I remember a Diba.
He was young, mellow, with a head too small for its voluminous hair. He had an unusual mole in the middle of his forehead and a hump on his chest that he joked was because of his big
heart. Standing before me now is a piteous imitation of that man. He is worryingly slim, his cheekbones so evident that the rest of his face shies away, and his once big heart seems to have
shrunk so far inside him I can barely tell it’s there.
He wears the same old dirt-coloured t-shirt and a kikoi – this one new – that hangs so callously off his waist I fear it will fall. I study him a little too long, and when the silence grows too loud for our comfort, he clears his throat, and I blurt out that I’ve missed him before I can stop myself. I show him to the only piece of furniture I own – my bed – and stand myself at a distance far enough to see him in his entirety. He looks around.
There is a pile of dirty dishes on the floor next to the firestones, dirty laundry tucked away at a selected corner, sacks of food that take up half the space and two pairs of worn slippers – three left feet, one right, all of them blue. There is wet rot on the walls and cockroaches that creep out from cracks to shame me. When I tie up the cloth hanging from the window to let in more light, I put a spotlight on the dirt I had swept up earlier this morning and forgot to throw away.
‘You live good Shuke’, he says genuinely.
Diba was the stone that set me in motion. I had just lost two of my older brothers to war, my father to vengeance and my mother to grief. I could not recognise her anymore. Her once vibrant face was stuck in a frown even a hearty laugh couldn’t fix, and as the days went by, I grew more and more desperate for a way to make her happy again. It was then that I found Diba selling the world.
‘It’s full of colour out there’, he said. ‘Green trees, beautiful pink flowers, cars, bikes.’
I was a sweet-toothed kid, and the world he offered me was candy.
‘What would I do there?’
‘You work. For money. And then you can buy everything you want.’
‘Yes, you’ll be happy.’
I had always thought he meant I could buy happiness; I wanted to give it to my broken mother.
I left home a month after my father returned home from war. They had won, he’d said, but what was left behind didn’t look like victory at all. Hundreds of men had died, women and children displaced, widowed, orphaned. The villages caught up in the war had been burnt to the ground, and those that escaped made homes of the roads and shaded trees in our village. My mother would send me out to them with a calabash of milk that we couldn’t spare, and after pouring it into five of fifty cups, I would return empty. We’d stay hungry for days before our starving cows put out milk again. That was the price we paid to live, but between the drought and the aftermath of war, we never really stopped dying.
‘It is bigger than what I had.’
I pour him the cup of tea I had made for myself.
‘You’re a cook.’
‘Yes. They love buthena and buna here’, I say smiling, ‘My mother taught me well.’
‘Is that all you do? They pay quite good for just food.’
He knows. My heart beats from my temples in fury.
‘I only do it when business is slow.’
‘Daru taught you that too?’ Daru is my mother.
The shame he lovingly offers me hangs from my head like a mantle. The more I shake it off, the more it covers me. He carefully unties his ruuf, and I hold back a laugh when a bald head reveals itself. I almost feel bad for him, but all the pity I have I pour back into myself. I no longer know how to be sorry.
He removes the bag of miraa he’d hidden inside his ruuf and begins to pick at the leaves. Before placing a thin bud in his mouth, he spits out some tobacco I didn’t know he had then drags his shoes continuously across it. He disgusts me. I begin counting down the minutes until he leaves.
He stuffs the miraa into his mouth as though he hadn’t eaten for days. I can’t tear my eyes from him, how his hands travel so quickly towards his lips until, barely a minute later, both his cheeks are repulsively full. When he offers me a piece and I refuse, he laughs. ‘Don’t worry; women eat miraa too.’
I had never thought myself a woman before, even with my fallen breasts and wide hips. When men force me onto their laps and refuse to let go until I feed them from my hands, I don’t think I am a woman. When their wives pull at my hair and call me names I can’t bring myself to repeat, I don’t think I am a woman. I am a girl that went to bed fifteen and woke up thirty, and all I’ve done since is move backwards into the life I wish I’d had a chance to live. If I work hard enough, I’ll collect enough money to go back in time and be a child again. But Diba does not understand this. If he did, he wouldn’t have asked about the men and how I dance for them.
‘How did you end up in Moyale anyway?’
I am tired of his endless questions. I am tired of him and of the stains on the floor from tea that overflows from his mouth because he is too gone to realise there is no more space left to fill.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Why did you change your name, Shuke?’
‘What are you talking about?’
He is amused. I wonder if the truth would give him the same pleasure.
