She’s seated on a wooden bench in the brightly lit hallway, waiting to have an abortion. She’s 21-years old, still only recovering from the wreckage of teenage and now only confronting the full secrets of womanhood. Her mother thinks she’s in university reading for a degree. Technically, she is in university reading for a degree just not right now on this balmy Saturday afternoon. She’s scared. She came alone. A few minutes ago she had been in a different room in the same facility which we won’t mention but who everybody knows does abortions and circumcisions. Anyway, a nurse, a motherly lady with a soft chin, had earlier tried to ask her if this is really what she wanted to do and she had been adamant, she didn’t want to keep this baby. She had gone through two weeks of therapy but she was sure she didn’t want to carry this baby because of the shame of it. The kindly nurse had told her to wait in this hallway. Maybe time in the hallway would make her reconsider. More resolute women have changed their minds there on that bench.
Directly ahead of her, through the swinging door, she could occasionally glimpse a gynecological examination table, whenever someone walked in or left through that door. It didn’t help her nerves. Fear opened the door for terror when she finally sat in a similar bed, legs apart and hoisted up. The procedure was illegal and they were doing it quickly, covertly, in a windowless room, with an impatient nurse this time, a younger one with a more officious air, one who was keen to do this fast and head to the canteen for her sandwich break. “If you keep closing your thighs tight, you will get hurt,” she hissed, “and you may never be able to give birth again.” Her dress – a blue flowered dress – was bunched around her neck as she felt something like “drilling and wedging” inside her. She covered her face with her dress and sobbed in it for the 20 minutes they were inside her with their hands and their cold equipment. She bled. A lot.
It cost her 6K, the cost of a pair of SGR’s First class tickets to Mombasa.
After, they sat her in a different room, a sanitary pad between her legs to stem the flow of blood, and they gave her a soda and painkillers. It was ironic; she always used sanitary pads to mark the absence of fertilisation, of pregnancy, now she was using a sanitary pad to mark the end of a pregnancy.
Later, in her room – Kimberly Hall, Chiromo Campus- she will lay on her bed, feeling the sanitary pad and knowing she needs to change it but also afraid to see the blood of her actions. She will cry constantly for the next few weeks, months, after that, unstoppable tears that seem to come from nowhere. Her roommate will sit on her bed and ask her what’s wrong but she will cry facing the wall, away from her. The roommate will leave plates of food – samosas, chicken, chips, bhajias – all that will remain untouched. She will blame herself for the rape, why she never screamed, why she never fought him off, bit his face, thrashed and kicked. She will think that she deserved it. She will be embarrassed. Then she will cry again for hours. She will sit dazed through lectures, only realising they are over when she finds herself alone. Raised in a solid christian home with christian values, a girl who was a staunch anti-abortionionist, she will feel burdened by guilt. She will feel like a murderer, not any better than Cain, or Jael, or Jezebel.
When it became too much – the guilt, tears and self loathing – she finally told her mother that she was raped by a man who she barely knew, a man who she met in a matatu and who had pretended to be a fellow student, and followed her to her room and raped her. She got pregnant and she was afraid to keep the baby because it would bring them shame. What broke her heart most was that her mother, sympathetic and caring, had told her that it would have also been okay to keep the baby. That she accepts her in any way and form. That made her cry some more. Her mom told her that she wasn’t a murderer, that she was the victim, that even adults wouldn’t know what to do put in her situation, that she was just a baby who had gone through a horrible ordeal and that she was still her baby and she still loved her unconditionally.
“My marriage story, ironically, is pegged to this rape.” She now says. We are seated at the Chicken Inn at Westgate, right outside the children’s play area where my children are at. What do they say? I’m killing two birds with one stone. She has a small tattoo on the inside of her wrists. It looks like a bird, but it could be anything. It could also be a bat. You know how tattoos are; sometimes you go to have a zebra done on your chest and you come out with an offspring of a zebra or an animal that has not been named yet. The people who will have the last laugh are tattooists.
