Odah Brian’s “Her Stripes” is taken from Go the Way Your Blood Beats: New Short Fiction from Africa (Brittle Paper, April 2019). Edited by the South African writer Anathi Jongilanga, and with an introduction by the Somali writer and visual artist Diriye Osman, the anthology, which centers queer lives, also features work by Vuyelwa Maluleke, Tsholofelo Wesi, Mercy Wandera, Fiske Serah Nyirongo, Riley Hlatshwayo, Penninah Wanjiru, Dennis Mugaa, Thato Patrick Tsotetsi, Karin Henriques, Agajem Jemima Japhet, and Innocent Immaculate Acan.
“THAT ONE,” THE little child pointed at a red floral dress in the shop. It looked beautiful hanging up on that wall, just waiting for her. Held in her mother’s strong arms, she eagerly reached out to grab the dress. She could already see herself on Christmas day in all her regal splendour just oozing Christmas newness. She will want her Mama and Mama Mikayi to send her everywhere just to show off her new dress. Though she had never been clad in a dress before, she would be a blooming flower in a verdant meadow, she knew. “I want that one, Mama,” she insisted. Mama surprised her though. She quickly stepped back, pulling her away from her prize. Mama’s face betrayed a deep-seated worry, but only for a second before she masked it with curated calmness. The tailor was however tickled by the child’s aberrance, her mirthful bout in turn affecting the other clients previously arrested in a winding yarn. The cackling got Mama all knotted up. That was her furthest memory that things were a little off-kilter.
She felt embarrassed, looking at her mother in confusion. Her mother’s visage said it all. She had done something wrong. She couldn’t point out exactly what it was. Her only recourse: to place her tiny hands over her eyes, to disappear out of sight.
“That one is for girls, dear,” the tailor explained in a pressed voice, keeping her tone low and pedagogic. The other two ladies tried to pry her fingers away from her eyes, showing her an alternative outfit. It confounded her. Why did they laugh? Why were they showing her a short-sleeved checked shirt? Why was mum suddenly zipped? Mama quickly picked up her bag and stepped out of the shop without even as much as a valediction. She knew Mama was disappointed by how tight she held her but she dared not ask anything, or even talk.
She was only too grateful when they finally got home and Mama let her out of the firm hold. Mama was not in her moods, her usual bubbly sense had deserted her and she had turned cold. Cold and worried. Pressed by the urgent missing of that vibe she ran straight to Mama Mikayi’s house. Mama Mikayi was her father’s first wife. She found the rest of her siblings on the floor dipping into a huge bowl of fried fish. They looked like a suckling litter, each quickly swallowing their morsel so they could pick up another. Mama Mikayi looked on lovingly, all her worldly pleasures had been reduced to the simple act of feeding her seven girls, and, whenever they came, her co-wife’s daughter and son.
She stood by the verandah door, meekly pulling at her fingers, willing Mama Mikayi to invite her in. That is what their mother had taught them. Mama Mikayi summoned her to the table seeing that there was no space on the floor. She carefully skipped over her siblings but one elbowed her shin at the slightest touch. Mama Mikayi’s stern eyes averted more drama, and she managed to settle herself in. The gentle lady rose up and went back to her kitchen. A few minutes later she came back with a plate full of fish and a mountain of jollof. The oldest girls looked up in envy as Senior Mama put the plate in front of her. The rest continued hogging obliviously. Mama Mikayi sat back down in her chair and keenly observed as the little child picked up tiny pieces of the fish and put them in her mouth. Mama Mikayi always regarded her avidly. There was something off about the child but she couldn’t piece it together. All she knew was that this last child was peculiar, like nothing she had ever seen. Her eyes saw a boy but her mind didn’t know.
The child skirted around the fish’s head, especially avoiding the eyes. Mama Mikayi wasn’t particularly impressed but she didn’t mind. Her eyes had seen too many disappointments to be fussed by a child’s fussiness.