‘Looking for Shuke’s been like chasing a ghost. Had to describe you. Big eyes, afaan borra, straight nose, crooked smile, long neck. They call you Maria—’
‘It was just easier.’ I didn’t know my smile was crooked.
He bites down on a waiting bundle of miraa which he immediately swallows. My skin starts to crawl, and I fill up with the need to get him out of my house and my life.
‘Why are you here anyway? What do you want?’
‘It’s not easy to say.’
Money? Help? A place to stay?
‘Your father is dying.’
My heart stops for a second and forgets the tune of its own beat.
He gets up to walk towards me, but the distance between us remains the same.
‘You’ve been here for hours. How could you talk with me so casually while my father was dying?’
‘I didn’t know how to tell you. I’m sorry.’
I drop onto my knees and rest my palms insentiently on the floor. I study the pile of dirty dishes beside me as though I were seeing them for the first time. Diba speaks to me, and I speak to him, but neither of us understands the other.
‘I can’t lose him’, I say, but upon reaching my throat, the words forget what they are and leave me as screams.
Everything has changed. The beautiful acacia tree behind our small hut is now a lonely stump, and the ground, once overgrown with grass, is now barren and unwelcoming. The shed is no longer a shed but a graveyard, and the starved cows that remain walk over scattered bones in oblivion. Any trace of the farm we once had is gone, and so is my father.
The uneven stump hurts to sit on, and my back, characteristically turned on my mother and everyone else, bears this torment. I have been in this position for hours now, watching people walk into and out of my line of sight with condolences. Some embrace me and wipe away my tears while others utter words that lose their meaning upon reaching me. Their prying eyes tickle my back, and I pull my garbisar over my head to hide away.
At sunset, I stray back towards the hut in search of my mother. She is cluttered among a horde of women that engage in senseless conversation with her. She calls to me by tapping an unoccupied part of the cowskin she sits on. I selfishly spread myself out across the floor, like a dog peeing on the ground it thought was its own. When the women become aware of the space I’ve taken, they move closer into each other and away from me.
‘You only missed him by a day Shukeya.’
‘He tried to wait for you.’
‘He didn’t stop calling for you.’
‘He left you with so many blessings.’
I suppose the lies are an act of kindness to help ease my father’s loss down my throat, but it is still stuck there, and at night, when nobody is watching, it strangles me.
I tell my mother we should run away, but she does not hear me, or perhaps she does not understand. I take a walk to clear my mind, and the smell of rotten air sickens me to my stomach. On the side of the road, next to an old dried up well, lies a young boy, slaughtered. Fearing I’m next, I rush back home. The acacia tree is whole again, and from one of its branches hangs the corpse of our neighbour. At our hut’s door stands my father, laughing. I call to him, but he does not respond.
We are alone now, my mother and I. It’s been a week already, and tradition no longer forces anyone to stay, and therefore we are alone. During the tasia, the three-day period where people invade your home and your grief, I got into a fight.
They’d kept all my mother’s plates and cups separate. Lula, my aunt, said it was because they didn’t want to catch whatever bad luck rid my mother of her husband. It was ridiculous of course, but traditions are traditions. We pick and choose which ones to follow. For instance, I never sweep at night, but I don’t share my mother’s ridiculous belief that the buuti, the python, is my grandmother. Aunt Lula believed I should shave my hair because I had lost my father, and when I refused to, she made a scene.
‘You have to do it. Your mother and I also shaved ours once.’
I remember briefly that I never met their father, but it does not hurt me.
‘I’ll wear a white dirai like ayyo.’
She said it wasn’t what daughters did.
‘Your hair is more important than your father?’ she asked.
My hair was nothing compared to my father, but I didn’t need an empty head to prove it. If I were to show her even an ounce of my grief, it would stay with her for as long as she lived. When I walked away from her, she tailed me, calling everyone she knew by name to witness the prodigal daughter turn her back on her people – again.
When everybody had moved on from my scandal, I went into the kitchen and hid my mother’s cursed plate. In the evening, I served food on to it and gave it to Lula.
‘Here, eat this. I’m sorry.’
She was almost done by the time she realised what it was. She cursed at me, but the insults cascaded down my body like soft rain.
‘When your husband dies, I’ll attend his funeral with a shaved head’, I said, much to everyone’s horror.
She fled our home in the dead of the night and vowed never to come back.
When my mother asked why I had been so cruel, I searched myself for an answer I could not find.