“It’s because of what I went through after the abortion that I met him.” She says. “Soon after the abortion I was heavily conflicted, I withdrew and turned to what I found peace in; music. I started playing the guitar which I’m very good at. I hurled myself at it, at songs that made me forget who I had become and what I had done. I particularly loved Whitney Houston’s songs. I could play all of them.” Whitney – herself bedevilled by her own woes – carried her pain and shame in her music. Then one day her guitar string snapped and she took it to a small repair shop where she met this young chap who held her guitar like it was a newborn baby. He cradled it, like it was sick, like it was running a fever. He was gentle. She liked that.
“He was a staunch christian, he knew his scriptures and was dedicated to it and slowly by slowly we became friends.” She says. “I needed this spiritual radar because I was so fragile during this phase and I would cry all the time. Eventually I told him what had happened, everything that had happened. He was very kind about it, and understanding. He told me God forgives. I was relieved, I felt safe knowing that he knew about that past and that he didn’t judge me.”
They started dating. He was 27-years at that time. He understood guitars, pianos, banjos, drums and violins. He understood sound, knew how sound travels as a tune and how the human soul responded to it. He was her pied piper.
“There are red flags that we see as women and ignore.” She says. “Mine were two.”
The first flag was this small, small bottle full of pills. “He’d carry it everywhere. One day I asked him what they were for and he said they were for his mind; that he thinks a lot.” The second flag was when one time she came back to Uni and found him waiting for her outside her hall. He was livid. He said he had been there for hours, that he had called her many times and she wasn’t picking. “I told him I was at the salon but he kept interrogating me. He didn’t believe me. He was furious. His eyes were red and the veins on his forehead looked like they would pop. He demanded that I tell him where the salon was and when I told him he went and confirmed if indeed I was at the salon.”
She ignored those two red flags and instead she conceived, their baby was born a week before she graduated. They moved in together, a small one bedroom in Eastleigh with a small balcony, dozens of neighbours and a watchman with an attitude. “One day my mother-in law came over to see the baby and I was in the kitchen preparing a meal.” She recalls. “When I was trying to light the gas cooker it inflamed with a big whoosh of fire and I screamed. He and his mother came running in the kitchen. The mother said that it was the devil. That, that was a sign that the devil was in our house, so no cooking happened instead we all sat in the sitting room and his mother really prayed for us. She condemned the devil, rebuked him. I can’t explain to you how in Kikuyu but in short she was letting Jesus bind them. She said that the Somalis around were bringing in demons into our home but that the blood of Jesus was going to protect us. I wish I could explain the prayer in Kikuyu, it was hilarious.” She chuckles.
Anyway, the devil was bound by the spirit of the Son of Mary and things settled for a bit; no fires in the kitchen or anything of that sort, until one day while they were seated in the living room the husband suddenly cried out, “Did you see that!?!”. “See what?” She asked. She was breastfeeding. “The woman!” He exclaimed, staring at the corridor leading to the kitchen. “What woman?” She asked. “There was a woman who walked quickly across to the kitchen!” He said. He looked anxious. They inspected the kitchen and sure enough there was no woman. “There was a woman who walked to the kitchen,” he said convinced. “I saw her!” She had that look of, “are you kidding me now!” He was agitated because she didn’t believe him. They prayed again. Rebuking the evil spirits that were trying to make their house a home. Rebuking the devil in the gas cooker and the devil who just runs through the corridors of people’s homes. They bound the devil in the name of Jesus, Son of Mary.
“Later, he started accusing me of having little faith, because if I had enough faith I would have seen that woman.” She says.
The next time he saw the face of lady in a hijab on the wall, a lady that resembled his wife. She was right above the three-seater sofa. She couldn’t see this lady. He kept insisting that there was a lady, can’t you see her, ye of little faith? “So we started praying and we prayed and prayed and somehow the face on the wall became my face, he said. Finally the face disappeared.”