What worried her were the boy’s feminine tendencies. She laughed it off when she once spied the boy opting to play the daughter of the house in their children’s games, but she got concerned when she found the boy peeing while squatting. For the sake of peace in that homestead, she hoped the boy would grow out of it. She knew how desperately her husband wanted a boy, a proper boy. It was important for the man’s image and, to some extent, his authority and income. The peace she had sacrificed so much for would go up in the air if that boy wasn’t a proper boy. She had heard whispered musings of such possibilities but she dared not bring it up with her belligerent co-wife.
Halfway through her plate, Mama came in from her house, her eyes red as alien orbs. She had been crying and the little child knew it was because of the incident. Mama had always reacted strangely whenever she did certain things, it confused her. She still couldn’t understand, but she could definitely see a determination on her Mama’s face. She saw fear too, like disturbing thoughts had been running through her mind.
The young woman quickly scanned the room and spotted her target. Without a word, she lifted the child from the table and walked out. That surprised Mama Mikayi. She knew that Nyasuba was a mean and calculating woman, but she never thought for once she would bring their issues before the children. She let her go without much ado but wondered why she left her elder child behind.
Back in her house, Nyasuba quickly shaved the child’s hair even lower, washed her and dressed her in more loose-fitting clothing, all in a darker shade.
“Mama, are you angry at me?”
The question stunned her. “No, no, no, baby, Mama is not angry.” A smile cracked her sad veneer.
“Why were you crying, Mama? Your eyes are red.” Her voice was tiny, sharp and innocent.
“No, baby, Mama just wants the best for you.” She picked up the little girl and placed her on her lap. Slowly she pressed her tiny feet into black leather shoes.
“Can’t I have the pink ones with butterfly laces?” she pleaded, her big round eyes right under her mother’s nose. Her mother swallowed hard, hesitated a moment, her thin ruddy lips tightly pressed as her mind quickly worked out her options. Finally she proceeded to actualise her thoughts. She leaned down towards the child and whispered her words like a secret. “Listen, honey, Mama is going to need you to do her a very big favour. Will you, baby?”
“Of course, I will Mama.” Mama’s strange way of asking bothered her. She searched her mother’s eyes keenly. A half smile was vaguely evident at the edges of her mouth.
“Okay, baby, so from today I don’t want you playing with your sisters, you can go play with Fred and his friends. Is that okay?”
“Yes, it’s fine, Mama,” she agreed, though the thought of Fred and the boys sent a knot down her gut. They were no good. Too rough, dirty, and constantly bickering over stupid marbles and two men called Messi and Ronaldo. It would be difficult, but she didn’t want to disappoint her mother.
“That’s nice of you, baby. If you want to play with Fred, you have to put on these shoes and dress as I tell you.”
That evening when Papa came back home, she realised that he was extremely pleased by her new transformation. He was also way happier with Mama. He had always been pleased by Mama more than with Mama Mikayi, but that night he was more jolly. It got ingrained in her that dressing and acting like Fred made Papa and Mama happy. She would do it every day.
Many suns witnessed her misery. Day in and day out, she spent them doing things that were completely unnatural to her. Playing marbles, wrestling, making a sturdy bow, rowing, talking about girls, trying not to stare at boys. She kept up a face though. Everyone was used to it by now. Her eyes had opened to the ways of the world and she knew how important it was for her father, Chief Manga, to have a boy child. She shouldn’t disappoint anyone, more so her mother; her father would get another woman, or worse, they could be disowned.
SHE WAS THIRTEEN when her act came to a head. She noticed how carefully her mother studied her. Always keen to take away anything that expressed her true soul. Even mundane things like cooking made Mama lose her mind. Instead, an archer was hired. “He is going to teach you our community’s proud tradition,” Mama explained.
