Exclusive to The JRB, new short fiction by Kenyan writer Idza L excerpted from Queer Africa 2, courtesy of MaThoko’s Books, an imprint of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA), in collaboration with the independent feminist press Modjaji Books. Queer Africa 2 is a new anthology featuring twenty-six stories that foreground the politics of sexuality on the African continent and in the diaspora. It is edited by JRB Patron Makhosazana Xaba and Karen Martin, with an introduction by Barbara Boswell, and is out now in all good bookstores.
Nine Pieces of Desire
Bibi usually tells me that if you do something very wrong, Allah will not hesitate to strike you dead. He will call you by name, just like he did to my sister Latifa. She was barely three years old, Latifa. When she died, she almost carried my mother’s entire happiness to the grave with her. After the burial, Ma had my other sister Amina leave for Lamu as soon as she could walk on her own two feet. A visit every Ramadhan, but no more.
‘Your mother did not want to tempt death with the two of her remaining girls so she had Amina go to your aunt in Lamu,’ Bibi told me.
We were born three girls, one after the other. Ma often says I was the first one to come but Ba says no, it was Latifa. Bibi doesn’t remember. She was the only one with Ma during the delivery, her bad ears being her shield against the screams. Bibi, perhaps drained out from Ma’s seventeen-hour labour, put one stroke on Latifa and one stroke on me so that they could never know who the first-born was.
‘It is not easy to give birth to three girls,’ Ma usually says.
‘It is not easy to give birth, that is all,’ Bibi answers her.
Ma barely lives. She is sad and has infected both Bibi and me with her sadness. So we walk around with a certain natural heaviness in us which, once very foreign, soon became familiar. I learnt long ago how not to lose myself to laughter, lest it cause Ma more pain. Even when the times were joyful, like during Ramadhan, I had to be careful to approach happiness with the stealth that Ma and Bibi approached it with.
‘Don’t tempt fate,’ was Bibi’s favourite reproach.
I do not blame Bibi. She does not have much with which to resist the sadness. Her husband, my grandfather, never came back from Dubai where he went to work more than ten years ago. Two of her sons soon followed to look for work and to know what had happened to their father. It has been five years since we heard from them. The last of Bibi’s sons, Uncle Ali, wants to go too. Bibi will not have it.
‘Isn’t it enough to kill me three times?’ she says. ‘Let me die first, then you may go. It won’t be long now.’
But Uncle Ali will go, I know it. I can see it in his restlessness. Sometimes I see it in the way he looks at us, like someone who is about to go on a journey. Other times his intentions reveal themselves in how he sighs when anyone mentions Dubai. From time to time, he comes home and whispers into Bibi’s ears about his plans: stories of a new agent he has found who charges only half what his brothers paid and many promises to call when he gets there.
But Bibi shakes her head no so vigorously, you’d think she was about to go mad.
‘Isn’t losing a husband and two sons enough?’ she says.
‘You have not lost them. Do we take other people’s lives before we know they have died? They will come back. Insha’Allah,’ Uncle Ali says. ‘Have faith Ma.’
‘I know it. I know their sweat does not fall on this earth anymore,’ Bibi says.
‘But what are my sisters for? They will be with you and they will take care of you.’
‘Your sisters have their hands full with their husbands, can’t you see? They don’t own even the hair on their heads. Don’t go, I plead with you.’
I often think of my sister Amina. I try to imagine her life in Lamu. I wonder whether she says her prayers every day or if she forgets like I do sometimes. Does she get lazy sometimes? Ma has a photo of her in her bedroom. Save for the broad nose and the kinky hair, she doesn’t resemble me at all. Even less now I presume, for I was told that she has relaxed her hair. Mama would never allow me to do that to my hair. Everything to her is haram. Sleeping is haram. Laughing loudly is haram. Eating is also haram.
I fear Ma. She looks at me as if I’m a ghost.
‘You look just like her,’ she says.
‘But how, Ma? Wasn’t she three when she died? I am ten now.’
‘What kind of questions are these?’ she asks, her cold eyes revealing her anger. Much, much later she adds, ‘I know because I am her mother.’ This is her apology for her outburst and I gladly accept it.
Ma wears her sadness around her like a colorful hijab, inviting everyone to notice it. I have not yet learnt how to drown myself so completely in sadness like her, but I know how to be quiet. I have perfected the art of quietly doing things, a way of adopting a busy presence like that of birds. Nosy neighbours insist that I was not raised by Ma, that it is Bibi who deserves that credit.
Ma has nightmares sometimes. I dread the days when she has them for I am always the victim. Before Uncle Ali put a lock on my bedroom door, Ma would come into my room and pull at me, screaming, thinking me to be Latifa.