“That’s nuts.” I mumble.
“Well, since he was convinced that I had little faith and I wasn’t seeing these demons, I soon had to start pretending that I was also seeing them to get him thinking that I was not of little faith.” She says.
Every week he’d see something and there would be sessions of prayer where the devil would be rebuked. “I was jobless and my campus friends liked to come visit us but that had to stop because he said that they left evil spirits in the house. That he didn’t want people who were not God’s children coming into the house.” Her friends stopped coming over.
“Was he still taking his tabs?” I ask.
“Yeah. I think he was, for a while but he kept seeing these demons, mostly in the form of women. I was scared at first, not of these demons he was seeing, but of this new phenomenon and I couldn’t even bring myself to talk to anyone about it.” She says. One day his brother fired him. He was fired because he kept complaining that his brother was planning to sacrifice him to thank the demons because his business was suffering. “Before he was fired, every time he would get a headache or the flu, he would say it’s the brother trying to kill him.” She says.
Since she wasn’t working and they couldn’t make rent they moved in with his parents in Langata where they were given one of the bedrooms upstairs. She couldn’t just sit in the house the whole day with his in-laws and him, so she started looking for employment, which she secured after two months. Now she had a job but that presented a new problem because the devil doesn’t sleep. “Hubby would get very upset when I came home after 6:30pm. Extremely upset. He would accuse me of being out with other men, of sleeping with these men. I was terrified of the fights that would ensue if I got home late.” She says. “I was a yes-girl and so I tried my best not to upset him and do whatever he wanted me to do. His mother also started dissuading me from talking to my parents saying that now I was a married woman and I needed to focus on my home. So I would only call my parents when I was at work but when in the house I couldn’t even pick their calls or it would be a problem. I would not be a good wife.”
It became too much; living with in-laws, the restrictions, his anger over small issues. After saving they moved out to Limuru. Things only got worse. “The accusations of sleeping with men got so bad that every day when I was from work he’d have me remove my panties and inspect them if I had slept with another man.” She says. “Coming home after 6:30pm was considered late and it meant I was from sleeping with men, so I would be rushing home after work to beat this curfew. By this time I had lost most of my friends.”
He then started accusing her of being a member of a cult. “He told me that he had dreamt that I belonged to a cult in Westlands that removed panties of men at night while they slept and gave the men and their sons blowjobs.”
I start giggling. I’m sorry. I’m supposed to be impartial in these things. I’m supposed to respect people’s stories without letting my own bias intrude in them. But I’m blood type AB +, I love chapos and coconut beans, I’m human and I giggle because of that. I giggle because, initially, this was sounding absurd, I thought to myself that what a man sees on the wall is a man’s business, but a cult where women remove your trousers and give you a happy ending with your son? Come on, this is a thoroughbred fiction, a highly imaginative opus. (Not to be confused with upuzi).
“Are you having me on, is this is joke, did someone send you?” I ask her.
She’s also laughing. “No, these things happened to me, Biko!”
“So, where exactly is this cult in Westlands?” I ask with as much of a straight face as I can.
“Apparently on Westlands Road, right behind Kempinski.” She says. “In fact, one time he took my photo to that club and asked the watchmen if they had ever seen a woman like me there. The watchmen said, yes, they had seen me there. I was a member.”
“No shit.” I mumble.
“And did you ever remove his trousers in his sleep?”
“The scary thing was that one time I woke up and found our son had no trousers in his cot.”
I blink. “You are kidding.”
“So I started thinking that I was the one with the problem, that maybe I was walking in my sleep.”
“Like what, walking all the way to Westlands?”
“But did you at some point think, wait a minute, this is crazy?”
“No. Actually I didn’t think he was crazy. I started thinking that I was the problem. I started thinking that perhaps I was doing things to make him think these things of me, to make him behave this way and I was hanging on to prove to him that I wasn’t.” She says. It sounds a bit sad, if not bewildering. “In fact, he started making me dress appropriately; long clothes, I started covering my hair like his mother, long sleeves to cover my arms, I stopped wearing trousers – “
“Because the devil wears trousers.” I say.
