Understandably so, I ruined her life. Abu was her only son, my only sibling and, even worse, her last child before she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It’s been a decade since the tragedy but it’s still fresh in her mind; both our minds now. I don’t think she will ever forgive me, though asking to be forgiven now after such a long period of cold silence is at best belittling. Saying I dropped him by mistake, while under my care is a petty excuse despite my age. Nothing absolves me of the fact that I stopped a life before its peak.
On that day of the deed, after she found out, mama dragged herself on the road, beating the scorched soil, but I felt no pity. When she pulled her hair and tore her clothes and rolled on the dirt, mourning the life of her son, I did not have as much as a dry lump in my throat.
Now that I am expecting a son of my own, I have begun feeling the numbness slowly leaving my soul. At night, I sweat my mother’s nightmares. At dawn, I am drawn into her mourning. Maybe I am about to lose my own son. I deserve it.
In my most recent nightmare,
I am walking down to Makuti market. I clumsily adjust my hijab to cover the scar on my left cheek just below my eye. My father inflicted that wound the day I came home with two crotchet needles borrowed from Hawa, a friend from school. Knowing how to knit sweaters was the trend and no girl wanted to be left behind. I did not either. Between Baba’s adamant refusal to buy me a pair of the knitting needles and wanting to fit in with the rest of the Nubian girls in school, I borrowed Hawa her pair, which she entrusted to me on the condition that I returned them in the same condition. But that night Baba grabbed them from my small hands and, with all his strength, bent each of them in the middle. To justify his action, he said the two metallic pieces were used for abortion by quacks—not for knitting. He slapped me, and his finger nails dug into my tender skin, causing it to peel off like ripe tomato, all for bringing up the thought of abortion while mama was pregnant with Abu. I regret not spitting on his gruesome face then. Baba died shortly after Abu’s birth.
Still in the nightmare, I recall mama’s urgency to crochet cardigans for Abu when he was born. She sent me to Makuti market, Abu in one hand, for a packet of ten yarn rolls which retailed at KES360 and knitting needles. The irony! Clad in a cheap black Buibui whose silk rubbed furiously and uncomfortably on my skin, I take slow deliberate steps. With each step my heart races faster, and it seems as if I am sinking in the ground. The men playing ajua stare as I pass, with their tomato-red eyes. Jeering. I look down.
On one hand I am carrying a dirty jerrican. Mama Zainab had given it to me, asking me to buy her paraffin from the market. She has fat rolling from her sides like ice cream on a cone, and she recently bleached her skin, so she can’t walk in the sun with her yellow-yellow skin. She will fry like the chicken I ate during Eid if she dares. With the other hand, slightly numb now, I take supporting Abu’s weight.
I wake up, heart racing, sweat dripping. I know too well where the nightmare will end. Everything in it is vaguely familiar, a bitter reminder of the circumstances that led to my killing of Abu. My left hand is numb either because I have been sleeping on it or carrying Abu for too long. I do not know. In the engulfing darkness I cannot tell apart my nightmares from my reality. There is a slight discomfort in my womb; maybe my child can see my nightmares or perhaps I am killing him. I am scared. I hear Salim my husband, breathing lightly. He is fast asleep, peacefully.
I do not remember drifting back to sleep but my demons! They are savage and alert. They commence, once again, to torment my soul.
Still the nightmare continues,
Now Abu is about six months old, and I am hoping he learns to walk soon. I am exhausted by the thought of carrying him everywhere.
When we are playing kati, my friends reserve their turns, fao, seo…they look at me expecting me to say lanyu, meaning last to play. But I am holding Abu, and he is restraining me from playing and also preventing me from going for Doluka.
My friends say to me, “Arafa come let’s go watch Doluka”…
Me I say, “I have to take care of Abu.”
“Why don’t you carry him?”
“I can’t, the music is too loud for him, and he will start crying. Moreover, if Rajesh is there, he will tell mama I have been irresponsible”…
During Doluka, I and my friends had the habit of sneaking out to watch the women wiggling their buttocks against the erect groins of men. The frenzy excited our young minds, and we would then practice the art of buttock wiggling in the far end of the school field, amidst loud reckless giggles.
