Guest blogger Gavin Weston is an artist and writer from Ireland and author of the new book, “Harmattan,” the story of a young girl coming of age in the Republic of Niger under the threat of child marriage. A former aide worker in West Africa, Weston relied on first-hand knowledge of Niger as well as his personal experiences to write the novel. The father of two is an ambassador for FORWARD UK, a human-rights organization that advocates for the sexual and reproductive health of African women and girls.
As a former aid worker I have had a strong interest in humanitarian issues for as long as I can remember, particularly in relation to Niger. When my children were very young, it struck me that “sponsoring” a child through an NGO would be an effective way of both doing something constructive and ensuring that my children gained some understanding of the huge disparities that life can throw up.
Over the next few years we communicated regularly with my “sponsored daughter” (as 6-year-old Ramatou referred to herself) and, perhaps naively, I assumed that we would maintain contact. It was, then, a great shock when we discovered that Ramatou had been married off by her family, just before her 12th birthday. We never heard from her again. My own daughter had just turned 13 and was particularly upset by the development. I suggested that she write about it for a school project, little realising quite how much it was gnawing away inside me too.
Around this time my own marriage disintegrated (I’m just as useless at relationships as the average bloke!). I had always been a “hands-on” dad, and had not envisaged ever having to fight for my kids. After a very difficult year I finally achieved joint custody and set about trying to rebuild our lives. During the periods when my children were with their mum, in addition to making artwork, I rekindled my interest in writing and eventually joined a writers’ group. It was during a conversation in one of these sessions that the seeds of “Harmattan” were sown.
One evening an American writer made the sweeping statement, “Men can’t write as women.” I disagreed strongly and soon afterwards attempted to write something from a female perspective, initially perhaps just to prove her wrong. When I read out what became the prologue to “Harmattan” and listened to people’s responses, I soon realised that I had started something that had to be completed. I realised that writing a novel from a first-person perspective might be an opportunity to “give voice” to the millions of underage girls who are married off every year, a problem that many people find just too difficult to read about in fact sheets or newspapers.
I was aware that this might be perceived as arrogance, on several levels. How could a middle-aged European man express the feelings and experiences of a 12-year-old West African girl? To achieve any kind of success, I knew that I had to really try to inhabit my character, Haoua. Hardly surprising that over the next five years, I frequently dreamt about both her and her family as if they were real people.
When I began my research there was not a lot of information available on child marriage. However, there are now quite a few organisations and individuals working to bring about an end to this disturbing practice. I am bolstered to hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu declaring that “We can end child marriage now!” and that addressing the issue is as important to him as apartheid was. There is a long way to go before we can convince not just governments, but village elders and even women (in some areas) that education for girls is much more beneficial than early marriage and servitude. And, of course, child marriage perpetuates poverty and FGM, so the problems are cyclical and immense.
So far, I have been surprised at how positively my book has been received, although by its nature there is still resistance to it (It is not a “sexy” topic, and “Harmattan” is clearly neither easy reading nor a coffee table book). I am discovering that most men simply don’t wish to acknowledge the subject. Many of my male friends have been supportive in terms of buying the book and slapping me on the back for my achievement, but few are willing to actually engage in an in-depth conversation about how we can bring about real change on a global and societal scale. This saddens me, because although I can write and articulate certain aspects of these horrors, I am lacking in other skills (political, business skills etc.) that are essential in terms of mustering a global movement that dovetails with what other organisations are doing.
I am honoured to serve as an ambassador for FORWARD UK, a human-rights organization that advocates for the sexual and reproductive health of African women and girls. I was a guest speaker at their recent London conference on child marriage, and we are planning to launch “Harmattan” in London on October 11, to mark the first International Day of the Girl. Several other NGOs have expressed an interest in working with me, and I am delighted about the potential that the book presents in this respect. However, I hope that it is also a “good read” that—despite its difficult subject matter—can be enjoyed as a work of art.