by Jane Doe
I am in Mama’s stomach but she doesn’t know this yet. The day she will find out she will tell Baba and he will kick her so hard that I will die. I will come out in clots like red vomit. But now Mama is crying in muffled gasps as Baba does the bad thing to her. Usually, Mama doesn’t cry, even though it hurts her in her heart and down there. She’s never gotten used to the pain but she came up with coping measures that make it hurt less. Now she is crying because Baba is especially rough. He’s been away for two weeks and he says he missed it. Mama usually doesn’t fight him. The first time he came to her room she tried to but he was too strong and heavy and brutal. He pinned her to the bed and when Mama tried to scream he wrapped his hands around her thin neck and squeezed. He released his grip and slapped her, once and then twice, and told her if she moved he would strangle her. Mama collapsed into a heap of shock and fear. When Baba unzipped his trouser and his thing sprang free, it was big like a hooded tree trunk and seemed to be a pulsing animal on its own. When Mama saw it she forgot his earlier threat and struggled to be free like a goat heading for slaughter. He held her down and when he pushed the pain was so incredible Mama passed out. He shook her back to life and told her if she ever told anyone he would kill her and then kill her grandmother. Mama loved her grandmother so much she promised she would never tell.
So Mama just goes away to another place, the grunting on top of her slowly fading as though it’s happening in another world and Mama just an eavesdropper. Mama especially loves going to the Kericho tea farms that they passed when she first came to Nairobi. Mama liked how the green, expansive carpets of tea leaves stretched out to the sky and teased a promise of happiness. Before Mama discovered this secret place she used to count. Baba sometimes pushed to ten but when he was too drunk he would push to three or four. But it didn’t matter how many times he pushed because it hurt Mama down there anyway. When Mama found this secret place she remembered to say the Hail Mary that night because she promised God if it stopped she would be a good girl.
This one time when Baba had come to her room and Mama had left her body for the sunny tea farms, she almost died because Baba was too drunk to push and he just passed out on top of her. Baba snored like there was a train in his throat. It wasn’t the snoring that brought Mama back. It was the lack of breath that rudely yanked her back from the farms to Nairobi to their Apartment block in Racecourse, to house number ten, to her bedroom that is hers when her cousins, Adhis and Queenter, are away in boarding school, to her bed that has a mattress her cousins call a foolscap because it is so thin you can blow it away just by sneezing.
She tried to push Baba away but he was set on top of her like a statue. Mama’s heart felt like a balloon ready to burst. She tried to scream but the walls only stared back. She tried beating at him to wake him up but her small fists only bounced off the rolls of fat on his body. When she was about to surrender Baba grunted loudly, once, and rolled off her and fell on the floor and started snoring anew. When Mama woke up he wasn’t there because in the middle of the night he had shambled off to his bedroom.
Baba comes to Mama’s room every weekend when everyone is away: Adhis and Queenter in boarding school and his wife upcountry in Kendu Bay. Baba’s wife sells mitumba at Oriang’ Market on the big market day every Sunday. She buys them cheap at Gikomba Market, washes and irons them until they bristle with newness, and sells them for double, and sometimes triple, the original price. Baba laughed the first time and said it was easy making such profits in Kendu Bay rather than Nairobi because you can’t get away with such thieving in the city where people know the secrets. All the same, Mama didn’t plan on starting a business. She had attended an uncle’s funeral in Nyakach and women at the ceremony complimented her on her dress and shoes and scarf and asked how much she bought them for. She said the scarf was only a hundred shillings, half joking because she had bought it for thirty shillings. “Can you bring me a scarf like this the next time you come? It gets dusty here with the rains gone and I need to cover my hair. This looks good,” one woman said, rubbing the scarf as though it was the cloak of Jesus Christ that could take away your troubles. She got five more orders and that was how she started.
Every Wednesday she goes to Gikomba to select her spoils, washes and irons them and travels to Kendu Bay on Saturday and sells them Sunday. She travels back to Nairobi on Monday evening. It is an arrangement that she says in her heart keeps her sane. She has never been the same since the twins died. Her home in Nairobi is suffocating, especially in the evening when Baba comes back from work. She had discussed the idea of moving back upcountry, just her. “To cut down expenses,” she said. But she just wanted to run, to be closer to the twins.
Mama’s nightmare started seven months ago. Baba and his family were on their Christmas holiday upcountry. Baba’s mother complained that the pit latrine was almost full and asked Baba to dig a new one. He paid three boys from the village to dig a ten-foot hole. It rained that night and the night after and it was agreed they would fine-tune their work and build the shelter a few days later. They covered the hole with an iron sheet so the small animals like hens and calves couldn’t drown. The children were warned not to play near the hole. The twins were five years old, two boys full of life and eager to puzzle out the world. Baba’s wife kept yelling at them to keep the noise down, to stop running around and whenever they came back to the house they were covered in dust or mud depending on the weather, and sometimes their clothes were torn and they had bruises on their knees and elbows. Baba’s mother would laugh and look lovingly at her grandchildren and say boys will always be boys.
And so they were boys when they drowned. Baba’s wife knew in her gut before she saw with her eyes. She felt the desperate urge to defecate the same time the twins were grasping for life. She picked up the pace to the old latrine as if trying to outrun her bowels. Maternal instincts directed her to the fresh hole instead, where the twins were floating on the surface of the muddy water.
