?”
I tried to let her words sink in, she explained to me that they would have loved to wait a little longer before the wedding rites but Alhaji Sanusi is impatient. So my wedding will be the following week.
What 11 year old wants to hear that she is getting married to a fifty something year old in a week? Again, a rhetorical question.
It was my wedding day. I wore new clothes, makeup and henna. And as I sat there all I could think of was the simultaneous equation assignment I hadn’t done.
Mama said Alhaji said I could continue school from his house, I doubt that.
Asabe’s husband said the same thing and now she has 4 kids and no education.
The ceremony was over and my bags were packed
I had a plan…..
“I need to quickly pee” I told Hajiya Saudatu.
“Hurry and don’t keep them waiting”
I ran…. I ran as far as my legs could carry me.
Fast into the night I faded away.
And as I sat in the bush, the only person I knew could help me was Alfa Sule.
Baba didn’t like him, he said he preached contrary to what the Holy Quran says. He said western education has diluted his knowledge of Islam.
Moments later I was in Alfa Sule’s house, I explained to him.
He hid me.
And called Alhaji Bode.
“Your third wife is in the US and your daughter is same age as Zulaiha. I was thinking you could help adopt her and take her to the US for a better life please. I have spoken to Barr. Mustafa who is happy to help with the adoption process. He says it won’t take too long” Alfa Sule said in a pleading voice.
Most people respect the Alfa.
Alhaji Bode agreed to do it, maybe out of respect as opposed obligation.
The adoption process took longer than we thought, so I had to stay home for a while.
By the end of the second school year term, I was on a flight to Atlanta with Alhaji Bode.
His wife saw me as a threat, thought I was a love child and maltreated me. She collected my tuition from her husband and went shopping with it. But I was thankful; thankful to have had a second chance, thankful I was not married off, thankful I was in the land of the free.
Fauziya was same age as me. She had a good heart unlike her mother. Every day she got back from school, she will teach me all she learnt and we’ll study together. Up until I was 15, Alhaji Bode had no idea I was not in school.
Fauziya threatened to report to her dad so I started school.
I got a scholarship to Michigan State University where I not only got a degree in Psychology, I met and fell in love with the best man I know: Hussain Wallace.
And until that day in the registry when I signed the papers to change my name from Zulaiha Mohammed Abdulsallam to Zulaiha Wallace, I had not known the true power of forgiveness.
I felt light, I felt free, I felt new…… my slate was wiped clean.
Last summer Hussain and myself welcomed a beautiful being into the world and the way he loves her, makes me glad I chose him.
I sleep happy, knowing she won’t have to go through half of what I went through.
Her birth taught me a new kind of love…. I reached out to my dad after she was born, but he wanted nothing to do with me.
“Good riddance to bad rubbish” I muttered under my breathe.
My step sister said he still works at Alhaji Sanusi’s block industry to pay back all he collected from him in exchange for me.



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