By Nancy Ndeke
WATCHING THE SUNSET PLAY its final fiery dance beyond the western hills of Laikipia, Aisha was looking without seeing. Her numb body breastfeeding her youngest child, a baby girl of six months, the scanty milk pulled almost violently by the determined child while she squeezed the aching breast to draw as much as her effort could. Aisha turned to the child and a tear dropped on its head, then run down the side of the face to her exposed neck, finally getting lost into Aisha’s faded Dela. A cough from inside the tent reached her ears. She shifted to peer into the room before she called.
“Zena! Are you alright?”
By way of answer, Zena coughed again.
Aisha stopped forward to gather momentum to stand up with the babies mouth still stuck on her tit. Half bent, she entered the tent and went over to the corner where her eldest daughter Zena lay perspiring from the heat trapped inside tent.
“O msichana wangu” (O my daughter) the mother moaned as she used her left hand to wipe off the sweaty brow of the 11-year-old Grade 4 student.
“Mama, I think the visitor has come,” the child told the mother.
“Visi…” The mother did not finish the word for the inference suddenly revealed what the child was talking about.
“Otis that so? And how do you know the visitor has come?” she asked as a sudden fear run through her small slender body.
Aisha was only 22-years herself, and to an untrained eye would have looked more of a sister to Zena than a mother. Three live births and two still births had made a middle-aged woman of a young woman who should be in college.
Zena coughed some more before turning over to reveal a sticky mess of menstrual flow that was spread on her mat.
“Yes. The visitor has come my dear. And now…” again, Aisha caught something in her throat that stopped her from finishing the sentence. Instead, she pulled the baby from her breast and pushed it onto her back, quickly tying it around with a fading yellow khanga. Then she went to the space where she stored family water, at the left side of the tent flap and proceeded to pour a little into a jug. Then she cut a small piece of soap from the multipurpose bar soap the family used for their every need and dropped it into the small jug of water. She carried the jug to where Zena lay sweating and coughing and sat, still with the baby on her back.
She then pulled her thread bare head scarf and split it into two. One piece she tied back onto her head, while the other piece she used as a face towel to clean Zena. As the sun set and plunged the tent into early darkness, the mother cleaned the menstrual flow from her daughter till, the soft brown skin of the child shone in the semi darkness. Then folding a piece of the head scarf, she had spared from the bathing, she rolled it into a pad and showed Zaina how to tuck it between her thighs.
Just then she heard her son chattering from outside. The boy; her only son was returning from herding goats with the rest of the clan goat and camel herders.
“Musa!” Aisha called to the son, as she covered Zena with a light shawl to keep the stain on the mat away from the prying eyes of her brother.
“I brought a gift for Zena mama” the seven-year boy said from outside.
“Gift? What gift and from who?”
“Meat. From uncle Suleiman’s place. Milk too”
Aisha groaned as she hefted herself more straighter trying to shrug off the pain both physical and emotional of the burden of what she bore and what she knew was coming.
The boy, Musa was already at the door of the tent with his eyes squinting to the semidarkness inside. He carried a big parcel of badly wrapped dripping meat and a gourd of milk.
“Thank you, Musa. But you look so dirty?” the mother admonished.
“I helped in the slaughter. Made the fire and roasted some meat, that’s why ma” the boy replied innocently.
“And your father? Where is he?”
“He took meat and milk to the other house”
“O” is all Aisha said before picking the gifts and throwing the meat down violently next to the jerricans that contained her water supply. She clucked her tongue too in disgust. She went ahead to pour some milk onto a plastic mug which she proceeded to take to Zena. The boy; Musa was still standing at the door of the tent his nostrils quavering.
“Mama there is a bad smell in here. What is it?”
“Musa! Have you thought that it’s possible that your dirty little self is the one smelling in here?” the mother hit back.
“No ma…, the smell is like of something dead” the boy defended himself.
Before Aisha could think of something to counter the truth, she knew it was, Suleiman’s wife came visiting. She too came bearing gifts. Cooked and roasted meat.
“Haven’t you done enough already?” Aisha asked the visitor.
“Never enough for one of our own. You don’t have to cook tonight. You can cook your portion tomorrow,” Suleiman’s wife added as she handed the food to Aisha.
True, Aisha did not cook. And once Zena and Musa had fed, and Musa had gone to sleep with the rest of his half-brothers, Aisha sat on her mat listening absent-mindedly at the wind rowing across the vast plains of Laikipia, her motherland. She heard the distant laughter of hyenas foraging for carcasses of dead animals. The flames of a lone candle made silhouettes on the walls of the tents like ghosts to keep her company. Intermittent coughs from Zena made her look up occasionally from her reverie. Then she broke down at midnight and wept like an orphan who had lost a husband besides earlier having lost her parents and siblings.
“Why? O God why?”
She remembered her dreams as a child. Wanting to remain in school till she made a teacher.
