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The Oath

By Atieno Dok

Monday, December 24, 2012.

You heard them shouting.  Their voices rhymed. You had heard them before. This time they have come for you.

“Takbir! Allahu Akbar.”

“Takbir! Allahu Akbar.”

“Where is she? Come out! Come out!”

“Takbir! Allahu Akbar.”

“Takbir! Allahu Akbar.”

“Malaya.”Whore.

You knew they would come, just as surely as everyone knows meat, black cats, and owls in a dream bring only bad. Last night you were unable to sleep. You lay in bed pondering the five pillars, then thinking of him, for hours, wishing he would rock you to sleep. You moved your left leg up and down, side to side, tossed and tossed, and when you closed your eyes there was an owl behind them.  

You blinked up, tossed the sheets away, grabbed the holy book and pressed it firmly against your chest and prayed. Then you closed your eyes. Still he came. Again. A jinni, as hard as stone, pushed into you. You screamed but no sound came out, so you just lay there, not able to run or scream for help, until finally as usual, mama appeared and chased him away with a stick.  When you woke up, Mo, your daughter was banging the door.

You love Mo. You want to hold her, to be with her all the time. You will never leave her. How can you? She is your only child.

You smile.

Stop smiling. Think. What will you do? Think.

You think maybe you should remind them you are a mother. Plead with them to have mercy on a mother. Maybe you should tell everyone how it was when you had Mo. They wouldn’t stone a mother would they?

“I was young, pregnant and not even in labour.”

No. You can’t start like that.

Instead, you will tighten your face in pain and say, “The day I had Mo, I was rushed to hospital only because I fainted. Stairs danced under my feet. I missed a step and sent the powdered Lucozade snowing down everywhere.”

No. That will not work. Show them a mother’s pain and sacrifice. Think. What will move these people?

“I closed my eyes all the way to hospital. Even when water vendors peeped though the small glass window of the ambulance in traffic, I did not open my eyes to save energy. I was admitted to the ward towards evening. I had hoped they would take me to a private hospital with a clean ward with little beds spread with white bedding where no dirt could hide, but as they wheeled me into the room the smell of raw liver pierced my nose forcing my eyes open. The hospital was dirty and screams clung to the walls. I wished I was with the village midwife at home.”

This will not work either. What are you trying to do? Think. Think!

“Takbir! Allahu Akbar.” The voices are louder now.

You throw the sheet away. But for the cotton panties holding your pad, you are naked.  You run to the door, open it, pull Mo inside.

“Ma!” Mo jumps up and down. Your blank look scares her. You look at her, pull her closer to your chest. She turns and twists.

“Ma! That hurts.” You don’t hear her. You are back at the hospital.

Mawe! Mama! Ma!” Yes that’s how it was. Tell them.

“Sista… sista…..sisterrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.”

You could not see their faces but you heard their screams. Women in labour. You wanted to run away. You were tired. You could not even look at them. Women on their knees, praying, wanting a safe delivery.

“Haiya! Amka upande kitandani. Get up on the bed!”

You were scared the wet floor would make you slip and smash the baby. You looked around for a way, somewhere to run to, but the windows were shut. Mother and Child health posters hung on the walls crookedly. Watching.

Fat flies refused to give way as you reached up the grey metallic bed. Your bed mate was at it, legs wide apart.

“Sista..sista…..sisterrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!”

“Mama! Stop screaming. Let go. You are hurting me.”

Pole mwanangu. Poor baby.”You rub your finger on the depression your nail dug into her arm.

“Ma, get dressed!”

“No baby. Shy people don’t have babies. I was naked.”

Back at the hospital, it’s suddenly quiet in the ward.  Your bed mate falls silent long enough to move to her side of the bed and then continue.

“Sister, sista… sista……………. Sister I want to go to the toilet, now!”

“Sister, come!”

“Sister, pleeeeeeesecooome! Woiye, it is big toilet.”

“Go on the bed.”

Your urine, as jealous as everyone else’s, immediately wants to come out. You get up slowly and waddle to the bathroom. It was cramped, with not even enough room for your protrusion to turn.  The floor, seat and walls were smeared red with blood. You stood there and let a gush of your own come out, not bothering to lift your dress, hoping the urine would trickle down your thighs and not make a splash.

