One afternoon in 1992.
You are prey to a pride of little boys, the oldest only nine. This could be a game, but you are six years old and running for your life.
You have done something wrong, something they must punish, or your small brother has. His hand is in yours as you run.
Is he crying or are you?
Home and safety are behind you; ahead is the tarmac road, a black and scaly mamba, glistening in the liquid daylight, twisting and winding, leading you where you know not, past shut gates, stone walls and the windows of houses impassively watching your unfolding.
There is no one to help you. These little boys you play with sometimes—hide and seek, car racing and ChaMama (where you pretend at being a wife and mother)—will catch you.
Someone help you, Kaare!
They will catch you and something bad will happen. It does. Your small brother trips.
They surround you, these ten jeering boys. They let your small brother get on his feet, dust his clothes and watch. He is barely four years old. Thirty-year old him will not remember this moment and will feel accused when you try telling it.
They push you to the ground. They throw up your skirt. They want your innermost secret parts, and you give them up without a fight. What fight would it be, ten to one? They pull down your panties, new and printed with love hearts and bows. They spit at your privates. One by one. Ten samples of expectorate, as if you were an invasion of foul smell that has lodged itself in their noses. One of them reaches for a stick on the pavement.
Only the shopkeeper can stop what is about to happen, but will he arrive in time? He is shouting through the small window of the kiosk nearby, calling the little boys back from wherever their innocence has fled to. The boys stop, and as the shopkeeper emerges from his kiosk, they scatter, children again, tickled by the thrill of escaping an adult.
And so you are saved today in this place and in this time. But what about in all others?
The shopkeeper pulls you off the ground and restores you. He is a large man, but he has been shaken. You feel the vibrations of his re-arrangement in that brief moment of contact. “Who has taught them such behaviour?” he asks. The fleeing boys are like butterflies in the wind.
On behalf of the world, the shopkeeper apologises to you with free sodas. You sit on a stool outside his kiosk and swing your legs. Today’s trauma is like the rain that lets itself down in the town over first, giving the girl who works for your parents time to run outside and fetch clothes off the clotheslines. Today’s trauma is years away, but how it will beat down on you when it arrives, indenting itself onto your earthen skin. It will grow into a swamp inside your stomach then colonise your lungs, breeding crocodiles, pythons, and mosquitoes. Now you are just an obedient girl wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. You nod to the shopkeeper’s advice as you pull false sweetness into your mouth.
“You have to be careful not to make boys angry. They can hurt you,” he says. “Don’t even play with them.”
Elsewhere and again.
He has been sneaking up on you for several weeks now. He is quick about touching you. On the arms. On the back. Now on the buttocks. You know it is him because he is there every time you look over your shoulder. You feel stolen from yourself.
Yesterday your favourite pencil went missing. You feel the violation of his hand reaching inside your school bag. Uncle bought you that pencil for your ninth birthday; you were never going to sharpen it. But now he has it. And he is going to destroy all the stars and rainbows on it. That devious smile he gave you when you started crying and looking for it.
Today you have asked your friend to switch places with you in class, to be as far away from him as possible. But here he is, having done the same just before your mathematics teacher arrived. He is sitting beside you instead of two desks behind. He is pinching you under the arm and on the thigh. He is pushing you at the elbow and making you write off the lines on your page. He is poking your ear with a spit-licked finger.
You could put up your hand and report him to the teacher, instead you scream and punch. You pummel him with your fists. You bite. (Your mother will be aghast to hear about this.)
Your ear is pulled all the way to your class mistress’ desk in the staffroom, where you are deposited in a chair and accused of uncouth, devilish behaviour.
“Caroline, little girls do not beat other people,” she says.
He sits beside you sniffling and red-eyed, cowering under the wideness of your gestures, the ferocity of your exasperation, as you tell and tell how he has harassed you, inhaled every ounce of your joy and tripped you in the playing field. Your tears are torrential; you have never before wanted to be heard as much as you do now.
“I just wanted her to be my friend,” he says, and his voice is rough with pain and a claim.
Your class mistress shakes her head at you.
Look what you have done, Caroline.
She makes you apologise and, in turn, submits you to his mumbled apology. Then she joins your hands together and proclaims you the best of friends.
She sends the boy away so she can further nibble on your ears, blowing soothingly as she bites. “Boys sometimes act strange, Caroline. You will understand as you grow up.”
You never tell your mother or father or older sister about this friendship growing out of your side like a tumour. You are afraid they will call it cute and then something will be undeniably wrong with you for wanting to stab it, dead, dead, dead.
In another body.
“Kamaa wants to see you,” says the little boy who stops you at the intersection of two dirt roads. You are on your way home from fellowship at church. But who is this Kamaa and what makes him think he can summon you? You cross your arms over your troublesome chest.
“Tell him I am not coming.”
The little boy runs to deliver your message, and you continue home in worry. You have been reading the Bible more and attending the youth fellowship twice during the weekday. You are worried about your Kenya Certificate of Primary Education results and trying to bribe God for a better grade.
