Mama was coming from her market day when she found me in the bathroom behind the main house. it was a little four walled room with an old browning bathtub that had no tap for running water. My naked body was squatting before the cold bucket of water and I was vigorously rubbing soap between my legs. Mama never knocked on the door when I was in the bathroom. She would walk in and say that she had seen it all before and we would laugh. The door opened and my heart pounded. I kept rubbing the soap in to clean myself and I tried to cover my breasts. Mama said she had seen it all before. I stopped rubbing. I opened my mouth but instead of laughing I started crying. Mama knew straight away. I thought maybe it was the way I was holding on tightly to my body that gave it away or maybe mothers just knew when their little girls were no longer little girls.
“Who touched you?”
“Halima, who touched you?”
“Halima!” Hints of panic filled her voice as she knelt next to the bathtub.
“Baba raped me.”
“How do you know what rape is?” I heard the panic in her voice melt away and instantly replaced by something cold and unmotherly.
Years later, when I would replay this scene, I would realise that my mother’s panic had actually been replaced by fear.
“We were taught in school mama, in social studies.”
“You know what sex is! So one of your little boyfriends has touched you and told you to lie about rape!”
That night supper had been forgotten on the fire and it had burnt. Baba was shouting about how school was bad for girls and Mama had been muttering her agreement. He was shouting about how mama should have known that her daughter was having sex and stopped me because now no man will marry me and I will be a burden to him. Baba had started yelling at his ancestors for giving him a child who could not fetch even a chicken as bride price. Mama had started wailing and mourning my diminished earning potential. Showing more emotion than when I had told her that it was her husband who had touched me. Baba had looked at me, and put his index finger to his mouth. Sealing our solidarity on the rape. I was to never speak a word of it.
The childish screams and laughter coming through the kitchen’s open window were an indicator that school was out and the children had begun to congregate by the estate’s unkept playground. The small square space consisted of a rusty see-saw and three swings, one of the three had a broken chain and the other two were barely hanging on. Some of the mothers in the estate had tried forming some sort of alliance in order to get the council to care about them and their children and create safer environment but to no avail. Halima and Mariam had been living on the estate for the past ten years, their flat was on the 3rd floor of the 12 storey building. It was a Friday and on Fridays Halima did not have to work — she would clean the whole house…twice. This love for cleaning she shared with her mother was the only part of her that she had allowed herself to keep. The little flat was always in the most immaculate condition. The flat did not contain much. If you stood at an angle right next to the television which faced the entrance to the kitchen, you could see everything that the two bedroom flat contained. You could see the beds in the can rooms to the right of the kitchen. If you stuck your neck out slightly from where you stood by the kitchen, and turned your head a little more to the right. You could see the little corridor leading you to the bathroom and toilet. It was not much, but Halima would always marvel at how this can was home and her insides knew it whenever she would finish wrestling with the lock and key and step inside. They would unbundle and allow freedom to be.
Mariam is sitting in-between my long legs and I’m lacing her scalp with coconut oil. The coarse texture of her jet black natural hair constantly rubbing against my finger tips is making me tired. The scent of the coconut oil keeps me going. I continue weaving my fingers into her hair and making smaller sections to make the process easier. Mariam and I have the same textured hair. Rough, that’s what mama used to call it. Rough and bushy. The struggle to maintain our hair had been one we had grown accustomed to. The introduction between Europe and our hair had not been easy. Relations were still tense but we had hope. We took pride in our thick-bushy-coconut-smelling-afros. However, pregnancy was a force to be reckoned with, most of Mariam’s hairline was missing. It had also altered her body, her thighs were fuller and her breasts had ballooned even further. She had always had bigger breasts than mine but pregnancy had mocked me even further. She was currently on a diet to try and get back her pre-pregnancy body back. She had also recently learnt somewhere on the internet that castor oil could restore damaged hairlines. So we had begun using the coconut oil to oil her hair and bantu knot it and the castor oil for her edges. A process that left room for Mariam to talk, endlessly.
“Halima, why do you not have a boyfriend? You’re 33 in a month.”
