by Alexander Opicho
It was Wenwa who prepared the grave in which the miscarried baby was buried. He did it with joy and unconditional passion as if digging the grave was his sole labour. The baby was a boy; my mother had carried it in her womb for seven months. Then she miscarried. It lived for seven days. Then it died. I had loved the baby; it was tall with six fingers, and it had an assurance for the future with a gap in the upper row of its teeth. It had some good weight. Had my father tried to take it to the incubation at the district hospital, it could have survived into my brother.
I sometimes hate my father for being viscerally lazy.
Wenwa, my living brother, was energetic in digging the grave because death of the boy child meant an intact size of land, which he was set to inherit. Fear of shrunken inheritance drove Wenwa to some level of overt abnormality. He believed that man cannot be without inheriting his father’s estate.
It was bitter, my mother was crying. Shedding tears. She had been bleeding for a week. A danger to which my father was insouciant. He was a perfect replica of husbands in Africa of that time. The husbands that claimed congratulation in every moment of victory, but blamed their wives whenever a misfortune befell the family.
It was this mentality that guided my father to blame my mother for miscarriages, only to be congratulated for being a father to those of us that survived.
Two months later, Khoja Sebunya and Mayi Bituris -the other women- had disappeared into thin air. And one month after their disappearance, my mother had complained of being sick, sick of an infection that caused her to discharge pus at her place of womanhood. She had painful piss, painful lower abdomen, and other irregularities in the urethra.
This was the disease that my father had harvested from Mayi Bituris and transferred to my mother. A factor which contributed to the miscarriage. And this all fell on the evening of the day in which a mad woman had come at school.
The mad woman’s name was Namasintakusia. She had brought a baby for our school’s headmaster to have a look-see at. He had impregnated her.
Namasintakusi, the madwoman, lived in the open at Bokoli market; she owned bundles and bundles of dirty pieces of clothing. Namasintakusi had very many children, over seven boys and two girls. Some of her children were our classmates at school. But the mad woman never knew their fathers. And all men at the market claimed not to know a person that was ever impregnating Namasintakusi.
We were attending the parade when the mad woman came. All pupils from class one to class seven had stood alert in salute to the lowering of the national flag. Crooning, we heard the national anthem of Kenya in a man’s voice. All of our teachers were also at the parade apart from one: Mr Onji, who was not there; he was far in the field smoking a cigarette.
Then Namasintakusi came, a baby in her hands, dressed in a madwoman’s attire. She was singing. The song was very new; no one had ever heard of it. All teachers and pupils were struck dumb-founded, especially Mr. Msingizi, the headmaster.
Namasintakusi did not hesitate before she ricocheted into insults. She hurled all of them at Msingizi. He remained mum, never answering back.
Namasintakusi was not the only mad person in those days; there were many other mad men and mad women. They roamed the market places, bushes, and river-banks. Madness was never taken as a disease in my village during those days; it was taken as a spirit. Thus, mad people were never taken to hospital. We thank goodness you could not easily hear of a mad person having died.
Reja was one of the madmen who had stayed with madness for years and years; he stayed in the forest, where he smoked filter-less cigarettes. His madness was whispered about. It was said that his madness was due to secret arts by his extended family members against him, because he had gone to school up to form five and form six.
Watuto khwa Micha was the terrible madman. He was ever-violent and his organ penetrated the front of his trouser to the public view. He used to be dirty with bushy hair and ever hurling dirty words at any person he met. Sipapali feared walking out un-guarded lest she were to meet Watuto.
Across my village, my favourite mad person was Namugongo, who behaved like a cockrel. He flapped his arms as if they were wings of a cock, after which he emitted a sound like that of a cock-crow. He did this regularly; in fact, he did this after every five minutes. The legend had it that Namugongo had stolen a cockrel from his father. His father condemned the stealer of the cockrel to eternal madness by use of voodoo but he never knew the stealer to be his son Namugongo. The voodoo spell, alas, was irreversible.
The worst type of madness was the one that had affected Warenko. He was formerly a policeman and had built a muddy house with an iron roof at the village, and the house had glass window panes. Then he went mad and was ever running and frothing at the mouth. Warenko’s daughters were epileptic. They were also my classmates. One could be in a fit this day and another one the next day. They were twins.