Actually in my head, the devil wears faded jean dungarees with a dark blue patch on his ass. Everybody dresses his devil the way he wants, don’t judge mine. And mine has no teeth, always has a blade of grass sticking in his mouth like a village seducer and belches a lot.
“Ironically, the more I tried doing what he wanted me to do and behaving how he wanted me to behave the more he accused me of not being a pure wife.” She says. “Nothing was working. I couldn’t keep househelps, they would stay a maximum of a month and just leave.”
She recalls how his brother had called her before they went to the AG to tie the knot and he had asked her if she was “very sure” that she wanted to marry his brother. She had said yes. And so when his brother called her one day and told her that he had gotten her a job in Dar’, she could pack, leave and have a fresh start there, she thought that was a great idea. She would get a small house not far from the beach. She would spend time at the beach with her children on Sundays. They’d start a new life there, away from him and his cult talk and women on walls and her having to open her legs after a hard day to be inspected for infidelity.
“That was his brother’s way of telling me that look we know what you are going through, you don’t have to tell us, we just know it, and this is your chance for a clean break.” She says.
“And you took it?” I ask.
“Yes.” She says then with a gravid sigh, adds, “but I went with him.”
I don’t want to ask why. “Why” would have given me the predictable answer. We don’t want predictable at this stage.
If Nairobi was bad, Dar was on steroids. “He started saying he saw knives under our bed. That I was trying to kill him. He was seeing shadows in the house, he was accusing me of drinking his blood and that I would change into an old woman at night. Just crazy things. Our children were not allowed to play with other children. He was paranoid that I was speaking to neighbours, that I was speaking to men, that men were dropping me off in strange cars. He forbade all interactions with anybody. We had no visitors. I was completely isolated from the outside world.”
“Did you think he was crazy?”
“I didn’t think he was crazy, I thought I was crazy.”
“I know, it’s because he used scriptures a lot. He was very knowledgeable of the Bible and he used it to support his theories. “ She says. “I didn’t know my Bible so I never challenged him, I was in like a, I don’t know, a trance. I was not allowed to talk to my family, my sister couldn’t visit me or anybody else because they would contaminate our existence. He didn’t like my family, he said they were not prayerful. Wazungus were bad, muslims were bad, everybody was bad. We couldn’t even go to the beach because he said he once saw a woman in the water strangle our daughter. So, no beach.”
Ain’t that a bitch, I want to say, but this aint that kind of party.
So she would be the strange woman in long clothes, never showing an elbow lest she tempts the devil in other men, she was willowy, bent at the waist, shoulders hunched, beaten down, coming and going, head hung low, never leaving the house save for work, never talking to neighbours, avoiding eye contact, the strange woman in house 4D, with her sad-looking children with haunted looks.
“How was he spending his days?”
“In the house. He was jobless. His last job was his brother’s job. He would just watch movies and listen to music.”
“What kind of music?”
“Gospel music and old school, akina Aaliyah.”
“Did he grow a large beard and mumble while pacing the house?”
“He had an unkempt beard and he never combed his hair.”
“What about sex?” I ask because you would want to know. “How was your sex life in marriage during these times?”
“It was normal at the beginning, but then after that it felt awkward, I stopped enjoying it, I would only do it for him, as an obligation” She says. Oh, she was having some ice cream and now it’s over. I leave to check on my children and find that they haven’t wandered out and disappeared to go look for a sangaria. When I go back I say, “Yes, you were telling me about the sex…”
“Yes. At some point if I moaned during sex he would accuse me of being a prostitute. He would ask me where I learnt to moan like that, it would be an issue. He’d demand to know who taught me to moan!” (Kenya School of Moaning, of course).
