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Sandra A. Mushi | The New Thatched Roof

Ululations ring around her.  Dancers dressed in colourful khanga dance to the msondo ngoma.  It is a nostalgic moment for her.  She is supposed to be proud but her hands shake with trepidation and confusion.  She does not want to go through with this, but the society expects her to.  Her mother did it and so did her mother before her and so her daughters are expected to do it too – if these mothers want their daughters to make good wives one day.  Her insides scream with rebuttal but she knows her mother would turn in her grave if she doesn’t do it.  Forcing a smile to onlookers, she sighs heavily.

She tightens her smile as the other mothers dance merrily around her, their khanga and beads-clad hips gyrating to the drum beats and ululations as they offered her – the proud mother – presents.  A wax kitenge is flung on her shoulders as a woman bends over to hug her, her sweaty face and hot breath on her face.  Another thrusts a kikapu laden with packets of sugar, beans and rice; the woven material scrapping her open palms as the base of the kikapu concaving to the weight of the dried goods.   And another clasps a string of colourful beaded necklace on her neck.  She forces a painful smile as she stiffly returns the hugs.

Two birds hoot as they flap over her head and rest on a branch of the coconut tree behind; the leaves rustle – another victim of the wind’s seduction.  With the corner of her new khanga she wipes threatening tears that burn her eyes.  The newness of the fabric forces a sneeze out of her.  She sniffs, tears and another bout of sneeze.  Her lower lip trembles as sobs wrack her tired body, robbing it of the ability to speak – barely allowing a breath to be drawn.  Unconscious that she is rocking to the rhythm of the drum beats, she rocks back and forth, allowing the threating tears to course down her cheeks unchecked.  The noisy compound swallows her sobs.

She fears what fate had in store; a thick cloud of doom with a heart of darkness seemed to be engulfing her very existence.  Through tear-stained eyes, she throws a quick glance at the newly built thatch hut.  There are fresh flowers outside the hut where a group of women dressed in their Sunday best stand chatting excitedly outside it.  It is the aunts, probably talking about what to do next.  Always talking and plotting.  Plotting and talking.  Even this was from their plotting and talking.

With a trembling hand, she again takes her khanga and wipes the tears of emotion from her face and forces a smile.

“You know, my grandson is ready to marry,” an older woman whispers to her as she crouches next to her pushing folded notes in her loosely clenched hand.  “Fauzia would make a wonderful wife!”

“Yes,” she murmurs expressionlessly stretching her smile further, “yes, mama.”

Again, she glances at the new thatched roof.  Her heart beats angrily and nervously to the rhythm of the msondo ngoma.  Nervously she toys with her fingers, staring at the low doorway that is now covered with khangas.  Worrying, a dark cloud forming in her heart casts a creepy shadow.  A fire of longing had been ignited in ger heart.  A fire that could not be put out by neither the dances nor the presents.  When will she come out, she thinks fretfully, as a heavy burden in her heart wears her down, hoping it won’t be Fauzia with screaming women coming out.

“You must be so proud!”  someone interrupts her thoughts as she thrusts, folded a pair of khanga on her lap, “you are now sure she won’t be ruined on her wedding day.”

Smiling stiffly, she shifts her gaze back to the doorway.  She remembers her first born Zawadi, how she had avoided looking at her straight in the eyes after she had gotten back.  Until today, she could hear her piercing, blood curdling screams and that strong metallic smell that always surrounded her.  As the memories slowly creep in her head, she shakes the screams off.

The mysterious oddity of how she had heard Zawadi’s voice – a voice fibred with barely a thread that was woven with frailty and faintness.  How the thrilling call had splintered her entrance with the startle of a prickling thorn sharpened sharply.  The uncanny hardness of the frailty enhancing the already sombre mood with fear, fear brought in awakening, and awakening brought in instinct. The impulse that came with being a mother was like steel strands of different strengths clumping together, latching onto her, and pulling.

“M… m … ma … maa … na … n … n … nna …naku … fa,” the whispered call had come. Each staccato release, fitted around her soul as a tightening noose and a clue to the pull.

Budding memories.