On that day that day Namasintakusi came at school, they had been in regular and violent fits during the morning. We all ran out of class whenever they fell in a thud. We feared them. It was like this till the time of going home.
One time a young mad man came into our class and began teaching us about the world. He knew all the presidents in the world, the oceans, rivers, lakes, mountains, seas, and all other natural features. He also taught us that our great grand-parent was a man known as Zinjathropus. He drew the picture of Zinjathropus on the black-board. It looked like one of the boys in the class. We all giggled and teased the boy, and the boy stopped coming to school. We enjoyed the teachings of the madman more than we did Madam Maud. How I wish all madmen were polite like this madman.
The only problem was that this good mad man used to address every person as ‘sister-in-law’. Even when our school headmaster came to eject him out of our class, he addressed him as sister in law. The students laughed on their way home that day. I also laughed on my way home. I laughed– only to meet the grave which Wenwa had dug to bury in it the miscarried baby.
When I returned from my walk from school to grave to house, my mother was looking very weak. A poor woman, driven down to the wretchedness of the earth by a monster called wedlock, the devil known as marriage.
It was at this time that my sister Nekoye eloped away into an early marriage when she was only at the age of thirteen. She was still in lower primary school, in class five. A man that lured and stole her away was below twenty years; he had only dropped out of upper primary school the previous year, the year 1979.
This incident of Nekoye aborting school traumatized my mother very much, but our father was not much disturbed with it; he was happy to hear of it. He was evidently salivating for the cows to be collected as dowry. He had to send Wenwa, our brother, to go on a spy mission, to find out if the home in which Nekoye had eloped to had heads of cattle. Wenwa came back with a positive answer; this affected our father with noticeable anxiety, impatience, and more salivation. It was an opportunity to convert his daughter into the cows.
I was tortured with nostalgia for the past, the past in which Nekoye would take me and Sipapali, my small sister, for nature walks, during which she would pluck for us wild fruits to eat. She used to pluck guavas for us. During these nature walks she could then mimic for us how Mayi Biturisi used to talk like the call of a toad, and also how Khoja Sebunya used to bow himself down into a shape of a sleeping rabbit when he wanted to pray. We enjoyed giggling at her drama. Mostly, I enjoyed her generosity when it came to serving food; she used to give me bigger bolus of ugali and generous quantities of soup. My mother could not do the same; she was ever mean when it came to serving us food.
I felt so bad when I heard that a stranger had stolen away my sister. Little did I know that sisters usually leave the home and go away into marriage. I used to collect the brown mushrooms and hide them somewhere under the milling stone, in expectation that Nekoye would materialize miraculously from the thin air and join us again so that I could give the mushrooms to her to cook so that we could enjoy the soup and eat them, just the two of us, without sharing with any other person. It was unfortunate that she did not materialize.
I once to tried a ritual that I had learned from my mother some time ago, where if you wanted someone to come back home, you insert your head into the mouth of the common water-pot then shout out the name of the person you want to come. You shout while your mouth is still inside the pot. I learned this tactic of secret art from my mother; she did it every time she wanted my father come back home.
To my sad surprise this art never worked for me; Nekoye never came back.
I was tortured with these feelings of the lost past until I surrendered and got used to a new life without Nekoye. I began clinging to Sipapali as my new company. But still, Sipapali could not match up to Nekoye. Sipapali was young and not in any position to help me get a bigger share of food in the evening. I had no choice but to persevere and endure my mother’s nonchalant misering when it came to serving us food.
Five fat cows were collected as dowry, one cow had a calf. My mother milked it in the same evening of its arrival. Two goats, one sheep, five hundred shillings and ten horns full of tobacco for snuffing were among other things that were collected from dowry payments for Nekoye. This was only five months after her elopement.
I was not allowed to accompany the team that went to collect the dowry because I only wanted to go and look at my sister, greet her, laugh with her, and enjoy looking at her bulbous eyeballs. But my father could not accept me to come along because by then I was not yet circumcised. The culture never allowed any uncircumcised man however old to go for any dowry settlement trip. It was so bad a feeling. I was fit to remain home in the company of women, and thus I stayed with my mother and waited with anxiety for the news about how Nekoye was. In my mind I had no any notion about dowry.