The day we were caught by Mrs. Abdalla, the madrassa teacher, she whipped us proper, her breasts juggling in tandem with her heaving bosom, with the nyaunyo of Allah—a thin whip made out of rubber from an old tyre, lashing painfully against our skin. I am sweating and crying in pain, begging this nyaunyo of Allah to spare me from the punishment of my sins. Mrs. Abdalla holds her lower back to regain composure, and I open my eyes to the sight of Salim. He is whispering ‘sshhhhh Arafa’ in my ear while soothingly rubbing against my belly. I can smell his foul sleeping breath, raspy and warm against my neck. And when I collapse in his arms. I weep for him. He does not have to be dragged into my madness. I beg the demons.
But I have not yet left the abyss.
The nightmare does not let out, even when I fall into an exhausted slumber. It continues:
Still I am walking to complete my errands. When I look down at Abu, I am surprised he is not asleep. It is unusual for Abu to be as quiet as he has been through the walk from Darajani to Makuti. If mama were home though, I wouldn’t have to juggle between walking amidst sweaty workers rushing downhill to have lunch and carrying Abu on one hand and the Jerrican on the other. If mama were home, she would be cuddling Abu while singing to him calming Taarab songs. It is obvious mama loves Abu more than she could possibly love me. She loves him with a bountiful love. Wasn’t he after all the one who made mama reclaim her worth to her in-laws? Finally they had a real grandson…a man to take care of them.
Makuti market is just up the hill, off the main road, which has too many people walking fast, people with places to be and things to do. Whenever these people pass too close to me, a wave of sweat engulfs me. Truck drivers are hurrying past me to have lunch. They too have places to be. They are on transit between towns, between people, between their families and their money. They will be on their way after eating ugali, whistling to Kofi Olomide’s Effrakata, as they tap gently on the steering wheels of their trucks. And the fish hawkers too converse amongst each other with playful banter; all of them with patches of sweat under their arms exactly where their orange ODM t-shirts are most faded, all of them sweaty; jua kali.
The market has its owners, those whose palms have to be greased to get a stall. When Baba was well and alive, he was in good terms with the market owners, greasing them regularly in order to smoothen the license renewal for his slipper selling shop. Immediately he died, the owners forgot his good deeds and ripped us of our main source of income, eager, like dogs on heat to give out the stall to Yusuf, the candidate running for the Member of Parliament seat. I no longer have the privilege of changing my crocs every once a month. The ones I am wearing now burn against the heat of the hard earth.
In this nightmare:
As I walk, my makeshift hijab keeps sliding off my head to reveal my scar. I let it slide and wrap my neck like a necklace. I know too well, though, that if Mrs. Abdalla sees my hijab untied, she will whip me during the next madrassa class. “A message from Allah for Arafa,” she would say, beckoning me to her and me knowing too well what she means. The nyaunyo of Allah would then land on my vulnerable buttocks. She is the messenger, sent by Allah to punish sinners like us on his behalf. But when she is wriggling her buttocks against a speechless Rajesh’s erect groin during Doluka, I never fail to wonder how no whip lands on her. Perhaps, she is only a messenger.
But both my hands are full now, one with Abu and the other carrying the Jerican. There is nothing I can do to cover my hair. So what if I walk around like the kaffirs? I think in reckless abandon.
At Makuti market I walk straight to Mama Azina’s stall. She is the only one with the small crotchet needles, the ones used for smaller and finer sweaters. Her stall is big because her third husband is one of the owners of Makuti market. I purchase lilac yarn just to spite mama. She had wanted navy blue and had even asked several times if I understood the color she meant to ensure I would not bring a different color.
Abu starts to cry. Without placing the jerrican on the ground, I start rocking him up and down; my left hand surprisingly feels relieved of his weight. As I rock, my hijab slides completely off my neck. I pay no mind, a mistake. Abu finally stops crying, and I rush to the paraffin shop with the jerrican. Once it’s filled to the brim I start my walk down hill, the jerrican a thousand times heavier.