‘May Allah curse whoever dug that well. May their feet have worms and may their children be beggars all their lives. May Allah shorten the days of their lives!’
‘She would never hurt you,’ Bibi assures me after leading her away. ‘She just thinks you’re Latifa.’
I don’t know what to believe. Mama wakes up the next morning as if everything is normal and doesn’t notice the red marks. At lunchtime she asks what happened to my face. I run to my room and cry quietly. Mama doesn’t like tears. She prefers her sorrow dry.
In the late hours of the afternoon, when Bibi is taking her afternoon nap and Ma is reading the Quran, I sneak away to the two adjoining rooms that Grace’s family calls their home. Ours is a Swahili house, built in the fashion of Arabic houses. It is a rectangular house with a long corridor. It has nine rooms facing each other on either side of the corridor. Our part of the house, the front part, is separated from the tenants by a grille which is never closed. On it hangs a curtain through which we can see the tenants but they cannot see us. Bibi says it is good this way: the tenants must not feel like they can get away with anything in a house that is not even theirs.
‘Remember the camel and the tent?’ she tells Ma.
I know she is talking about Grace’s father. Bibi cannot stand the loud prayers that he has in the middle of the night, every night. He is a pastor. Sometimes he will not stop praying till the small hours of the morning. Mama is reluctant with the eviction notice, however. Apart from being our oldest tenants, they are the only ones who pay rent on time.
‘Allah knows how much we need it,’ she says.
It is Grace’s mother that Ma can’t stand. She has forbidden me from going to their room. She says that they touch, cook, and eat pork all the time. I know this is a lie because I asked Grace, and she said that they only eat cow meat, and even then only on the last Sunday of every month when her father hosts the church elders in their room.
I sneak away in the afternoons when Ma is busy with Allah and Prophet Muhammad. Sometimes she keeps reading her Quran until the shadows on the walls have disappeared and Grace’s mother has lit the lamp.
The teachers’ strike is on so Grace didn’t go to school today or the past week. Her two brothers are in school because unlike Mtomondoni Primary School, where Grace goes, Greenfield Academy is private.
‘Are your teachers on strike too?’ Grace asks when she sees me.
‘No. Have you forgotten today is Friday?’
‘I wish we also had a free weekday like you people,’ she says. I notice that her mind is elsewhere.
She asks me if I am doing anything. I tell her, as she can see, I am not. She suggests a walk and five minutes later, after a reluctant nod from her mother, we are on the road leading to the Chief ’s offices.
‘Didn’t your mother tell you not to go to the Chief ’s place?’
‘When is Amina coming?’ she asks, ignoring my question.
‘Not far, it is Ramadhan soon.’
‘I can’t stand Amina.’
‘Why?’ I ask as if I don’t already know.
‘She thinks she is better.’
‘Better than who?’
‘Than me and you. What did you think?’
I don’t like this side of Grace. She reminds me of a picture my English teacher had on her phone. A neck had three heads sitting on it and the hair of each head was tied into a bun at the top so that it looked like the hair belonged to all of them. I asked Teacher Leila how this was possible.
‘Is she a jinni?’
‘If it is a jinni then we must all be jinnis,’ she said. ‘We all have many sides to us. Let no one cheat you that they are always wise or happy. Some days one is happy, some days one is sad. Those are the many heads we all have.’ I did not understand her.
When we get to the Chief ’s place we find that we cannot go in because the watchman is there.
‘There will be no swinging for us today,’ Grace says. ‘Let’s go.’
‘Come!’ she says in an excited whisper. She grabs my hand and starts running. I am forced to run along with her. She leads me to the place where I come for my madrasa classes. It is empty today save for three boys in green kanzus who are playing pebbles. One of them is screaming, ‘Haram! Haram!’ incessantly as if he were rehearsing a chant. We walk past them without a word.
‘Let’s go in,’ Grace says when we get to the door of my classroom.
I say no. I don’t want to seen by the Imam, who thinks I am the best behaved girl in class. Grace ignores me and walks inside. The room has a raffia carpet spread from wall to wall, and a few books are scattered all over. Grace walks up to some of them and reads the names written at the top.
By this time I am worried because soon there will be a call for prayer and the compound will not be as deserted.
‘Grace, let’s go home.’
She signals at me to go to the back where she is now sitting cross-legged.
‘Is this how you usually sit?’ she says. ‘So that the boys get a little glimpse of your thing?’
She then starts laughing. Her laughter is like my mother’s anger. It starts low, as if it is apologising, then gains speed and rises up her throat until she has tears in her eyes. I sit next to her. This close to her, I catch a whiff of a smell that tells of a skipped shower.