My mother has been too kind to me since then, the type of kindness I’ve seen her show only to strangers. We greet each other as if we’re meeting for the first time, and when she looks at me, her eyes seem to be looking for the daughter I fear she has lost. At nightfall, she lights a fire, and we catch up on lost time.
‘How did he die?’ I had never really asked.
‘Your father had always been dying’, she said, ‘He was a reckless man, always looking for a good way to die, but he changed when you left. He was so proud, told everyone his daughter would make something of herself. He was hopeful you’d come back—’
I cut her off. ‘I was coming back. I have always been coming back.’
‘I know; I know. But you know hope; it saddens you, and it crept up on him so suddenly he went back to his old ways just so it would end.’
I don’t understand why she’s telling me this.
‘I killed my father?’
‘No, silly child. He died because he got sick while travelling. What has kept him alive all this time is you.’
I want to believe her, but the father I remember abandoned me to go die in a war that had taken his sons from him. I remember begging him to stay, but he would not be persuaded. I must avenge my sons, he insisted. I wished I was a son; maybe then I would have been reason enough for him to stay. When he returned, he was not my father anymore but a hollow shell of a man. My mother said the war broke him because he didn’t have the heart of a killer. I left home to heal him, to collect enough peace so he would never have to kill for it again.
Perhaps for people like us, the closest thing to peace is hope. Perhaps it’s only the lucky ones that escape the sadness such hope carries, and my father, reckless as he was, must have long run dry of it.
We sit in comfortable silence for quite some time before she begins braiding my hair. I am too sad to stop her.
‘What happened with Major?’
The major, or Abba as I used to call him, was an old widower who had no loving children and a distaste for the bland food served at the only restaurant in Saku. He was a stout man, one of the very first I had ever seen, and he spoke sluggishly as though all but time would stop to listen. When he looked at me, I saw a glimpse of my father’s face collecting cow dung every morning: creased up, nauseated. It was then that I first felt like nothing, and in an effort to conform into what he had made of me, I squeezed my bones into themselves and held my breath around him.
He barely spoke to me that day, only motioned to me saying: ‘Can she cook?’ ‘I don’t want her leaving the house.’ ‘How old is she?’ ‘Where are her things?’
I was twelve then, old enough to understand why Diba lied that I was seventeen and yet not quite to understand why Abba was pleased by it. Diba left soon after, assuring Abba that I would be a good shaqala – maid – and I never saw him again. Alone, Abba grew to thrice his size and filled the room. His bright and shiny feet shamed my dry, cracked heels, and I stepped over them, one after the other, afraid that my blemishes would flow out of me and stain him.
‘You smell’, he said, repulsed. I hoped I had misheard him.
‘You reek of poverty,’
‘Wash that smell off before it makes me sick.’
I locked myself inside the bathroom, crying. I spent two hours in the bath that day, clawing my nails into my skin to rid myself of a smell I did not know I had. Over the years, when he would get so drunk he stunk up the whole house, I would close all the windows to entrap that air. I had thought perhaps it would imprint on me: that if my skin were to get enough of it, one day I would finally smell like something he did not hate.
‘Nothing happened with Abba’, I answer.
‘Why did you run away?’
‘He didn’t pay me well. I only left the house to buy groceries once a week. I had no friends, no life. I wanted more.’
She pulls at a tangled piece of my hair, and I flinch away from the unfamiliar pain.
‘You’ve always been chasing something. You never have enough.’
Her tongue clicks, and I can feel her head shake in disappointment. I want to tell her everything, but the truth is cruel and will bruise her. I wipe away the tears that begin welling in my eyes and feed her more lies. I tell her I used the money I’d saved from Abba to start a business in Moyale. I tell her it picked up really slow, but it’s doing okay now. I tell her I met a good man but refused him because I was too young. I tell her I’ve been happy.
The smell of alcohol. The sound of rain.
Cold hands moving down her thighs.
She screams and kicks. He hits her.
He jumps onto the bed. His legs trap her petite body.
She screams. He hits her again.
‘Please stop; get off me.’
He pulls up her dress.
‘I beg you. Please.’
He holds down both her hands with one of his.
Her legs are forced open.
She fights back. He hits her.
She screams. He hits her.
She passes out.
The smell of wet soil. The girl mourns her girlhood.
The man snores loudly into the night.
She was fifteen.
When Abba found out I was carrying his child, I was already at my wit’s end, having tried everything I could to get rid of it and failed. He laughed when I said it was his as though he found the very idea ludicrous.
‘You’re a maid’, he said, drawing in his laughter. ‘You can’t be expecting MY child.’