A nurse was there when you came back. Your bed mate was screaming again, her eyes intensely fixed on the ceiling, like a baby pooing. The nurse stood there, next to her trolley, telling the woman to push. Her legs stretch wider and she cries out in pain and fear. Soon from her hairy part hair emerged, a head and finally wails and then the tired silence of a new mother.  This fate awaited you. You were terrified. You lay on the bed and waited your turn. Your bladder loosened again, but this time you did not care to get to the toilet.

“Spread your legs, we want to see how far you have dilated.”

You just lay there. Slowly, you spread your legs as far as you could, while still holding in more pee.

Panua! Wider!”

You prop yourself up, opened and held your breath. Still a trickle came out. You felt it. Warm. Then another.  You tried to close your legs, but her fingers were in there.  Urine trickled down you, through her fingers, down your butt onto the bed.

“Are you peeing on me?”

“It’s my waters. They just broke. ”You knew it was not true.

“You think I am stupid!” She slaps you. “I can see where that water is coming from.  Stop peeing!”

At that moment, a baby’s scream came from somewhere in the ward. You don’t know where. You both heard it. The nurse left. You fainted.

You woke up with a baby at your side. You squeezed her tiny fingers. You swore never to have another. To love Mo fiercely.

“Takbir! Allahu Akbar.”

“Ma, open the door, let us go and see what is happening outside.”

“No Mo, not today.”

“But why mama?”

“Sshhh baby.”  You place your index finger across your lips.

“Takbir! Allahu Akbar.”

“Takbir! Allahu Akbar.”

They must be at the entrance now. Why have they come so early? You just stand there. Willing yourself to think.

Maybe they won’t know which one is your room.

The house is oblong shaped with a courtyard. You all live here. Your Mavya and Bavya. Your brothers-in-law and their wives. Your wifi sisters in-law also live here. The roof is covered with rotting makuti leaves. It’s too filthy to leave that way.

The rough coral wall would have been perfect, if only you could climb up. But you fear heights.

They will find you easily. Any door without a woman and man standing outside in this commotion this early in the day will lure them. That and the dark glances your wifi will cast at your door. Slyly. As if a brazen stare would implicate them.

Think. Where do you go?

No you cannot climb out through the ventilation holes.

If only you had left earlier. You would have had time to enjoy the morning sunlight coming through the courtyard.  Maybe even had time to put a used sanitary pad into the water jerrycans outside their cooking areas. That would show them.

Mnkt!” They say you are a bitch.

You could have walked out through the carved double wooden door. To freedom. Before any of them woke up.  Or maybe you would have passed by the toilet first, dipped your dirty pad into the small yellowish brown plastic container you keep cleansing water in. Then you would really show them.

Always fighting, you.

Mnkt” That’s for making you clean that foul pit twice a week.

“Ma!” It’s Mo again.

“Ma! Why are you clicking your tongue. Are you upset? Ma! Are they coming to our house?”

The shouts grow louder.

Takbir! Allahu Akbar. Where is she?! Come out! Come out!”

Think. Think! You think as they shout. They must be in the courtyard now. Maybe they have not come for you. Maybe it’s another demonstration, or a secession rally.

Maybe even a thief.  Yes, it’s a thief! You imagine him trying to run, a lit tire around his neck, arms trying to put out the flames, hair ablaze. He screams,“Waalahi mimi si mwizi! I swear it’s not me!”

“Takbir! Allahu Akbar.”

“Takbir! Allahu Akbar.”

Their shouts grow louder as the thief pleads for mercy.

“Ua! Kill him”

No. Stop thinking of death. Think out of this.

“Takbir! Allahu Akbar.”The shouting continues.

You are still here. Your indecision has not served you well, again.  You should have left long ago. Before the affair started.

You look at it. Your marital room. The walls are carved and decorated in peeling plaster.  The mosquito net, mswala, mkeka, and clothes are scattered all over. A tattered blue cover is balled up on the bed at the centre of the room.  You were thinking of packing up.

They gave you that bed on your wedding day.