She yanked off her headscarf and pulled at her hair as if there were ants on her head. She pierced the stillness of day with one scream after another. People from neighbouring huts ran to her one by one joining her in the screaming, hands on their heads. She rolled on the ground and cursed Baba for digging the hole. She cursed Baba’s mother for ordering the new hole to be dug. Grief descended on her with a cold determination to sip all of the sanity away from her, gnawing its way into her heart and when it spit out the pieces Baba’s wife pulled her hair some more to distract herself from the pain.
Baba never touched her after that. Baba’s wife never offered. They became strangers to each other. She said in her heart that Baba had conspired with fate to take away her boys. The unspoken accusation hung over their bed and in the house and Baba’s wife was suffocating.
Even though Baba’s wife didn’t speak the accusation to life, she didn’t need to. Every day the voice in Baba’s head repeated the same thing over and over again: murderer, murderer, you killed your own children. The voice drove him to cheap beer bottles and inside Mama.
Mama’s mother was the last born in Baba’s family. She had Mama when she was only 14 years old. She ran off with a man to Mombasa when Mama was two years old. Mama’s grandmother would tell Baba every time he visited to go to Mombasa and bring her back. “Go get your sister back,” she would beg. But Baba would only scoff and say that if she wanted to stay married, let her be. “Let life teach her, she will be back,” he would say every time the topic came up. No one was sure what she did in Mombasa or if she was still living with the man she ran off with. But people whispered in their homes that she sold her body for money. They would shake their heads and say they weren’t entirely surprised. “That girl has the blood of prostitution running through her; her mother made the horrible mistake of naming her after someone with a bad reputation,” they would whisper.
Mama’s grandmother raised her, and because she has never known any other mother, she simply called her grandmother “Ma,” mimicking Baba and his siblings.
When Mama turned four, her mother came back home. When she stared into the box that was holding her she saw a thin and cold figure that looked peaceful as if in slumber. She was wondering why the grown-ups were crying around the box. She asked her grandmother why the woman in the box wasn’t waking up. “That’s your mother, she’s never coming back,” she told her. Mama was so confused wondering why she was never coming back and yet she was right there, sleeping in the box.
After the twins died, Baba and his family came back to Nairobi and they brought Mama with them. On the bus, she occupied one of the places twins would have used. The other space was empty, mocking them, and everyone was quiet on the journey back. Grandmother thought it would be a good idea if Mama lived with them to keep Baba’s wife company when Adhis and Queenter went to school. Baba’s wife had simply nodded in bored acquiescence. “Take good care of your niece,” grandmother had told Baba. “Everything is going to be so new to her and she has never been away from home.” Baba promised he would look after Mama well.
She joined Jamhuri Primary School seven months ago but Baba’s wife doesn’t speak to her much. She only does when she wants something or wants to insult her – there’s not enough salt in this food, you’re just as silly as your mother, why did I bring you to Nairobi, this ugali is too soft, you’re too dumb for a 13-year-old.
Five months ago Mama woke up to a stabbing in her abdomen that came in spasms. She tried to rub the pain away and knew it wasn’t the food from the previous night because lentils didn’t give her diarrhoea like red beans. When she went to the toilet, there was blood on her underwear. She knew it was normal because the home science teacher had told them it happened to girls and that if it happened for the first time you were supposed to tell your mother or sister. But Mama didn’t have a mother or sister so she used her tattered underwear as a sanitary towel. When she went to school she packed three underwear because she didn’t want the blood seeping through to her uniform. She was careful not to move too much because she didn’t want her makeshift pad falling off. It felt alien between her legs like an intrusion. That weekend when Baba came to her room and Baba saw the blood her grumbled and said now he had to pull out because he hated condoms. Mama didn’t know what that meant, she was just grateful for a peaceful weekend of sleep although she still cried because tears were her pain balm.
Baba came the weekend after and the nightmare started all over again. And as the weeks passed no one noticed that Mama was adding weight. Baba’s wife was occupied with staying sane. Baba was occupied with running away from the voice in his head. One morning Baba’s wife asked her why she wasn’t eating her breakfast. Mama didn’t know either only that the smell of food made her want to vomit. She looked down. She always looked down when Baba’s wife talked to her as if blocking the insult that would surely follow. “Ungrateful kids. Just playing with food and other children are starving in Turkana,” Baba’s wife said. Had she been observant she would have known that I was there, with them in the room, announcing my presence, because women always know. But she just continued ironing the clothes she had removed from the washing line, looking forward to leaving the city for Kendu Bay.
When she threw up her supper, Baba gave her money to go to the clinic the following day. “It must be malaria, your body is not used to Nairobi,” he said.
When the nurse asked Mama about her symptoms, she loudly clicked her tongue and gave her a small cup to urinate in. “Who taught these stupid children how to have sex so young, now who made this one pregnant?” Her tone was stern and disgusted.
Mama only looked down, as if shame and fear had turned her mute. When she later told Baba what the nurse said, he ripped the medical report and started kicking her. I wish I were a policeman with a big rungu so I could bash Baba’s head in. But he had already beat me to the bashing. I wish I were big so I could wrap Mama in a huge embrace and promise her everything was going to be all right. But trauma had clasped itself around Mama like a tick that is never satiated. And Baba was kicking and kicking and Mama reciting Hail Mary.