That was all good, but how would she handle what her mind was telling her. She had seen a boy at school. Martin was all she wanted in this life. He was different from the other boys. Witty, kinder than most, and soft-spoken. His shoes were always clean and he wrote his notes in three colours. Martin spoke of things that blew her mind, of far away cities and wars long fought. His mind took her to Marie Curie’s lab and up across oceans to Aztec ways. It is because of Martin she started reading the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series. Together they cracked the rate-of-flow math problems; she learned how compound interest worked and she helped him with compositions. But Martin always broke her heart when he hugged the girls in greeting but only fist-bumped her. How he would get excited when dumb Naomi brought them a math problem, it made her boil inside. She thought about it a lot when Martin would cheekily kick her shin on their way home after school. He would never do that to Naomi. He never offered to carry her school bag but was constantly begging for Naomi’s brick case. She desperately wished she could tell him how she felt, but she dared not. How could he like her the way he likes Naomi? She looked nothing like Naomi. Naomi’s uniform was a skirt, hers were black pants. Naomi had a nice scent and did her nails; she knew Mama would never allow that. How could Martin like a fellow boy how he liked Naomi?
Martin was just a crush, a first crush, a childhood crush. Ibrahim was different, though. He was her love. They met in university, two foreign students unable to make friends with anyone else. They had both been uprooted from the familiarity of their worlds where everything neatly belonged where it was. The sun knew its hours, men were men and women were women, and everything was either black or white and they had forced themselves to not be grey. But now they were in a world where grey was not only possible but an accepted way of life. A year had four types of sun and they came out at jagged times. Men could be women and women could be whatever they wanted to be. They had broken some ostensible glass ceiling. It was a better world, but still strange. So they stayed closeted and quiet except around each other. She truly loved that boy; she would have given him her soul if only she could get his love back. But he was confused. The world had confused him. He loved her too. She knew that he loved her dearly but he didn’t know how to.
They were two pariahs that had navigated towards each other. He confessed to her. He bared his soul to her: he was attracted to men and so he was attracted to her. The irony wasn’t lost on her, though she couldn’t bring herself to say it. To say that even though she looked like a man, she didn’t feel that she was a man at all. She knew she was a woman, always had.
She sat in silence in his room. She saw his shame, his denial, and it hurt her. “Back in my country, they stone people like us,” he said, and a sad smile drew on his beautiful brown face, gently shifting his dark mane. She could not betray that kind of trust. She thought about it for many days. If Ibrahim wanted to burden her with his secret, it was only fair that she unload hers on him too. Maybe it would bring them closer, she hoped. Two people so different, yet so similar. His religion forbade that kind of talk. God had sent them a messenger who told them that nobody could be the way he was if he couldn’t bear to be so, and God can’t be wrong. So he couldn’t be how he was; a dark spirit had taken over his soul. A spirit that forced him to think warped thoughts and desire wickedness. That is how he always explained it.
One day, after an afternoon of weakness, she noticed the marks on his back. Long ruddy lines running the length of his back. He said that he flogged himself every morning. To crucify the desires of the flesh, to rid himself of his ‘evil energy.’ He even had a name for it: Elvis.
“Why Elvis?” she asked.
“It’s a Western name. As Kafir as a name can get. These people, they think they don’t need God, they accept anything and do everything!”
His words were spat out in disgust. It worried her. She knew he was angry: angry at himself, angry at what they had just done, angry at the world, maybe even angry with God Himself.
“Are you angry with me?”
It surprised Ibrahim. His head snapped back, his eye blinking like a ventriloquist’s dummy-mannequin’s.
“No, no, no, baby, I am not.” She witnessed yet another smile trying to stretch itself on a sad face.
It was the first and the last time. Though they couldn’t stay away from each other, they knew it was a truly complicated relationship. She thought about telling Ibrahim, but she was afraid things would only get worse. She didn’t want to lose him, but the sense of betrayal weighed heavily upon her.