She turns her head towards the new thatched hut again – her brothers and other men in the village constructed it last week.  The women did the last touches of weaving the make-shift mattress made of straw mat and old clothes.  It stands proudly a few feet from where Zawadi’s hut was.  Zawadi.  Her screams ring in her head again, awakening every sense in her head.  Quickly she closes her eyes and covers her ears with both hands, shaking her head vigorously.

With her eyes still tightly shut, the pictures flash back.  Zawadi was dressed in a new red floral dress which was bought by her grandmother.  Red – her favourite colour, how ironic.

She remembers how Zawadi’s black-mud dark skin shone bright against the red fabric as her body absorbed and basked in the still quiet red of the morning sun. The sun had popped out red like the head of a new-born.  It was as if it had come out to celebrate with Zawadi.  When a tinge of its gleam red rested on Zawadi’s excited large brown eyes, it made them look more like a deep river.  Her energised body flooded with sweat as the sun licked its skin and her oily-black matted hair caught the dregs of dust that had propelled by soft wind.

Happily, with dancing eyes, Zawadi had walked between her grandmother and aunts.

“Are we there yet?” Zawadi had kept on asking excitedly as she bounced in the forest.

“Young woman!  Don’t you have patience?”  Bibi Nunu, Zawadi’s grandmother had laughed at her granddaughter’s eagerness.

“You haven’t even told me where we are going, bibi.  You only said there will be a big party for me afterwards.”  Zawadi had giggled happily – probably at the thought of a big feast.

Zawadi … her Zawadi … her gift.  Zawadi was her gift as her name meant.  She remembers the first day she held her as if it was just yesterday.  She was all cheeks and silky skin, tiny fingers and toes, loud cries and wide eyes.  She had captured her heart from her first breath.  Then at fourteen, she was tall, dark, big-boned, with large brooding eyes and a wide mouth.  For her big bones, Zawadi was quite thin.  She was always the first one to offer to help with the odd jobs men would do.

“She should have been a boy,” her grandfather used to tease as he watched her leaping around, “look at her, she has the energy and strength of a man!”

But Zawadi was not as strong and brave when they had finally got her to the depth of the forest.  Her fourteen-year-old little girl screamed in panic and fear of the unknown initially.  She couldn’t understand why she was suddenly being pinned down with legs being pulled apart. An older woman crouched in front of her holding an old rusty razor blade and a thick threaded make-shift needle made of a thorn.  As she laid on the floor of a dirty hut in the forest, her body contorted with pain as she screamed and thrashed around madly unable to bear the pain she was experiencing.  Zawadi’s screams were as blood-curdling as they were heart-wrenching. Finally, she had laid there whimpering, her new, red floral dress soaked in blood.

“You have now become a woman – a decent woman.”  Proud bibi Nunu had told whimpering Zawadi as her legs were tied together with a rope.

In Zawadi’s new thatched hut, bibi Nunu would pour a concoction of herbs into her wounds, again Zawadi screamed excruciatingly.

“If you keep on screaming, you won’t heal, young woman,” bibi Nunu had scolded her sternly.

In thirty-nine days, as Zawadi lay with her legs tied together so as to allow the wound to heal, her body went from glowing and fattening to paling and thinning.  Zawadi would wake up screaming, her body sweat drenched and shaking.  Then she would vomit – the vomiting would interrupt the screaming and the screaming would interrupt the vomiting.

She was not allowed in Zawadi’s new thatched roof.  Her stomach in a knot, body needled and aching from anxiety, she had kept her foot afloat the air, rocking her toes up-down, listening, feeling.  Telling, when she could, of the layers of pain, one from the other. She had tried to peel the sense of disconnection away and met the fear of fears-coming-true-due-to-worry.  She had peeled that off, met with the form of self-pity one lived with only because the limit of self-salvation had been reached.

A layer unnamable with a choking smell of void, an unexpected appearance of unwanted finality, had filled her soul.  Then she had lost the strength to unearth herself any further, unprepared to forswear what the unnamable demanded.

She had heard tiny whispers that felt true, how there had been passages of buried words to every moment hidden in the hut.  Beckoning roaring cries, forced into quasi-subhuman stirred by their persisting existence with an intense compassion.