That same day, the Friday of your wedding, your mother sat you down. She told you to make it work. That marriage required effort. That all women worked on theirs. She had sat on this very bed, just after your nikah, and welcomed you into marriage with a knowing glint in her eye.

Your wedding is still talked about. You were sixteen, a glamorous star for a day. You look at the gem-embellished dress hanging on the wall. It still sparkles. Thanks to your mother.

You want to scream that you never cared for all that, that you never loved your husband, but what’s the point? Mama hates ungratefulness. And you would not want to be ungrateful to her, she who gave you a rich husband, and an almost happy ever after. Would you?

“Fungua! Fungua! Open the door!”

“Ma! Ma!” Mo is frightened of the banging, the shouting.

Too late.  Now, there is nowhere to run.

“Ma! Ma!”

It’s no thief. They have come for you. You can hear their breathing. Do something!

Run.

You should have run yesterday. No, Mo was away.

“Mama! Open the door, I want to susu.”

You grab her left earlobe, and yank it, hard.

“Maaaa!” she cries.

“How many times have I told you not to use that dirty toilet? Stop crying! Use something else.”

Mo crawls under the bed to retrieve the plastic container. She lifts her skirt, drops her pink panties and a sprinkle of steamy urine noisily hits the sides of the old Omo can.

The door gives in with a crash. The men storm your bedroom. You look at them.They are mostly young.

Your daughter now in your naked lap is too small to protect your modesty.  They gape openly. Mo is crying.

They look at each other, the floor, each other again.  One man grabs a kanga from a nearby woman andflings it to cover you.

“Takbir!Allahu Akbar.”

“Takbir! Allahu Akbar.”

Their renewed chanting revives the crowd, even as you die inside.

Your hands cover Mo’s ears. Someone, please keep my baby out of this! Someone hears your thoughts, yanks her away. You gasp for breath.

You stand. The mob heaves. You want to plead for your life but your mouth will not listen to you today. Women throw more kangas to cover your stray yellow thighs. Outside, they are talking at the same time. To you. To each other. To no one.

“Malaya!”

“Malaya!”

Sikuza mwizi ni arubaini. Your time is up.”

“What do we do next?”

“Shouldn’t she be dressed?”

“No. We tie her hands and wait for the Imam.”

“Yes. Her hands must be tied!”

Leo ni leo! We’ll show you!”

“She must confess.”

“The oath!  She must take an oath!”

“Use your eyes! We have a witness.”

“Take her out.”

“Shouldn’t there be at least four witnesses?”

“Where is the man?”

Malaya! Where is your lover?”

“Where is your husband?”

“Who accuses this woman?”

The mob debates your fate. You refuse to look at them. This is it; months of loving sex end here.

You wish you had not been found out.  You wish you could take the oath, deny it, but you have no choice. Noone lies while holding the holy book; you would die. Bigger than your shame and fear is the pain this will cause your mother. The burden on her and your sister will be beyond repair. No one will want to marry from your line, and Mama’s disappointment…Haki ya Mungu! It will surely haunt you to your grave.

You close your eyes.

“Unacceptable!”

Haram! It is forbidden!”

Waalahi! Sikuza mwizi ni arubaini.” This is your fortieth day. It all ends here.

The mob’s shouts die down. They are all here.  Your daughter’s peeping schoolmates, the fishmongers and fishermen, other men in white kanzu robes, pimply-faced teenaged yayas with their employer’s children strapped in with a kanga across their backs.  Even women in black buibui’s and children are here.  They have all left their posts today.  It’s a holiday, a migration.  Just like the wildebeests of the Mara River.  They annually leave their homes and camp at the seaside to sell their wares to docked tourists. Today, they have left their temporary beach husbands to stand by their real ones and rid their space of a scourge. They have put their heads and mouths together, united in their condemnation and outraged by your betrayal. Hawkers and merchants, everyone exclaiming, “But can you believe it!”

You look at them and wrinkle your pierced nose, thinking…Let him cast the first stone, but they do not speak that language.

“Unacceptable! Haram!

It stops here.

“Takbir! Allahu Akbar.”

You are terrified.

