A NEW KIND OF HOME by Mary Ann Olaoye
‘Tap, tap, tap’.
The noise keeps repeating itself as palm hits flesh in a bid to chase away mosquitoes. We are cramped, like the sardines Mama bought every Saturday. A special treat her meagre salary could allow.
‘Gashi Mariam, ki karba,’ I would smile, taking it from her, knowing full well that my share
would be bigger than hers and Baba’s who always knew but being the youngest, could not tell on me.
‘Rashin kunya,’ she once called it, when he reported, giving him a heavy lecture on disrespect.
How happy those sardines were I thought, when I put them in a plate. Setting them free and letting them embrace the air even though their fate ended in my belly. How happy I would be if that could happen to me.
‘Ba ki yi barci ba?’ Hauwa’s voice asks, raising itself to my left ear.
I shake my head, wondering how and when we became used to sleep. How it knew when to come in between our pain and thoughts to numb us, if only for a few hours. She sighs heavily, spreading her legs apart, trying to find space for them.
Like the rest of us, this was where she had her first time. She had walked in limply that day, her legs refusing to meet as she went over to the mat. Too stunned to talk, she sat, immobile; oblivious of the fact that the blood stained her wrapper and her legs were too far apart and she had on, no panties. It was outside drying. We each had a pair which we washed when it was too soiled. If the odds were against us, and we were on our period, we would turn the wrong side and fix in pieces of clothes, praying for the flow not to be too heavy.
The dark blood had made wet the tuft of curly black hair, causing them to sleep on the lip of her vagina. Her eyes stared into vacant space, telling us a story, the reality that has forcefully caught up with her. I knew what she was thinking. Nothing was more heart breaking than bleeding on the wrong bed. She had told me about her fiancé in Kano back at school. How he was waiting for her to finish, then she would become his third wife.
‘Kin san aure ya na jira na a gida.’ she said, as if I could make it better or send her home.
Walk this way, then take this path and you would be home with your fiancé. I thought of saying to her. Or maybe slapping her for reminding me of the things I too had left, things waiting for me.
I thought of my exam paper and answer sheet. We were writing Biology that day and I had just answered the first theory question. I always start with the theory part. The truck drove in, sweeping red dust to the air with its speed. They were armed. Stern looking faces in dusty army boots.
They divided themselves into groups, going into classes, barking and shouting, ordering us to get into the back of the truck. Bundled in, it drove off with our frightened frames dancing to each pothole. I thought of my unanswered question as distance separated me from what I knew to uncertainty.
‘Define photosynthesis’ it had said. A simple one. I had read the night before with the dim yellow lamp, pausing after each word, sinking them into the quick sand of my brain. How fitting now that our lives have become a pile of questions, with no answer right enough or appropriate because it was never expected, never rehearsed.
The darkness grows thicker like the heavy duvet Mama washes for the rich people in Salamanda Street. It covers us with its terror and promise of another day. A dreaded routine we learnt on our first days and adapted to when change didn’t come.
‘Allahu Akbar Allahu Akbar’.
The day started; with it, a strange new life. Not knowing what to do, we sat still, familiar eyes, open with fear and lack of sleep.
‘Ku tashi ku fita!’ One of the men had come, peering his head into the tent. ‘Stand up!’ He barked. His words heavily laced with Hausa accent. We scrambled after him to a well which was so deep you saw nothing but darkness at the bottom. There, we performed ablution with the muddy water. They must have dug really hard to get this I thought, for the ground was very coarse.
Out in the open field, we clustered together for prayers, our forehead travelling with sand whenever we bent. Mama never liked me praying without my Sajaad. She always came to check up on me, wanting to make sure I had brought it out.
We were frightened but somehow, the words found life and spoke themselves. After prayers, we were led to a semi enclosed building, constructed with zincs.
‘Ku yi wanka ah na,’ the same man who called for prayers told us. There were little buckets, the type Mama bought for Baba so that he could learn to fetch water. We fetched from the well, muddy as it was. We soon learnt that doing so the night before, gave the sand enough time to settle, making it more manageable. We bathed in a hurry washing our feet and faces, most especially our private parts. By now, more men had gathered.
‘Ga wan da nake so’
‘Wancan ta fi kowa’
They kept saying, in clear whispers when we came out. We could feel their eyes on our body, and the heat from the loins. A heat we became too familiar with; a heat that burns us, not minding where or how many times.
‘Ina kwana?’ Hauwa greets me. I look out. Dawn is about to break, and with it, a harsh reality. In this new kind of home, dawn breaks with fear.