One day she gathered enough courage to reveal herself to him. She walked across campus, the cold wind nipping at her skin, to his hostel room. It was a small pad, its best feature being a window overlooking the campus’ football pitch. He had crammed in a four feet wide bed, a study table that would double as a kitchen table when the cooker top ran out of space. By his bed was a huge radio system but its volume never went past 4. She never quite knew what Ibrahim listened to because it was always in his native language.
When she settled in his single sofa, Ibrahim offered her a glass of milk and cornflakes as usual. This time she couldn’t even bring herself to eat, inexplicably struck by queasiness. Her eyes dashed about the room like she was seeing it for the first time. She thought about changing her mind—zip it and let things flow. But how could she handle the utter torment swirling in her heart? She got straight to it. Ibrahim was settled on his bed trying to pause a video tutorial on his laptop when he realised that she would be there a while. She told him all: how she felt like a prisoner, a character in a movie living a scripted life. She knew that she was in the wrong body. Ibrahim’s jaw flopped out of place. Each word she said made him paler, his teeth gnashed as he shook uncontrollably. He accused her of tricking him, being with him even though she knew that she had, in her, a worse demon. She wished she had told him earlier, but she was too afraid. Then she wished she had never told him. Her soul quivered at the coldness of his words, scared of being rejected by the one person she deeply longed for.
Ibrahim said that it was their two demons that were attracted to each other, not them. “Never call me! Don’t ever come back here!”
He started flogging himself. He chased her out of his room.
Thick layers of cement may as well have dried up in the walls of her heart. She couldn’t have been more unaware when she suddenly bumped into a girl, a sophomore, perhaps. She would have helped her pick up her books had she not noticed the red floral dress the girl had on. She froze, her eyes welled up, and the girl gave her a befuddled look. She stepped back, as if from a feral animal, and took yet another step backwards before turning and taking to her heels, her cheeks soaked. She ran, faster and faster, this time careful to avoid other people. The cold foreign land wind whipped past her ears, biting the lobes and everything felt terrible. A stifling pain in her chest grew with every stride, its source as electric as her fears.
When she finally got to her room, she flopped on the bed and just let herself wallow in all the emotions. It must have been hours of despondency, self pity and ceaseless crying, because the trees outside were turning into shadows and she could see lights on through several windows. It then occurred to her: a remedy.
THOUGH SHE HAD undergone weeks of psychological counseling, she still felt undulating waves of anxiousness swamp her the first time she walked into Dr. Werner’s office. She took her through the entire process and procedures of Hormone Replacement Therapy and it was evident to her that the doctor was well-versed. Having already been informed of the cost implications and probable side effects, she was still adamant, quickly overcoming her initial anxiety and signing several consent forms. She couldn’t wait to let her hair grow, or to put on a blouse – or just be herself without any pretenses.
It was a couple of months before she finally noticed flabby mounds on her chest, and the excitement made her forget the erratic loss of appetite and constant drowsiness. Weeks piled up into more months; she lost some friends, gained new ones; but her happiness grew every week. Finally her body was starting to look right, just the way it should have been.
As the stars would have it, graduation almost coincided with the final days of her therapy. She had never felt better, her radiance not only captured in the glow of her smile and new found confidence but in her grades too. But in her mind, a niggling worry. Her plan had always been to go back home, to serve in her country, to offer help to others like her.
When the day came, she took a final look around her latest house and sighed heavily, her feelings all mixed up. The full-body mirror beside her cast a fine reflection of her standing by her suitcase and she swiveled to face it. It felt good taking in her full form: chest full, waist tapering, hips curving. A total justice to the navy blue skirt-suit and Manolo heels she was rocking. She smiled a satisfied smile, blanketing the fear of how she would be received back at home. All she knew was that she was her own person for the first time in her life. “Let’s do this, baby,” she whispered to herself and grabbed the suitcase, ready to leave for the airport.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Odah Brian is a Kenyan writer and businessman. You can follow him on Twitter at @elvisbrian and on Facebook at Odah Brian.