My brother Masika was already circumcised by then, so he was among those who took the trip. He was the one that would come back with the entire story, about the latest looks and tales of Nekoye.
It was a total of twelve people that went for this dowry collection exercise. All of them were men. Most of them did not have shoes. My father had his Oginga Odinga shoes made from the used up rubber of car tire. Wenwa borrowed shoes, a long trouser, and a coat for the occasion; he was looking like a ghost of Vasco da Gama. Mateo Silikhani, our cousin who was also the age of our father, was among the people that went along. He went to serve as the secretary to the dowry payment contract; Mateo was respected for his good hand-writing. But he never had any good shirts and shorts, so he just went along in his wick-work of a short trouser graced with the ragamuffin top of a worn out khaki shirt. He had tried to borrow a short trouser but he was not lucky.
It was in the late afternoon when Sipapali looked at the main gate when the cows were entering our home. She jumped into the kitchen to inform our mother of the new herd of cattle. My mother was busy with her usual kitchen work at the hearth, I was giving her company. We all jumped over the door-yard, going out to confirm. And truly, there were cows, plus some small animals, being driven by a whistle towards the byre by Masika. Masika was whistling as if he was possessed by the spirit of whistling, his mouth folded into a round wind-blowing tube that protruded like a human flute. My father was gently behind, in the company of the elders that had gone on the trip. They walked slowly into the compound, their faces looked somewhat tired, but not because of the heavy work or the arduous journey. There was an overtone of having eaten too much on the face of each elder.
It was only Papa Khisa that was not looking happy; he was so haggard and lugubrious in his facial expressions, I guessed he was not happy to see us getting new more cows (and yet our byre is already large than his). All of the others were happy. Wenwa was in a very up-beat mood, chewing his mouth as if it was chewing gum. Smiling, but you could still see evidence of an evil-hearted man in his smile.
My mother received the animals in a usual ritual, as expected. She took out the cooking stick and slapped at the back of every animal. She ran around chasing each animal to slap it on the back. She was happy; other people were also happy cheering her along. She was now a mother of a daughter who had begun bringing in a dowry; it was the moment of joy of her motherhood.
Tea was served in a ritual reception of elders back to their home, and then each person left for his home at his own pleasure. Most of them stayed for more than five hours, treating themselves to the humongous screws of tobacco snuff as they admired our home for the swell in the number of cows.
Four months later, from the date of the dowry payment, Nekoye gave births to twins. They were strong dark skinned baby boys. She delivered at home in her shanty house. She was midwifed by her mother-in-law. Her husband was not there; he was away in a spree taking traditional beer. Goodness had it that Nekoye gave birth smoothly, there were no issues. Even the placenta was very cooperative. The placenta came out in a short-while. It was the mother-in-law that buried it, carefully in a manner that the correct side faces upwards lest the matrix of her daughter-in-law is condemned to eternal infertility.
It was when the husband of Nekoye returned that issues broke out. He was not happy with the twins as the first born. He showed no happiness for the new born babies. He claimed that the twins were going to cause bad luck and that he would die. He blamed Nekoye for trying to kill him by giving birth to the twins. This blame grew in size like a mustard seed, and after a week every villager from Bunjoosi village was blaming Nekoye for the twins.
Even children were trained to be wary of Nekoye’s presence. One afternoon, Nekoye went to fetch for water from the community well for herself. She wanted to have a bath and also to bathe her babies. The well was only a hundred meters away, so she left the babies sleeping. She locked the door and went along with the key. On that same day the husband had gone out very early in the morning.
When she came back from the well, she found both the two babies were dead.
They were not bleeding anywhere. Someone had broken into the house, the door was ajar. The pad-lock was broken.
When she began wailing, people poured in: from nowhere as if they had been just on a standby to respond. Among them was her husband feigning innocence, no sign of pain on his face. He ordered Nekoye not to wail, that twins that die are not supposed to be mourned. The twins were buried the same evening. Nekoye walked out of that marriage the same evening.
About the author:
Alexander Ernesto Khamala Namugugu Islam Opicho is a published poet, essayist, literary critic, and short story writer. He was born in Bungoma, Western Kenya, but he currently lives and works in the Savannah region of Lodwar, in North-western Kenya.