According to Mariam my eggs were reaching their expiry date and the longer I allowed cobwebs to gather between my thighs I would die without ever having tasted a man. This would not do, because as my younger sister it was already embarrassing for her to have tasted a man before me. Albeit the taste had left a bitter aftertaste for her and her edges. A few days after Mariam’s 20th birthday, with her back laying on a hospital bed and several nurses by her side attempting to pin down her flinging arms and quiet her screams, she had delivered baby Zara. I remember holding her hand and sobbing. She had come home one day and told me she was pregnant. I remember my eyes frantically searching the front of her blue and white dress for a belly. I had not known that Mariam was having sex. When did Mariam start having sex? Why did Mariam think that she could have sex before marriage? Had I missed the signs? How could I have known the signs? Could I have stopped her? Had I not explicitly mentioned a rule about sex? Could I have personally policed what she was and was not allowed to do with her body? How could I have taken away her right to her body like it had been taken from me? I had choked on my tears and these questions all night. I had felt scars that had not been allowed to heal properly starting to open again.
“The coconut oil is almost finished. You’re going to need to buy some more.”
“I don’t have money.” Mariam says.
“I get paid next week, you can buy the cheap one.”
“Do you not like men?”
I pull on the bantu knot too tight to incite a thank you and some silence. Mariam winces but continues.
“What about the white man from your work, the one who wants to learn more about Africa and its rich culture. On your date you could always pull up a map and take his pale finger, gently, and begin to point to each individual country.”
I pull the bantu knot tighter and in our native tongue she pleads for me to be gentle. I smile at her plea. Not because her pain humours me but because our native tongue has begun to feel foreign spilling out of her mouth. Our conversations were now often in the English tongue.
“Do you not want to marry?”
Mariam had always been persistent.
I am using the final drops of the coconut oil on the few remaining strands of hair when Mariam is making up her mind that the only logical reason that her ageing sister does not have a boyfriend and does not seem to want sex is because she must not be attracted to men.
“Halima, I can understand if you do not like men. It is common in this land. We do not have any people back home that can reject you. Mama and Baba might shiver in their graves but what more can they do?”
When I decided to pack our things and move us to Europe after the death of Mama and Baba, I had not told anyone. We had simply vanished and they had never been word to say any of our kin where looking for us. When Mariam got pregnant I was comforted that no one in the family would ever know of the second shame that had befallen baba’s name. The third shame was his own prophecy, the daughter who would die a spinster.
At 4am, two weeks after baba raped me, mama pulls off the pink blanket that is covering me and commands me to come with her. We enter the kitchen and the community’s traditional healer, Azizi, is sitting at the head of our old kitchen table. He always carried an air of mystery around him, heightened by his supposed ability to directly hear from the dead. Him and his air are clutching one of baba’s mugs with his child like hands. Our kitchen table has become shorter and shorter with time, it’s legs have been scrapping the rough floor of our kitchen from since before I was conceived. It is now the perfect height for Azizi. Mama usually covers its old ugliness with old curtains that she cuts into table cloths and today the ugly table is covered by an old yellow curtain. Mama is good at mending old things with her sewing machine. Most of my clothes she mended or cuts from her old dresses. With the confusion of sleep still fresh in my brain, I greet the small man and ask him if he has come to heal mama’s cough that had been bothering her chest for the last couple of months or he has come to buy a curtain. Him and his air dismiss my question and they continue to sip from baba’s mug and proceed to place it directly on mama’s yellow tablecloth. Mama tells me to show Azizi to the back room that we use to store the clothes mama sells at the market. I want to ask why he has come to buy something at this time but I want to go back to sleep, so I lead him to mama’s little room. In the little room he walks in and lays down his white sack and tells me to lie down. As he begins to untie the cloth around his waist, panic reaches my throat and I scream for mama. She walks in and shuts the door.
“Azizi has come to touch me too.” My frantic voice fills the little store room. Azizi kisses his teeth and he tells mama to grab me and pin my shoulders down. I begin to kick my legs and a pile of materials mama had stacked neatly, comes tumbling down. They call in baba and against the three of them I get tired of fighting.