One time her sister called her at night and she continued calling her without answer. The next day she found out that her sister who was expectant was in trouble and she was calling her for help and she lost the baby as a result. “I was beside myself with grief and guilt. I mean, here was my sister calling me for help and I looked at my phone ring and ignored her, my own blood, because I was afraid of upsetting him. Not only that, “she continues, “I never went for the burial, I wasn’t allowed. That was the turning point, when I think about it, because I started talking back at him, I started pushing back a little, asking him which men are these he imagined I was sleeping with, why I had to wear long sleeves in hot weather.”
He started pushing back too, only violently. It started with slaps across the face, then the more she started getting a spine, they graduated to her being shoved into walls, being punched in the face, getting hurled to the ground, being stomped on, being grabbed by the neck. It mattered little because something was awakening in her, something resolute, a small flicker of bravery, of defiance – like a mustard seed. She started flirting with the idea of dignity and if there was a chance she too could have one. The beatings got only worse. “One time he banged my head into a wall and I went under. Blackout.” She says. “When I came to, I knew he was going to kill me if this continued.”
The next week he left for Nairobi and before the bus got to Mariakani, she was already knocking doors, asking for vacant houses, paying for deposit and the same day going with movers to her house where she told them not to bother packing clothes and things in boxes but just throw them in the truck and leave now! Why arrange those items when they represented a chaotic life anyway, why put them in boxes when that’s what she was escaping, the disorder and chaos?
She was fleeing a nightmare.
It was a smaller house but it was hers, hers and her children. Nobody was seeing shadows, knives under beds or women on walls. There were no late night exorcisms, no accusations, no fists ramming into her ribs and ears ringing from open palmed slaps. These walls were new and they knew only peace. He of course called her and told her she wouldn’t make it alone, that he was what she needed, that the world was rough and their children needed their father. He said she was making a mistake. “I said to him, I’ve made many mistakes these past years, let me make this last mistake.”
“You’d imagine that I’d feel triumph from moving out, from leaving him,” she says, “Instead I felt fear, great fear of uncertainty. I felt the emptiness of my days, alone with my children, no friends and no family. I had used all the money I had moving out and for a while my children didn’t go to school, I felt hopeless. I was free but I was also very afraid.” She holds her face, she’s starting to tear but she’s being strong because nobody wants to cry after having ice cream. “You know, when I called my mom and my sister and I told them that I had left,” she looks away, “ they dropped everything and came to me. These are the same people who I had locked out, my sister’s child had died because I couldn’t pick her phone because I wanted to keep a husband, yet she was there for me…it’s just…” She starts crying now, no pretenses, lots and lots of tears. She wipes her eyes, blows her nose. I notice her earrings for the first time, that look like a peacock’s tail. They dangle and shake as she wipes her tears. “They helped me settle in. They were there when I was just crying every day. I told my mom everything that had happened in the past seven years I was married and she was understanding, she said that I was only trying to save my marriage. I cried even more because even when she or my sister had a chance to blame me, they didn’t.”
I sit there and watch her cry and apologise like a douche. I feel bad. Of course I do. It’s a sad story. But what does one do when faced with a weeping woman? “My mom…” she says and stops to wipe her eyes. The tissue is now wet and I’m thinking of dashing to get another from the counter but I’m afraid that she will lose her trail of thought, so I sit it out. “..my mom said that he [the husband] wasn’t a bad person, that he was sick. That he needed help.”
She found it difficult to adjust into normal life after seven years of marriage. It was like suddenly seeing a lot of light after years of being blindfolded, so she squinted through it, stumbled through it trying to find her place in this labyrinth of marriage after-life. She started buying jeans, something she had been forbidden to buy. Lots of jeans. The feeling of just holding up a pair of jeans in a shop was something that brought her pleasure. “I also bought lipsticks, I hadn’t applied lipstick in seven years. I wore short sleeved blouses just to feel the breeze on my arms and fitting clothes. I was now able to wear trousers.”