Having failed to unearth herself, the tiny whispers had haunted her.  Their tiny claw-like fingers had beckoned her to the hut that morning.  The morning was fresh and birds were chirping as her heart had pounded with fear.

A dog had howled. Then an owl shrieked and hissed but shortly before she had walked in the hut, the owl cackled and screeched.  That is a bad sign, she had thought.  No, she shook her head, the owl is a liar.

As she slipped quietly into the hut on that fateful day, she was met with a powerful and familiar smell with buzzing flies.  The strong sickly-sweet smell that she had first experienced years ago with her father.  Then her mother.  The smell that she had hoped to forget but always hit her harder than the last time.  The owl’s hooting drew her out of her thoughts.  The air was heavy.

With her right hand covering her nose and her left hand swatting at the flies from her face, she had tiptoed not wanting to believe what the smell was telling her.  A kerosene lamp hung from a nail on the wall, its weak flickering yellow light the only illumination. She didn’t need much.  She could hear Zawadi’s labored breathing that was accompanied with heavy grunting.  Her Zawadi was still breathing.  The smell was a liar, she had silently cursed it.

The spider dropped down before her, its huge head twisting and writhing.  She jumped back in fright and immediately trampled on it with the heel of her bare foot.  Is that Zawadi?  Trampled on her soul?

No. Her Zawadi was still breathing. Not like the spider.

But her Zawadi, though she was still breathing, was not her Zawadi anymore. Her big bones had deteriorated to nothingness; the old blanket covering her seemed to be floating.  Pieces of torn fabric that had been used to bind her legs together peeped from under the floating blanket.  Her brooding eyes were now pitiful and empty.

With a faraway look, Zawadi had looked up at her, her empty eyes fighting back tears as she had tried to swallow the remains of sorrow stuck on her screams-tormented throat.  She could hear faintly Zawadi’s struggles within as she choked and gulped for air, struggling vainly to lift up her head, and with dry chapped lips she had called out to her.

“M… m … ma … maa … na … n … n … nna …naku … fa,” the whispered call had come. Each staccato release, fitted around her soul as a tightening noose and a clue to the pull.

They say one often hears the voice of the end.  It beckons, they say.  Did Zawadi hear the call?  Was the voice alluring?  Was the voice in muffled tone or was the voice clear with calm breaths between syllables; Za-wa-di?

Had she, they, been mildly compassionate with Zawadi? No!

“It is the bad spirits,” an aunt had told her on the fortieth day as they walked out of Zawadi’s hut carrying her body that had been covered from head to toe. The torn piece of fabric that had been used to bind her legs together no longer peeping.

“It is the bad spirits that have taken her.” The aunt had echoed

“Clearly she wasn’t clean,” another one added, “she was already ruined, that’s why they took her.”

“She always behaved like a boy, that one,” another one commented emotionlessly.

“You didn’t take good care of her,” another aunt said, “you let her wander off wherever she wanted to like a motherless child.”

“Wandered around like a boy,” another one added.

Their words weighed their resolve that were perceptible in their tones. Though she remained silent, there was strife in her heart. Confused she had stared at their moving lips that seemed to be babbling with the voices wrestling one another. What are they saying, she had silently screamed. Their moving lips became hazy as pools of tears began to form around her eyes.

Her stare then moved from their moving lips to the covered body. She shook her head in confusion. As it shook, a slight blink sent a line of tears cascading down the side of her face.

That same day her brothers had burnt down Zawadi’s hut together with the floral red dress and the woven make-shift mattress made of straw mat and old clothes, warding off the bad spirits. Staring at the new thatched hut, she quietly prayed the bad spirits wouldn’t take her little Fauzia too.


Image: Marcelo Astudillo Pixabay remixed

Sandra A. Mushi
Sandra A. Mushi
I am an artist. Practicing Interior Architecture Designing. I used to write a lot back then. But with work and all, my time became tight. I went on a holiday in April 2004 and took with me a few books by Maya Angelou and Iyanla Vanzant. I then started some soul searching which got me into writing - first into poems and now into short stories - I haven't looked back since then. SANDRA'S DEN.

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