Bibi says that a woman can be lazy in anything but not her body. She takes long, hot baths at night and prescribes them as medicine for any sickness. Bibi’s bath is an event in her day. Sometimes I think it is all she looks forward to. She fills her basin with half hot water and half cold water. She then adds all sorts of things in it. Once, when I asked her why she only puts a few drops of olive oil in her bathwater, she said, ‘We don’t waste gold, do we?’
‘Grace, you have not showered today,’ I say.
‘What’s the hurry for? Today is not over.’
‘But a girl is supposed to shower in the morning and at night before sleeping. Cold bath in the morning and a hot bath at night.’
‘I will shower later, you don’t worry.’
We sit in silence for a while, and I am afraid I have offended her.
I start to tell her that we should go because I cannot hear the voices of the boys who were playing pebbles.
‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ she asks.
I laugh and tell her no. ‘Do you want Bibi to kill me?’
‘And you?’ I ask.
She shakes her head. She then stretches her legs in front of her before crossing them at her sides as if to put them away. Then, watching me, she brings her bent knee slowly, slowly as far as it can go between my legs. Her gaze holds me captive so that I am both here and not here and I am afraid of moving even the slightest inch. My stillness registers as assent to her because she is now moving her knee further in with the urgency of someone who really needs to pee. I find myself opening my legs further apart, keenly aware of a thrill that is building up in my middle part. I surprise myself by sighing when Grace’s knee goes just short of grazing my panty. I move my body slightly nearer her and push my legs further apart. Grace gets up, scans the room quickly, and gets on top of me. I barely register this when we hear the sound of laughter coming from the windows. I quickly throw her off me and look towards the window. I see nobody.
Grace recovers first. She stands up and makes for the door. It takes me two, three seconds to join her on the murram road that leads to home. Neither one of us says a word to each other.
The next day, Ma neglects her Quran in the afternoon to attend to the more urgent task of going to the market. Bibi has a visitor. I stay in my room the whole time, bored and looking out of the window, counting the people walking. There used to be a dog I would play with, a dog Baba had, whenever I would get bored. After a while they said it had rabies and that it had to be killed. Baba said that the dog had bitten one of the tenants and because of that bite the tenant might die. The dog had to go.
The front door shuts and I hear Bibi call my name. She tells me to go to her room and wait for her. I step in and marvel, not for the first time, at the darkness. You would not guess that the sun shines in its entire splendour just beyond the curtains. But this is how Bibi has always been. She has her own way of doing things. Bibi walks in soon after and wipes her hands on a towel. She is not the cleanest person in the world, at least not like Ma who washes her bed linen every day. Bibi’s bed is rumpled, yet in this room there is a sense of organised mess. Bibi takes my hand and leads me to a mat placed beside her bed. I sit down and wait for her.
‘Did you know the Imam was here today?’ she asks.
‘Yes, I heard him,’ I say.
‘He wanted to speak to your mother but he didn’t find her. Why she went to the market at this time, I don’t understand,’ she says. ‘The best time for the marketplace is when the sun is either coming out or going down. Never at two o’clock in the afternoon.’
I smile and nod. Bibi talks of Mum as if she is an errant child.
‘Mariam,’ Bibi says.
‘Allah was so kind as to bless me with three girls, just like your mother. The seed of girls has been planted in our wombs. Even in you, I’m sure. If there is one thing I have learnt when bringing up girls, it is to watch them very, very closely. Nothing is lost on girls at your age. Especially if they are clever like you. Do you hear?’
‘Yes,’ I say.
‘My dear girl, when Allah created humans, he had ten pieces of desire in His hand. He gave nine pieces to women and only one piece to men. My mother’s sister, Aunty Khadijah, once told me something important about girls. She said there is a certain age in a girl’s life when she has to be protected from other girls. At that age, the company of other girls is dangerous. There is a type of madness that moves around in their bodies like blood, and they pass it on to each other like a disease,’ she says.
She goes silent for a long while and I soon realise that she is using the silence as a weapon, just like the women in our family have been known to do. It is my cue to start crying. As the tears start falling, Bibi continues talking.
‘Be careful of other girls, do you understand me?’
I nod my head. I now know that the Imam must have seen.
She continues, ‘At a certain age, when a girl starts to notice boys, and wants to be noticed by boys, she is veered towards forming friendships with girls. But never, ever earlier than then.’
‘Mariam, the Imam told me he saw you and Grace yesterday at the madrasa. If it is true, I am afraid I will not allow you to speak to that girl again,’ she says.
I break out into loud sobs. Bibi seems shocked at this but I no longer care. I am incapable of keeping my sorrow dry. For some reason I remember Baba’s dog, the one that was killed. After it was killed, everyone waited for the tenant to die. The tenant never died. It seemed that the dog had never had rabies in the first place.
- Idza L is a Kenyan writer. She is interested in writing stories about women and the lives they live.