The setting sun lays a hand on your shoulder, and you stop to look at the landscape of your dreams, now simmering with prickling anxieties. You will be a doctor one day. You will be.
The little boy finds you again, almost at the gate of your parents’ bungalow.
“Kamaa says stop maringo. Come, he wants to talk to you.”
Maringo. Pride. Self-importance—words that belongs only to girls who say no.
“Tell him to leave me alone,” you say and bang your gate shut.
The world is different when you re-enter it the next afternoon, but you do not immediately notice its new hues.
Woe unto you!
You are following your shadow to Genesis General Store, sweat stinging at your armpits, when he appears at your side, a teenage boy you have seen around the housing estate. Tall, lanky and not bad looking.
“Sema,” he says.
You blink out of your all consuming thoughts and demurely respond, “Poa.”
You are surprised at being approached this politely instead of being catcalled. You discreetly wipe your sweaty palm on your dress. Shyness you have never known is now whispering nonsense and giggling in your ear.
“You are that girl, aren’t you?” he asks.
A god-hand constricts your chest. This, you realise, is yesterday’s Kamaa.
“The girl who is too important to say hi to anyone.”
Your reaction to this is all wrong, at least that’s what your best friend Nancy will say: “You just don’t know how to handle guys. If you greet them and smile and blush, they will leave you alone.”
You do not want to smile or blush at anyone. You want to be left alone. You glare and walk away. Whatever words he hurls at your back, he is talking to the wind. You are impenetrable.
But not for long. In truth, you are scared. You know you have made an enemy, and you have heard stories of retribution, of girls taught to behave and to respect, to bend into more pleasant shapes. Of women who have had to go on a march shouting #mydressmychoice. Women who have been stripped out of their clothes in this Nairobi. And a girl bottle-raped in a matatu, while onlookers filmed on their phones.
Your landscape is against you. One day, it will sprout tenements and house hundreds of thousands, but for now, your path from home to church is through undeveloped fields and across a river and the walk to the shops takes you past abandoned, unfinished houses, emptied of soul and purpose, waiting to gobble up anything that strays. And you have no older brothers and no father to defend you. So you go to Kamaa’s house.
The corrugated iron-sheet gate hangs off a single hinge, like the tongue of a dead thing. You steel yourself and knock. The little boy opens.
“Tell Kamaa I have come.”
He appears scratching a spot at the back of his head and yawning. While you agonised he was warm in a siesta.
“So you have come?” he asks.
You give your prepared performance. You apologise for being rude, pausing as if looking for words. You claim shyness. You promise to be friendly henceforth. You buy your safety.
“Relax. Relax,” he says. “I just wanted to talk to you.”
Look, Nyakeyo, you have made a mountain out of an anthill.
In some places and some times, you will not be saved.
Less than a hundred meters from home, you wear a light coloured dress and a too thin sweater. You have a song on your lips, something you work through off key. Mud croaks under your feet as you walk towards your fate. The worse you have done in your young life, Valerian, is fantasising about kissing an actor from a telenovela, is standing naked in front of the mirror, in panties and an insignificant bra.
But nothing can stop you from going to your fate, daughter. You have his accursed Chemistry textbook, and you are good. You return the book as you promised.
And why would you suspect him?
He is only two years older than you, still in secondary school, and you have grown up together. A friend, even in that shaky, uncertain way teenage boys and girls can be friends, brushing past each other with two or three words, because some much about you is in flux.
Why would you fear the knife he holds, with which he chops French beans?
It breaks after the second stab, and he runs inside his parents’ house for another.
Twenty six times, the stainless steel invades you.
Then he drags your body across the threshold you would not cross.
He lays you where you would not lie.
He scrubs you off the floor.
He eats and sleeps.
And in other places and other times, you shout yourself hoarse at the deaf world.
Like this morning in 2017, when you are named Ivy.
But they will call you:
And ask how you could not have known?
You, the lover of box-braids, slender jeans and curve-accentuating dresses.
You, in a white coat, six years in training.
You, sterilised and approaching the surgery table to untangle the knots holding a woman in excruciating pain.
You, among friends, turning the radiant colour of twenty-five.
You, pressing your phone off, again and again.
You, in a nightmare whose exit door understands no negotiation.
And they will call him:
He, a once-upon-time schoolmate.
He, your future husband, a relative once joked at a neighbourhood party, while you shook your head.
How he loved you.
He, in a car driven by a friend,
cradling for seven hours, from Nairobi to Eldoret,
like a burning heart,
a specially-bought and sharpened axe.
He, emptying your body in front of the hospital where you give life.
There is no cessation to your massacre. You have been chosen as an object for war—your bad luck for having entered this world in the wrong kind of body.
And they tweet:
Makena Onjerika won the 2018 Caine Prize for African Writing. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Wasafari, Waxwing, Fireside, New Daughters of Africa, Jalada, and Nairobi Noir. She teaches at the Nairobi Fiction Writing Workshop (NF2W) and edited the workshop’s first anthology, Digital Bedbugs.