“Pass me the razor.”
Those are the last words I hear from Azizi before the pain that comes from between my spread legs causes me to faint.
“Halima, you never speak about these things and me and you discuss everything. I just want you to meet someone and fall in love.”
“Why do people have to fall in love Mariam? Why can’t they just be in love and continue standing?”
We both laugh and I lick the last bits of coconut oil from the container with my fingers.
I was not sure how long I remained on the floor of my bedroom after the night of my circumcission. I lay on the floor with my eclectic mix of old blankets. I remember the first time I went with mama to the market, I must have been about five years old. There was a buzz in the sticky humid air. Voices speaking the same language but calling attention to juxtaposed products and service. It was dizzying and electrifying. One seller was calling for buyers of his home made bread and right next to him a woman with a baby tied to her back was yelling for buyers for her homemade soap. Even the smells in the air were confused. I saw mama come to life. Calling customers to look at her intricately designed clothes of the latest fashions. They were neither intricate or the latest fashion. Mama’s stand was next to an old man with a disjointed greying beard wearing a suit trousers that used to be black once upon time, old black smart shoes which had begun to lean in opposite directions. He was not selling one particular thing but multiple products of this and that. I spotted a vibrant pink blanket with sunflowers amongst his many products. I helped mama bag the clothes for the customers but throughout the day my heart was on the pink blanket and the beautiful sunflowers. I kept stealing glances at it the entire day but I knew that I could not ask mama to buy it for me because I didn’t want to give her the burden of having to tell me that she could not afford it. I could see the light disappear from her eyes whenever I asked for something she could not afford. I had learnt to protect that light. I would cross my fingers behind my back, promising myself to not ask. At the end of the market day as mama and I were packing up, the old man handed mama the blanket and said it was for her little girl, for drawing customers to mama’s stall which meant that they had ended up looking at his stall too. We became friends. Hami, the old man, would always give me a gifts when I accompanied mama to the market. It is Hami who taught me the few english words he knew and introduced me to some poetry written in our native tongue. I was sure my heart would burst with joy. From that day I would cross my fingers as a prayer every night. I would pray for Hami, that he would never die. The pain coming from in-between my legs rejected the slightest move. Whenever I feel pain I clutch on to the pink blanket. I laid there and I didn’t speak. Mama came in often to either put food and water in my mouth or apply herbs where Azizi had cut part of my vagina. She would mutter words as she did this but I could never make them out, the pain would grip me and my eyes would water but I refused to let her see me cry. I could feel my insides scream but I refused to let her hear my pain. Days merged into each other.
“You are almost healed.” Mama had said one day after she had finished her routine checks. Like her old curtains she had mended me. She then forced some porridge down my throat. I was silent for a very long time and many in our community began to whisper. Azizi helped to cure their curiosity by using me as a case study when he pitched his services to parents of young girls who needed their new sexual appetites to be tamed. Baba said I could not go back school because it It was better if I stayed home and they kept an eye on me. Mariam was born 9 moths after my father raped me. When I had first started to show my father had panicked and had tried to convince mama that I should have an abortion. Mama had refused to commit the crime of murder against God. I had prayed for God to take the baby back. God must have not heard my prayers. During the exhile to my bedroom, to hide the pregnancy, Hami had died. He left me his books and it was the old man’s last gift to me that kept me from dying.
Mariam has finally decided to stop asking about my intentions to marry. The scent of coconut is around us. Mariam stands up from the floor and sits on the sofa and lays her head full of oily uneven bantu knots on my shoulder and asks me to remind her of our parents as she often did ever since she gave birth. She had been feeling that she needed them during this time in her life. For mama to pass on wisdom about raising a girl and baba to be the father figure that Tatenda, Mariam’s boyfriend from university, did not want to be. Mariam had been raised to believe that she was my younger sister and after mama and baba passed on I had never had the heart to turn her world upside down. I had buried the truth from her along with my scars. What use is it to tarnish the image of her father and her grandmother whilst they lay dead in their graves.