You should have listened to your lover when he asked you to run abroad with him. You said you could not just leave like that. He held you tight and did not push. He said he loved you and asked you to remove your veil. He did not look at your hands like the others, only into your eyes.

He asked you things. Did you have to wear the veil? How many did you have? Did it have to be black? You laughed and kissed him some more when he got like that. You relaxed around him. Had a key to his flat. His mother wanted to meet you.

You liked him because unlike your upcountry neighbours, he did not carry meat in a see-through polythene bag to show people he ate flesh every day. You liked that. You also liked telling him things. You warned him not to chase away cats that cry like children outside his door.

You wish he could say he understands. Did he not say he knew it was riskier for you? That trouble was coming.  Did he not say he would have liked it here more in the days when people still planted cassavas and coconuts and went to the Kaya? When bow-legged Mnazi tappers still had coconut trees to tap from.

He asked you again. You applied for a visa. Was denied. You could not leave.

Until recently, he had worked at the University, but violent demonstrations and growing threats of secession made him resign. A local replaced him. He said it was good riddance; it was increasingly dangerous to work there anyway. Uneducated youths had stormed lecture rooms, chased students, and demanded to be taught although they could not even speak English.

He said he saw it coming. He said something about a book with a people who lived on land that belonged to a faraway Sultan. No one had ever seen the Sultani. They planted cassavas and coconuts. Bow-legged wine tappers made mnazi from coconuts. Then one day, the government said the Sultani was no good.  A war erupted. People fought hard for their land. Afterwards the President said, “The land belonged to the Sultani. Now it belongs to me.”

Strangers came. Your lover said the strangers’ hotels brought the riots. Hotels brought more tourists. Rich ones. Then fences, then dogs. Old fishermen couldn’t get to the water so they stayed home and sent their sons to get jobs at the hotels, but cleaning tables couldn’t feed families.   So new trades developed.  Men left their wives to sell things at the beach. Cigarettes. Condoms. Handmade crafts. Hand jobs.

Some tourists were kidnapped. When the police came, the beach boys disappeared. The kidnappings stopped and dry mouths started whispers about wanting their land back. To grow coconuts and cassavas and to tap mnazi.

You did not understand such things. Could not even read his books about sex and Sultans. This did not matter to him, or them.  They are still shouting.

“Takbir!Allahu Akbar.”

“Haram.”

Mtooeni nje. Bring her out!”

Malaya.”

The Friday of your wedding your mother sat you down. She had been married for years. Her husband had long passed. The best years of her life, she said. Except you know that but for you and your sister, she would have left. You saw him beating her. Calling her names.

“Malaya! Malaya!” The same names they call you now.

Then he would beat her again. You remember this one time. When she ran away to her family’s home. You took your father to fetch her. Your sister insisted on coming along. When your father refused, she rolled on the ground wailing, daring him to act, to beat her like he beat you, but he did not.  You knew he wouldn’t.  You thought the rumours must be true. She was pregnant when they married.

You went to fetch her. Together. The three of you. Two sober girls and a drunk. That was your father. Drunk as he always was.

 “Are we there yet? ”That was Munira, breaking your silence and father’s slurred whistling.

“Yes.”

“Will mama be there?”

“Yes.”

“Will she cook for us?”

“Shut up! You ask too many questions.”

“But we are hungry.”

You almost joined in, but knew not to.

Your father, pretending not to notice Munira’s grumbles and unconscious tongue clicking, stared in the distance, focusing on the hard task ahead.  He was going to need all the energy he had, for he desperately wanted his wife back.

You walked on ignoring each other, your father thinking of tricks to woo his wife back, you and your sister reminiscing on how tasty her samaki wa kupaka was. At last, because you were now approaching the homestead, your father brought up the subject of food. Munira, hopeful, stopped pushing and listened keenly, digesting every word he said.

“Listen my…both of you. Munira, can you see your mother?” he asked, pointing at the two-hut village on top of the hill, where outside a sticks gate, stood a plump woman.

Naam. Yes.”

“Are you hungry?”

“Naam.”

“I know she has cooked delicious food. Maybe fish or even chicken and we are going to eat together. I want you to drink as much soup as you can, and you will grow strong, can you hear me?”