But she didn’t know who she was anymore, she had lived her whole 20s being this woman who was told what to do, who was told she was the devil’s BFF, who was suspected for being promiscuous and for being of little faith, a woman who was beaten and abused, whose body was taken sexually and mind imprisoned with scriptures and suddenly now she was 30 years old and she didn’t know who she was anymore. She started drinking, slowly at first but then so much. “I couldn’t stop drinking” She says. “But at night I would cry to sleep. I was depressed but I didn’t even know it.”
Then she started dating. “I was scared of young men so I preferred the much older men, men in their 50s or 60s. My friends told me that these old men were good, they took care of me. I hadn’t been taken care of by a man in years, didn’t know how that felt like, I craved that, to know that a man cared for me and took care of me. These relationships demanded very little from me, those men demanded very little.”
“I have to ask this,” I say. “But these ageing men in their 60s, do they get an erection?”
“No.” She laughs. “But it was perfect, sex wasn’t something I was interested in, I craved companionship and these men weren’t stressing me about sex either. For example my last boyfriend was this old Somali guy who had two wives already and he never wanted anything from me but for me to hold him. Imagine that, that’s all he wanted, not sex or anything but just for me to hold him and that would be enough for him. He liked being held so much he wanted me to convert and marry him.”
“So, you would meet and he’d just want to cuddle?”
“Yes. That’s all he wanted.”
“The power of touch.” I say.
“Did you ever see your ex-husband again?”
“Yes. One time my house help took off with all my belongings and I was stranded and so I called him.” She says. “And so he helped me get some household items and he would frequently come over to check up on us and one day I found him waiting for me outside our house and he asked me where I was from. He seemed agitated, he had the same red eyes and the veins on his forehead that he had when we were married and I remember telling him to leave me alone, to go and never come back to my house again.”
She got a job back in Nairobi and she moved with the kids. Four years ago she met a man in her workplace. A guy who liked her and who she liked. She had just bought a car and the guy would offer to help her learn how to drive. He was patient and gentle. She’d make mistakes but they’d patiently do it again. “He was also younger than me by three years or so.”
“You cradle snatcher, you.” I say.
The guy courted her by teaching her how to drive; he taught her when to indicate to signal intention, how to press on the brake, how to feel when the engine was stressed and most importantly how to start afresh everyday from the lessons of the previous day. In many ways the car was like a metaphor of a relationship, and he gave her the confidence to to sit behind the wheel, on the driver’s seat and have control of where she wanted to go. Romance blossomed in that new car.
“Does he know about these old men and their lack of erections or should I leave that out in the article?” I say. “We don’t want to rock this boat.”
She laughs hard. “No, write it. There is nothing he doesn’t know about that past. In fact, he always makes fun of me whenever we meet an old man, he says all gukas are officially his competition.”
We guffaw at that.
I ask her if the men are similar in anyway and she says apart from the beards the men are chalk and cheese. He shaves, he’s stylish, he’s patient.
“How has the ghosts of your former marriage affected your current one?” I ask.
“Well, for one I was really scared about getting married, given my horrible experience. Really really scared.” She said. “I also find myself apologising a lot in this marriage even when I don’t have to because I used to apologise for just about everything in my former marriage. At the beginning I’d come home at 7pm and start to explain myself and apologise and he’d be unmoved, he’d say it’s easy. I used to wonder why he’s not fussing about me coming after 7pm.” She laughs. “Also, I’m constantly surprised that he likes fitting things on me. He buys me fitting clothes and short clothes but I’m yet to get back to wearing short clothes, that I still struggle with. We have a child together now and I’m always hard on myself when say our child falls sick, I tend to blame myself because previously that would have been my fault. So I’m slowly undoing the seven years and it takes time.
“We have normal fights, thank God. Not of demons on walls and knives under the bed. I have male friends. I’m not questioned about the length of my dress, the time I go back home. I’m finally in a normal relationship.”
“Are you happy?”