I am swinging my hips again, happy to be headed home, when I see Mrs. Abdalla looking at me, disgust showing openly on her contorted face. My heart starts racing. My hands become numb. My recklessness abandons me and all I can think of is the pain ringing in my ear when the nyaunyo of Allah lands on me. My mind runs wild with imaginations—teacher Abdalla whipping me, Hawa laughing at me, me crying all the way home and worse still Mama hearing I was walking around like a kaffir. She had raised me to be a God-fearing girl. I stop abruptly and as if on cue Abu starts crying, startling me back to reality. Confused, I lift my hands up, dropping him with the intention of fixing my hijab. He falls with such a thud everything goes still, including my heart.
A cart puller who was an uncomfortable distance behind me staggers forward and in all the confusion, his mangoes fall, some on Abu. Mrs. Abdalla rushes to me shouting “jamani utamua mtoto” “you will kill the child”…The ragged cart puller, “utanilipa maembe zangu I swear!” “You shall pay for my mangoes”
Me? I start crying.
The nightmare ceases.
“I should have carried him with my dominant arm,” I say to no one in particular. Salim’s lip is twitching, but I don’t want to wake him up again. I brought this curse upon myself. I shall deal with it myself. Only, I desperately needed him to whisper shhhh in my ear. I am wide awake now, but still no lump in my throat, so I force myself to remember how Abu was pronounced dead when we got to the Beyond Zero Campaign clinic opened by the first lady. I force myself to regret watching mama suffer for my mistake and doing nothing about it; still, no lump in my throats. Even as I cry, my tears feel strained. They feel like a desperate show of emotion; lacking emotion.
Maybe I need to look into mama’s eyes then the lump will eventually come. Maybe that is what it takes to not lose my son? I make a resolve. I am going to see mama.
I am walking hand in hand with Salim, my husband, the father of my son. We are on our way to Darajani. We pass by men aimlessly chewing mogoka-khat, fused with peanuts and Big-G—mall masses of discolored green leaves pushing outwardly from the corners of their mouths in rhythm to their chewing. We pass by Makuti market, and the men still play ajua, the game of the withered men. They still stare contemplatively, still chew khat, still remind me of Abu. I rub my hands on my belly, and the silky buibui is tingly on my palm. Children are playing kati by the roadside, fao, seo, lanyu, they reserve their turns. Surprisingly some things never change, and the fact that Abu is dead is one of them.
On the stall outside the market, ‘peace wanted alive by Solo7’ is painted in fading white. It is ironical that Abu is dead, and I am not at peace. All of me hope I shall not see mama and still all of me hope to look into her liquid eyes. I am on fire. My hands are trembling, and the corners of my mouth shake.
Nostalgic, I yearn for atonement of my sin. Mostly I want a lump on my throat, the one I failed to have years ago while mama was mourning, the one that still fails to haunt me even after my nightmares.
I do not want to lose my unborn child who is due in two months. I want to tell Mama that I did a scan, and that it is a boy, and that as a peace offering I shall call him Abu. It will not be enough, but I shall be at peace and so will she.
Still I can’t help but wonder what she will think of Salim…I am nervous as we go downhill, towards Darajani. But Salim…he is at peace. He looks at me and says, “Arafa, you win some wars and loose some battles.”
Post image by Sudipta Arka Das via Flickr
About the Author:
My name is Kendi Gloria. I am a 3rd year student at Strathmore University doing bachelor of business science-Finance Option. I enjoy reading and writing African literature and I am also involved in performing arts with Spellcast Media Kenya, where we do musicals and plays. I think juicing is FUN 🙂 (currently sipping on some mangoe-banana-spinach-honey smoothie) and to that effect, I and my friend founded Cold Kitchen, we juice and make freakshakes for events! I write to clear my soul, I write to connect with myself, I write because WORDS! Those mean a lot to me. I blog sometimes at flimsysoul.com