“Naam.”

“Drink soup! Or you…”

You looked at her, not sure she intended to obey or not. Munira did not show it. She was hard to read like that. One minute defiant the next obedient and still wearing the same face.

You were suspicious. Drink soup? Why soup? What harm lay in drinking soup?

At the compound, your father greeted his soon-to-be wife again, but she did not reply. She only took your hands and led you to her elder brother’s hut. Inside the circular grass thatched hut it was cool. The room was divided by a curtain separating the sleeping and eating areas.  Mama prayed, then once more hugged you.  Seeing this, your father stretched out his hand again, hoping she would accept it. Unable to control herself, she jerked her hand away.

Niache.  Leave me alone!”

He smiled.

Her voice was desperate. It confirmed to him how easy his task would now be and reminded them both of the last fight they had had.  The pain of his kicks and fists came back to her. She had begged him to stop. All he remembered was the headache of the following morning and how he missed his woman.

Your uncles were there. They said they were on her side, that they would stand by her. They wanted to beat him. To teach him a lesson. Justice would be served, she thought to herself as she left the room.  She had prepared revenge through her brothers, they were going to teach him a lesson. They would feed him, deliberately, then give him a dog’s beating. She was never going back.

She set food and plates on the circular mat and they both knew time was nigh. As customary, the table was laden with foods. Chicken pieces swam freely in the red soup, the pilau was heaped, rolls of chapati sat at a corner, chilli pieces in a bowl, a glass jug with drinking water, and thinly shredded cabbage fried with dhania.

After bismillahis Mama left the man and her daughters to eat as she went to add a final dash of salt to her pot of grievances. Meanwhile, Munira was already chewing chicken, but you, although your hands constantly strayed to feel a thigh, drank soup, with constant urging from your father, who was also only drinking soup. Soon, the big bowl was left with only pieces of meat that looked abandoned.

“Go tell your grandmother we need soup.”

More soup was brought, and with more urging, you crammed the hot liquid into your mouth.

“More soup.”

“More soup.”

“Tell your father there is no more soup.”

He smiled. He had her.

Soon, the table had been cleared, elders and their wives appeared, and it was serious business.  Mama recounted how her drunk husband came home, for the fortieth time, and beat her without cause, knocking out a tooth.  You cried when you heard it; you had seen it all.

“What you say is true my dear wife,” started the defendant, when it was his turn to speak.“I admit that I beat you, and I am sorry you lost a tooth. You say well that I was drunk at the time, correct, only I was drunk with anger.  You see my elders, as you all are aware, I am a fisherman, I work very hard to provide for my family and my in-laws. I spend many nights, wet, awake on the sea to provide for your daughter. You will agree she is well taken care of. But does she properly care for me? Even here, today, she cannot even cook enough soup for me!”

On hearing this, your mother flinched, “What? Ati nini?!  I do not understand you!”

“I am sorry Mama,” Ba said. “It’s not your fault. You got this training here.  Your bad training is why, even though I let you have all the meat, you still did not prepare enough soup for me.  Even here today, in your brother’s house, I had to beg for soup, and my daughter can attest to that. This is my case my elders.”

You looked at Munira, confused. “No!” Mama raised her voice, full of angry energy, without any fear of him now, ready for anything.  

“Speak the truth! Are you calling me a liar? How old do you think I am?" 

“Quiet!”

Your grandfather stood, cleared his voice and asked, “Was there not enough soup for my in-law? Is that true?"

Your grandmother, from experience, knowing to answer most precisely to evade her own beating, answered, “It is true.”

“My daughter, go cook for your husband.”

You looked at your sister, willing her to rise up and scream Nooooo…!

His words echoed as you went out of the compound, down the hill. Man, his wife and daughters. You wondered what he thought. If her surprise surprised him. You knew you were helpless. You obeyed.

You used to always obey.  Everyone knows you were raised a godly woman. From the cradle you faithfully followed religion. You cleansed for worship, prayed on time, wore hijabs with zeal and fasted.

“Your record builds this family’s repute,” Mama said.