That dream was cut off for her at the age of 11, when she was held tight between her mother and grandmother and torn apart from below the waist.
That pain lived inside her and sometimes it was so overwhelming, she felt dizzy just remembering it. Often, she threw up. Now, as she watched her own daughter on that corner lying asleep with scars unhealed from the same fate she carried from her own mother, she felt the dizziness overpower her all over again and she threw up so violently that the meat and the milk she had earlier taken in came out in ugly chunks as if she had not chewed her food.
That her 11-year-old daughter was a candidate of the same fate as hers made Aisha’s world spin.
She had finally understood why her mother had held her down as the circumciser sliced through her clitoris and labia. As unbelievable as it sounded, it was for her to pin her hard enough not to cause further injuries onto her private parts beyond what culture recommended. It was to ensure the stitching afterwards went to the right place. And she had done the same for her own child at the same age she underwent the hell experience herself. All because her husband said so. She had no voice. She harboured no opinions. She had no suggestions. Her work was to bear children quietly and take care of them till death took her. Her mission was to bear the name and honor of her husband and clan. Anything else was a taboo and could result to serious consequences from her husband and brothers in totally humiliating punishment.
She did not even belong to herself. She belonged everywhere else and to everyone else except to her self.
To think at a time when the government had outlawed female genital mutilation that this ugly thing happened was clearly beyond comprehension. The elders quickly schemed to revive the culture once the country went into lockdown due to COVID-19. The chiefs and sub chiefs were too busy enforcing social distancing and mask wearing. The day she was briefed on her husband’s intentions to marry off his 11-year-old daughter was the same day the surgery was performed. And now, tomorrow, the son to the husband’s uncle was coming for his bride. Zena was leaving this tent to start a family life away from a mother who had gone through the same nightmare.
Aisha was now choking with bitterness and remorse for failing her own daughter. There was nowhere for a nomad woman to report such a case like this at such a time like now when the nearest town was miles away and curfew started early and ended late. Aisha cried. She cried for herself and for her daughters. She cried for a society that was blind to pain and abuse in the name of culture. She cried for a faith that was unfaithful to the plight of baby girls. And just before three o’clock in the morning, Aisha’s ghostly frame was wading through the scanty bushes of Laikipia, followed by the weak 11-year-old bride to be stealing through the bushes to avoid the dusty path. Four miles ahead the call for prayer for the faithful alerted the mother and her daughters of time. They moved in silence except for an occasional word of encouragement from Aisha.
“You could not escape this terrible thing that was done to you Zena, but as long as I have breath, I promise you this. You shall go to school and learn until you make something better of yourself and your sister. I want you to remember that. And I am truly sorry”
Sunrise found the night travelers about half way to where Aisha was escaping to. It was time to lay low and rest for the second phase of their journey. As bad as the culture of her people was, Aisha had learnt survival as a nomad’s child, and in her small luggage containing dry meat and water she had carried some powder from her grandmother’s stock. A paste made from hyena skin and liver. Once sprinkled around a space, dogs would not come nearer. She had carried it to secure her hiding place from her pursuers for she knew her husband was definitely going to come after her and would do so with the tens of dogs that he owned.
Deep in her heart she had vowed to die rather than surrender. And in a small gourd she had made a mixture of the same concoction that would ensure immediate death if ingested. Aisha was not suicidal but being a fifth wife to a rich cousin was as traumatic as it sounded. He sought her out to impregnate her. Next time she saw him was after the death of the child or after the living child was 3. She had thought the government had won the war against child marriages which would have ensured Zena had a better life than she did. Fate could be a monster.
Aisha barricaded herself inside a dug-out ant hill not far from the dusty road. That way, she could spot an enemy approaching and a government vehicle which were the only vehicles that plied these plains.
Especially those belonging to the wild life ministry. Zena was spent from bleeding from the circumcision and now from menstruation. She slept. The baby was simply tired. She slept. And eventually, Aisha slept too only to be woken up by the roar of a Landcruiser. She ran, half calling and half falling to the road, but not before warning Zena to stay put with the baby till she came for them.
She never came back. For the landcruisher was hired by the rich husband who had driven all the way to Maralal and back in search of his wife and daughters. The beating Aisha got was epic. With a broken jaw and bleeding from more than one orifice rendered her completely unable to talk even though that came with a certain sadistic satisfaction. She had been willing to die to be free from this life.
She had been willing to poison her girl children from this life. She welcomed death at the hands of the husband. And she died, though not physically.
The physical death came a week later when law enforcement came looking for the family of two children who had been rescued by wild life officers lost in the periphery of Maralal town. The children were safe at a children’s home. The father was being sought for criminal intent upon the 11-year-old child who had explained why the mother had sneaked them out of their home. Aisha, unable to speak, was said to have smiled before her eyes rolled up. Aisha had traded her own life for her daughters’ chance at normal life.