His wrinkled face, which by then I had learnt to read, told me everything he opted not to say out loud. I got up to run mere seconds before he did, and all of me escaped him save for the tip of my left middle finger which he grabbed and subsequently used to pull me back towards him. He punched my jaws repeatedly, only moving down to my abdomen when the blood oozing from my face became too much for the virtue of his fists. He hit me until his hands grew tired; then he kicked me and he kicked me.
My ears stopped ringing long enough to pick up the atrocities he screamed at me.
‘I will kill this thing before it destroys me. Sharmut, whore. I will not let you destroy me. I will not let you destroy me.’
I chuckled softly when he finally stopped, momentarily choking on the blood inside my mouth.
‘Me, destroy you?’
Tears flowed out of my eyes and joined the blood oozing from my head.
‘I have destroyed myself. I am the thing that is ruined. You could never give back everything you’ve taken from me.’
He stood unfazed by my words, looking at me as he always did: disgusted. Picking me up onto his shoulders, he walked out the door and past a young girl, untouched, jumping on her heels from excitement. I held my arms out to pull her away, but I couldn’t reach her. I screamed at her to run but she was five years away. The door opened; she stopped for a second to look at me then walked smiling into our ruin.
Abba discarded me onto the thickets just outside his house. I remained there all of that day and all of that night. On occasion, people stopped, horrified at the sight of me. One would then whisper, ‘She is the Major’s shaqala’, and like scared children, they all scattered away.
I lived on the streets, making a bed out of people’s garbage and eating what fell from their tables after they’d had their fill. In the light, I hid away, and at night, I crept into people’s homes and stole.
On this particular day, when I felt a cramp in my stomach while running away after stealing a coat, I did not know what it was. I did not know then, nor did I know hours later as I cried out behind an abandoned latrine, that I was giving birth.
I did not know it until I reached into myself and felt a head of hair trying to force its way out of me.
I pulled it back into myself momentarily out of dread, out of sheer bewilderment as to what I would do with it once it came out. I pulled it back, harder this time, but it hurt me even more, so I pushed instead. I pushed and pushed until, sitting up, I could see most of its head. I then grabbed onto it and pulled it out of me.
It lay beside me, frighteningly unmoving. I held it up. I held her up. It was a girl, covered in blood and peely white skin. I hugged her to my chest, sobbing.
‘Please breathe’, I begged. ‘I’m sorry I was never taught how to give birth.’
I placed her back onto the ground and tried standing, but something tugged at me. I looked down at the ropey piece of flesh tying her to me, calling her mine. In a flash of agony, I pulled at it, and when the aftermath of my deepest sorrow fell out of me, so too did my heart.
I wrapped her up gently into the forbidden coat and made my way into the latrine. I did not say goodbye because I didn’t get a hello.
As I turned to walk away, I heard a faint cry coming from inside the latrine.
I held my breath as the cry sounded through.
It did not stop. She did not stop crying.
I did not know what else to do but run.
So I ran, bleeding out from between my legs.
I ran until it was Moyale, and I was Maria.
My mother begins and ends here. Everyone she loves is either buried under this wretched ground or walks on it resigned to the fact that they’ll never leave. I don’t want to be like everyone she loves.
There is a willow tree on the road leading into the village. It’s where my parents first met, and it has a heart carved onto it, with the initials D+A. Every day since my father died, my mother walks to the willow and weeps under it; then she returns to me with more sadness in her eyes. On Fridays, she walks to her sons’ and husband’s graves and burns incense then returns to me with more sadness in her eyes. I don’t know how to ask her to leave all this behind for me, but I am more afraid I will find the words only for her to turn me away.
I’ve woken up unusually early today to sell myself to my mother. I sweep the floor, wash the dishes and make her a cup of tea. I clean the shed, so she doesn’t see it dirty and remember my father; then I massage her legs and walk on her back so she remembers me. So she sees I am enough. When I am done, I sit her down to ask her to come to Moyale with me.
I’ve barely said a word when she rushes out holding her hand to the mouth. I follow her. She is vomiting.
‘Ayyo, are you sick?’
‘I’m fine; don’t worry.’
I get her a glass of water. She rinses her mouth and gulps the remainder down. When she feels better, we head back inside.
‘I have something to tell you, Shuke.’
My heart falls into my hands.
‘I am pregnant.’ There is no expression on her face.
I want to ask if she’s sure, but she wouldn’t have told me if she wasn’t.
I release a breath I did not know I was holding, and my shoulders ease down. My hands hold onto my abdomen and refuse to leave. Then for absolutely no reason, I start to cry.
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