It is your fault, not hers, that it has come to this. You were every religious wife’s dream of a daughter, what every girl in the neighbourhood secretly wanted to be. But when they told you, ‘Be pure,’ you felt bored. And lonely. The holy fasts nauseated you and the veils always choked. You yearn to be free now, to deliver yourself. But thank God no one knows this, or else Mama would be right, you are ungrateful.

At first you had tried to make it work. You cooked for him. Bore him a child. Waited up for him when he came late. But in the nights alone you played him dead in your thoughts. You toyed with pressing a pillow over his face until he died, but he was too strong.  You thought to stab him with a knife but you were scared of blood. He did not know until…

You asked for talaka.

But he is a proud man. He would not divorce you. He held you ransom. So you dared him. You took less care. Cooked less. Tied your womb.

You screamed talaka! But still he would not let you go. He made you smile when guests came. Your beauty still mesmerized him. He had always been like that, a man of appearances. Your fathers were cousins. You were promised to him from childhood. Before the wedding, he would look at your hands for hours.  Study the henna patterns you wore.

He made you do things. You had sex from behind before you married. He said that way you would still be a virgin for him on your wedding night.

You screamed talaka! And you wished he would die.

Mwacheni! Leave her.”

Your sister’s voice. It paused the crowd. It pierced your heart, blood of your blood. The girl you grew up with. Munira. You used to pull her off the edge of the bed you shared as children to protect her from those clever mosquitoes who know how to insert their biting thing through the mosquito net while she slept inside. She has betrayed you. She promised she would not.

You cannot blame her. There was a crusade. Men and women sang and danced freely for the Lord. The blind saw. The deaf heard. She converted. Became a Christian. They told her to repent. To have no secrets. That the Holy Spirit sees all. She repented and told how she would let you out at night. How she would bring you notes from him. The devil had used her she said.

You are helpless.

You shiver as you raise your right hand, ready to confess and blurt out the whole truth at last and be freed. You see your mother rise, as in your dreams, pushing her way through to you. She curtsies before the imams, begs to speak to you one last time, and drags you away to your bedroom.

Mama looks around. She slapped you hard across your face. “Malaya!Prostitute! Do you want them to prescribe death by stoning, you ungrateful girl? How can you disgrace me like this? What have you done? Did I not tell you marriages need work? For how many years was I married before he died?”

You don’t know what possesses you. Your mouth opens.

“Mama I tried! I tried to make it work. I cooked for him like you said. Waited up for him when he came late.  Even when he beat me, I smiled at guests and neighbours like I should.”

Mnkt! You think you are the only woman who can’t forgive a violent drunkard? Do you think I loved kubanana with your father?  Being one of many? Sharing a drunkard who beat me? Let me tell you how many times I sat up at night and played my husband dead in my head.”

“I am not you, Mama. You let him.”

“You silly girl. Is that what you think? That I let him? You think he doesn’t know what you are trying to do? Your husband is a proud man, if he can’t have you no one else will. He would rather you die than divorce. I know these things. Your father hurt me and I hated him, but I stayed. Until death.”

“Is this why you brought me here? To remind me of my father’s death and what good a wife you were to him’”

“No. I brought you here to tell you I know.”

“Know what? I know you were pregnant when you married him. Weren’t you?  That’s why he called you Malaya.”

“I know the loneliness in marriage.”

Mnkt. Did you not chase me away every time I asked you for help?”

Mama simply repeats, “Marriages need work. Everyone knows you were raised a godly woman. What will people say of me?”

“They will say your daughter was stoned to death for adultery!”

She slaps you, hard. Pinches your inner thighs; words like humiliation, ingratitude, twined with Me, spurt from her mouth. She cries. And folds you inside her black flowing buibui, tightly embracing. Suddenly, she shoves her erect nipple inside your mouth, whispering “Mwanangu, my child…” before dragging you back to the throng, in a daze.

They thrust the holy book into your hands.  You raise it high, shaking, and face them, your lover, your mother, and you vow:

“I, Fatimah Aduda, solemnly swear, that from the last time that I suckled my mother’s breast, I have not slept with this man.”


Atieno Dok is a Kenyan writer. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya.
 

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